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The Heart of the Bush

Chapter IV. Petruchio at Play

page 54

Chapter IV. Petruchio at Play.

Adelaide's mind had not quite reached a position of stable equilibrium, and next morning it even vibrated slightly towards civilisation. There is always something flat and calculating about the daylight that follows a night of excitement. When Dr. Meares arrived, he made light of Mr. Borlase's illness—it was such a long distance to come and attend a patient who was not wealthy. He promised him comparative recovery and many years of life. Emmie, who had been superhumanly heroic all through the crisis, thereupon weakened and succumbed to what she called neuralgia, but which was really nervous reaction. Dennis came into the kitchen prosaically undrowned and uninjured, but dripping and sodden with muddy water. His hair and beard were clotted with rain, his cheeks were stained with it, his boots left streams upon the floor and his eyes were dull and tired. He threw off his oil-skins, asked in a toneless voice for the doctor's report of her father, and then sat heavily down. Adelaide got him some breakfast, but he only looked in a dull way at her performing this unusual task, and did not thank her nor appear to take any page 55notice of her. He asked for some whisky, which he gulped down not very artistically, and then, leaning his elbows on the table, laid his head down on one arm and went fast asleep. He was dead beat, and slept like a great tired child, breathing so heavily she was in momentary terror lest he should snore. A distraught sense of comedy began to affect her head in the midst of tragedy as she sat watching in her father's room. Her eyes occasionally wandered to Dennis, who was visible through the open door. She was utterly weary herself with the long night's vigil, and now that the strain was over, she craved for mental refreshment and found none. Her prospects made her shrink. All the exquisite habitations of art were crumbling away from her, and just then the only substitute seemed a wooden house where people washed and machined and cooked. She could face the change with courage, if only Dennis—Adelaide looked at the sleeping man and a warm glow came over her. If only he would not be phlegmatic, if only he were—she meant, "just what I want him to be."

She came to the dining-room door and stood looking at him, doubtfully, timidly. They were tired chest-breaths he was drawing. He did not snore, which, considering the comfortless way in which he was sleeping, was rather creditable. Adelaide wondered if it were possible to make him more comfortable. She noticed that his clothes were still wet and feared he might take page 56cold, so she noiselessly fanned up the blackening log on the hearth, afraid to waken him, though as a matter of fact, nothing less than a gun fired at his head would have disturbed him just then.

The sou'-wester howled and howled. Emmeline came in and promptly put her sister to bed, where she slept till tea-time. Then she reappeared in the fire-lit dining-room, greatly refreshed, and was told that father was much better and had talked a little. Dennis, with his back to the fire, was arguing hotly with Emmie. He insisted she should have a proper servant in. Emmeline reiterated her conviction that servants did nothing but make work in a house. Dennis growled out wrathfully that she was talking nonsense and deserved to be ill, and he declared that he would get that girl from Roslyn and see whether Emmie would send her back. Adelaide wondered nervously if he would ever scold her like that.

Her own footing with him was uncertain. She was waiting to be wooed, but he did not take advantage of the many chances she gave him. Last night both had been lifted up into the great and wide simplicities of grief and sympathy; but now trifles began to assert their importance in the everyday scheme of things. Adelaide jealously guarded her inward avowal of love, and meant to be sweet but not to rush into his arms. Dennis did not know what to make of her. He answered her pretty words in an em-page 57barrassed manner, and seemed too shy to look at her. Emmeline went to her father and left them alone. Adelaide sat working the lace border of a handkerchief exquisitely, and meanwhile discoursed with the self-possession and amiability of most English girls. It did not please this difficult young man in the least, and he openly fidgetted under her conversation and finally became rude. Adelaide said good-night sweetly, was sure he must need rest, and hoped he had not got any chill, then added, "I can never thank you enough for what you did for us, Mr. —." She hesitated with pretty embarrassment, looking at him from under half-raised lids. "Dennis" was too suddenly familiar, and "Mr. MacDiarmid" ignored any change in their relations.

"Try MacDiarmid without the Mister," he suggested rudely. "You call the other hands by their surnames, don't you?"

Adelaide looked at him with a look of distant tears.

"There is nothing to make a fuss over," he continued, but was visibly a little ashamed of his rudeness. "I don't like being thanked by you—Miss Borlase,—if that is what I am to call you."

"I would rather you called me 'Aidie,' as you used to do," she said, and bowing a silent good-night went swiftly away.

Adelaide had left the room with all the honours of forgiving martyrdom. MacDiarmid, smarting and impatient, went to his own narrow page 58bedroom. There was a lovely portrait of Adelaide, an exquisite photogravure, on the wall opposite his bed, hung between a photograph of his mother and one of Mr. Borlase. He took Adelaide's down, and looking at it long and steadily said to himself, "Little girl, if you don't make short work of this one way or another, I shall do something desperate."

