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

Chapter XXVIII. The Picture

page 284

Chapter XXVIII. The Picture.

Clinton, when he came in again, was quite of the same opinion as his wife. He, too, had noticed a change in Dacre, and fully believed him to be a rejected suitor of Lucy Cunningham's. The Merediths both fell into the identical delusion which Mrs. Prior had only just recovered from with reference to her brother.

Poor Lucy! What an amount of mischief she seemed destined to be charged with!

“A horrid shame it is!” said Clinton; and Jeanie echoed the words, adding, “After all the encourage- page 285 ment she gave him, too! and which I saw with my own eyes!”

Clinton felt for his part as if he could now think with more ease of certain passages in the past which he had not hitherto been fond of recalling to his memory. Lucy, by treating Dacre as he imagined her to have done, had suddenly lowered herself to his own level, and condoned his past faults by the action.

He had never realized before how much he believed in Lucy, but he caught himself now thinking that if she had acted like this, the fault must be a venial one, after all.

And meanwhile Dacre, blissfully unconscious of the scandal he had given rise to, was quietly proceeding on his way to Louis Cunningham's house among the hills.

It was a fine and very hot afternoon, with scarcely a breath of air, and he rode slowly, his thoughts busy with much that had occurred of late. He came at length to the place where he had last seen Laura. It was the day he met her riding with her sprained page 286 ankle, and she had rejected his help with contempt. He remembered perfectly her effort to anger him by her use of Lucy's name, and his own retaliation, by reminding her of some one she could not easily have forgotten; and, finally, her acceptance, ungraciously enough, of his offer to pay her passage money to England.

From that day to this he had seen and heard nothing more of her. She had sent him an address to which she wished the money to be forwarded, and he had carried out her desire to the letter. Afterwards he had received one line without signature, but in Laura's well-known writing, signifying the safe receipt of the cheque, and that was all.

Riding round the base of the hill where he had encountered her, how clearly every incident of that past time rose up before his mind! He could see Laura now, in her black riding-habit, and hat with its long black feather, her pale face and black hair, and the scorn of her great grey eyes—all stood clear before him, even to the bunch of charms at her watch-chain. The picture was touched in with perfect page 287 detail from the white gauntlets and silver fox-headed whip down to the velvet on her throat.

“It was an ugly scar that!” he thought; “and she was always morbidly sensitive about it. She had a horror of the slightest disfigurement to her beautiful white skin. Once, I remember, she cut her hand a little, and wore a glove for weeks, until the very smallest trace of the scratch had disappeared.”

Musing thus, he rode steadily on until he came i sight at last of Louis Cunningham's home. It was the same to which Mrs. Keith had once been assisted by Lucy. It was altered since then. A fancy to improve his house and garden had lately taken possession of Louis, encouraged by his father, who had begun to form fresh matrimonial prospects on his son's behalf.

Louis did not suspect this, however, and, finding his father propitious, he had greatly improved and added to the rough little iron-roofed dwelling which he had inhabited for the last two years. Two new rooms, one with a bow-window, had been added at the side; and a verandah, up which honeysuckle had page 288 begun to climb, made it in appearance a very different dwelling to the one which had stood on the same spot formerly.

Dacre fastened his horse to the gate, and made for the entrance door, to be met on the threshold by his host, with outstretched hand and hearty, cordial manner. Dacre felt at once that the other's pleasure in seeing him was genuine and sincere. Louis, once won, was won for ever. They had sworn an eternal friendship, and he at all events would not fail in his part of the agreement.

“Come in, old fellow!” he said. “I'm awfully glad to see you—you're just in time. Tea will be ready in a minute, and I'll send some one down to dispose of your horse. Of course you'll stay the night.”

He ushered Dacre first into the room that had been the only sitting-room; but there was another now. This room had still Clytie on the mantelpiece, and the picture without a frame upon the wall above. It was much neater and more comfortable than of old, however. The chaos of news- page 289 papers, section-plans, stock-whips, and spurs, which once covered a whole table in the corner, had disappeared. Everything was in its place, and, by consequence, the room looked twice as large as formerly.

Dacre remarked it.

“I suppose you have changed your housekeeper,” he remarked to his bachelor host. “The one you have now must be a treasure; she has made everything so snug and jolly.”

