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

Chapter XXIV. The Second Time

page 242

Chapter XXIV. The Second Time.

That summer was very hot, and Mrs. Prior felt the close oppressive weather severely.

She was lying on a couch in her drawing-room, looking as majestic as ever in a gold-coloured lustre costume, which suited her dark hair and brunette complexion admirably.

“I never felt so utterly exhausted in my life,” she remarked to her husband, who was seated by the table, looking over some accounts, and much too busy with the long columns of figures to pay any attention to what she was saying.

Not meeting with any response or sympathy, Mrs. page 243 Prior was silent for a time; she even, I think, indulged in a slight doze; but some unusual sound aroused her at last, and she exclaimed with less than her usual dignity, “Well, really! there is actually Arthur leading his horse to the door !. Wherever can he be going to on such a blazing afternoon?”

When Arthur himself appeared soon after in the drawing-room, booted and spurred, and requested his sister to put a fresh puggorie on his hat, she made the same inquiry again.

But her curiosity was doomed to remain unsatisfied, and she did not succeed in obtaining any satisfactory reply from him.

“I have a little business to see after at some distance,” he said, “and I shall probably not be back until the day after to-morrow. To sell a horse, did you say? Oh yes, that or anything else you like. Hot? Yes, I know it is, but business won't wait. Now that you've put this white concern on my hat, I shan't take the least harm.” With which words he quietly walked, out of the room, and in ten page 244 minutes was riding” out of the paddock and away westwards.

His business was, as he had told Mrs. Prior, at some distance apparently. That night he slept at an hotel by the banks of a river, which he crossed the next morning.

Gentlemen in the colonies do not usually take much luggage with them on such journeys as this. A macintosh, a tooth-brush, and a pocket-handkerchief comprised the larger half of Arthur Winstanley's impedimenta. Besides these, he had in one pocket a minute portable brush and comb, and in another a clean linen collar, far too great a nuisance to be tolerated when alone in the heat, but carefully reserved to complete his toilet at a fitting moment.

When he set off on the second morning, the character of the scenery in which he found himself had quite changed; he had now got into the region of bush and ferns—both very scarce around Deepdene, Maungarewa.

At last he came in sight of a station on the out- page 245 skirts of the bush, an irregularly built house, with a verandah deserving of no especial description. In front there was a square space of English grass, shut in on all four sides by trees: you entered it by a natural avenue of trees, and a gate in some pretty green rails at one end.

The house, thus enclosed, had a peculiarly quiet, secluded appearance; you might have passed it quite close, and not have known that it was there; it lay basking in the sunshine, with no signs of life about it in front. Had it been of larger, more pretentious appearance, it might have served an artist for a drawing of the Palace of the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood.

The garden as it was, however, was decidedly the most striking characteristic it possessed. It lay at the side of the house, and was entered by a small white gate at the corner. It was remarkable because, having once been well-stocked, and then neglected for some time, it had become a truly magnificent wilderness of roses and honeysuckles.

Approaching the house, and before emerging page 246 from the sheltering shadow of the trees, Arthur Winstanley put on his collar, and made his toilet as complete as was possible under the circumstances. This argued that he expected soon to find himself in the presence of ladies.

In this supposition he proved to be perfectly correct, for he had scarcely entered upon the slope of English grass in front of the house before a woman's figure glided out of the principal door before him, and proceeded towards the white gate at the side of the garden.

We cannot fail to recognize her as soon as we observe that she is dressed in black, and wears a black velvet band round her neck. Arthur, too, knew her immediately; and, raising his hat, got off his horse, fastened it to the fence, and walked up to her.

She was evidently taken by surprise to see him, and was not expecting him just then in the least. She had a great garden hat on her head, and in one hand a small basket and a pair of scissors; her other hand was on the latch of the garden gate, page 247 and she stood swinging the little gate backwards and forwards, with an unconscious gesture, arrested on her way to cut her flowers, and, at first, not too well pleased apparently at the interruption.

All traces of annoyance, however, she had managed to banish from her face by the time he came up to her, and she shook hands with Arthur with well-acted cordiality.

“What a hot day, is it not?” she said, as she greeted him; “I suppose you have ridden some distance? Pray come in; your horse shall be looked after, and I will order some luncheon for you; but I fear you must be contented with only me for your hostess to-day, for Augusta is lying down with a bad headache, and my brother is away from home.”

Considering that his business lay entirely with herself, Arthur thought that things had fallen out rather conveniently than otherwise; but he was a man of few words. He simply replied, “Thank you,” and followed her into the house.

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The room into which she led him was of a good size, and comfortably furnished. There were several water-colour sketches on the walls in plain gilt frames. All of them were views on the South Devon Coast. The Dawlish Bay by moonlight, a view from Plymouth Hoe, and a Study of the Bolt Head, were the three largest of them. The rest were small, and less finished in execution; but all were well painted, and brought back that lovely coast scenery to Arthur in a moment. Perhaps he saw it sparkling with the “light of! other days,” for he quite held his breath as he entered the room.

“I see you are recognizing the old places,” remarked Laura, as she followed the direction of his eyes. “How I do long myself sometimes to see that exquisite colouring again; to stand once more on the dear old Bolt, with my eyes on the glorious blue sea beneath!”

