Over The Hills, and Far Away: A Story of New Zealand
Chapter XVII. A Question
Chapter XVII. A Question.
“If you love her best, speak out like a man.”
Lucy recoiled for a moment with an exclamation of surprise. Her next thought was, that in the whole course of her acquaintance with Clinton she had never seen him look handsomer than he did then. The beautiful outlines of his face and head stood out magnificently against the shadow gathering behind him in the corner of the room. Lucy took note of it all, with a curious sensation of wonder and perplexity as she did so. She had begun to learn the rudi- page 170 ments of a great lesson—to perceive dimly at last that “all that glitters is not gold 187 .”
Clinton had been expecting her for some time, and for his part was not in the least surprised or embarrassed. He rose to meet her with his usual air of caressing deference 188 .
He was apt occasionally to treat Jeanie with a little soft-spoken condescension; but Lucy, he had long since discovered, was a girl of a different calibre, and he liked her the better for it.
Now, when he came forward to welcome her, however, he felt at once a change in her manner towards him. She held out her hand, but drew back a little at the same time, keeping him at arm's length; and when he took to caressing the little hand, that too deserted him, and Lucy turned away.
“Is anything the matter?” Clinton asked involuntarily.
“No,” she answered quietly; “but I want to speak to you, please. Sit down again, Clinton— you looked very comfortable when I came in—and I'll warm my hands.”page 171
The lamp was standing upon the table, but it was not yet lit; it was scarcely dusk enough for that. The sun still touched the posts of the verandah with his last rays, and outside the sky was all one splendour of red and gold.
Lucy knelt down on the rug before the fire, and, taking off her riding-gloves, held out her hands to the glowing wood embers in the grate, but in an absent fashion, and with a strangely sober face.
“Something is up!” thought Meredith as he watched her.
When she turned towards him, still gravely, and asked, “Clinton, how long is it since you were at Deepdene?” his countenance fell.
Lucy noticed it, and, without waiting for an answer to the first question, she went on:—“She's very pretty, isn't she, Clinton? And I suppose it was natural?”
Clinton turned scarlet. “What on earth have you got into your silly little head now?” he asked, with the poorest assumption possible of unconsciousness.page 172
“You know what I mean,” Lucy answered, looking at him steadily with eyes which he was accustomed to see soft and smiling, but which were now very grave. “Don't try to keep it from me any longer, Clinton. I—I—don't like it. I dare say you couldn't help caring most for Jeanie; but I wish you'd told me so honestly.”
“I don't care most for Jeanie,” he said, repeating her words, and all the more bent upon following Dacre's counsel, now that he began to have a faint inkling the decision might not be so completely in his own power as he had imagined.
“You are 189 !” Lucy returned, but still quietly. “You must see, Clinton, that I have found out the truth. Why do you try to deceive me still?”
“I'm not equivocating, or trying to deceive you,” he said rather sulkily. “Perhaps in your turn you'll tell me what you've found out, or fancy you've found out, at all events?”
He thought that he was conducting the matter with a masterly diplomacy. Once he could persuade page 173 her to bring any specific charge against him, he could deny everything, and assume an injured rôle.
But he was not prepared for Lucy's reply.
“Mrs. Lennox told me all about it,” she said; “and now, Clinton, I won't blame you … I'll try not to say another sharp word—if you will answer me one question in all honesty.”
“What is it?”
“Honestly and truly, then, Clinton.”
“Well, if I answer at all, of course it will be honestly,” he replied, with an air of injured innocence.
“Do you think that Jeanie Lennox—on your honour, mind—cares for you or not? I want the plain truth, and what you tell me I shall believe.”
Clinton hesitated. She was so intensely in earnest, that she was forcing him to be the same; and besides, in this case, the truth was flattering, and Clinton's ready vanity came into play at once.
“I believe she does,” he said at last. “There, now —that's honest. And remember, you would have it.”
Lucy drew a long breath and was silent. Instea page 174 of the rose-flushed clouds outside, on which her look was fixed, she saw, curiously blended together, Effie's dying eyes imploring her to take care of Jeanie; and again Jeanie's lovely round face, with the pathetic child-like expression it always assumed when she was thwarted, and with her beautiful blue eyes swimming in tears.
At last she spoke again, very slowly, and pausing between every few words.
“One of us two will have to give up,” she said. “And I expect …..it will have …..to be me.”
This was not at all what Clinton desired. He had resolved magnanimously to give up pretty Jeanie for Lucy's sake, and lo! his magnanimity was finding itself without ground to stand upon.
“No such thing,” he exclaimed vehemently. “Jeanie won't break her heart—and if she is a bit cut up, why it's chiefly her own fault. She encouraged me to the end: I give you my word for that. But as for me, I shall do as I choose; and I choose … you, Lucy.”page 175
She sprang to her feet, and turned on him almost fiercely.
“Don't try to lay the blame on her, whatever you do,” she said. “It's bad enough without that, Clinton.”
Clinton was betrayed into an involuntary expression of admiration.
“'Pon my honour,” he said, “Jeanie's pretty, but her face can't light up like that—nor her eyes look so! I swear, Lucy, I'd rather have you than a dozen Jeanies!”
As she stood before him, panting, with wrath in her face, a shadow came between her and the rose glory in the sky in front. It was a man passing through the verandah towards the door of the house, and Lucy recognized him in a moment.
The next instant she threw open one of the long windows of the dining-room, saying, “Enter, Doctor Dacre, you are most welcome.”
Dacre came in.
He had come in accordance with an invitation pressed upon him by Mr. Cunningham, who had taken page 176 a great fancy to him at first sight. He entered, to find Lucy standing in one corner of the room, and Clinton in another, both flushed and excited. Between them lay one of Lucy's riding gauntlets, lying where she had accidentally dropped it, but looking like a gage of battle.
The first thing Dacre did was to stoop and take up the glove.
He saw that something was the matter, and, knowing half, he guessed the rest. If the picking up of that glove had involved the acceptance of a veritable challenge, he could not have placed himself more decidedly by Lucy's side, or looked more ready to do battle on her behalf against all comers.
Lucy, on her part, felt vaguely that here was a friend, and one who would take her part whenever called upon, for which she owed him some gratitude.
Clinton, on the instant, experienced a sensation of the wildest jealousy, and knew at the same time that Lucy was lost to him for ever.page 177
Truly at that moment both Lucy and Jeanie were revenged.
And this was the situation of all parties when Mr. Cunningham came into the room.
187 A traditional proverb meaning that superficial appearances may be deceiving.
[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]