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The Heart of the Bush

Chapter III. The Wonderful Wertheim

page 43

Chapter III. The Wonderful Wertheim.

Emmeline insisted on doing the washing herself when Monday came duly round. It came on to blow heavily and to rain, and her flax clothes-line broke, and all the clean clothes were thrown on to the muddy grass. The kitchen chimney smoked atrociously, and the smoke filled the house, and got into Adelaide's eyes, and threathened to injure all her Paris and London gowns. Emmie had cold mutton and dumplings for dinner, and the dumplings did not rise. Adelaide nervously begged to help her sister, but Emmeline was one of those immorally unselfish people who never allow anyone else a chance. Adelaide was dismissed as incompetent, and painted in disconsolate humiliation. Mr. Borlase, who had not been well for some time, read and smoked and fell asleep in his armchair.

In the evening Emmeline, not in the best of tempers, began to attack Adelaide in the intervals of machining small-clothes for Alec M'Ilvride, on the occasion of his emerging from frocks.

"Why do you treat Dennis so badly, Aidie?"

page 44

"My dear Emmie, do explain what you mean."

The Wonderful Wertheim, very much overworked, rattled on discordantly for a time.

"Dennis is a fine fellow, Adelaide, good enough for you or anyone. Evelyn Brandon asked me if he were our groom or our ploughman. He is father's manager now. If it weren't for Dennis, we should not have a roof over our heads, father and I. He could have sold us up long ago. Any other man would have said he was sorry, and would have done it all the same. And he has had better offers than managing Hæremai. Major Brandon himself tried to get him a year ago. What have you against him?"

"Nothing in the least. I have no doubt he is an excellent young man, but that is no reason for my being intimate with him."

"I've no patience with you, Aidie. You used to be so fond of him, too! I wish you had never gone to England. Ever since you came back you've done nothing but slight him, or take favours and pretend to be far above thanking him. You need to be told the truth sometimes. I suppose it is because Dennis has made his own way up that you despise him. Well, if his father was a ploughman, my mother was father's housekeeper before they were married, and Dennis is my equal. I'm not Lady Bohun's granddaughter, I'm thankful to say."

"I think, Emmie, you are forgetting yourself. page 45I don't despise any one except for the way they behave."

Even this sublime sentiment failed to overawe Emmeline. The ancient Wonderful Wertheim jerked and rattled on while Adelaide sat a thousand miles (spiritually) distant from her sister as well as from Dennis MacDiarmid. It was all vulgar, jarring, lowest middle-class. If only she had been a child she could have cried. Rain, washing tragedies, smoke, cold mutton and heavy dumplings were nothing compared to a scolding sister, persecuting her to accept the dull wooing of a ploughman's son. These were the prose of bush life. Mountain lilies and the scent of rama-rama, the tree-ferns and the fantail were all loveliest poetry, but they too could sting and wound. They were somehow inseparably connected with Dennis MacDiarmid.

Adelaide went to her bedroom and did cry. She thought of her grandmother, who was always gentle and quiet even in her most awe-inspiring hours; she wished herself back in the little castle on the Cornish coast, where everything always went smoothly. She recalled her brilliant and triumphant summer in London, when the only problem was not to be worn out with pleasures, where the world was all drawing-rooms and parks, and lovely flowers and lovelier flunkeys, where everyone had pretty dresses and pretty manners to match. Then she imagined living on the farm for the rest of page 46her life, and suddenly the house in which she sat seemed to have grown so small, so lonely, so remote, in the dismal rain and darkness. There was no more magnificent music of the Wagner Cycle, no more gorgeous banqueting Neros and Roman chariots and the entrancing humour of stage tragedy, no more bowing and smiling and flattering eyes bent on herself. Here she must stay to be handed over to this boor, who would not even take the trouble to make himself agreeable. Was there no escape for her?

