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

Chapter XXIII. Louis Loses His Temper at Croquet

page 226

Chapter XXIII. Louis Loses His Temper at Croquet.

The hill behind Maungarewa was steep, and strewn with boulders, as has before been mentioned in the course of this story.

Steep as it was, however, on one hot afternoon in the early summer Lucy set forth valiantly to ascend to the summit. Halting more than once to rest and pant in the great heat, and with a feeling of considerable pride in her own exertions, she at last found herself at the top.

From the point where she was standing the road by which Maungarewa was usually approached was visible to some distance; in fact, two roads were page 227 commanded from this position. One of them, the longest, but the easiest, skirted the base of the hill, and swept round to the house. It was the road par excellence.

The other, a much shorter way, led straight over the summit of the hill itself; but it had the drawback of far rougher ground, and the steep descent. It was usually only attempted by masculine riders. Mr. Cunningham and Louis invariably approached the house this way; so did those of their friends who preferred riding across country to the beaten track. But ladies seldom ventured on it.

At this moment, Lucy, standing quite at the top of the hill, leaning against a huge grey rock, was eagerly scanning the road beneath. At last the object of her watch became apparent, in the form of a couple of riders, a lady and gentleman, advancing in the direction of Maungarewa. It was Mr. and Mrs. Meredith.

During the spring Clinton and Jeanie had been married. They had been to Auckland for their wedding tour, and they had come back and settled page 228 down in a composed fashion on some land which Clinton had purchased, not very far from Maungarewa.

To-day there was a game of croquet in prospect, and as it was a novelty to Jeanie she was wild with delighted anticipation.

Lucy imagined that she had climbed to the summit of the hill to look out for her two guests. Nevertheless, after she had discerned their figures quite distinctly beneath, her eye still turned towards the distant road with an eager, unsatisfied expression.

At last, cresting the spur of a hill far away, appeared another horse and rider, following almost in the track of the other two, but at some distance behind them. Lucy saw and smiled.

Reaching the point where the road branched off towards the hill, Clinton and Jeanie paused a moment. Evidently they conferred a little, and decided that it would not do. They presently set off again, still keeping to the regular path.

The other rider came up at a canter, and dashed page 229 off the road and up the hill, almost in a straight line to where Lucy was standing. Like the prince in the German fairy stories, he was in too great a hurry to reach the princess to look what the road was made of under his feet; and as the princess happened to be watching him at the time, the attention was very gratifying to her.

He did not see her at first, and when he at last made out her pale grey dress, almost the colour of the rocks themselves, she was just turning to fly down the hill on the other side.

“I shall be too late to receive them,” she said to herself, as she darted down the rocky slope as fast as the ground would allow her. Nevertheless, Dacre overtook her before she reached the house.

He had become a very frequent visitor at Maungarewa. Mr. Cunningham had taken an immense fancy to him, which only increased as time went by. Unlimited invitations, and inclination to match, brought Dacre to Maungarewa again and again.

Did he see what he was drifting towards? At page 230 first, certainly not. He had started with the idea that Lucy had cared too much for Clinton Meredith ever to be in any danger from himself, that for her there was no fear, and that he had only his own peace of mind to look to.

The present was temptingly sweet; pain must follow—that he knew—but he put it off; the inevitable suffering, which stared him grimly in the face at times, put it off from day to day, and time flew by; and while he lingered here, reaching after an impossible Paradise 215 , the night was coming wherein no man can work.

Dacre had been much loved by the people with whom the course of his life had brought him in contact. He had no near kith and kin, but the officers in his regiment years ago had, one and all, liked Dacre; and afterwards, when he left the army, and devoted himself to sanitary work in one of the large English towns, where such work was sorely needed, he made for himself a place in some hearts which never forgot him afterwards. He had been a wealthy man all his life, and he had done much good with his page 231 money—such good as can never be forgotten, for the record of it is on high.

But after this testimony in honour of Rylston Dacre, it cannot be denied that at this time he was most assuredly in the wrong; and it does not make that wrong less, that he was destined to a bitter repentance later on.

Louis happened to be at Maungarewa that afternoon, so their 216 party was complete. They took their balls and mallets and marched down to the bottom of the garden, where there was a level space of lawn suitable for carrying on the game.

