The Heart of the Bush
Chapter V. Adelaide at Confession
Chapter V. Adelaide at Confession.
Adelaide lay in an acute nerve fever which she mistook for profound remorse. Between half-sleep and dreams came intervals of intense consciousness, in which she rehearsed a number of speeches and acted and re-acted a variety of scenes. She felt like a sinner who is under conviction but who means to risk perdition and see the game through. Her conduct had been too shocking even for open reprobation in polite circles. "The local grocer's" daughter might have been expected to behave so, but not Adelaide Borlase. She had forfeited all right to respect amongst her peers, and had declined to a lower level, owing no doubt to something common and spiritually unaristocratic in herself. Horace Brandon was perfectly justified Every one of their London acquaintances would judge her as he had done. She could just imagine how the news would be received, the shocked condemnation of their eyes and the suppressed laughter on their lips. She had broken with her English lover, a gentleman and a charming man, because she was infatuated with a quite unpresentable farmer who had never wooed her at all. The page 72enormity of her guilt towards Brandon grew to a towering height like a child's ghost. That no formal promise had been given or claimed made her dishonour only the greater. There was something far more despicable in evading an implied promise than in repudiating a formal contract. Horace's image, or rather, two images of him, rose before her mental eye, which was just then not the bliss but the torment of her solitude. Sometimes he appeared virile, stern, showing her the contemptibleness of her own nature; sometimes he appeared gay, loving but masterful, treading down her foolish little will and setting up his noble masculine one for the benefit of both. But always, always, he shone immeasurably superior to herself. Oh yes, she freely admitted his superiority, but the more superior he rose, the more Adelaide did not want to marry him. Would he really not release her? Would he by some psychic means—always chivalrous, always well-bred and charming—actually compel her to be his wife? Adelaide started from drowsy consciousness and gave a little cry, "Dennis, Dennis." She meant, "Oh deliver me from this nightmare, and be quick, be quick!" Mentally she reproached him for not setting about her release at once. But Dennis, though under the same roof, was lying in profound slumber, facing her picture but without a dream of her. It was not his habit to waste time worrying himself awake, page 73and he was even more tired than usual that night. Adelaide lit her candle and lay awake for hours, her small girlish breasts palpitating beneath the fine muslin and laces, the baby curls damp around the half moon of her forehead, and her pink white hands pressed tight together. Nothing, she resolved in desperation, nothing psychic or social, should force her into marrying Brandon. "I will be a wild girl, untame, un-English, without taste or principles, a social outcast, a moral reprobate, anything but Horace Brandon's wife," she cried inwardly. Was she then infatuated with Dennis MacDiarmid, who had scarcely even smiled on her? Yet he was all that Horace had said, uncouth, rough, a clown—no, not exactly a clown, but what might be considered a clown in highly cultured society. His image, too, came vividly before her, and she saw him sitting in the specially big wooden chair he generally used either at table or by the fireside, smoking or reading with scarcely a movement, taking his rest in a kind of large placidity. Adelaide felt cross with the image, it was so liable to criticism, it was not all it ought to be. Then she melted and grew tender to it. Suddenly her heart leapt up to him and she cried, "O Dennis," and glowing from head to foot, turned her face away from the light into a soft hollow of the linen-covered down to hide herself from herself, and she tried to stop her heart from beating so fast. She had no right page 74to be glad about anything, and yet for a few moments without the slightest cause she was extravagantly glad. Then with something of the accent of the petted little girl, she invoked her profoundly unconscious lover:—"O Dennis, love me more. Respect me, honour me—you, and the rest won't matter." Though she put out her candle, sleep would not come at once, but a chastened calm fell on her. Her way was not going to be smooth, but she welcomed the prospect of loss and hardship because she deserved punishment and it lightened her offence. By this time the frosty dawn had come and there was a concert of birds in the bush, a kingfisher shrilling from the creek, two thrushes singing from the apple trees and then a solitary tui, followed by a whole chirping chorus of sparrows and greenfinches in the fields. Adelaide went to sleep with most unfashionable tears on her cheek. She was only twenty, and had not left school quite three years.
