Over The Hills, and Far Away: A Story of New Zealand
Chapter I. On the Lewes Road
Chapter I. On the Lewes Road.
Brighton during the season, and about three o'clock on a glorious summer afternoon; the Grand Parade a stream of carriages and riders so deep and rapid that Lucy Cunningham, after waiting vainly for several minutes for a chance to cross the road, gave it up in despair, and pursued her way along the foot pavement nearest the sea, hoping for better luck anon.
She had some letters in one hand, and was intend- page 2 ing to drop them into the first pillar letter-box she met with. There was one on the farther side of the road just opposite to her she knew, but at present she was cut off from it by the steady ebb and flow of chariots and horsemen. She comforted herself with the reflection that she had plenty of leisure time, and that her walk would be better prolonged, for it was the last walk she was to undertake in England until—who could say when?
This was Monday. On Tuesday she was going with her mother on board the “Flora Macdonald,” bound for Otago.
Lucy Cunningham said to herself, as she sauntered down the Brighton Parade that afternoon, that with the morrow a new chapter in her life would begin. But she was wrong. It was to commence that day.
This history does not concern itself with anything happening to Lucy previous to the time I now write of. Briefly and concisely, in as few words as possible, let me state how she came to take that last walk in Brighton when a fresh episode in her life opened out before her.page 3
She was then twenty-one, and her brother Louis was eight years her senior. The last four he had spent in New Zealand with his father, and then he had taken a trip to England to fetch his sister, who had been educated at home, out to the colony. She had been brought up under the care of her two maiden aunts, who had, besides their house at Brighton, a beautiful little villa upon the banks of the Thames, between which residences they divided their time with extreme regularity.
Lucy had not seen her father for seven years, for that period had elapsed since he had left England, so that he was almost a stranger to his only daughter. When she last saw him she was
“Standing with reluctant feet
Where the brook and river meet—
Womanhood and childhood sweet.”
Now childhood had passed for ever into the “days that are no more;” but Lucy was still in all the bloom of her first youth.
Let me try to sketch her as she stands in this first chapter of my story, leaning over the railings of the page 4 Esplanade, looking out, not only at the blue waves of the Channel, but also at the advancing tide of her life. A pretty girl certainly, yet not uncommonly so. You may see many fairer faces in the carriages passing by. A complexion more pale than rosy—not beautiful, yet not sallow; a mouth and nose of the same mediocre type; eyes not large, but bright and clear; and a broad, intelligent forehead. Her hair was, with the exception of her graceful, rounded figure, her one especial beauty. An artist would have loved its rich brown colour and its regular natural ripple; so, too, he would have approved of the picturesque mass in which—Lucy disdained hair-pads or false plaits—it was gathered high upon her head, and set off with a blue ribbon. Lovely curly rings clustered, full of golden lights, upon the front of that natural crown, but no long falling tress or ringlet concealed the outline of the graceful neck and shoulders. Certainly that hair had been bestowed upon one who knew how to manage it and do it justice. The worst of it was, as Lucy herself used to say, that in these days of wigs and hair-dyes page 5 people would not give her credit for her real, true possession, but persisted in believing it to be false.
My portrait is almost complete. It only remains to be added that Lucy was dressed, on the day we first met, like numbers of other English girls, in a pretty short walking costume of silvery grey lustre, with a little black high-crowned hat, adorned with a snow-white plume.
She walked on for some time without making another attempt to cross the Parade. She had by this time determined that she would find her way home through the town, and post her letters—farewells to one or two friends—on the way. Louis, who had gone to London, would not be back until seven o'clock, and they were not to dine until then.
The tide was coming in, the sky was without a cloud, and the air was only freshened by a faint breeze from the sea. The dark-blue waters heaved languidly in the summer afternoon. Lucy, in her heart, was bidding “good-bye” to it all, but not too sorrowfully. She was very young, and she fully intended to come back and visit it all again some day.page 6
In the town she made a few purchases—last additions to her outfit—and managed, with a forgetfulness for which she felt provoked with herself, to pass the General Post Office without once thinking of her letters. She only remembered them when she was half-way home, and the incident that recalled them to her mind was this:—Turning the corner of a quiet by-street, which she knew would lead her back to the Parade, she saw, lying on the pavement before her, a letter, face downwards.
She took it up. It was sealed and stamped, and directed in a lady's hand, clear and good, to
“R. Dacre, Esq., M.D.,
“301, Citadel Road,
It had been lying on a dusty square of stone, and was slightly soiled from its contact therewith.
There was not a single person visible in the street, and Lucy looked at the envelope in her hand, feeling for a moment rather puzzled. Then she determined to slip it into the nearest letter-box with her own. page 7 It was quite ready for posting, and probabilities were that it had been dropped on the way to the post-office by its bearer.
She walked on with a few vague speculations in her mind as to the probable contents of this letter. Would she be assisting to make or to mar some small romance by posting it? Or did it merely concern some prosaic, important matter of business?
