Over The Hills, and Far Away: A Story of New Zealand
Chapter XVI. Dacre's Advice. — “Liberavi animam meam.”
Chapter XVI. Dacre's Advice.
“Liberavi animam meam.”
During all the weary watches of the night which followed this memorable evening, Lucy little dreamt that, only a few hours before, Clinton too had been weighing something in the balance, but not as she had done—alone. He asked advice and secured the assistance of a firmer hand than his own to hold the scales. The man to whom he applied was Doctor Dacre.
It was partly owing to their being accidentally thrown together at a time when Clinton's mind had page 162 begun to grow uneasy as to the future, partly because Clinton had recognized, in a vague sort of fashion, that this other man was built of stronger, more reliable materials than himself. Not that he would have admitted this even to his own inner consciousness. He had the bump of self-esteem exceedingly well developed under his fair hair, and had by no means at that time made up his mind to regard Dacre as his superior, whatever other people might do.
It happened that both Clinton and Dacre had some distance to ride home after the concert was over, and that for the greater part of the way their roads lay together, so they got their horses and started in company.
For some time both were very silent—Clinton even, now that the excitement of the evening was over, rather gloomy—but at last, riding along under the stars, in the soft hush of the night, his mood relaxed, and he felt an impulse to open his heart to his companion.
“Dacre,” he said suddenly, when they had gone page 163 about two miles or so, “Dacre, did it ever happen to you to come to a place where two roads met, and for the life of you you didn't know which to take? I mean by roads—courses of action, you know.”
Dacre glanced at him for a moment somewhat surprised, and then, seeing that Clinton was really in earnest, he shook his head and said “No.” After a moment he added, “The two roads—yes: the doubt —no. One road was always plainly right and the other wrong.”
“Ah, but I don't mean that, old fellow,” said Clinton. “You're on the wrong track. I don't mean a question of conscience, you know. But did you never see two roads before you, each equally easy to take, and for the life of you you didn't know which you'd rather go?”
Dacre laughed outright.
“No,” he said. “I never felt doubtful as to what I wanted in my life. I always saw that clearly enough. You are talking of an embarras des richesses such as I never experienced.”
Clinton was quite silent for some time after this. page 164 They halted their horses on the side of the hill they were ascending, and looked down on the lights of the town sparkling below them.
At last Meredith said abruptly, “The truth is, Dacre, I'm just now in a deadly dilemma. I must do one thing or the other, and I'll be hanged if I know which it's to be.”
He stared hard at the lights below in an absent manner as he spoke.
Dacre, also with his eyes far away, answered, “Why do you say this to me, Meredith? Do you want advice from me? I tell you plainly I can give you none, being as completely in the dark as I am. You say it's not a question of conscience, and if it's not, and you really don't know your own mind, why, so far as I can see, you might as well toss up for it and abide by heads or tails.”
They had turned their horses' heads and were riding on now.
“Well, no, there's no conscience in it,” returned Clinton, ignoring the last suggestion entirely. He was half inclined to be affronted with Dacre for page 165 making it, and with the view of proving that his troubles arose entirely from his own superior powers of fascination, and were therefore matters for envy rather than otherwise, he rushed into particulars forthwith.
“You know Miss Cunningham?” he went on. “Well, we were engaged—at least, after a fashion, you know—Hallo, Dacre! don't go so fast, will you? It's a nasty bit of road just here—and so, as luck would have it, she insisted on introducing me to her friend Jeanie Lennox. I held back rather, but she would have it so, and—and—she's very pretty, you know—and—I say, what am I to do, you know? Upon my word, old fellow, you'll have a cropper in a moment if you go on like that.”
Dacre's horse had stumbled on the slope of the hill as they descended. He was certainly riding rather recklessly at the time.
“If you want to come to grief I certainly don't,” Clinton went on. “There, that's more the pace for such a hill as this. Breaking my neck isn't exactly the way I should choose out of my difficulties, though page 166 they're no end of a bore all the same. It has just come to this:—One of these girls I suppose I must throw over—which is it to be?”
Dacre muttered something between his teeth. He had not been entirely ignorant of all that Clinton was now imparting to him. The fact of Clinton's engagement to Lucy he had guessed long since on board the “Flora Macdonald,” but all this complication concerning Jeanie Lennox was quite new to him, and perfectly staggered him for the time.
If Clinton had only known it, breaking his neck by following the other's lead was not the only risk he ran just at that moment. The man by his side, of whom he had been making a confidant, would have liked nothing better than to dismount, and fight it out there and then—fair play on both sides, and no favour.
But, after all, would it be fair play? Dacre's eye fell on Clinton's arm and shoulder, as they rode abreast now, and then he glanced down at his own broad chest. The contrast was too great; and, after all, Clinton, in telling him this, had trusted him, page 167 and was speaking in good faith towards him atleast.
Dacre's decision came at last, slow and steady: “You said it wasn't a question of conscience: I think it is—decidedly so. Which of these two girls has the first claim on you?”
“'Pon my honour I scarcely know,” said Clinton, after a moment's hesitation. “I've said more to Jeanie than I'd any business to, I know. But, after all, Lucy has the first claim, I suppose.”
“Then if you think that, and if you love her, and believe that you can make her happy—mind that, Meredith—I say, be loyal to the one who trusted you first. It's a hard matter to decide; but I see no other way out of it.”
Dacre spoke as though the words were forced out of him against his own consent; and he felt, when he had uttered them, somewhat as a man might do who had been compelled to sign his own death-warrant.
Clinton acquiesced on the instant. Dacre's stronger nature had for the time taken a firm grasp page 168 of his own, and he accepted the other man's decision without hesitation.
“There'll be some unpleasantness about it, either way,” he remarked. “But Lucy certainly has the greatest right, and I'll go by what you say, Dacre. Here's the turning to Prior's house. Good-night, old fellow, and thanks for your good counsel.”
Dacre simply answered, “Good-night,” and rode on. The iron hand with which he had been controlling himself relaxed, and he was breathing in quick gasps, with his bright brown eyes on fire.
He had ridden a mile or two before they began to cool, and then he suddenly exclaimed aloud, “It was a hard matter; but, anyhow, I have been enabled to deliver my soul.”
The consequence of the conversation just related was that when Lucy walked into the dining-room at Maungarewa, after her ride home, the first object her eyes encountered was the figure of Clinton Meredith, seated in an easy chair near the window, with the light of the dying sun turning his fair hair and silky moustache to gold.