There was a way which Adelaide knew quite well, but she was much too nice a girl to put it definitely before herself. The whole of the next day she spent at Miramar, the homestead of Major Brandon, who was famous throughout the province for the style he kept up. The family lived almost as much in England as in New Zealand, and did everything in the English manner. Oh, the joy and relief of escaping from the farm! Horace laid himself out to be as agreeable as possible, and gave amusing accounts of his colonial experiences, and of what he believed to be the habits of the natives. Emmeline Borlase, on her side, had several superstitions about Londoners, and her description of Horace Brandon must not be taken too literally. He did not, for example, wear stays, and if he had a graceful figure that was not an offence to everyone. Adelaide lightly touched upon her troubles. "I feel that I am transmi-page 47grating," she said, "and am a compound of two beings. You can't imagine what a painful process it is until it gets completed. I suppose I shall take to washing clothes and cooking dumplings and working the Wonderful Wertheim some day."

"Heaven forbid!" Horace Brandon exclaimed with mock-dramatic fervour, but with sincere commiseration.

The butler waited at dinner and there were eight courses. Adelaide was ashamed of enjoying these circumstances, but she did, and she enjoyed still more the sensation of wearing evening dress again and knowing herself to be absolutely charming. Mr. Brandon's implied admiration soothed her bruised and wounded pride and pleasure in herself. He cut the choicest stephanotis in the conservatory and presented it to her with an air and tone that said more than the gift. He handed her coffee and sweets, he begged to be made use of, he brought a fan and fanned her when the drawing-room got too hot, admired her gown and humourously assured her that he was quite an authority on ladies' dresses. He really found her very sweet that night. She deferred to him constantly, asked him what song he would like her to sing, and whether she should wear his flowers in her hair or in her belt, and she promised not to read any more Nietzsche if he disapproved. Horace thought she really would make a dear little wife. He was a man of the page 48world and did not expect impossible bliss, but Adelaide was certainly the nicest girl he had met. Until now marriage had never presented itself under the aspect of anything but a duty that Lord Brandon's second son owed to himself and his family and to society.

He drove home to "Hæremai" with her in a closed carriage, through heavy rain, and on the way he made her a definite offer, in a nice gentlemanly manner, without importunity or stale hackneyed sentiment. It was only, "For we do understand each other, Adelaide, don't we?" and from her with her eyes fixed on the stephanotis, "Yes." Then Horace, "You can make me very happy, Adelaide," and she, "I hope to do so." "Give me my name, dear," and then "Horace," very softly, without the least vulgarity of emotion. But she would not give him more that night, and withdrew even her hand, which he had some thought of putting to his lips.

On his return he sat in his own room for some time, smoking a choice cigar, and enjoying most agreeable reflections. Adelaide's reserve was a trifle disappointing, but still more stimulating. It roused in him something not exclusively civilised. He really did want her now, he even wanted matrimony. Adelaide would be an ideal wife for him. With all her little flights, she was not really rebellious; she only required a light, firm hand like his to tame her. There was a dash of colonial wild-page 49ness about her that would have to be subdued before she took her place in English Society, but in a young fiancée it was deliciously amusing. The sportive taming of Adelaide promised to be a most agreeable pastime and was quite in the very latest style of courtship. Moreover, and this was a weightier consideration, his engagement would stop once for all the impertinent and disgusting gossip over his private affairs, that is, his much misunderstood connection with Mrs. Poynter. Not that he had been much to blame, the woman was older than he, and he had been most decorous over it all, nothing would have come out but for her own brainless vanity. The very remembrance of her and of the half-suppressed scandal sickened his æsthetic instincts, and he turned back for relief to the thought of his fiancée. Dear little Adelaide, what a good thing there were a few nice girls still left in the world. Horace finished his cigar and wrote to his mother announcing his approaching marriage. He knew she would be greatly pleased. It was she who had directed his attention to his sister's schoolgirl friend after the Poynter episode, and she who had sent him travelling in her company over Europe. His letter was a nice filial production, and altogether all was well with the world.

