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

Chapter VII. Lacy's Diary

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Chapter VII. Lacy's Diary.

September 1st.—To-day we crossed the Line.

* * * * *

In the afternoon, we were seated in a group at the stern—that is, Louis, myself, and Clinton. Some distance from us Doctor Dacre was sitting on one of the guns, with one of the children on board—a little girl, a mere baby-child—on his knee. He was showing her the works of his watch, and they were evidently upon the best possible terms with each other.

Hard by, her three small brothers were carrying on a most original and extrordinary game at cricket, page 70 the doctor being umpire, and seeing fair play. Two of the passengers—young women—were seated in the shade, knitting, and extremely conscious of their near neighbourhood to Doctor Dacre, at whom they cast coquettish looks from time to time, while their conversation was evidently intended for his ears. All labour lost. I do not believe he knew that they were there.

I was looking down the deck, and watching all this sleepily enough. Clinton imagined himself to be reading aloud to me. It was, in reality, only an excuse for sitting with Louis and myself—for we have agreed that our engagement is not to be made public at present. Louis has graciously accorded us his approval; but my father's consent has yet to be gained, and besides, Clinton, like most young men who emigrate, is going out “to make his fortune,” and till that fortune, or the germ of it, takes some definite shape, anything further than an engagement is quite out of the question.

It was a very hot afternoon. There was scarcely page 71 a breath of air, and Clinton was reading an extremely foolish story in a magazine, and was even more sleepy, I believe, than myself. He went droning on, however, long after my attention had utterly deserted the book, and fixed itself in a dreamy fashion on what was taking place lower down the deck.

Doctor Dacre stopped the little boy's ball with his foot, and then rose suddenly, setting the child he had on his knee gently down, and looking round hurriedly for some one to relieve him of the charge of her. The two young women, delighted at having at last caught his attention, received her from him with much graciousness.

But his manner was hasty, and he had the air of a man who has just recollected a pressing engagement. Two or three hasty strides brought him up the deck towards us, and he seated himself not far from us. An instant afterwards I noticed that Mrs. Keith had come up from the single women's cabin, and was standing not far from where he had been sitting. She was dressed as usual in plain black, page 72 with a little white lace frill at the throat. I wonder if she is in mourning, or if she knows that this style of dress sets off her good looks and suits her best of all. I do not believe that she would look half as well in colours, however carefully chosen and arranged. Perhaps, however, I am doing her injustice: it may be a life-long mourning for some one very dear to her. As she is a widow, of course the most probable idea seems that it is for—

“A nearer one still,
And a dearer one
Yet than all other.”

All I can be certain of, at any rate, is that she does not wear a widow's cap, and she does wear always a broad black velvet band round her neck.

I had scarcely taken in the general details of her appearance when I saw that Mrs. Keith was approaching us. She passed Doctor Dacre and Louis without a glance, and addressed herself to me. She asked me if I would be so good as to lend her a book which she had seen lying on the skylight while page 73 we were at dinner, and which had my name in it. It was a cheap edition of “Jane Eyre.”

“I must apologize for trespassing on your kindness,” she added; “but I find the hours hang very heavily sometimes here at sea, especially when I am obliged to remain below.”

Words, voice, and manner were all those of a lady.

“I shall be very happy to lend it you,” I said. “If you don't mind waiting a moment, I'll fetch ‘Jane Eyre’ for you now.”

“I'll get it,” said Louis, jumping up with what I thought unusual alacrity on his part. But suddenly, before the words were fairly out of his mouth, Doctor Dacre struck into the conversation.

“Don't, Miss Cunningham!” he said with the strangest emphasis, and with a gesture which I am sure was involuntary, but which looked like waiving Mrs. Keith back from her position by my side. “Don't, Miss Cunningham … I mean, don't take the trouble…. I have a copy of ‘Jane Eyre’ in my cabin, and I'll get it for you directly.”

He had turned towards her with the last words, page 74 which were uttered with the same curious repressed vehemence. It was in his face too—flaming out of his bright brown eyes.