Adelaide was overwhelmed at his stupidity, and vowed she would not move one step farther. She winced at the remembrance of having done most of the innocent love-making of their childhood. He should be the wooer now, or break her heart, and his own with it.

On Sunday the grey rain shifted up to the hill tops, the dull clouds broke and the sun drew steam from the sodden earth. A tui sang in her myrtle tree and a lark in the field of clover. Horace Brandon and Evelyn rode over to inquire after Mr. Borlase and to sympathise with "poor, dear Adelaide." Adelaide reflected that they had waited until the storm was over, and speculated on the manner in which Horace Brandon would have behaved if he, and not Dennis MacDiarmid, had been in the house. Horace had plenty of pluck, as every normal Englishman has, but he was not willing to discompose himself. He would have faced death by drowning, but he could not endure to be splashed with mud.

Evelyn stayed indoors to talk over the engagement with the much-disgusted Emmeline, page 59who had not heard a word about it from her sister. Emmie had been inclined to think her a nonentity before, but Evelyn was suppressing herself for the sake of the brother she affected to run down and plainly adored. Also, she did not shine so much while he was by. With most people except Horace she had a reputation for wit, which was sometimes a strain on her intellect, and which she kept up by letting herself go recklessly when the mood came on, and by looking suggestively satiric when she had no ideas at all in her head.

Horace and Adelaide drove over the Wainoni flat together. Adelaide had not been thinking so much of her betrothed as she ought to have done. The engagement had been for more than a year a distant indefinite affair, and she knew very well that they had had fancies before. The charming young colonial had received several far-away offers, implied rather than said, and had refused them in the manner that they were made, by a gracefully-veiled double entendre. A hint, a light regret, perhaps a touch of suggested resentment, an implied apology, a graceful acceptance of her change of mind, and then they would ride back and talk politely and no one would be any the wiser.

These affairs, however, are much easier to arrange smoothly in society than in a wilderness, and the New Zealand air seemed to have demoralised Horace Brandon in earnest. page 60Adelaide quickly saw that explanation was going to be very difficult. He was so gay and confident, so deferentially devoted that she became more and more nervous. She began "Mr. Brandon—," and he expostulated, "My dear Adelaide!"

She ignored the suggestion, and a shade paler than before, said lightly, "Do you remember when I told you my heart was in New Zealand? It is still."

"You can't imagine I would wish it to be anywhere else just now?" he asked with tender significance. "In four months' time perhaps—"

"Four months will not make any difference, Mr. Brandon. Nor six, nor twelve."

He began to be nettled. Adelaide was not being nearly so charming as usual. If she resented his not coming to see her while she was flooded in, it was vulgarity on her part. Exacting women were detestable, and Adelaide would have to be gently but firmly taught that there were limits to a lover's indulgence.

"You might tell me, Adelaide, in what way I have offended you since we last parted," he said.

"I offended! Oh no, you quite mistake me." Adelaide began to be deeply distressed. Horace waited, but for some minutes Adelaide could not think of any words to clothe the facts in. Every softening phrase had been long ago used up by out-of-date three volume novels, as, for example, that she wished to be a sister to page 61him, but that she had mistaken the nature of her sentiments; that she was honoured by his attentions but begged to be excused; and that she hoped he would find some one worthier than she to be his wife. Adelaide tried all these forms of apology in her mind, and swiftly rejected them. For herself she would at that moment have thankfully degenerated into copybook maxims, if they could have helped her out of her difficulty, but she knew that Horace was more highly cultured. He could not tolerate anything staler than last season's slang.

"Mr. Brandon, will you forget all that was said on Tuesday evening?"

He was quick to seize on all that was intelligible. "You have changed your mind, Adelaide?"

"It is best for both of us."

"Allow me to have my own opinion about that. Will you favour me with any reason?"

"I love my own country and its ways."

"The Wonderful Wertheim and the smoking chimney and the dumplings for dinner?" he inquired with light irony. "Adelaide, this is absurd. You speak of our last evening together, but let me remind you that we have been virtually engaged for some months now. In all that time you have never once until to-day shown any change towards me. You have always been sweet and reasonable."

"I love—my own people best." She was visibly trembling. Then unexpectedly Mr. page 62Brandon turned primitive. "Do you mean you care for some other man better than for me, Miss Borlase?"

"Anything to get out of this," thought Adelaide, and answered, "I do," like a bride dragged to the altar.

Brandon rode on in haughty silence. But though he was keen of wit, it was too bewildering. There was absolutely no man who could have visited her within the last few days, while the farm was flooded in. "I have no right to ask who it is," he said, and did ask in effect. Then suddenly a light flashed on him, "Good heavens, Miss Borlase, it is not that half-caste fellow?"