In the next street which Lucy entered there was, as she knew, a chemist's shop, which was also a post-office. As she turned the corner of the street she saw that there was, standing by the letter-box, a tall lady, whose back was towards her. A black grenadine shawl, a black dress, and a black bonnet with violet flowers—that was all she could see. But, as she approached, the tall, sombre figure turned round, and Lucy saw a handsome face with an expression of such blank dismay and perplexity that she actually started. Could this be the owner of the lost missive?
She held it towards the stranger with the words, “I have just found this lying in the road; does it page 8 belong to you? You are the first person I have seen since.”
The large eyes looking down at her—Lucy was rather below the medium height, and this lady was above it—lost their troubled expression. The lady in black smiled, took the letter quickly, and dropped in into the box before her.
“It belonged to me,” she said. “I must have let it fall as I came along. What a lucky chance I met you! I am much obliged to you for returning it to me. It was of importance.”
It was an important letter truly; but it never reached the person to whom it was addressed. Had it done so this story would never have been told. But he had already left Plymouth. The Dead Letter Office took possession of it, opened it, and found in it no clue to the writer, consequently it was doomed to annihilation. But it deserves mention here, because, though it failed to fulfil the errand on which it was despatched, and died dumb to the only one who could have understood its words, yet it was the accidental cause of first bringing together two page 9 women who were destined to exercise a vast influence on each other's lives.
At this, their first meeting, neither made any great impression on the mind of the other. Lucy said to herself, “She is handsome—decidedly so—but she looks as if she had a temper; and, besides, she's rather faded. I wonder what that letter was about?”
The other, after her few hurried words of explanation to Lucy, made her a farewell gesture and turned away. Her thought was, “A pretty baby face, with no character about it; nice hair; I should recognize her again by that more easily than by anything else.”
She was walking away towards the end of the street, and presently she turned the corner. As she did so she looked back, but Lucy was gone. She had gone into the chemist's shop to make some small purchase. They did not see each other again just yet.
Lucy went home and found her brother Louis waiting for her. He was a good-looking man, with page 10 a fair beard and quiet, reserved manners. But for the present we must leave them, and follow the steps of the lady in black.
She walked quickly, and as one who knew her way about Brighton well. Street after street she entered and left behind her, until at last the houses grew fewer in number, and the gay, busy part of the town was passed.
She was on the Lewes Road, and in awhile she stopped at the gates of the cemetery which lies on the right-hand side as you leave Brighton. She passed under the archway and emerged on the gravel drive which leads up to the graves. Here she walked slower and with a more weary step. The tombs, among which is the great marble block with a medallion on two sides, dedicated to the memory of Frederick William Robertson, she passed without a glance. She made her way, still slowly, but without pausing, to the higher and cheaper part of the burying-ground—not the very cheapest, but the intermediate part. Here she sought out a grave. There was no stone on it—only grass—and at the page 11 head was planted a geranium. Other distinguishing sign it had none.
Beside the green mound she sat down. She was high up on the slope of the hill. Brighton lay at her feet. The white tombs below stood out in exquisite contrast with the green tints of the grass and the trees; the sunlight lay brilliantly over all, and the sea rippled in front, blue and calm. The solitary figure seated on the hill-side had her eyes fixed upon the lovely view below, but her inward vision saw it not.
Nothing interrupted her thoughts, whatever they were. There were two or three parties of visitors to the cemetery, but they were satisfied with examining the larger and more striking-looking tombs below. Not one of them came any higher. At some little distance from her a man was busy painting the small iron railing round a baby's grave with dark-green paint, but he was intent upon his work, and did not notice the woman seated by a mound on his right. It was not at all an uncommon sight there, so that no one saw a change pass gradually page 12 over the face of the motionless watcher on the hill.
It was a very handsome face, and would be so most probably for some years to come, although the first bloom and softness of youth were past, and although at first its expression was one of utter weariness and indifference; but as the minutes flew by, slowly, the pale cheeks began to flush with pink, and there rose and darkened in the great grey eyes a look of wrath.
The man who was painting the green railing came at last to tell her that it was the hour when the cemetery was closed for the night. He thought, as he spoke to her, that the expression of her face was not pleasant. She got up, however, and when he had gone back to fetch his paint and brushes, she pulled a few leaves from the geranium at the head of the grass-covered mound.
She had a bunch of charms hanging to her watch-chain. Into one of these—a large, old-fashioned locket—she put the leaves, fastening the glass over them carefully, and then shutting the trinket with a page 13 firm snap. Two of the charms upon the cluster were remarkable—a wedding-ring and its guard, a circle of dead gold set with three turquoises.
After this she walked slowly away. At that moment she felt, as did the girl in Jean Ingelow's beautiful ghostly poem, “Requiescat in Pace,” after her vision, as she sat on the Cromer Downs and looked out to sea,—
“I rose up, I made no moan, I did not cry nor falter,
But slowly in the twilight I came to Cromer town.
What can wringing of the hands do, that which is ordained to alter?
He had climbed, had climbed the mountain he would ne'er come down.”