A Strange Friendship: A Story of New Zealand
Chapter V. Alan's Story
Chapter V. Alan's Story.
I went over there to-day. Dolly was busy in the kitchen. I think she is always busy, doing Violet's work as well as her own. Violet was amusing herself in the sitting-room.
She was very gracious to me when I went in. She is always gracious, though she does not look upon me as very eligible. She does not see below the surface, and my coarsely-furnished room and shabby old shooting-coat have deceived her for once as completely as I could wish.page 52
Nothing but what glitters is gold with her; but still she makes herself agreeable to rue, because she is one of those girls who love to try to conquer for conquest's sake alone.
It is of no use, Miss Violet. I have met dozens like you in the old days, with matchmaking mammas to back them up in every manœuvre; and very hard they tried to make an impression upon my unsusceptible self. I was a catch then, and I suppose I am now, after a fashion. But no one ever yet made me feel her power in the least, except one who did not try to do so.
I bore Violet's mild gossip as long as I could, though I soon grew very weary of it, as I always do, and I was obliged to have recourse to many ingenious contrivances to conceal my yawns.
At last, unable to endure it any longer, I rose, page 53 said “good-bye” to her, and walked out; only, instead of opening the front door on the right hand, as I should have done, I turned deliberately to the left and marched straight into the kitchen.
Lizzie, the cook, stood still in the centre of the kitchen, aghast at my unexpected apparition; and Miss Dolly, after one look at me, blushed up to the roots of her hair and began to laugh.
She had on the neatest little holland apron, with a square bib in front, that I ever saw; and her sleeves were rolled up high on her pretty arms, which were well dusted with flour. It was a very uncommon and piquant costume, and I would not have missed the sight of it for the world; consequently, though I apologized, I did not feel at all penitent for my ungentlemanly behaviour.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Dolly,” I said, page 54 shaking hands with her with praiseworthy gravity; “I was going out at the front door, and it seems I mistook my way; but, now that I am here, pray make me of some use.”
“You shall stone some raisins, Mr. Ainsleigh,” said Dolly; “they are for our plum-pudding today. I won't ask you to stay and eat it, out of pity for your teeth.”
Her eyes were dancing with fun all the time.
“That is a very malicious insinuation,” I said; and I intend to stay, without you turn me out.”
“That depends entirely on how you behave,” she returned, and I saw by the wicked look in her brown eyes that she had found out perfectly well by this time my entrance into the kitchen was not an accident, but that I had done it on purpose.page 55
However, I managed to ensconce myself behind a china dish well strewed with raisins, though what I was expected to do to them I had not the remotest idea. Still it was my stronghold, and as long as I could pretend to be occupied with those raisins I had no intention of being turned out.
Lizzie had become reconciled to the situation by this time, and pursued her work as usual, only giving vent to an occasional giggle. Dolly too pretended to be very busy and bustled about, rolling out little jam tarts, and putting them into the oven, and taking them out again, all with great dexterity, and laughing, I am sure, in her sleeve at the folly of the awkward man in the corner whom she had so completely conquered.
Her pale cheeks had a pink flush on them to-day, and her eyes were the softest, and her page 56 arms the whitest and prettiest in the world. I thought I had never yet seen her look so fascinating.
At last she brought me a little strawberry-tart on a china plate, and while I ate it, I said,—
“How shall I face Miss Violet again? I said ‘good-bye’ to her, and she thinks I have gone.”
“There is a way out of the dilemma,” returned Dolly, demurely.
“And what is that?” I asked, off my guard.
“Be really going, as she fancies you have done.”
“Now that is too bad,” said I. “You have taken advantage of an innocent remark of mine to hint that you would like to get rid of me.”
“I have just finished my work,” she returned; “and I am going myself.”page 57
I felt glad that her answer was evasive, and she did not distinctly say that she wished to be relieved of my presence.
She turned down the sleeves over her dimpled elbows as she spoke; and then unpinned the bib of her apron, in which she did really look something like a lovely little Quakeress.
I got up to go too; and it was precisely at this moment that Mrs. Harry Somerset appeared in, the doorway, looking for an instant almost as appalled as her maid Lizzie had done. But quickly she recollected she was in New Zealand, not in England. She accepted my apologies, and laughed as good-humouredly as Dolly herself.
