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

Chapter XXV. The Beginning of the End

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Chapter XXV. The Beginning of the End.

About a week after the croquet party before mentioned, Louis Cunningham came riding down the hill behind Maungarewa.

The sun was setting over the mountains, and a sea of golden clouds covered half the heavens. Full before Louis' eyes, as he crested the hill, opened out the pale blue sky, shading into delicate green at the horizon, the deep purple mountains, and the gold behind gradually flushing into rose colour. It was one of our really glorious New Zealand sunsets; and its beauty continually changed, developing some fresh type every moment.

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Louis drew rein for a moment to enjoy the effect. In the opposite direction “the night rack came rolling up, ragged and brown” Louis, turning that way, saw a cloud of dusk gloom, making the hills and gullies already misty with the coming darkness. At last he looked down at the house beneath him; the paddock and garden in front were quite commanded from the position he occupied. He saw Lucy in the garden in a dress which at that distance appeared white, trailing, a shawl over one arm, and with her hat in her hand instead of on her head.

She did not appear to be doing anything except watching the sunset, though she had a book in her hand: for as Louis looked at her, he saw her drop it, and then stoop to pick it up.

He rode down the hill, unsaddled his horse, and turned him out into the paddock. Then he went to join his sister in the garden.

She came eagerly to meet him as soon as she saw him. Seen nearer, Louis became aware that she had on a dress of some very pale blue material, not page 258 white, and that the book in her hand was one of Miss Alcott's charming American stories.

“Oh, Louis,” she cried, “I'm so glad you've come! Papa has been called away suddenly on business, and won't be back for a week, and I'm all by myself.”

“So I suppose you want me to stay and look after you,” said Louis, stroking her rippling hair. He was very fond indeed of his sister, in his quiet reserved fashion. “Well, I don't mind if I do, but I shall have to go to the station off and on, so I warn you.”

“That does not matter,” replied Lucy, “and I'm very glad you can stop. If you couldn't, I think I should have sent for Jeanie to come and stop with me till papa turned up. I don't like being left a ‘lone, lorn creetur,’ in this manner.”

“That reminds me,” said Louis, “I've a note for you somewhere from Mrs. Meredith. I saw Meredith in town to-day, and he gave it to me.

After looking in every pocket but the right one, Louis at last produced a tiny pink envelope, ad- page 259 dressed to “Miss Cunningham,” in Jeanie's angular handwriting.

The note inside ran as follows:—


Dearest Lucy,—We have quite decided that a picnic will be nicer than a sketching-party, only you can sketch if you like, and I want you to come. It is to be my picnic, and Mrs. Prior is going to help me. Thursday next is the day, and I shall be so glad, and so will Clinton if you and Mr. Louis will meet us at the Great Swamp at eleven o'clock. Clinton has given me another silk dress, and I want you to come and help to cut out the Polonaise, and tell me how to trim it. It is such a sweet colour, just like apricot jam! But we can settle all about this on Thursday, so be sure you come, and don't forget, and oh, I hope it won't rain!

“Your loving


“P.S.—Doctor Dacre is coming.”

Lucy read her note, and handed it to her brother page 260 without a word, who also perused it in silence. Only at the “P.S.” his face clouded over.

He crushed Jeanie's little sheet of pink note-paper in his hand, and asked, at last, “Shall you go, Lucy?”

“Oh, yes! I think so. I should like to go very much,” she replied. Then she added, somewhat artfully, “Jeanie will be offended if I don't.”

Louis dropped the little ball of pink paper, into which he had at last reduced poor Jeanie's note, on to the gravel walk at his feet, stooped to pick it up, and said abruptly, “Don't go.”

“Why not?” asked Lucy, with equal conciseness.

It appeared that his reason was not ready to deliver at a moment's notice, for he was a long time in answering. At last he said, “I cannot tell you why, but I wish you would not go. I don't believe in presentiments—isn't that what nervous people call them?—but for all that there is a strongfeeling in my mind against this picnic. I wish you would give it up.”

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“Nonsense, Louis,” returned his sister, obstinate in her turn for once. “If you have no better reason to give for declining than that, I think it would indeed be absurd. Am I to disappoint Jeanie because you have taken a fancy into your head against her picnic? And what excuse could I make for refusing to go?”