“Yes,” replied Louis. “That's just about it. Hush! she's coming in!”

She came in with the tea things—a tall, large-featured Scotch woman, with nothing at all prepossessing about her in any way.

As she turned to leave the room Louis said something to her in an under tone. The words “Can't come to-night,” being emphasized, were alone audible to Dacre.

It was a very hot, breathless evening, and after tea they went out into the verandah to smoke. The long windows of the dining-room were open behind page 290 them, and as they lounged against the posts of the verandah talking, the picture on the wall within looked out at them with its beautiful passionate eyes. Clytie died away into the shadow that soon began to darken in the room; but the face above caught the last ray of the sunset, and remained a bright spot upon the wall.

Dacre and Louis had so far, by tacit consent, avoided all mention of what was painful in the past. But Dacre had spoken of his intended departure for England, and Louis understood him and was satisfied.

After a time Mrs. McLeod came to say that Mr. Cunningham was wanted; and he went away, leaving Dacre alone in the verandah.

The sun had gone long since, and a lovely moonlight night without a cloud had settled down upon the land. The sky was radiant with stars, and from where Dacre stood he could catch a glimpse of the mountains far away. They stood out with that strange clearness and crystal sharpness of outline which appears to be produced by certain states of page 291 the atmosphere in the New Zealand climate, and which brings them miles nearer to one in appearance as long as it lasts.

Dacre singled them out with his eye, and in his heart he wished them “Good-bye!” like old friends.

“I shall see no hills in England that will find their way to my heart like those,” he thought; “and tomorrow I shall turn my back on you, old snow-ranges, so farewell to-night!

But he was wishing them “Farewell!” too soon. The mountains had not quite done with him yet.

The soft clearness and beauty of the night soothed him inexpressibly, like a cool hand upon a fevered forehead, and presently his thoughts wandered off in a new direction.

“I will go back to England,” he said to himself, “and take up my old work once more. There are more lives than mine in the world, though mine is but a tangle of broken threads. I cannot see the meaning of it at all, but it will all be made clear to me some day, I am persuaded; and waiting page 292 for that I will try to throw my mite into the Master's treasury.”

After awhile Louis came back, and they talked on as before. It was such a lovely night they could not go in, so they stayed out in the verandah, with the scent of the honey suckle perfuming the air, and the moonlight making picturesque lights and shadows all around them.

“How awfully hot it is!” said Dacre. “There isn't a breath—” He stopped suddenly with a violent start.

Louis looked up, and saw that his eyes were fixed on something within the sitting-room.

“Cunningham!” he asked the next moment, “who is that picture meant for?”

Louis followed the direction of his eyes. The moonlight streamed through the open windows of the sitting-room, and fell in a broad, bright streak across the picture over the fireplace. The face came forth dead-white from the darkness around; and it seemed, in its strange wild beauty, to be looking out and watching the two men in the verandah so page 293 eagerly, that even Louis was startled for a moment.

He answered Dacre's question in a slow, thoughtful manner.

I bought it,” he said, “of a fellow in Auckland, who didn't paint badly. He used to do it for pleasure, at a lonely station in Australia, where he had not much else to amuse himself with. He wanted to call this head Charlotte Corday; but I told him I would not have such an association with it for any consideration, for it reminded me of some one whom I—I knew. And that was why I bought it. He persisted, however, to the last, in saying that it was very like what Charlotte Corday must have been.”

Looking at his companion at last, Louis saw that Dacre had not heard one word he had said. Dacre was staring at the painting with a face nearly as white as its own.

All of a sudden he gasped out, “How like that picture is to my wife!”

What?” asked Louis, growing pale in his turn page 294 at last. “Like who ? Dacre, I never asked you before, but tell me now—where is your wife? Who was she?”

“She was the Mrs. Keith who came out with us in the ‘Flora Macdonald.’”

Louis sprang up as if the other man had struck him.

“Now may God have mercy on us both!” he said, “for I was married 226 to her two months ago in Christ Church!”

226 See reference to bigamy in "An Extraordinary Bigamy Case" North Otago Times, Volume XXI, Issue 1007, 17 December 1874, Page 2. See: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.New Zealand.

[Note added by A. Brown as annotator]