Over The Hills, and Far Away: A Story of New Zealand
Chapter V. Laura
Chapter V. Laura.
Doctor Dacre, still whistling, came slowly down the deck. The ship was very steady, and he walked with deliberate ease towards the figure seated in the moonlight.
Within a few paces of it he stopped, and, struck seemingly by some sudden misgiving, turned back to the door of the companion and looked keenly into the darkness.
There was no one there. Lucy had gone below. By the light of the lamp of the stairs he saw that they were vacant.
He listened a moment. He heard the captain's page 45 voice in the saloon wish “good night” to Miss Cunningham as she passed up to her cabin. Then he heard only the jingling of some glasses in the steward's pantry. Satisfied at last, he turned away.
The same figure was still seated in the same place in the same attitude. She watched him quietly as he approached. When he at last stood by her side, she rose slowly to her feet and faced him.
On that hot tropical night she had no covering on her head. Her beautiful black hair, glossy as satin, and as smooth and waveless, was fastened in two massive plaits on the top of her head. The thin black shawl upon her shoulders she allowed to drop as she rose, showing that her dress was black also, and that she wore around her throat a broad band of black velvet. Save that she had no crape about her, she might have worn a suit of mourning.
Besides that this woman was in face and figure unusually handsome, she knew how to dress herself to advantage. She had the gift, which some women never possess or can learn, of knowing how to put on what she wore. Even in plain black this was page 46 apparent. Her costume fitted her to perfection, even to the little white ruff at her throat, which might have cost her sixpence, yet which added the only touch wanting to the general effect. Her shawl, poor and shabby as it was, was folded in a manner graceful enough to atone for its faults.
Holding this shawl, caught over one arm, with the moonlight falling on her white face and throat, and the black band round it, she waited for the doctor speak first.
“I am not surprised,” he began. “I guessed long ago it was you.”
“Then you recognized me?” she returned, looking at him steadily out of her large grey eyes. “I am not changed? I have been ill, you know.”
“I know,” he said. “Of course that has changed you a little—not much, though. But never mind. You don't want compliments from me, I should imagine. Where have you been since … since I saw you last?”
“You really wish to know? Is it possible?” she page 47 returned, with the bitterest irony in her tone. “But it would be too long a story, Rylston, to tell you now and here. The time is short. Let us get what must be said spoken as quickly as possible.”
“What do you want me to do, Laura?”
“Not to recognize me. Oh, no! the time for that has gone by. But I am only a poor second-class passenger, and you are living in luxury. Considering that we once knew each other very well … considering this”—she showed him, among the charms hanging to her short gold watch-chain, a wedding-ring and its guard, a circle of dead gold set with three turquoises—“considering this, I think you might share with me some of your comforts at least.”
He did not answer directly, and there was a pause, in which the song from the other side of the deck came in loudly and distinctly,—
“No grog or baccy now I get,
And yet for these here things
My heart I do not fret.”
* * * * * * *page 48
“Go tell my poor old par-i-ents
'Twas stern necessitee
Which made me wed to the merm-i-ed
At the bottom of the sea.”
“Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves.”
* * * * * * *
The undertone of sadness running through the grotesque lines chimed in with Dacre's mood at the moment. The complaint of the poor drowned sailor seemed to him one of the most pathetic songs he had ever heard. In the time to come Dacre could never hear those verses without a spasm of the old pain which he was enduring when they were sung on board ship, making him wince once more.
At last he turned again to his companion and said, “You want money. You shall have it. Meet me here to-morrow night at the same time, and I will bring it you.”
“That will do,” she answered coldly. “I thank you. We will remain as we are. No one will know; and you can continue your flirtation, if you like, with the little wavy-haired girl I have seen you looking at so often, though I don't think she regards you page 49 with eyes of great favour after all. She wouldn't give a halfpenny for you when the handsome man with the light moustache is by. You see I have kept my eyes open, though I have not been on deck very often.”
A lurch of the vessel brought her shoulder in contact with Dacre's rough pilot coat. He recoiled, as if the touch hurt him, with a muttered exclamation of disgust.
If she heard it, she gave no sign, but stood looking away towards the man at the wheel with an air of languid indifference, which seemed to imply that she was weary of the interview, and did not care how soon it terminated.
Dacre had a few more words to add, however.
“They tell me you are going out alone,” he said.
“Have you friends in New Zealand?”
“One—a brother. You know it already.”
“I had forgotten. You are going to him, then? I don't consider myself responsible for you, but I am glad there is some one out there upon whom you have some claim.”page 50
“Thank you. When we leave this ship, and I have got what you promised me, our paths will diverge again. You need not in the least concern yourself about me or my doings.”
“I'll be hanged if I do, after all that has passed.”
She was silent, still looking up the deck towards the man at the wheel.
“You used to have several sisters,” Dacre remarked presently; “what has become of them all?”
“Augusta is with my brother Edgar in New Zealand, Nora has married a clergyman in England … and Beatrice … is dead.”
She uttered the last words slowly, pausing between each. He saw, to his amazement, that her great grey eyes had grown dim and soft with tears.
“Beatrice,” said Dacre, considering for a moment. “She was your favorite sister, wasn't she? You used to talk of her sometimes, I remember, but I don't think I ever saw her.”
“No; you never did.”
