Over The Hills, and Far Away: A Story of New Zealand
Chapter XXVI. Peccavi
Chapter XXVI. Peccavi.
Louis was detained about half an hour. When he rode up to the house he was surprised to see that there was no light in either of the sitting-rooms, both of which faced the front of the house. The kitchen was at the back, and the whole line of building was one unbroken mass of darkness.
“Very odd,” thought Louis; “the place looks deserted. And yet they must have reached here long before now. I don't think anything could have happened to them in that short distance.”
But a vague feeling of uneasiness had arisen in his mind, and it only increased and deepened as he page 268 unsaddled his horse and turned him out. Robin Hood and Dacre's horse, if in the paddock, must have gone down to the creek to drink, for they were not in sight anywhere.
As quickly as he could Louis walked into the house. All quite dark and quite still. Louis stood for an instant in the hall, listening for some sound to guide him. There was a murmur of voices in the kitchen and a line of light beneath the door—nothing else. He turned at last into the drawing-room: it was cold, empty, and deserted. Then he felt his way down the dark passage to the dining-room, and, finding the door shut, he opened it and walked in.
The evening had grown chilly with the sudden change in the weather, and there had been a fire made in the grate, but it had died down into a red mass of embers—warm, but giving no light. Louis threw on a log of wood as he entered, and the flame leaped up, showing him Lucy in her riding-habit, standing leaning against the mantelpiece, looking very pale, and Dacre seated at the table, his back page 269 turned towards her, his head resting on his crossed arms, and his face hidden from sight.
“What on earth has happened?” asked Louis involuntarily, with real alarm in his voice.
Dacre raised his head, as though then for the first time aware of Louis' presence; the next instant he sprang up and pushed his chair away.
“I have been waiting for you, Cunningham,” he said. I wanted to say a few words before I—I—go. I owe your sister an apology, and I wanted to make it in your presence.”
Louis looked at his sister. She was still standing in just the same attitude by the fire—still staring down at the embers, with the same white face. Dacre glanced at her also, and then went on more hurriedly—
“You see that something has happened,” he said, “and I won't leave it to her to tell you what it was. I'll spare her that, at all events. It's all I can do for her now!”
His voice broke a moment; then he recovered himself, and went on firmly—“You see, when we page 270 got here, I had to lift her off her horse—I've often done it before, and now I suppose I've done it for the last time—but to-night—you'll hate me, Cunningham, but I deserve it—the devil tempted me, I suppose, and I kissed her, and said something mad and wild about asking her to be my wife!”
Louis set his teeth and made a step forwards. It appeared as though he were at last justified in the dislike he bore to this man. But the next instant he stopped, thoroughly bewildered. He had seen for some time that Dacre was in love with his sister, and he had dreaded lest Lucy should become his wife; but the course that events were now taking had never entered his imagination for a moment, and his astonishment absorbed every other feeling for the time. “What could the fellow mean by saying that he was tempted of the devil?”
Dacre meanwhile looked again at Lucy, still drooping over the lire, one hand clenching her whip, the other mechanically folding up the folds of her riding-habit. She did not move or speak, and in the silence within the wind came sweeping in a fierce gust, fore- page 271 runner of the rising storm around the house outside.
Dacre drew a long breath, and went on hastily—“Now that I have told you this, I must follow it up by another confession still harder to make than the last. The temptation I have struggled against so long, to keep back the truth, is now over; and the only reparation I can make is to speak out openly—I owe it to her to do that. If you hate me now, Cunningham, you'll hate and despise me ten times over in a moment. The truth is, that between your sister and myself there lies a deadly bar—I cannot cross it—I am married already!”
Louis would have been upon him in a second. This was letting in the light with a vengeance on the bewilderment in which he had been groping. Both were powerful men, and Dacre was well-nigh desperate. What might not have followed?
But in the instant, while they faced each other—an awful, breathless pause—Lucy suddenly threw herself between.
She laid one hand on Dacre's arm, and with the page 272 other kept Louis back, and she spoke for the first time.
“It was wrong,” she said, “quite wrong, and a mistake from first to last. But you have suffered … and you are sorry. Louis, stand back! If I forgive him, you can bear no grudge”
“You forgive me?” Dacre answered; “that is like Lucy … but I can never forgive myself. I ought to have told you this long ago; I ought never to have come here at all … It is easy to see all this now; it was harder then … Now it is all over.”
“Yes,” said Lucy, with her sweet voice perfectly calm and steady; it is over. We must say ‘goodbye’ now; it is our duty. And because it is our duty, we must see each other's faces no more.”
The wind took up the story again, and shook the house savagely; then moaned and died: that was all that followed Lucy's words.
Dacre had sunk down again in his old place by the table, and his face was hidden by his arm. Nothing but his hard breathing broke the stillness, page 273 which seemed to last for hours, as if it would never come to an end.
At last Lucy said again, with her voice a little more unsteady now, “I shall pray for you every day, and we shall both be forgiven, if we are sorry … Don't grieve about me; I shall live through this, though it seems hard now.”
Then Dacre said softly, but with intense passion, “Oh, God, hear me! and take from her all the suffering, and lay it upon me double!”
They had both quite forgotten Louis' presence; but now suddenly he came forward, holding out his hand, and Dacre looked up.
“Dacre,” he said, “I've never liked you since I first knew you; no doubt you found that out long ago. But now I tell you that I will be your friend from this time forward if you will let me—a real friend, and not an empty form of words—and there's my hand on it.”
Dacre took it in his own, and they stood a moment, holding each other with a firm grasp.
“You've lost my sister,” Louis added, “but page 274 you've gained an ally, who will be true to you, you'll see. It seems a very poor exchange, but it's something after all.”
Dacre did not reply a word, but his hold on Louis' hand tightened; and Louis felt that the strange agreement was sealed; but after another moment Dacre dropped Louis' hand, and turned away.
“I must go,” he said; “I cannot stay here any longer. Yes, I know it rains, but that does not matter. Don't follow me, Cunningham; I must go alone.”
With that he went out—into the rain and the darkness and the desolation outside.