She longed to tell him that she knew his objection was altogether founded on the postscript to Jeanie's note; but it was a subject on which she was too conscious to speak freely. She knew perfectly well in her heart that her own desire to accept the invitation was based upon the very words which had aroused Louis' distaste to it.

“I wish Jeanie had not added that line,” she thought, “and then Louis would not have said a word against my going.”

However, Louis did not seem disposed to make any further remonstrance. He had said his say, and had washed his hands of the matter.

Finding that Lucy was determined upon going, he acquiesced, and on the appointed morning saddled page 262 his own horse as well as hers, and set forth with her, as in duty bound.

“It was a hot day, as usual. They were punctual at the place of meeting which Jeanie had mentioned, and, having joined company there with the rest of the party, they all rode together to the outskirts of the bush, where they took their luncheon.

A most sumptuous repast was found to have been provided. Jeanie, as principal giver of the feast, had brought two cold turkeys and a tongue, with endless cakes and jam tarts; Mrs. Prior had brought cold roast beef, lettuces for salad, and cherries enough to feast a small army; while Lucy, who had been sternly forbidden by the other ladies to provide anything, had, in defiance of the edict, brought with her a splendid ham a profusion of strawberries, and a jar of thick cream.

With the champagne, claret, and sherry, which the gentlemen had taken good care not to forget, they found that they could have “camped out” for a few days with much comfort if they had so desired.

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Arthur Winstanley was among the guests. He devoted himself, as usual, in his languid way, to Lucy all day, she received his attentions, in the most unconstrained manner. Mrs. Prior became at last convinced that her conjecture concerning a proposal and a rejection having passed between them must have been a mistaken one.

“It is the most puzzling case that ever came under my observation,” she wrote home to a dear friend; “but then Arthur is a most remarkable man, and Miss Cunningham certainly understands his peculiar temperament more than any one I ever knew.”

It was certainly a proof of the entirely Platonic character of the relations between Arthur and Lucy, that neither Clinton nor Dacre had ever felt in the least jealous of this man.

Several of the people present at this picnic enjoyed the day most thoroughly. To more than one it marked the end of a chapter, and was the last day of a life they had found a very agreeable one.

About four o'clock in the afternoon, Louis, who page 264 had gone to fetch back his horse, which had strayed away from the others, came up and directed the attention of the rest of the party to some rather ugly-looking clouds rising in the north.

“There will be a stormy night,” he said. “Those clouds signify atmospheric disturbance of some kind. My opinion is that the sooner we start for home the better.”

His suggestion was considered a wise one by the majority of the party, and acted upon forthwith.

Jeanie pouted, and wanted to stay and risk it; but her husband scouted the idea, and put her on her horse before she had time to rebel.

Dacre was then leading up Robin Hood and his own horse. He had Lucy in the saddle before Louis could interpose, and they all started in twos and threes as quickly as they could.

At the Swamp, where the Cunninghams had met the others in the morning, there was a general shaking of hands and wishing “Good-bye!”

Arthur Winstanley wished Lucy “Farewell” page 265 and then suddenly, when he had gone about a hundred yards, turned back, rode up to her and said it again.

She looked a little surprised, and he added, “I am going by the San Francisco Mail next week.” Then, after a moment's pause, he remarked, “You are the only one I am sorry to say ‘Farewell!’ to.”

“Thank you!” replied Lucy, bowing to the compliment. “I hope it is not for ever.”

“I hope not either,” he returned, with real sincerity of look and tone; and then he took leave of her once more.

When they came in sight of Maungarewa the wind was rising, and a few heavy drops of rain were beginning to fall. The clouds were looming up in great murky masses over the mountains, and it was beginning to grow dark. Evidently there was a wild night in prospect.

About a quarter of a mile from Maungarewa there was a shepherd's hut belonging to Mr. Cunningham; and as they passed it Louis stopped to say a few words to one of the men.

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“Ride on,” he said to Lucy, “I shall be with you again directly.” He watched Dacre and herself as far as a small creek which they had to cross a hundred yards or so away. Here he saw Lucy stop to let her horse drink.

Dacre followed her example, and at the same time bent over her, to say something evidently meant for her ear alone, in a manner which Louis thought excessively familiar and disagreeable.