“Was she older or younger than you, Laura?”page 51
“Older and far handsomer.”
“Then she would have been thirty now?”
“She would have been … but she is dead.”
This time the words were uttered in quite a different tone. The tears were gone from her handsome eyes. Sorrow was drowned, blotted out, surged over by a great wave of passion.
Dacre, whose manner to her had softened very much during the last few moments, asked presently, “Where did she die?”
“And how long is it ago?”
“More than a year. I owe some one a great grudge on Beatrice's account,” she added presently, still with subdued anger in her voice. “If it ever lies within my power, I shall demand a complete reckoning some day.”
“A grudge? What for?”
“That is her secret—and mine.”
Almost as she spoke, still standing, looking up the deck, she started slightly. The, gathering up her shawl with a hasty gesture, she turned to Dacre with page 52 the words, “To-morrow night—do not forget. And bring it chiefly in gold.”
He assented, and without a word of farewell she walked away.
Dacre stood a moment looking after her, and then turned in the opposite direction.
By the binnacle he encountered Louis Cunningham with a cigar in his mouth. There was no one else at that part of the deck except the officer of the watch.
“Have you been to the opera, Cunningham?” Dacre asked as he passed. “There has been the most astonishing display of vocal talent down there to-night.”
To which Louis made only a curt reply, and seemed for some reason or other to have lost the usually even balance of his temper.
Lucy's brother has never yet been more than slightly sketched in this story; but it is necessary to say these few words about him as he comes more prominently forwards.
He was rather a tall man, taller by half a head than Dacre, with fair hair and dark eyebrows; not page 53 unlike his sister in the face, but far graver and more reserved in manner. Louis was a silent man, and Lucy was full of fun, and lively; very piquant conversation was always ready on her lips. She would have made an agreeable companion from this cause alone.
But people often remarked that it was well she had such a brother, so quiet and steady, and with so much strength of character. They thought his influence might counteract some of her froth and frivolity, and teach her more real earnestness and depth of feeling.
It had been the custom in the Cunningham family to speak of the two in this manner. Lucy's maiden aunts always did so; and Lucy herself, having been told of this theory from her childhood, believed in it accordingly.
One thing was certain concerning Louis Cunningham—that he was a man whose liking was not always easy to win, but once won he was staunch and true. If he ever fell in love, it would probably be once and for a lifetime.page 54
If he ever did. But on this point his sister was in despair.
During his visit to England she had introduced him to several of her prettiest, most agreeable friends, with match-making intentions most carefully concealed from Louis himself. In vain. He remained stoically indifferent to them all.
Black eyes, with gleams of fire lurking in their depths; blue eyes, deep and liquid; brown eyes, clear and merry—all tried their power upon him and failed. He admired them all in a cool, critical fashion, but cared no more for one pair than for another. Lucy gave it up as a hopeless business.
Let us go back to Louis Cunningham on the deck of the “Flora Macdonald,” standing by the binnacle smoking gloomily; and to Dacre, staring over the bulwarks on the weather side at the phosphorus on the waves. Looking round, after he had been there a few minutes, he saw that Louis had disappeared. Dacre turned away again and went on with his meditations.
“Just the same!” he was thinking. “Just the page 55 same as ever! The six years that have gone by since I saw her last have made no change. The same beauty, the same graceful manner which I, poor fool, thought so charming once; the same treacherous, savage temper—all just the same, even to the velvet band that hides the scar upon her throat.
“How well I remember the night the dog bit her! Not half as great a simpleton as his master, Nero knew and hated her from the very first. I can see now the large room, lit only by the firelight; the crimson curtains, the stand of hot-house flowers, and Landseer's ‘Dignity and Impudence’ upon the wall behind her.
“I was thinking how superb she looked—she, the poor governess then—in her blue silk evening dress, with one yellow rose in her black hair, her handsome eyes shining, and her full red lips wearing their sweetest expression to attract me. All the colouring necessary to that face lies in the hair and eyes and mouth. She was always very pale, and it suited her. I have never seen her look so ugly as when she page 56 blushed. It is a long time since she did that, I should fancy.
“I was not thinking anything of all this then however. I was a great deal too far gone to criticise. I was staring at her, and dreaming, and making an utter ass of myself, when she struck at the dog for being in her way, and he sprang at her throat.
“That was the night that decided my fate, when I had to throttle Nero off and dress the wound, and break it to her that she was marked indelibly for life. How mad I was! How awfully in earnest through it all!
“It seems awful to me now, when I know what miserable tinsel I mistook for genuine gold!
“I don't believe she ever loved me. I don't believe she ever loved any one but herself and her sister Beatrice, and perhaps—no, I won't think about that!
“To meet me as she did to-night, with the coolest and most injured air! You would have thought her a long-suffering heroine! As if the fault lay entirely on my side; and this after all that she has done! page 57 Really, the brass of some women passes all conception.
“Ah, well! I was a great fool about Laura once! It's all over. And now I could curse the day when I took her for my wife!
“I must grin and bear it; and one thing is certain, I must keep out of the way of Lucy Cunningham. Fortunately for me, she can't do with my ugly face by the side of Meredith's blue eyes. It is no use thinking of what might have been. I never had a chance to try with her.
“Her brother looked blue to-night. What was wrong, I wonder?”