“So do I,” said Arthur, with unmistakable sincerity.

“Would not you like to go home?” she asked page 249 him suddenly, with an abruptness which seemed quite to startle him for a moment.

“Why do you ask?” he answered coldly, and with a curious steady look at her as he spoke.

She coloured a little and gave a faint sigh.

“We won't talk about it now,” she said; “you shall get some luncheon first; and then I have a plan in my head to propose to you; but we will go out and discuss it in the garden. These wooden walls have ears, but my roses have not.”

A servant came in with some cold meat and bread-and-butter on a tray, and Laura herself fetched in a decanter of sherry and a glass.

Arthur was really very hungry, and ate what was placed before him with a good appetite, his hostess sitting quietly meanwhile by the window at the farther end of the room.

No one disturbed them during this time, and when he had finished they went together to the garden, as Laura had proposed.

It was in its way a lovely garden. As they paced down the walks they could not avoid at times page 250 treading upon the lovely perfumed blossoms which stretched themselves far over the borders of their appointed flower-beds on to the grassy vistas between. At their side the roses and honeysuckles had caught the trunks of the trees, and clung to them, flinging delicate sprays high up into the branches, and with the sunshine streaming through the leaves, forming an exquisite tapestry of pink and green and gold.

The two dark figures passed and repassed between the sunlight and the shadow against the brilliant background for at least an hour. Then they once more approached the little white gate together, and leaned over it for a few moments to exchange a parting word or two.

Whatever excitement either of them might have passed through during that hour, and however fierce the argument which had previously raged, all was now over, and both were quite outwardly calm and courteous.

As they reached the gate, Arthur was inquiring after another sister of Laura's.

page 251

“What has become of Nora?” he asked. “She was the plainest of you all, I know; and not the same style of girl at all as you others, who were all so much alike; but I used to admire Nora, and respect her too, in spite of that.”

“She has turned out the best of us,” Laura answered. “She has married a clergyman in England. Nora is a good woman, and I wish I were more like her.” She ended her words with an involuntary sigh.

“What did Nora think of Captain Rollo?” Arthur asked suddenly, watching her keenly while he spoke.

Laura gave a violent start. It was the name which Dacre had taunted her with the day he met her riding on the hills.

“The second time,” she thought, “that this insignificant, forgotten name has risen out of the past! What does this mean?”

“Captain Rollo?” she repeated slowly.

“Yes. You remember Rollo, don't you?” page 252 Arthur went on quietly. “A fellow with curly black hair, who kept hunters, and did not sing badly. You ought to remember him, Laura, for he was a great admirer of yours.”

Something in his words—was it a touch of irony in their tone?—sent the hot colour up to the roots of her hair. Dacre had once said of her, she never looked so ugly as when she blushed; and it was true.

“Ah, yes!” she said; “I remember him now.”

After this, nothing further passed between Arthur Winstanley and his companion. They simply said, “Good-bye,” and separated.

Just as Arthur was mounting his horse, which a man had brought round from the stables, Laura called out, “Remember your promise!”

And he replied, “I shall not forget. But do you, on your part, remember the conditions of the agreement.”

“When he had ridden quite out of sight, Laura still stood where he had left her, leaning over the little white gate. Her tall black figure served as page 253 a foil to bring out more vividly the lavish wealth of colour in the background.

A wattle, growing by the gate, bent its beautiful green feathery sprays over one of her shoulders; and on the other side of her was a bush of gorse, all one blaze of cocoa-nut scented gold. She stood, a sombre shadow, between the two. Her face, to any one who studied it narrowly, was always a very sad one. There was about it no peace, none of the strength born of inward rest. It was a very handsome face, and a very expressive one; but always in its passionate love, anger, or grief, very mournful in its one blank want—the face of one, tossing on the dark ocean of this life, who has not yet sighted land ahead.

The day on which Arthur Winstanley again reached home was much cooler than that on which he had started upon his mysterious expedition; there was, in fact, a fresh strong breeze from the north; consequently Mrs. Prior was enabled to throw much more energy into her inquiries as to page 254 where he had been, and what he had been doing during his absence.

But his replies still left her curiosity unsatisfied. All he condescended to inform her was that he was growing perfectly weary of living in her house, with nothing definite to do; and had fully made up his mind to leave for home by the next San Francisco mail, or, at all events, the next but one.

Mrs. Prior immediately jumped to the conclusion that he had been to propose to Lucy Cunningham, and had been rejected. She sank back mournfully on the sofa, and felt that her hopes were crushed.

“Arthur was too premature,” she said afterwards to her husband. (Mrs. Prior dearly loved long words.) “He should have waited until she gave some sign of responding to his feelings.”

It was not a week or two afterwards, when she found that he actually delayed his departure for the sake of meeting Lucy again at a picnic, that she relinquished this idea. However, acting on this belief, she felt it right to lay no obstacles in the way page 255 of his departure. Indeed, what would have been the use? Arthur Winstanley, having once formed a resolution, was inflexible; and arguments could not find their way through his languid indifference to everything.