Adelaide's face burnt, but she answered with distinct clear enunciation, "Mr. MacDiarmid's father was a Highlander and his mother was Irish. He has no more native blood than you or I, Mr. Brandon."

Brandon was too much stupefied for the moment either to laugh or to be angry.

"Then it really is this—how do you call him? MacDiarmid? Excuse me, Miss Borlase, but I am rather hard hit this time. I wish you could have given me another sort of rival."

They rode on through tussock and stone and manuka and coarse grasses. Adelaide had not sufficient moral courage to suggest a return. Brandon was considering this amazing blow, and the more he considered it the less he liked it. He had received and returned with un-page 63usually kind condescension Evelyn's kiss of congratulation. But much the worst part of the whole affair was that the announcement to his mother was already on its way home and could by no means be recalled, and that he was in the very deuce of a situation.

"Adelaide," he said, after some meditation, "I refuse to accept your decision. It is too preposterous. I am to some extent responsible for you to Lady Bohun. And I cannot stand by while you sacrifice yourself in this outrageous manner. This MacDiarmid does not belong to our class, to our world at all. You are an English lady, not a raw Colonial girl. I have not been in this country long, but I can guess the sort of life an English lady would lead tied to such a fellow on the backblocks. He is an uncouth, uncultured boor, too great a boor to behave properly to you now. What will he do after marriage?"

It was rather like grasping a dewdrop to treat Adelaide in this way. Always a poor fighter, she had an artistic susceptibility to other people's points of view, and indeed got so fascinated by them, when they were strong, that she was apt to lose sight of her own. She could not have imagined this suave, graceful Englishman taking repulse as he was doing. All the smooth lines of his face had disappeared and left something hard as iron, the noble sternness of the dominant sex and the dominant race combined. A sense of her own misbehaviour page 64crushed the life out of her, and she welcomed chastisement. All she could think of saying was, "I wish to ride back, Mr. Brandon; I am very sorry."

"For me, Adelaide?" he asked haughtily. "Spare me that, please," then he continued, "I suppose this fellow forced his attentions on you while you were alone and in trouble?"

Adelaide thought of the Fijian captives who were made to prepare an oven for themselves and lie down in it to be roasted alive. Dennis had not spoken one single word of love to her. But she came heroically to the rescue of his name.

"Mr. Brandon, he has never even hinted that he cares for me."

"Is this another understood thing, Miss Borlase?"

"Oh, I would not endure this if I had not treated him so badly," Adelaide thought and said tremulously, "There is no understanding between us."

"Really? This begins to be mysterious." Brandon looked at her ironically, but not quite so sternly. Then an idea occurred to him. It has been observed that the stage has taken the place of the pulpit in the instructîon of twentieth century London. Brandon was not above taking a hint from it, and he thought of Petruchio. Why should he give way to his little fiancée's whims and fancies? It was not for her good nor for his. He resolved on a free page 65adaptation of Petruchio into polite modern English. His face relaxed and he smiled down at her. She was such a slight little thing to oppose him. "Adelaide, my dear, can't you see how absurd all this is? I do not want to hear any more about it just now. You may tell me the rest after we are married. I have not tried to bind you in any way before, but the fact of my trusting you does not make your engagement to me any the less a compact of honour, does it?"

"Oh no, only the more." Then with sudden entreaty, "I beg you to release me, Horace."

"And if I don't,"—still smiling.

Adelaide had feudal ideas of honour which was perhaps a consequence of her being brought up by Lady Bohun, in a Cornish castle. She turned quite white and terror-stricken. They were at the drive before the gate. Horace gallantly helped her to dismount, and went with her into the dim parlour, "I must deliver my Titania from her clown," he said gaily, and took both her hands in his and kissed her lips, not in the least roughly, but masterfully. "If you are not able to make up your mind, I must make it up for you." Emmeline and Evelyn appeared, talking together at Mr. Borlase's door. "Good-bye for the present. I will send you your ring to-morrow, and you will wear it, my dear."

"I won't, I won't," Adelaide said, but only in the depths of her heart. As soon as he had page 66gone she sank down in the nearest chair, trembling. She wished that she were Early Victorian and could let herself faint, it would have been such a rest. She wished she were Evelina, and it struck her that in that case she would now be defunct, which would be a great blessing. She found that she was crying without being conscious of it, and that the room was dark, and then that Emmie had come beside her chair. Emmeline had always been more nurse or mother than sister, and now she simply took Adelaide on to her ample bosom and held her there. She had maternal instincts about her pet. "It's that man, I know," she said. "You have broken off the engagement, Aidie?"

"I wanted to. He will not allow me."