After a short sleep, she woke and rose still in a mood of penitence. Her first duty was to write to Horace Brandon. He must not send that ring. She dreaded the sight of it. At any cost she must break free from him. Let him think the worst of her. She would humbly acknowledge her offence, she would go through any penance to appease his wounded dignity, but he must learn how hopelessly she and Dennis belonged to each other. She laid not only herself but her love at his injured feet.page 75
However, when Adelaide sat down to pour out her penitence, she found it very difficult to express herself in cold ink. Sleeplessness had unnerved her, and her hand shook. She decided to make a rough copy, and she began without any address, because she could not decide between "Horace" and "Mr. Brandon."
"I am sorry that you refuse to accept my answer. Even if I wished to change again, I could not. You can not, must not, bind me against my will. I have proved myself unworthy of your trust, and you cannot think worse of me than I do of myself. You have been all that is considerate and just, and I must seem all that is foolish and unreasonable. I am not my own to give or to refuse to any man but one. Even if Mr. MacDiarmid did not care for me, I never would think of anyone else. We were sweethearts when we were children. This seems silly to you but not to me. I did not know my own mind till the night of the storm when he rode to Roslyn to get the doctor for father. The rivers were in flood, and then I knew if he were drowned I should not care to live. He may be all you say, uncultured and boorish compared to you, and not a gentleman. But I love him, and I am sure he loves me, and you know what that means. Leave me, let me be happy with my own people. Forget me, think me not worth remembering. I would rather seem to have no sense of honour than be forced into marriage page 76when you could never have my heart. I beg you to set me free at once and to forgive me.
Adelaide was divided in mind about this letter. To have confessed to the utmost her sins against convention gave her a sensation of humility so unbounded that it almost met its extreme and became exaltation. To unburden her heart was unspeakable relief. Yet somewhere away back was a haunting subconsciousness of something wrong with that letter. To Brandon its expressions might seem childish and emotional and not sufficiently novel, and she vaguely felt that some of the glow of her sentiments for Dennis had coloured her words primitively. This would be embarrassing in the extreme, for after all Dennis was an unavowed lover. It is all very well to advise people to be off with the old love before they are on with the new, but there is really a good deal to be said for reversing that plan, and so preventing the trying interregnum when one has neither the old love nor the new.
While Adelaide was still meditating indecisively, pen in hand, Emmeline came into her bedroom with a tray and said, "Adelaide! Whatever did you get up for? I told you I would bring you your breakfast in bed. Well, as you are up you had better come and have it comfortably in the dining-room with us."
Emmeline glanced suspiciously at the writing-page 77case. She felt sure that Adelaide had got up early on purpose to write to Brandon, and she longed beyond measure to see the letter. Adelaide hastily put it between the blotting sheets and left the room with her sister.
Dennis stood at the back door, stamping mud off his boots and letting in the brilliant sunshine and a strong wind. Emmie from the dining-room scolded him crossly, but he cheerfully declined to mend his ways, and went on stamping and whistling and leaving the door open. He seemed more than usually cheerful and unsympathetically hearty. Adelaide in a panic wondered if they would ever wrangle and he be impolite to her. "Can't have too much of this sunshine, Emmie," he said, "it will dry up your ceiling and walls before you know where you are."
"And meanwhile Aidie and I have to sit in a draught and get neuralgia."
"You really want it shut? Oh well, that's another matter." He shut the door. "I thought you were only scolding to make things lively."
He came into the dining-room, and his eyes under the long lashes rested a minute or two on Adelaide. She greeted him with a pretty distant air, but through all the gentle pride and practised self-restraint, she looked to him piteous, and he felt sure she had been crying. Adelaide had not the least desire to look piteous. She was trying to pick up the remain-page 78ing fragments of herself and put them together, not to be altogether broken and of no account. The soft hair was waved over her forehead even more artistically than usual. Her own world was forfeited for ever, but with Dennis at least she must keep some state.