Jeanie was in a flutter of delight and excitement: as pretty as ever in her blue silk dress and coquettish little sailor's hat. Mrs. Meredith was just as childish, as light-hearted, and good-humoured as Miss Lennox had been.

Clinton, too, was quite unaltered. When Lucy asked him to come with her, and help her to arrange the wires, he told her she had only to command him with a look out of his blue eyes such as she remembered of old.

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It did not mean very much. Clinton was fond of his pretty little wife, and was very kind to her; but he could no more help trying the power of his handsome eyes on Lucy than he could have helped eating his dinner when it was served up hot before him.

Lucy returned his look very quietly and steadily, with something lurking in the depths of her eyes which was very like disdain; but the next moment that changed to amusement, and she smiled to herself.

“Is it possible that this man ever had any power over me?” she thought. “How small and shallow and weak he seems to me now, by the side of—some one else!”

Lucy and Dacre had practised croquet so much together lately that they had become by far the best players among the company collected at Maungarewa that afternoon. Clinton and Jeanie were mere beginners, and Louis, though tolerably skilful, was not equal to his sister.

But Louis' odd and unaccountable dislike to Dacre, which had originated long ago on board the “Flora Macdonald,” was still in full force. He utterly dis- page 233 approved of the frequency of Dacre's visits at Maungarewa; and though he had joined the croquet party to-day to please his sister, it was under protest, and he would not play on Dacre's side.

Lucy found this out almost immediately, and to cover it she proposed that Louis and herself should play against their three guests. It seemed on the whole a tolerably just division of talent.

One game was got through in this manner; then Louis declared himself dead beat with the heat, and said he would look on while the others continued to play. The two ladies, therefore, challenged the two gentlemen, and soon found they had met with more than their match. Jeanie was intensely anxious to win, but her husband was more expert than herself, and Lucy found that she could not hold her own against Dacre.

At last there came a time when Dacre had his two fair antagonists at his mercy. As he made ready to croquet Lucy's ball, she said involuntarily, under her breath, “As you are strong, be merciful!”

Dacre, looking up into her eyes, answered in the page 234 same tone, “I won't hurt you!” and straightway knocked her ball into a rather more advantageous position than it had before occupied, but the next instant he sent Jeanie's ball flying far and wide.

Louis, watching, had seen it all. He knew that Dacre had said something to his sister, although he was not near enough to catch the words, and he saw that Dacre's awkwardness was assumed. He got up from where he was seated, with wrath in his heart, and walked towards them.

“Your skill appears to desert you sometimes, Dacre,” he said. “That was a very bad stroke you made just now.”

“I suppose I was nervous,” was the answer.

Lucy was so amused at the extreme coolness and promptness of the reply, and at the idea of Doctor Dacre, one of the most self-possessed of men, being attacked with a sudden fit of nervousness, that she was obliged to turn away to stifle a laugh.

Louis saw it, and the cup of his wrath was full. He stood looking on for a few moments longer with a gloomy brow, and then walked away towards the page 235 house, leaving the others to continue playing or not, as they chose.

Straight into the drawing-room he marched, and there he found his father lying stretched out on the sofa, reading the newspaper, with a glass of claret on the table by his side.

“Hot—isn't it? said Mr. Cunningham. “How on earth those gals can play croquet in this weather I cannot imagine ! Help yourself to some claret, old fellow, and pass me the decanter”

Louis did as he was desired, and drank his claret in moody silence.

Mr. Cunningham had retired into the columns of the newspaper. Stillness reigned supreme. All at once the clear ring of a peal of girlish laughter from the bottom of the lawn came floating in through the open windows.

Louis dashed his tumbler down on to the table by his side. “Really,” he said, “this will have to be put a stop to !”

“What will?” inquired Mr. Cunningham, opening his eyes in amazement, as well he might.

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“This croquet playing !” Louis went on still more hotly. “These visits ! He's always here, day and night! I say it shan't go on!”

“You seem in no end of a heat about something,” said his father. “What is in the wind, I should like to know?”

“In the wind?” repeated Louis. “Why this—that if you don't take care you'll have Lucy marrying him before your very eyes!”

“What if she did?” retorted Mr. Cunningham, all the opposition of his nature fairly roused by his son's manner. “It would be a great deal better than marrying him any other way, at any rate!” Then in a moment he added scornfully, “Talk sense, will you have the goodness? Who are you speaking of her marrying? Dacre?”

