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

Chapter XXII. The First Time

page 216

Chapter XXII. The First Time.

Doctor Dacre was right. The next day Jeanie was better, and all seemed in a fair way to go on comfortably once more.

Dacre got his horse, and disappeared soon after breakfast. Lucy fancied that he had gone, as he said he would the day before, to see how Mrs. Keith's injured foot was progressing; and in this conjecture she was quite right.

“What on earth can have brought Laura into this part of the country?” he muttered to himself as he mounted and rode away. “Her brother's station is eighty miles away. She was at that concert with him and her sister, and I suppose she has been living with them since she landed.”

His thoughts did not dwell upon her long, however, nor did he trouble himself to ride at all quickly in the direction where he expected to find her. He let the reins fall on his horse's neck, and, taking out his pocket-book, extracted from its deepest, safest corner a small round lock of hair, which he held up in the sunlight, while he wondered to himself if Lucy had yet missed it, and, supposing that she did, if she would for one moment suspect where it had gone.

At last, not far from the same part of the track where Lucy had the day before encountered Mrs. Keith's horse, that is, where the path took a sudden turn, he roused himself from his musings, gathered up his rein, and cantered round the curve of the hill. This brought him out face to face with another rider—a figure well known to him.

“Laura herself!” exclaimed Dacre.

She was riding very slowly, and without a stirrup, as her sprained foot would not yet bear it. Her riding-habit was black, and she wore a black felt hat, with a large curled black feather; nothing relieved the sombre dress except the pointed linen collar beneath the velvet round her neck, her white gauntlets, and the bunch of trinkets dangling and glittering at the end of her short gold watch-chain, Conspicuous among them were two rings—one plain, and one set with three turquoises. Altogether she looked, in costume and manner, not like the Laura of the concert, but like the Mrs. Keith who had often paced the deck of the “Flora Macdonald” on a calm moonlight evening.

Dacre's hand went mechanically to his hat as he approached her; but he recollected himself, and the salute was never completed. For her part, she took no notice of him whatever; it really appeared as though she would have passed him within a few yards, without the slightest acknowledgment that she was aware of his presence, if he had not placed himself directly in her way, and stopped her further progress.

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“I hear that you have hurt your ankle,” he said. “I was coming to see if the injury was in any manner serious.”

“Extraordinary condescension!” she replied, with the utmost scorn in her voice and expression. “Did you really suppose you could do any good?”

Dacre must have been a good-tempered man, for he kept his temper now.

“I heard that you had sprained your ankle too badly to allow of your leaving Mr. Cunningham's station,” he answered; “and, feeling sure that it must be unpleasant to you to be dependent upon the kindness of strangers, I was going to endeavour to help you. However disagreeable to myself to be brought once more into your society, yet conscience ordered me to act towards you as I would to any other human being whom I had known to be in the same circumstances.”

“Your conscience!” she said, beneath her breath, with intense bitterness.

Dacre did not appear to hear. “I will get off and examine your foot now,” he went on.

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“You will do nothing of the kind,” she said sharply.

“You refuse to allow me?”

“I do.”

“Then I have only to say—good morning.”

He had turned his horse's head, and was actually leaving her as he spoke, but she called him back.

“Stay a moment!” she said. “Who told you of my accident?”

He hesitated before replying, and suddenly a flush of fire rose into Laura's cheeks, and her great eyes glowed.

“I know,” she said. “It was Miss Cunningham. Ah! what a pity it is that my unworthy self stands in the way!”

She repeated the words twice over, with a fierce little laugh of triumph, which made her face for the moment an unpleasant one to contemplate.

Dacre's blood was getting up now. His straight, strongly-marked eyebrows contracted, and his whole face hardened. It was like the rising of a storm. Suddenly he gave a great sigh, and his page 221 brows relaxed. “Only a woman,” he said, “after all!” But oh, the infinite contempt of the words! So might a man have spoken who, driven into a moment's fury by an insect's sting, reflects, “Only a gnat after all! Not worth a grain of the passion I am wasting on it!”

Something, however, in his look, underlying the anger and contempt, told Laura that her chance shot had gone even nearer to the mark than she expected. She pursued the theme, therefore, with a complacency that was almost remarkable, and becoming peculiarly calm and sweet in her manner, after the fashion of some women when they intend to give utterance to anything especially spiteful.

“A great pity, indeed!” she said once more. “But, unfortunately, I fear I am too substantial an obstacle to be evaded. Even my late accident is not a dangerous one, though upon the whole I think it is more prudent not to place the case under your medical care…. May I trouble you to give a message from me to Miss Cunningham? Pray tell her I am sorry for her sake she came up when she did page 222 yesterday, and showed me so much attention. Perhaps a night's exposure to the weather, and the pain of my sprain unrelieved, might have inflicted some injury upon my constitution. But try not to mind, for perhaps you may have better luck next time!”

It was all uttered in the softest tone and with the most charming smile in the world.

As she spoke, one hand was playing with the trinkets on her watch-chain, making the two rings glitter as they caught the sunlight, and of course attracting Dacre's attention towards them, which was perhaps what she intended.

He waited quietly, and allowed her to say her say out. He never attempted to stem the current of the bitterness and spite she was displaying. Perhaps he knew her of old, and knew that it would be of no use.

At all events, it is but fair to say that all through their interview his conduct had shown to great advantage by the side of that of the lady—shall we still call her so?—whom we have hitherto known as Mrs. Keith.

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At last, when she had relapsed into silence, partly from want of breath, Dacre said, “It will be a long time before I carry a message from you to Miss Cunningham. And perhaps now you will allow me to inquire in my turn—What has become of Captain Rollo?”

He thought that the taunt would have stung her into fury. Strange enough it did not; it rebounded, leaving her perfectly cold and calm. The arrow seemed in some manner to have missed its mark.

“Captain Rollo?” she said thoughtfully, and then, “I think our interview has now lasted quite long enough to annoy us both sufficiently. Let us bring it to a close.”

“With all my heart,” said Dacre.

“Probably we shall not meet again,” she added. “My brother, Augusta, and myself are leaving the country for England, viâ Melbourne, in about a month. So farewell!”

“Farewell!” returned Dacre. “Am I to pay your passage?”

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She hesitated, evidently longing to say “No.” But the offer must have been a tempting one, for, after a moment's struggle with herself, she bent her head and said “Yes”—but not one word of thanks.

“I will send you a cheque,” he returned, and then they parted—Dacre turning his horse's head back to Deepdene.

Laura pursued her way as before, at a walking pace. The horse on which she was mounted was a very quiet animal, or with her injured ankle she could not have ridden it at all.

It was a fair, soft, sunny morning in early spring. There was nothing to attract her attention in the scenery around her. She rode with her eyes on her horse's ears, letting the reins drop on his neck, and suffering herself to become engrossed in her own thoughts.

“The money is a good thing,”—so her meditations ran on—“but the revenge is a better. Have I wounded him at last? After all, I think I grow a little weary of this too. I think I am growing tired of all things and people—except one. Lucy Cun- page 225 ningham has a sweet face, I confess, and there is something about her which I suppose people would call loveable. She was very willing to give up her horse to me when I was hurt, and her hands were very gentle when she touched my foot. They tell me Arthur admires her. What do I care? That does not trouble me at all. What does trouble me is, sometimes, old memories, faded ghosts of Beatrice long ago, when we were all fresh innocent girls together. Beatrice! … Now I suppose in England it is night. I wonder if the moon is shining on that grave at Brighton?”