Adelaide said it was a divine morning, and the sun never shone so bright in England.
"Why you haven't half seen the morning yet," MacDiarmid replied, as he carefully sliced cold ham for her. "There's a powder of snow on the foothills and it's frozen in the night. You could see the Alps at sunrise, Aorangi as clear as crystal, and you wouldn't have forgotten it if you'd seen it then. You and Emmie ought to get a drive to-day."
Emmeline inquired meditatively, "Have you got anything very special on hand, Dennis?"
"I just about have. The storm's made no end of work. The roof's blown half off the woolshed and the footbridge is broken on this side the river and the boundary fence is down between us and Te Puhi; besides that gate. I shall have to start marking the lambs before the end of next week, so I want to get all the odd jobs through first. But I'll tell M'Ilvride to catch the horses for you and you can drive yourself."
"I can't leave Father and the house, Dennis, you know I can't But couldn't you take Aidie into Roslyn or somewhere?"
MacDiarmid mused for some time. "Yes, I think I can manage it."page 79
The offer seemed to Adelaide ungallant in the extreme. In her drawing-room world facts were not half so stubborn as in the bush, and it was worse than middle-class to talk of work.
"I could not think of taking up your time while you have so much to do, Mr. MacDiarmid," she said with a gentle blend of pride and humility, and thought, "Oh, I shall have to be very humble now. There is no more flattery for me. Well, I have brought it all on myself." And in her fancy she took him with all his imperfections on his head.
MacDiarmid turned restive, and his mind went back to her declaration by the creek after their last ride. "Well, I am busy and that's a fact," he said shortly, "If you'ud like to go, I'll go, and if you don't, I won't."
"I never saw such stupid people," burst out Emmeline. "You're both of you longing to go and you both pretend you don't care, like two silly children. Dennis, haven't you got an atom of sense?" MacDiarmid laughed, helped himself liberally to more cold ham, and then said, "I can make time, I daresay. Besides, I've got some business to do in Roslyn. I want to see about that last shipment of wool." He studied Adelaide a few moments and then asked, "Will you come, Miss Borlase?"
"Oh, why not 'Aidie,'" she thought, "I told him he might. He can't expect me to call him 'Dennis' first." She thanked him, a little more page 80gently proud, a little more distant, and, through it all, a little more appealing than before. Emmeline hurried her sister into a costume of finest mirror-grey cloth, with a gleam of mother o' pearl silk and with the ruffled white feathers of a marabout; and she helped her fix daintily on her shining head the small grey hat with the wing of a dove and complete the harmony with a misty veil. If you wanted to see a fair girl more exquisitely and simply dressed than Adelaide was, you would have had to ride far and wide, north and south, east and west, over all the borderlands of Canterbury and Otago. Emmie regarded her sister approvingly.
"I wish, Emmie, you would not press Mr. MacDiarmid to go out with me. It's not kind to me," said Adelaide reproachfully.
"You are almost as stupid as he is, Aidie. There go, my darling pet, and enjoy yourself."
The breeze brought a shade of colour back to Adelaide's face, and she looked more like the lady who had gone up the ranges to get mountain lilies. She praised the radiance of the sky, the heights deep-coloured after storm and sprinkled with silvery snow, and the distant white peak hovering at noon like a lovely spirit far away. "You cannot see nearly so far in England," she said. "You are always looking through a kind of film. And there are no heights there and no depths."
MacDiarmid reflected that she seemed out of love with England that day, and wondered how page 81far Mr. Brandon might be taken to represent his country.
"I wonder if it all looks as beautiful to you this morning as it does to me. Do you always feel the beauty of it just the same, living amongst it every day?"
"No, it's not always the same. It seems a good bit prettier when you're with me," he answered, in a composed and deliberate manner.