I like Mrs. Somerset immensely. She is a really charming specimen of an English gentlewoman. She is not more than thirty; but, I am sure, is page 58 almost like a mother to her young sisters-in-law.
I stayed to dinner, and I endured Violet; and I talked to Dolly about her books. Inwardly I determined to bring her over a large parcel of them in a day or two, which should have no fly-leaves requiring a skilful manipulation.
* * * * *
A week since I wrote last. To-day I went out riding with Violet and Dolly Somerset. They were starting early for a ride into town when I happened to call, and as Somerset was that day very busy it was settled that I should take his place, and act as their escort.
It was a gloriously lovely day, and I forgot everything for the time, and was in Paradise.
Dolly is beautiful on horseback; such a good rider, and such a faultless figure. If I were her page 59 lover, how proud of her I should have Been. Her lover—well, “my faith is large in Time; and that which shapes it to some perfect end,” I must wait. And I must not think about it now. I stand in too deep a shadow yet to be able to come forth, and ask her honestly in the light.
Violet was much the same as usual—pretty, a little affected, and very full of herself. She rides badly, and looks on all sides of the road, to discover if any masculine eyes are feasting on her perfections. What can Madelaine see in her? and, still more, what can she see in Madelaine? Yet in spite of all I can do, this strange friendship flourishes.
Just as I wrote these words Madelaine herself opened the sitting-room door, and walked in, closing it behind her. She threw herself into the easy chair by the fire and began to whistle. page 60 Whistling is one of Madelaine's accomplishments. She had been thinking, I believe, before she paid me this unusual visit, of retiring for the night. At any rate she had taken down her chignon, her short, curly hair fell loose around her neck, and in one hand she held the heavy false plait which she always wears.
She stopped whistling, and looked hard at me.
“Alan,” she said, “I'm thinking of wearing earrings. I admire Violet Somerset's gold shells immensely. Don't you think a pair like those would become me?”
“No,” I said shortly.
“Don't be in the grumps, Alan. Hand me over a five-pound note to get a pair the next time I go into town, there's a good fellow.”
“I will not,” I returned, as curtly and ungraciously as possible.page 61
For reasons which I cannot explain here, I am obliged to keep Madelaine” down at a very low ebb in the matter of pounds, shillings, and pence.
She looked with a longing eye at my Russia leather covered desk, which was standing open before me on the table, and then suddenly laughed outright.
“I don't see why I shouldn't wear earrings if I choose,” she said.
“Wear them by all means,” I returned, “if your fancy leads you that way. But don't ask me to buy them for you.”
I am well aware, and so is she, that as I own the purse I am the master, and must be obeyed.
“What a cur you are, Alan,” she said, politely. “If Dolly had asked you for a pair I have no page 62 doubt she would have received a different answer. I detest that girl with all my heart.”
“Now you are paying her a very high compliment,” said I, trying hard to keep my temper.
“You were riding with her to-day. You admire her very much, don't you?” she went on, spitefully; and looking up, I caught her eyes fixed on me, with so much malice in their expression that I saw I was in for a fight.
“Whether I do or not is not of the slightest consequence to you, Madelaine,” I returned. “But now that you have brought up the subject, I must tell you that I think you are carrying your intimacy with Violet Somerset a great deal too far. You are no fit associate for her, and you know it.”
“Why not?” she returned coolly.
“Do you wish me to remind you of our page 63 accursed family secret now in this wooden house, with ears on all sides of us? “I asked, hotly enough.
I had spoken straight out, without lowering my voice in the least, determined to remind her that she was in my power, though I might be fettered by the silken thread of a promise.
She looked a little frightened for a moment.
“Hush!” said she, glancing round her uneasily. “The walls have ears, as you say.”
But my blood was up, and I was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to deliver my soul.
“Remember, Madelaine,” I said, “if you lead Violet into any mischief through her friendship for you, I cast you off from that day to fight your own battles as best you can. I give you fair warning. See to what you are about, or make up your mind to lose your last friend.”page 64
She was looking at me with rage and hatred in her face. If a wish could kill, should I be living now? I doubt it.
But she was the mouse under the lion's paw, and must submit. Sulkily enough she said,—
“Keep your temper, Alan. What harm can I do your protegée—perhaps your sister, some day, who knows?” And with this parting shaft, flung back at me across her shoulder, she left the room, and I returned to solitude and peace.