"Well! I never!" exclaimed Emmeline ungrammatically. "What's he going to do, I wonder?" Emmeline never allowed her own morals to interfere with anything more important.

"He has every right to keep me to my word. I have been misleading him so long."

Emmeline revolved many things, but made no comment. "Go and lie down on the sofa, Aidie," she said, "and I'll bring you your tea in."

She did not bring it in. She sent Dennis in with it. Emmie was not strictly speaking artless. She said, "Aidie has got a dreadful headache, Dennis. I found her nearly fainting page 67a few minutes ago. Do you mind taking in this tray for me?"

He did not mind in the least. Considering that he was a clown and a boor he managed with a good deal of consideration. When he had "fixed" the table and lamp for her, he thought the room a little chilly, and brought a warm Kaiapoi rug and wrapped it round her. Adelaide thrilled at his touch. She could have borne anything if only she had had him to stand by her. If only Dennis—oh, why didn't he speak to her? Was it possible he didn't care for her? Yes, he did; she knew it, she felt it in everything he did, in the way he touched her, looked at her, spoke to her. While he was in the room Adelaide revived, thanked him over and over again, assured him her headache was nothing and talked lightly.

Lying alone in the dimly-lighted parlour, she heard fitfully her sister's voice and his from the dining-room, though no words reached her. Kind voices, dear voices, she called them, and clung for comfort to the sound of them.

Emmie sat by the fireside and hushed the M'Ilvrides' baby to sleep in her arms, now with nursery words and now with a snatch of song, and then again she laid him in a cradle at her feet, and sewed buttons on his clothes and talked to Dennis. The yearling Alec was teething, and, though sleep was overtaking him, he woke whenever he could, and gave a little page 68wail, with a sleepy but resentful sense that "Aunt Emmie" was not doing her full duty by him.

"By-bye, mannie, Mammy's away, Aunt Emmie sing and Alec shut eyes," she murmured, and sang for a lullaby an old love-song, changing the words but not the music for two parts. Emmie had some very sweet soft notes in her voice.

"My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange one for another given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
There never was a better bargain driven:
My true love hath my heart, and I—and I—have his."

The notes grew softer and softer, and there was a lull while Emmie stitched and stitched.

Dennis sat at the table jotting down figures, but found time to look up and say—

"What about sending that new girl back, Emmie?"

"Kate? Oh, she's worse than useless, of course. They always are."

"I notice you get more time to sit still, though," Dennis remarked. "And your temper has improved the last few days. I think we'll keep her, Emmie."

"I hope Aidie isn't going to be ill, Dennis," said Emmie a few minutes later. "She reminded me of her mother to-night."

"Well now, that's a cheerful thing to say, isn't it? You've both of you got upset worrying over the Boss."

page 69
"Hushaby, hushaby, hush, hush," murmured Emmie, and crooned more softly still:—

"His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart for once it was his own,
I cherish his because in me it bides;
My true love hath my heart, and I—and I—have his."

"Aidie has always been delicate. I never thought we should rear her. She needs some one to take care of her."

"What are you driving at, Emmie?" His tone was very good-homoured.

"My true love hath my heart, and I—and I—have hers," crooned Emmie, without sufficient excuse this time, for the baby only turned on his side without waking. Then she began afresh. "Dennis, you do care for her?"

He went on writing for some time, then answered, "Yes, I care for her." He had a way of speaking that might mean nothing in particular or might mean a great deal.

"She has broken with that man, Dennis, or tried to. She told me so just now. But he means to hold her to her word, and she's so superstitious. I never did like him. I did not notice till to-night, but he has thin lips. Men with thin lips are always cruel.

MacDiarmid gave a short laugh. "There is no pleasing you, Emmie. Last week Brandon was 'sickeningly amiable'."

Emmie sewed on in silence till MacDiarmid finished his score of ewes and rams and lambs page 70and market prices, pocketed his note-book and got up.

"Where are you going?"

"Off to the workshop. The gate of the Five-Acre paddock has been torn off its hinges and smashed to pieces. Some fool left it swinging in the storm. I'll see what we can do for that chimney of yours to-morrow. And you want something done to the piping first chance, don't you? The roof will be leaking in Adelaide's bedroom next time it rains if it's not put right. By the way, Emmie, get her off to bed early and don't worry her talking to-night."

"Dennis." Emmeline followed him to the door and laid her hand on his arm. "Dennis, she is fond of you. Do speak to her."

"Mind your own business, Emmie, and I'll mind mine." But he spoke in an even pleasanter tone than before, and then suddenly threw his arm round her and gave her a hearty kiss.

Emmeline came back into the sitting-room very flushed. "He shall marry Aidie," she said to herself. "Brandon indeed!"