Adelaide lit up with amusement and gratification. "I did not know you said such charming things, Mr. MacDiarmid."
"You haven't given me much chance yet, have you?"
As he was driving her home, MacDiarmid led her on to talk about some of the places she had seen. She talked like one who tells her dreams; of the road that lies between Spezzia and Genoa, where a lustrous sapphire sea breaks white against steep cliffs, and there are little Italian towns, white as marble, and so lovely you could scarcely think them anything but old-world romances, and not things of to-day; gardens all crimson with red roses, and flashing with scarlet pomegranate and sweet with jasmine; Genoa and its disused palaces of marble, and the harbour crowded still with merchant ships and all the traffic of the Mediterranean, and with South of Europe sea-faring men. She spoke of its old memories of the Dorias and of Saint Catherine, and as she spoke her eyes grew fair page 82and more fair to see. Then rather suddenly she checked herself.
"Do I tire you? Does all this interest you?" she asked gently.
"You mean have I got sense enough to appreciate it," MacDiarmid answered. "Yes, I think my brain will about stand it. I've read about those places. It interests me very much. Go on."
Adelaide could not. "Does he love me at all?" she asked herself, and was visibly depressed.
"You mistake me, Mr. MacDiarmid. I am sorry that I so often offend you."
MacDiarmid looked at her strangely a moment, full in the eyes.
"No, it's not that you offend me, Adelaide." A few minutes later he seemed to dismiss the subject, and said in his usual tone, "I wonder if you would teach me in the evenings. I've plenty of time then."
This touched and amazed her. It did not fit at all into her ideas of the majesty of man, and she said with humility:
"You do not really want to take lessons from a girl, Mr. MacDiarmid?"
"Why not? I particularly like girls."
"If you think that it would be of any help to you, we might read sometimes together."
"Well, put it your own way. But don't you bother about my dignity if I don't. You used—"page 83
Dennis broke off abruptly, but Adelaide filled in the hiatus easily. There had been no conventions for the two bush children in the days when the world was very young. In the summer evenings and in the afternoons of school holidays, when the hay was cut, Aidie Borlase was fond of watching her farm-boy friend do his share of tossing the golden grass on to the stack, and when he had finished, she sat in the shadow and read to him, while he lay stretched out near her, propped on his elbows and his face on his hands. Most of all, they revelled in Scott, but they did not always agree. Dennis was in a hurry to get to the tournaments and duels and battles; he much preferred Roderick Dhu to Malcolm Græme, and Marmion to De Wilton, and he was callous to the woes of Constance de Beverley and of Clara de Clare. Over "Marmion" they once had a quarrel. Dennis had a low opinion of De Wilton, and said that he was a mean sneak and a mountebank to go dressing up for a ghost and a pilgrim, and telling tales to The Douglas. Aidie argued a few moments, and then, being overborne, she wept profusely, at first into the new hay, and afterwards into Dennis's flannel shirt. He was nicer then than he had ever been before. He said, "Dash the whole lot of them, he didn't care, she could have it her own way; she mustn't cry, she was his sweetheart, and he would give her his Waterbury watch." Recollections of this kind made the twenty-year old Adelaide more shy with page 84MacDiarmid than she could have been with the Duke of Norfolk. Reading with him now was not likely to have a soothing effect on her nerves, but he had shown himself so touchy that she feared to wound him by refusing.
"What do you think of reading?" she asked.
MacDiarmid looked at her, with sunlight in his eyes. "Well, now, isn't that for my tutor to say?"
"Oh no! The student always chooses his own subjects."
"Well, history," he said slowly, laying the whip along the flank of the mare, merely to remind her that she was not out walking for her own pleasure. "I've read all that is in the house, Josephus and Gibbon and Prescott and Motley, and most of Sismondi, and I thought of getting Grote."
These all seemed to Adelaide so hopelessly out of the world and behind the times.