She bowed and thanked him without once looking at him. The colour had risen in her cheeks; but if she noticed his manner, and was annoyed by it, she gave no other sign

In an instant, however, some one else had taken up the glove. I have observed for some time past that Louis and Doctor Dacre don't seem to get on. Louis, indeed, appears to have taken a settled dislike to “that fellow Dacre.” I cannot in the least penetrate to the origin of this, but on the occasion I am writing of it became very strongly perceptible. The next moment Louis was glaring at Doctor Dacre as Doctor Dacre was glaring at Mrs. Keith.

“I don't see what business it is of yours, Dacre,” Louis said hotly. “My sister is perfectly willing to lend her book. Wouldn't it be better to keep yours until you're asked?”

Dacre turned slowly towards him with, strange to say, an instantaneous cooling-down of manner.

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“You're quite right, Cunningham,” he said, with the most perfect good humour. “It is no business of mine. If you are going down, of course it's all right. I wanted to save your sister a little trouble — that was all.”

No exception could possibly be taken to this speech, and Louis departed on his errand, smoothed down, but still rather out of humour.

When he had reappeared, and when, after a few more civil words, Mrs. Keith's tall figure had receded down the deck, Clinton for the first time joined in the conversation.

“Dacre,” he asked suddenly, “whoever is that woman?—lady, I should say—I beg her Royal Highness's pardon. She would have withered me with a look if she'd heard me. But, I say, I want to know really, you know. I saw you talking to her one evening on deck, and I'm sure you can tell us if you will. Spin us a yarn about her, that's a good fellow.”

Dacre, with his eyes fixed on the deck at his feet, did not answer for a moment. Then he said, “I'm page 76 sorry to disappoint you, Meredith, but you must go somewhere else for your yarn if you want one. You were unlucky in selecting me.”

“Don't you know anything about her, then?” said Clinton. “Not even who her husband was, and if he beat her? What a grind! She must have a whole novel in three volumes connected with her. I'll be hung if she is not a sort of Lady Macbeth to look at! ‘All the perfumes of Arabia!’ Couldn't you fancy her saying it, Miss Cunningham?”

I certainly could, and I laughed a little as I acknowledged it.

“Lady Macbeth!” said Louis, who was not quite his own natural self again yet. “What nonsense! She is far more like Maggie Tulliver in the ‘Mill on the Floss.’”

“Too old,” said Clinton, who had just been reading the book.

Then followed a grand discussion concerning this mysterious lady's age. Louis maintained it was twenty-five, and Clinton thirty. Doctor Dacre took no part in the conversation, but stood by, perfectly page 77 cool and impassive. Probably he could have settled the dispute with ease, had he chosen. But he did not choose, and whatever he knows he means to keep to himself, that is evident.

* * * * *

September 2nd.—To-day Clinton and I came very near to having our first quarrel. It happened in this manner:—

Something brought up the subject of Madeira into our conversation, and I reminded Clinton of the cousins he had once talked of so much and so enthusiastically, who lived he said at Madeira. He seemed to have grown strangely reserved concerning them, and, after an ineffectual attempt to turn the conversation, said shortly, “You need not be jealous, Lucy, for the one I most admired is married.”

Now I was not jealous, or not consciously so, and the remark, spoken gravely as it was, both hurt and offended me. I tried not to show it, but the life had gone out of our intercourse for the time, and wounded pride would not allow me to talk any more. I took up my book and pretended to read diligently page 78 Clinton, for his part, not having discovered my annoyance, I really believe, sauntered away towards the stern. A few moments afterwards I saw him detach a small coral cross he had always worn on his watch-chain and let it fall into the sea.

That evening, when all was quite made up between us, I asked him he reason for this strange action.

“That cross?” he said. “Oh! it was a present from a girl I knew once; and of course I don't care about her now, so what could I do better than throw it away?”

* * * * *

With this we close the extracts from Lucy's diary. After leaving the tropics it becomes a mere occasional record of the weather, and of the latitude and longitude, copied from the slate in the saloon, so that its interest for our readers is over. But we learn from the conclusion of it that the “Flora Macdonald” anchored safely at Port Chalmers on the 17th of November.