Over The Hills, and Far Away: A Story of New Zealand
Chapter XXXI. The Slope of the Hill
Chapter XXXI. The Slope of the Hill.
How bright the stars looked that night, and how gloriously the moon shone! There was no wind—none—not a breath. But what mattered the intense, oppressive heat? What would have signified cold, thirst, hunger, anything at that moment to Dacre? Was not Lucy there before him, beckoning him on?
She was as vivid and distinct to his mind's eye as if she had really been there in bodily presence hovering before his horse's head as he rode on. He could see the lovely silky ripples of her hair—the hair which he had always admired so much—the little head set so gracefully upon her shoulders—the page 315 sweet face smiling as only Lucy could smile—for him.
Dacre had seen during his life many far more beautiful women than Lucy; but not one of them could have been to him what she was. She was simply “Lucy,” and no other did he want—no one else, however lovely or fascinating—Lucy just as she was, and Lucy only.
When a man loves in this unreasoning way, the lady of his choice need have no fears of any rival. She is queen of his heart, let what will come, and no other can ever dispute her sovereignty.
Dacre rode fast. The road lengthened behind him, shortened in front. How short it was growing now! How near he was to the end!
The mountains were on his left hand. He caught glimpses of them now and then between the hills among which he was riding, but he knew that he should not see them in their full glory until he crested the hill which looked down on Maungarewa, for of course he meant to take the shortest track. Who would go round another mile, however easy the page 316 way might be, with such an end in view? Certainly not Dacre.
It was eleven o'clock when he began to ascend that hill. Would he find them up, or would the Maungarewa household have all retired quietly to rest? He was afraid so; and yet he knew that Mr. Cunningham was given to sitting up late on a hot night like this, smoking in the verandah or anywhere he fancied was the coolest.
With Mr. Cunningham, Dacre had no fears of a rejection. He knew that Mr. Cunningham would be well pleased to hear of his attachment to Lucy.
The brow of the hill at last, and the great mountain range burst upon him in its everlasting splendour. But the house was in sight, and he had no eyes for anything else. He held his breath for a moment as he looked downwards, and then with a sigh of relief became aware that there was more than one light still shining from its different windows.
The terror lest he should see them extinguished, as he gazed, sent him down the slope with a fresh page 317 impulse of eagerness—a fresh touch of the spur to his horse. But it was a steep bit of ground and rocky—not exactly suited to a night ride. Dacre's horse stumbled, slipped, picked itself up again; went all right for a few paces further; then, as its master looked away once more to the lights below him, suddenly took the opportunity, stumbled again, and fell, rolling over Dacre and crushing in his side!
* * * * *
A blank of utter darkness, and then a slow creeping back to life—life once more, for a short space of suffering. The cup which seemed so full of sweetest nectar a little while ago was nearly empty now: only the last few drops—how bitter!—remained to drink.
With his own clear surgical knowledge, Dacre became aware that he was dying! He could not move or raise himself in the least; but his fall had left him on his back, with his face turned up to the night sky, and when his senses slowly returned to him, the first thing he was conscious of was the heaven above and the stars. They looked page 318 brighter than ever, and the great arch seemed greater and more solemn than ever before.
So, too, did the mountains on the left—exquisitely, mistily purple in the moonlight—glorious, everlasting hills! They looked down, calmly and solemnly, on this little unit of humanity writhing beneath them, and seemed to hush the awful cry of anguish in his heart, for as Dacre lay he could see Maungarewa beneath him. The house—the windows shining still—lay clear before his eyes. He could see the window of Lucy's room—could see a shadow pass from side to side upon the blind. So near, and yet so utterly separated from him now! It seemed as though all the life within him threw itself into one great cry of agony at the sight, and he fainted once more.
* * * * *
Another weary, painful resurrection after a longer space of time, and the stars were looking at him still. Oh, those bright stars! And oh, those lovely lilac peaks, so far away! What was it they were saying?page 319
Something that grew upon him more and more clearly as the hours of the night slipped by.
Dacre was very near Home; his feet had nearly reached the gates of the Golden City whose cornerstone is Christ. Surely some faint reflex of the radiance, some dim echo of the eternal harmony, was wafted to him that night, through the mountains and the stars, to bind up the broken heart—for, as far as this life went, he was broken-hearted. Every hope that he had cherished seemed to have slipped from him one by one. This last ride of his—what was it but the crowning failure of it all? But what matter? What was it he was losing after all? The desire of life was failing now with Dacre; and as these earthly shadows grew dim to his eyes, the great eternal realities began to unveil themselves more and more clearly before him. It seemed as though the meaning of his life, and all that he had ever gone through, was gradually unrolling before his inward vision, and the love of Christ our Redeemer was being made plain to him as he had never seen it before. Deep peace flowed slowly page 320 into his heart—a peace that nothing could shake. In the paroxysms of agony he passed through as he lay helpless there, and in his moments of relief from pain, it was still with him, making him more than conqueror.
