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

Chapter IX. A Drawn Game

page 95

Chapter IX. A Drawn Game.

Lucy's father was a man of a passionate disposition; his temper, once roused, was mighty; his capacity for anger was gigantic; yet, in spite of this, he could scarcely be called an irritable man. Sometimes, for months all would go on smoothly with him, and then there would come a day when the times were out of joint. Some member of his family would cross his will while the flames were yet smouldering, and, lo, an explosion, which nearly shook the roof over their heads.

Lucy remembered with horror one or two scenes between her father and Louis in the early days, page 96 before either of them had emigrated to New Zealand, and when she was quite a child. Fortunately, Louis' disposition was not a hasty one; compared with his father, he might be said to hold his temper in his hand, almost completely under his own control; so that of late years, since Louis had grown to man's estate, quarrels between the father and son had become of rarer and rarer occurrence. But there was one of no ordinary character destined to rise up between them at this period.

Two days after their visit to the Lennoxes, Lucy was with her father and brother in the drawing-room at Manugarewa, after their six o'clock dinner. The day had been one of the hottest in the whole month —intense heat, and a nor'-wester to crown it.

“Regular Melbourne weather,” said Mr. Cunningham, with a sigh of relief at the coolness which had followed upon a sudden change of wind, and which was settling down over the land with the approaching night. He was lying on the chintz-covered sofa, near the large bay-window of the drawing-room, looking tired out. Louis and he had been out after page 97 cattle in the heat, and they had had a great deal of trouble with them, and Mr. Cunningham had shattered the handle of his favourite stock whip into a dozen pieces, which was not exactly a soothing termination to their ride.

Lucy had just come in from the garden, and was seated near him, with her lap full of roses, geraniums, and carnations. She was arranging them in a large blue-and-white china bowl which stood always on a little table of light wood by the window, and as she did so she was talking to her father about the garden at Deepdene. From this subject she glided naturally into speaking about Effie Lennox, who had greatly taken her fancy.

Louis was reading the newspaper and did not appear to be attending, but Mr. Cunningham was roused up gradually out of his fatigue. He sat up suddenly on the sofa in the gathering dusk, and commenced to stroke his thick light-brown beard with one hand —a gesture which in Mr. Cunningham always denoted great interest in the subject uppermost in his mind at the time.

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“Both the Miss Lennoxes are uncommonly nice girls,” he remarked to Lucy; “quite above the ordinary run; and Lennox is as well off, I believe, as any man I know.” Then turning to his son, he added, “Louis, put down that paper; I wish to speak to you.”

Louis put it down.

Mr. Cunningham hesitated for a moment, then asked, somewhat abruptly, “How old are you now, my boy?”

Louis' ideas on this subject appeared hazy; at last, prompted by his sister, he replied, “Twenty-eight last August.”

“Then it's high time you were married,” returned his father with startling emphasis and decision; “and the sooner you go in for that, and settle down, the better, and the more pleased I shall be. You could not do better than take one of Tom Lennox's daughters; in fact, I've had my eye upon one of them for some time for you; and I desire you'll set about it without delay.”

The last sentence was uttered in a tone of command truly imperial, and which would of itself have page 99 been enough to rouse the opposition of many sons; but Louis was accustomed to his father's manner. Still, in the pause that followed, Lucy's heart began to beat. She felt, for the first time, that the atmosphere was stormy.

“Which of them did you wish me to have?” inquired Louis at last, with ominous calmness.

Lucy detected amusement in his tone. She trembled lest her father should do so also. Ridicule of any kind was to Mr. Cunningham like the red flag to a bull, and it made him furious in a moment.

“You may take which you like, I don't care,” returned Mr. Cunningham, quite unsuspiciously however. “Please yourself. I'll have the out-station made into a thoroughly comfortable home for you; and you may be sure neither of Tom Lennox's daughters would come to you empty-handed; his heart is set upon them.”

“You are very kind, really,” said Louis, quite grave this time; “but, to tell you the truth, it's my belief neither of the two ladies in question would have me if I asked them.”

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Lucy, who had been aghast at the remarkably free-and-easy manner in which her father was disposing of the Miss Lennoxes' hands and fortunes, was glad Louis at least had the good sense to remember that they might themselves have a vote in the matter; but Mr. Cunningham rejected the idea with disdain.

“Of course they'll have you,” be said, “either of them. There can't be any doubt as to that. I know for a fact that they are not engaged; and what more would you have? A woman who isn't engaged will always snap at the first offer made her, provided the fellow doesn't squint or have red hair—and sometimes even then. It mayn't be so in books, but it is so in real life.”

