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Over The Hills, and Far Away: A Story of New Zealand

Chapter XXI. Dacre to the Rescue

page 207

Chapter XXI. Dacre to the Rescue.

As he came nearer, Lucy thought she recognized him. Yes, surely she knew the broad square shoulders, the dark beard and moustache, and the bright brown eyes, gazing at her with unfeigned amazement from under the black felt hat. Of all men in the world, the one she would have chosen to encounter at that particular moment, had the choice been offered to her; for here was her errand accomplished, and herself delivered at one and the same instant.

She cantered forwards to meet Doctor Dacre, and page 208 with a long breath, an expression of the most intense relief, she held out her hand.

“Oh! I am so glad I've met you!” she said. “Fancy! I had lost my way on the hills.”

Dacre took the little hand in his own, and privately thought himself a very lucky fellow.

“Were you afraid?” he asked, holding her fingers in a firm grasp, which to Lucy, not yet recovered from her terror, spoke of comfort and protection, intensely soothing.

“I was,” she answered; “but I'm not afraid now. Doctor Dacre, you must please to come with me.”

“I'll go with you anywhere you like on the face of the earth,” said Dacre, and he meant it.

“Whatever should I have done if I had not met you?” she remarked as much to herself as to him.

I should have missed a great pleasure, at any rate,” Dacre answered.

He had reluctantly come to the conclusion that it was time he released her hand. Even the circumstances under which he had encountered her, and page 209 her evident need of sympathy, would not justify him in retaining it any longer. He released her fingers, therefore; and when Lucy glanced at him again, she saw that he was looking steadily at a tuft of flax, with his face a little turned away.

She began telling him eagerly of Jeanie Lennox's illness and of her own accidental delay from the accident to Mrs. Keith's ankle, and she thought that Dacre's manner grew graver and graver as he listened.

It was certainly with a sigh that he told her he would look Mrs. Keith up the next day, but at present, of course, Miss Lennox's condition required his first attention; and, wondering a little at the sudden coldness of his manner, Lucy found herself riding by his side back to Deepdene. The coldness, however, did not last. Dacre's manner was almost as usual again when he turned towards her and asked her if she was not very tired.

“A little,” she confessed; but it was of no consequence. She was anxious to get back to Jeanie.

“She is thinking more of her friend's comfort page 210 than of her own,” said Dacre to himself. “And Jeanie Lennox is what the world would call this girl's rival. It is not so long ago since I doubted if I should ever again meet a woman whom I could honour and respect from my heart; but I was wrong.”

It was a long ride. At last they reached the plain, and by this time it was quite dark. Lucy proposed that Dacre should ride on and leave her to follow slowly behind, but he scouted the idea so indignantly that she was almost amused, though grateful to him also for his care of her.

At last they reached Deepdene. Dacre lifted Lucy from her horse just as Mrs. Lennox ran joyfully out to meet them. Jeanie was no better; but then, on the other hand, she was no worse; and now that medical aid was secured, her mother was vastly relieved in her mind.

Dacre went in at once to see his patient, while Lucy hastily changed her riding-habit, and then went into the drawing-room to wait for his opinion. Tired as she was, she was too restlessly eager for page 211 that, even to sit down, until she heard his step in the hall.

He caught the appeal in her eyes as he came in, and smiled. “Miss Lennox's attack is not dangerous,” he said. “Set your mind at rest; she will be better to-morrow.”

The reaction from the anxiety she had been suffering was so great that the light grew dim and the room seemed to Lucy to swim round for a moment. She had followed Mrs. Keith's example that morning, and fainted quite away.

It seemed only a minute to her before she opened her eyes to find Dacre bathing her temples with water, and Mrs. Lennox by her side, in agonies of remorse and commiseration.

“It is all my fault,” she said, “That long ride has half killed her, poor dear!”

“You didn't tell me I was to have two patients instead of one,” said Dacre, as he saw her growing more like herself.

“And you won't have,” she retorted. “You haven't caught me for a patient yet, don't flatter yourself. page 212 Don't pity me, Mrs. Lennox; I am all right again now.”

Dacre was smiling to himself at that moment in a manner which reassured Mrs. Lennox more than anything else; but no one had the least idea that by means of the tiny penknife attached to his watch-guard he had secured the identical round curl from Lucy's head which he had set his heart on ever since she had once offered it to him in a dream,—a very boyish freak, and one quite unworthy of him, but which gave him some moments of happiness nevertheless.

It occurred to Mrs. Lennox suddenly that both her guests must be half starved.

“It is indeed lucky,” she said, “that the dinner is just ready. I was afraid it would not have been, because the stove's got out of order—it always does when Mr. Lennox is away—and the leg of mutton wouldn't roast properly; but I think everything is ready at last.”

She led the way to the dining-room, where a most comfortable repast was found to be awaiting them. page 213 To the two poor wanderers coming in out of the cold and darkness, the fire and light and food were truly inviting.

Besides the leg of mutton, which had condescended to allow itself at last to be thoroughly done, there were bruised pokekhas, with plenty of bread sauce. They are excellent eating prepared in this manner; and some people prefer ka-kas, served on toast, to English pigeons.

Lest my story should be pronounced too colonial in its language to be intelligible, I had perhaps better explain that pokekhas are swamp hens, and ka-kas charming little grey parrots, with a few rosy feathers beneath the wings; but neither delicacy is always to be procured in the New Zealand of to-day.

Who should drop in, while they were at dinner, but Arthur Winstanley. They made him join them, of course, immediately, with the ready hospitality of the colonies; and Lucy was really glad to see him, for with her he was rather a favourite.

When she told him of her expedition that day, he regretted with real earnestness that he had not come page 214 over the evening before, as he had once intended to do, so that he might have saved her all her trouble.

Lucy gave him credit for being perfectly sincere in what he said; but she was not in the least deceived by it, as Mrs. Prior was. She saw that he did truly like and respect her; but she felt instinctively that, if he had ever been in love, he must have shown it in a far different fashion.

“Whatever the reason may be,” she said to herself one day, “it is evident that he is a man who prefers the society of those women who will allow him to be a friend, without ever suspecting him of a wish to be anything more.”

So she continued to be very civil and kind to him, in a perfectly open, unconstrained fashion; and he, in his turn, plainly showed that he preferred Miss Cunningham to any one else in whose company he ever found himself.

To-night Dacre and Arthur Winstanley seemed to meet with a slight constraint on both sides. It was explained, however, when Dacre, after little desultory conversation, said quietly, “I dare page 215 say, Winstanley, you won't mind my telling you now, that I remember you perfectly. We won't say anything more about it, but let bygones be bygones; but of course I always saw that you were a gentleman, and I never really believed that your name was Smith.”

A faint tinge of colour came out on Arthur's cheek. “I should prefer to say no more about it,” he replied, with a glance at Lucy.

“All right!” returned Dacre; and the subject dropped at once.

But Lucy, being of course devoured by feminine curiosity, attacked Dacre on the subject the very first time that Arthur Winstanley was out of the room.

“It is not much to tell,” Dacre said. “Winstanley was one of the troopers in the regiment to which I was surgeon. He called himself John Smith. I suppose he had got into trouble of some sort, and enlisted. When I saw him first at the concert, the other night, I felt sure I recollected him, but I could not recall under what name.”