Louis assented with a kind of bitter growl.

“Well,” said Mr. Cunningham reflectively, “she might do far worse. In fact, I don't think I'm sorry. Dacre's a thoroughly good, manly fellow, and a gentleman. Upon the whole, I don't mind giving my consent on the spot!”

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Now at the bottom of Louis' heart there was a secret conviction that his father was in the right. Dacre was a good fellow and a gentleman, and Louis knew it, however he might choose to deny the facts. He ignored the knowledge utterly, but there it was, and he could not shut his eyes to it entirely. He had been forced to yield Dacre a sort of reluctant admiration in trifles ever since he had discovered what a much better shot and more skilful swimmer this other man was to himself; but he would not have owned to the existence of one redeeming trait in the man to whom he appeared to feel such a groundless aversion.

However, the decided manner in which his father had spoken left him no hope in that quarter. What was to be would be—Louis could not hinder it. He said no more, therefore, but sat and sipped his claret and looked out of the window with a gloomy face.

“I know you don't like Dacre,” resumed Mr. Cunningham after a few moments spent in studying his son's countenance. “What is the reason, Louis?”

page 238

This was just what Louis did not wish to explain. He took refuge in a convenient form of evasion.

“I don't mean to say anything against him,” Louis said, “only I don't much care to have him for a brother, I confess. He hasn't asked her yet, though, so perhaps our conversation is a little premature. Let us drop the subject.”

“With all my heart,” returned Mr. Cunningham, “more especially as I didn't start it.”

There was another silence, during which the croquet-players, having finished their game, were heard coming up the lawn.

They came in, both the girls laughing and flushed with the heat, and exchanging “chaff” with their cavaliers concerning the game just concluded.

Jeanie carried a small basket full of ripe strawberries from the garden, and Lucy went out of the room and fetched little china plates and spoons, with cream and sugar in cut-glass dishes.

A dainty little repast was soon improvised, with another bottle of claret for the gentlemen.

Louis would not condescend to partake. He page 239 chafed inwardly to see how Dacre had managed to put the best strawberries on to Lucy's plate, and to give her the richest spoonfuls of the scalded cream.

“The show of fruit this year is perfectly wretched,” he remarked, at last, in a snappish kind of tone.

“Not in my garden,” retorted Mr. Cunningham immediately, with a counter-snap.

“Certainly not in the way of strawberries,” put in Dacre with one in his hand, and clenching the last nail on the head.

“Of course, if you all choose to contradict me I had better shut up at once,” replied Louis with a deeply-injured air.

Jeanie looked at him with round, wondering eyes. “No one contradicted you, Mr. Louis,” she said. “I'm sure I didn't, for the very sweetest little cherry-tree in my garden, with such blossoms, has been blighted this year by the frost.”

“Never mind, Jeanie,” said Clinton consolingly. “I'll get you lots of cherries from Prior. He has more than he knows what to do with.”

There was some new music lying on the piano— page 240 some songs of Claribel's and a few of Arthur Sullivan's. Louis walked across the room and began turning it over, with now and then a contemptuous expression at something in the notes or the words.

Dacre was looking at a volume of the Graphic which lay upon the drawing-room table.

“How good these American sketches are!” he said to Lucy.

“Excellent!” replied Lucy, getting up to look at one of them over his shoulder.

“Couldn't we get up a sketching excursion?” he went on. “There are some pretty bits near the bridge you have not tried yet.”

Louis immediately interposed. “You know you can't do anything of the kind, Lucy,” he said crossly. “Robin Hood is perfectly lame.”

This was too much even for his sister's good temper.

“Robin is quite better, Louis,” she said very coldly. “He was only lame for two days last week from a little strain he got in the creek.” Then, page 241 turning to Dacre, she added, “Let us get up the expedition by all means; but I think we will arrange the details another time.”

Altogether the evening did not pass off as harmoniously as usual, and the disturbing element was felt by all to be Louis Cunningham's unaccountable ill-temper.

215 See further references to the New Zealand colony as envisaged by Edward Gibbon Wakefield in New Zealand History section in the NZETC collection, http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]

216 A game using a ball and wooden mallet highly popular in England in the 19th century. Played by both men and women croquet was also a competitive sport and featured at the 1900 Summer Olympics.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]