“Oh, papa!” cried Lucy, utterly scandalized at last. But he took no notice of her; in fact, he had forgotten her presence, and stroked his beard with increasing excitement.

“Well, if you won't accept that excuse as a valid one,” said Louis slowly, “I'm afraid I must put it the other way. I don't think I could myself do page 101 with either of them. Jeanie is not my taste … and her sister …”

He stopped abruptly. Mr. Cunningham had sprung to his feet. This time he saw, or thought he saw, that his son was laughing at him.

“Don't let me have any more such atrocious nonsense!” he said, even more imperiously than he had spoken yet. “I tell you to take your choice of the two nicest girls in the province, and offer to provide handsomely for you: and you tell me they are not to your taste! Now … will you go over to Deepdene to-morrow, and make Jeanie Lennox an offer? … or will you not?”

“I don't admire her indeed,” said Louis, still good-temperedly, and with another effort to deprecate his father's anger. “I never care about those blonde beauties … I can't think of it, really …”

“Did you ever admire any woman in your life, I wonder?” inquired Mr. Cunningham, ironically. “Blonde beauties, indeed! But I tell you what, sir, if you ever dare to marry a woman with dark page 102 hair, neither she nor you shall ever cross my threshold!”

He was making himself ridiculous in his wrath, as hot-tempered people are very apt to be, if they only knew it. Surely, half the disputes in the world would evaporate instantaneously if we could only “see ourselves as others see us.”

Louis had risen, and was leaning against the mantel-piece with his face turned away. When he looked round, it had hardened and stiffened into an expression Lucy had seen there before, and recognized. It meant dogged resistance, and an obstinacy which would not yield one inch of ground.

Lucy rose up to go. She was growing afraid to stay, now that she saw that look upon her brother's face.

Once more Mr. Cunningham said slowly, “Will you go over next week and make Jeanie Lennox an offer, or not?”

And Louis returned a simple negative, coolly and emphatically spoken. At this Lucy fled, hardly closing the door behind her in time to shut herself out from the first burst of the storm that followed. page 103 She darted into her own room, and seated herself upon her little iron bed, listening with a beating heart to the faint mutterings of the thunder which reached her once or twice even there—hasty steps, and now and then an unusually loud tone of voice.

The daylight gradually faded away, and then the moon rose. The corner of the verandah outside Lucy's window was full of soft dusk gloom, just crossed by a narrow strip of moonlight. She sat staring out into the shadow, until at last it seemed to move and flicker gently, and gradually it assumed to her mind the form of Mrs. Keith, in her black trailing garments, as she used to stand again and again, leaning over the bulwarks of the “Flora Macdonald,” looking out to sea.

It seemed strange, Lucy thought, to be reminded of her in this weird unearthly fashion, considering that she had never seen or even thought of Mrs. Keith since the “Flora” anchored at Port Chalmers. What might have become of her Lucy had never once troubled her head to imagine.

It was past nine o'clock when Louis came out of page 104 the drawing-room, closing the door behind him. He went into the verandah, and Lucy ran to him. She was not in the least afraid of her brother.

Louis was, in his way, very fond of her. He stroked her hair and told her not to mind. He was going to catch his horse and ride to the outstation there and then. It was a bright, cloudless night—“And all this will have blown over in a few days,” he added.

“Are you going to ask Jeanie?” she ventured to whisper.

He shook his head.

“But it has been a hard battle,” he went on after a moment, “and I've only just held my ground. I'm to be cut off with a shilling if I ever marry any one with dark hair, or indeed, for that matter, any one except Jeanie or Effie Lennox.”

Neither Louis nor his sister could help laughing, the threat put into words sounded so ludicrous and unreasonable; but yet Lucy knew her father well enough to be aware that, in spite of its absurdity, he was quite as likely as not to adhere to the very letter page 105 of his vow. The obstinacy of Louis' disposition was certainly inherited from Mr. Cunningham.

Louis stood some minutes longer in the verandah, seemingly lost in thought, the smile still lingering round his lips. There was something in it, and in his expression, which struck Lucy as odd, and not altogether agreeable: it was a smile more of contempt than of amusement.

Then suddenly he seemed to wake up with a slight start, wished her “good-night,” and desired her to go back into the house at once. The air was growing chill, and she had on still the light muslin dress she had worn during the heat of the day.

She returned to her room. A few minutes afterwards Louis' heavy step crunched the gravel on the walk in front of her window, as he passed round the corner of the house, on his way to fetch his horse.

She lifted a corner of the curtain, and looked out. The moon had risen higher, and shone brightly in her eyes; and the shadow which had startled her in the early part of the evening had quite disappeared.