Adelaide sat in her own bedroom, forgetting to stop brushing her fair hair, not quite so satisfied as her lover was. She wanted to go page 50back to England, to sail in a yacht and rush in a motor, to dream away mornings in transferring her pretty fairylike fancies into shape and colour of pictures; she very much wanted another London season; she had not had nearly enough of the musical and operatic comedy of life, the romance and prestige and antique associations of wealth and rank. But she honestly confessed to herself that she would have preferred all these luxuries without a husband attached. She hoped Horace would never want to kiss her; he had looked uncomfortably near it to-night. But oh, no; Horace would never do anything so antiquated. Kissing had quite gone out three seasons ago. It had been proved to be a bacterial and a barbarous practice. How bacterial and how barbarous it was Adelaide had never realised before. As she put his flowers in water she tried to say "Dear Horace," and then she gave a little laugh. It sounded so sentimental and Early Victorian. "How absurd I am!" she thought. "We are Twentieth Century lovers. He won't want me to gush, and I never shall." Her spirits rose and she went to bed cheerfully. After all, Horace and the Brandons' drawing-room were an unspeakable relief from a smoky house and a rattling machine and Emmeline red in the face, losing her temper and scolding.

Adelaide had not been many hours asleep when there was a sudden sound of something page 51heavy falling, and soon afterwards Emmie's voice in terror crying, "Father! Father!" Adelaide started up in bed and listened through a strained silence, that changed into a confusion of sounds, plainly heard through the thin wooden walls. Hurriedly she threw on her dressing-gown and came to the dining-room. Her father was lying helpless on the floor, Emmeline supporting his head and MacDiarmid bending over him.

"Oh Dad—Emmie—Oh Dennis, what is it?"

They had not heard her light footstep and Emmie, absorbed in her father, neither spoke nor stirred, but Dennis gave her a long look. The wind wafted the thin silk gown around her. She held a candle in her hand, and its wavering flame showed her so slight, so frail a being for trouble. So it seemed to him. She almost appeared to be walking in sleep, her face so white and her eyes wide and startled. Dennis rose to meet her, and she laid a light appealing hand upon his sleeve. He drew a sharp breath as if her touch cut him, and almost shook off her hand, but said with the kindest grave eyes, "He's not dead—it is only a stroke. Get me some brandy and don't you give way."

They raised Mr. Borlase and laid him on his bed. Soon afterwards Dennis came back into the bedroom equipped in oilskins and leggings for the long ride to Roslyn, the township on the other side of the mountains twenty-page 52five miles away. He gave Mr. Borlase a parting look before leaving, and then turning to Adelaide said, "I'll bring the doctor back by the morning. People don't die from one stroke. He may have a long life yet. Cheer up, little girl."

She answered only by a piteously quiet look of thanks, re-lit her candle and lighted him to the back door, still unconscious even of what she was wearing.

"Suppose Dr. Meares is out, Dennis?"

"Well, I suppose I can go after him. I'll get him back, never fear."

"O Dennis, it is such a wild night for you to go over that terrible pass, and the rivers will be in flood."

"You're never worrying about me, are you? Go in, little lady, and put something warm on. That silk you're wearing is as thin as a convolvulus flower. You'll catch your death of cold, standing about in this draught."

Adelaide dressed and went back to sit beside her father. He was breathing in heavy gasps, his blue eyes fixed with a confused look on the ceiling until he fell asleep. Adelaide heard the sound of horses' hoofs on the gravel, then a deluge of rain, the rushing of wind and flood and the creaking and snapping of boughs. Twenty-five miles over swollen creeks and rivers and up a great mountain pass. Dennis might make nothing of it, but it seemed a tremendous undertaking to her, and she shrank page 53at every outburst of the storm. The rivers would be flooded and not one was bridged. An increasing fear possessed her that the doctor would not be found, would come too late, and she fastened all her hopes on his appearance as if that meant her father's life. Suppose Dennis were swept away in the river, or hurled down some precipice before ever he reached the township. A great blast shrieked round the house. A great tree fell crashing to the ground, and she heard the Wainoni roaring. If Dennis never came back—

Then Adelaide made a discovery, and with honesty and sincerity owned it to herself. "O Dennis, I love you. Can't you hear me out in the storm? I love you, just the same as when we were children together. O God, send him back home to me out of the dreadful mountains and the roaring floods! Dennis, Dennis, I never will be Horace Brandon's wife."