He could look down at last at the little window beneath him, and see the light extinguished there quite calmly.
As he lay alone, during those long, weary night-watches, it was as though the whole of his life came up in review before him. Dacre had been an orphan ever since he could remember; not the faintest image of either father or mother lingered on his memory; but he was a little child again, in his uncle's house, and stood—
“Knee deep in mountain grass,
And heard his native breezes pass,
And runlets babbling down the glen.”
It seemed to him that he really felt the cool breeze upon his hot brow; and the murmur of the stream, where he used to spend whole days trout-fishing, was in his ears as well.page 321
Then he was a boy at Eton, playing in a cricket-match at Lord's, and oh, so proud of the laurels he had won there! Very perishable laurels—long since sere and withered! He was at Oxford—he was studying for the profession he had chosen—not of necessity—for with Dacre money had always been plentiful—but because he loved work, and was miserable idle.
Then the lights grew brighter, as the darker shadows brought them out into stronger relief. He was in the midst of his infatuation for Laura—governess, then, in his uncle's household. He was “drinking the cup of a costly death.” He was passing through the gradual fading of his illusions after his marriage. She had left him for Rollo. He had given up the army; had worked hard among the poor of a large English town; had, lastly, taken passage in the ship “Flora Macdonald”—the ship which had been a fatal one to him, and where he had come under the influence of the attraction which had power to hold him to New Zealand ever since.page 322
All the old faces from the past came up and looked at Dacre as he lay there. Some of them spoke to him in old familiar tones, and hands, many of which were dust now, were put forth for him to shake. In his delirious wandering he exchanged jokes with his old brother officers; Laura flashed defiance on him from her great grey eyes, and Rollo's dark brows scowled on him over her shoulder. Then, strangely enough, Rollo called up Clinton Meredith; and last rose Lucy's soft round face; and beside that the others grew dim and faded out.
The night wore itself away at last—a night that had been years to the dying man—and the dawn, a lovely, pearly, transparent light, spread and brightened in the sky every moment. His head felt clearer now, and he wondered dreamily when and by whom he would be found, and how they would break it to Lucy. Would she hear the story Beatrice had told him, and know that he was on his way to her—dying almost at her feet? yes, he could trust Louis to tell her all that had passed.page 323
He wondered what had become of his horse. It had disappeared long since. The sun was up at last, and now the glorious sunshine “smote him on the face.”
It must have been very early in the morning, but he had lost all count of time, when he saw that the house beneath him was astir once more. A girl's figure—oh, Dacre, you knew it well!—came out of the door at the side facing him, and Lucy stood a few moments looking round her and drinking in the fresh cool morning air.
She wore her riding-habit, and when she gathered it up with one hand, and walked away, Dacre became certain that she was going to catch her horse.
He was not mistaken. She returned in a short time, leading Robin Hood, and Mr. Cunningham came out of the house and saddled him for her. The English mail was in, and Lucy was going to give herself the pleasure of an early ride to fetch the letters.
Her father put her on the saddle. Dacre could see it all quite plainly from where he lay.page 324
At the bottom of the hill she paused a moment, evidently considering which way to take. Her hesitation only lasted a moment however; then she came riding up the slope, straight as a bird flies, to the spot where he was lying. She did not usually choose this way. What subtle instinct urged her to do so now?
Between Dacre and herself, however, there lay a small creek, which must be crossed by any one ascending or descending the hill-side. Here she stopped to let her horse drink. How little she thought that each mouthful of water it swallowed answered to another throb of the ebbing life above her!
The suspense while she loitered there was almost too much for Dacre, but it was over at last, and she came on faster now.
He could hear her singing an air she had taken a great fancy to lately—“The Last Rose of Summer”—as Robin Hood breasted the slope. The sweet sad notes, which seemed to hover up and precede her, were only too mournfully true! The first roses of page 325 Lucy's summer faded with Effie Lennox—the last went with Dacre!
Another moment, and she rose before him—a bright vision, with the sunshine on her face and rippling hair.