"I don't think anybody reads books like that now," she said gently, trying not to be too explicit, "except, perhaps, professional people, and they have to learn things so as to teach other people."
"I expect the fault is not with the books, but with the people who don't read them."
The mingled simplicity and shrewdness of the backblocks at first touched and then impressed Adelaide. "Mr. MacDiarmid," she answered playfully, "I am an honest tutor, though a very poor one. I cannot teach you anything learned. page 85You have read far more than I. That is not the sort of thing I have learnt in the Old World."
MacDiarmid surprised the mare, who knew his hand well, by striking her sharply. She neighed a remonstrance, and he apologised. "Yes, I forgot myself that time. Steady, lass, steady. There, I won't do it again."
"He is passionate," thought Adelaide, with a slight tremor. He was saying to himself, "Can a man ever understand a girl? Is she trying to put me off again?"
"Well, teach me what you have learnt, will you?" he said, looking at her, and trying to read her face.
"I will try." Adelaide's meaning was wrapt in a misty air of reserve, suggesting so much and telling so little, that he reached the gate almost as much exasperated as charmed. The sweeter she grew, the more elusive she seemed, and her eyes called him to her, only to tantalise him by still farther retreat. What he meant was, "Read anything or nothing if you like, so long as you will talk to me," and what Adelaide meant was, "Yes, if you will let me, I will teach you to be all that I wish, my hero, my love and my king." However, they were talking to each other in foreign tongues, and though Adelaide came into the house freshened with the sun and breeze, Dennis drove to the stables in a dissatisfied frame of mind, saying inwardly, "What on earth does she mean? She must either want me or not want me, but she seems page 86to manage to do both." Then he pulled up. "Hullo, Emmie dear, what's in the wind now?" Emmeline, who had been taking in clothes from the lines, left a white heap down, and came to the buggy to speak to him.
Adelaide found Evelyn Brandon waiting for her in the parlour. Mr. Horace Brandon had called and stayed talking with her father for over an hour, so Kate told her. Evelyn did not regard the visit to Roslyn with favour.
"I don't think, Aidie, you ought to go out riding and driving so much with the milkman," she said. "It might put ideas into his head. Life is so much simpler in London. The milkman never goes beyond the area door there; at least I've always understood he did not. I've never seen him myself. He always called hours too early for me."
Adelaide could parry these thrusts lightly. "My dear Evie, you've been a fortnight in South Canterbury, and you don't know yet that there are no milkmen on a sheep run. Mr. MacDiarmid is father's overseer."
"Oh, isn't he the milkman?" said Evelyn airily, "I thought he was. He seems to be always looking after cattle of some sort; it comes to the same thing. I really don't know what you call the Colonial equivalent, but you might actually have to put him in his place some day, and you're much too sweet to do it effectually."page 87
"I am quite safe with Mr. MacDiarmid."
"You never can tell out here. Such extraordinary things do happen. Beryl Thornton married a publican, and he used to beat her and throw razors and things about. Poor Beryl! how she must have wished she had been born in Stepney, and got accustomed to that sort of thing early. Then there was Ida Desmond, the tall handsome girl we met at the Fellows' garden party. She mixed herself up with a Blavatasky sect in Christchurch, and very nearly eloped with an American prophet, but it turned out he had another wife and was only taking Ida on as an extra Ida was always of a jealous disposition, if you remember, so she gave up the prophet, and then no one else would have anything to do with her."
"Don't distress yourself, Evie, I am not going to marry a prophet or a publican or a bigamist or a wife beater, or anyone at all so far as I know."
"Of course I did not mean to suggest that you would marry the milkman, but he might get offensive. And you are rather impulsive sometimes, Adelaide, if you will forgive me for saying so."
Adelaide prepared to defend herself against such a damaging imputation, but stopped and said, "Perhaps I am, Evie. It isn't very wicked to be impulsive, is it?"
"It's un-English," said Evelyn, with soft condemnation, stifling like a down pillow.