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The Heart of the Bush

Chapter VIII. Apple Blossom

page 116

Chapter VIII. Apple Blossom.

If these people had all belonged to the back country of Otago, the historian might now have to relate how thenceforth a deadly feud raged between the houses of Borlase and Brandon, and how perturbed hostesses had to smuggle any Borlase they might be entertaining out the back way, if a Brandon called, or vice versa. Emmeline anticipated such a vendetta with some satisfaction, but the Brandons never stooped to such vulgarities. They were experts in those social arts of hushing things up and smoothing things down, which are necessary to preserve an unruffled surface amongst the highborn and high-placed.

Horace received a letter from Adelaide, carefully worded this time, and with a veiled apology, announcing her engagement. What he felt, probably he himself did not know—rather, as if he had been playing bridge too late, too long, but not too well. In the main, however, he was occupied in trying not to feel anything and in succeeding. He got through dinner with the polished composure of the social stoic, and Evelyn was the only person who noticed that he looked tight-strung, and page 117was inclined to talk about the Liberal Government and its attacks on peers and on property, a subject which she dreaded above all others. It is, however, a safety valve which has relieved many private grievances. But even the Liberals and the Lords proved insufficient for Horace that night, and when the family and guests were dispersing, he asked Evelyn to come into the library. Though he opened the door for her in the politest manner, and even asked if she would like a cigarette, Evelyn began to wonder what impropriety she had been guilty of lately.

"I should like you to read this letter from Miss Borlase and tell me what you think of it, Evelyn," he said, handing her Adelaide's letter. He watched her expression closely as she read. Evelyn made an heroic attempt to have no expression, but did not succeed. Adelaide was her favourite girl friend, and her feeling for Horace was the most genuine religion she had. She would have given her latest enamel pendant to go over to him and kiss him, to have a little cry and say how dreadfully sorry she was, but any degenerate idea of that kind was quenched when she met his glance, nobly stern and impassive. Horace was far above receiving the trivial consolations of a merely feminine sister.

"Have you nothing to say, Evelyn?"

"Oh, Horace!" This was a feeble remark, but at least non-committal. His eyes, however, page 118compelled her to be a trifle more explicit, and she studied the edge of her gauze over-skirt, murmuring "How dreadful!"

"Are you distressing yourself on my account, Evelyn?" Horace inquired with a cold ironic smile. "I assure you it is unnecessary. Adelaide has effectually disenchanted me. I am extremely glad the enlightenment comes before and not after marriage." He really was thin-lipped and square-jawed sometimes. Feeling that he was determined she should talk to him, and then be castigated for whatever she said, Evelyn continued to study the sequins of her gown for an inspiration, and at last got one. "Poor Adelaide," she murmured, "it's quite too atrocious. What will she sink to with that dreadful man?"

Horace was secretly mollified but far above owning to the fact. "I don't care to speculate about that. It is not a pleasant subject. The man is probably no worse than other labourers."

"How can she endure him? His boots are enough for me. And his hands! Enormous. Oh, poor Aidie!"

Evelyn collapsed with a little shock of suppressed laughter and inexpressible horror. She began to feel tired and nervous, and to wonder when she could get to bed. She had endured the Liberals and the Labour Party for three hours with scarcely any intermission.

Horace walked to the window with an air of page 119restrained exasperation, but he soon came back again. He always did think Evelyn rather a mistake, still she was there, and he was more or less accustomed to her.

"It is a pity you are so frivolous, Evelyn," he remarked with some commiseration. "Miss Borlase is pleasing herself, and certainly does not want our sympathy."

"Adelaide is so easily influenced," Evelyn said. "She has been shut up for days with that man and her own family, and no society to distract her. Emmeline Borlase is quite a common sort of woman and even her father is not the same as the Bohuns. They must all have talked her into this engagement. Aidie is so sweet and charming herself, at least, she always used to be, though she certainly has deteriorated since she came back to New Zealand."

"No nice girl would under any circumstances have behaved as Adelaide has done—no English girl. I am not referring to her breaking her engagement with me but to—other things." He was too noble to mention to his sister that Adelaide had declared her love for a man who had never offered himself to her, but they both knew of her riding and driving about with a ploughman's son.

"Why I brought you here to-night, Evelyn," he went on incisively, "was not for the pleasure of discussing this wretched affair, but because I wish you to understand, once for all, that there page 120is to be no further allusion by you or by anyone else to my former engagement with Miss Borlase. That subject is finally disposed of. I refuse to permit the vulgarity of a quarrel to be thrust upon me. You will only show bad taste if you do not make the best of things as they are. I shall write to Miss Borlase to-night, and I suggest that you and Aunt Elinor should call before long and congratulate her on her choice." The last words came out with a swift swing that had the effect of a lash. Evelyn began to feel fagged out. He noticed it and said, "I won't keep you longer, Evie. You look tired." Then he opened the door for her and touched her forehead with cold lips in token of confidence and admonition, saying, "Goodnight. You understand my wishes now, and I am sure that you will carry them out."

"Goodnight, Horace," Evelyn longed to say "dear" but dared not, lest he should detect condolence lurking in the word. So she went to her own room and collapsed there in private.

What the rest of the family might have done if Horace had not taken this lead, it is unsafe to guess, but nothing suited them better than the policy of making the best of things as they were. If you only ignore all that is unpleasant or troublesome, it practically ceases to exist for you; this is a useful psychic law, well known to the great. The Brandons were an amiable family. The engagement with Horace was to be ignored. Dennis MacDiarmid was to be page 121promoted to social recognition by his superiors, and to be thenceforth known as "Mr. MacDiarmid."

Evelyn showed symptoms of being refractory, and planned a visit to some friends near Christchurch in order to escape meeting Adelaide and her lover, but Horace's admonitions recalled her to her better self, and she consented to pay her visit if he would accompany her. He had replied to Adelaide in such a manner that it was possible for them to meet on perfectly friendly terms. Horace Brandon had one quality supposed to be un-British, he knew when he was effectually beaten. The fact of being beaten is not enjoyable, but then one can always ignore it. It created a germ of respect for MacDiarmid in which Evelyn did not share. She had an unaffected horror of bearded men, and never ceased to regard him as a weird monstrosity. Her manner towards him was consequently colourless in the extreme, and might have conveyed to a mere Colonial the impression of vacuity. Adelaide, however, saw that she had been victimised, and asked her to come out into the orchard and see the apple blossom. They went out, and when Evelyn had said "How sweet!" perfunctorily, and Adelaide had replied, "Isn't it?" she said in another tone, "Evie, you are a dear to come and see me so soon. And how good of Horace!" The visit delighted her beyond measure. Reprobation always excited in her page 122mind an abnormal consciousness of sin, quite irrespective of what she had been doing, and she never had been less in a mood than now for quarrelling with her fellow-creatures. This social acknowledgment made her feel as if she had chosen Paradise for her portion and had had the world thrown in.

Evelyn studied the orchard as if it had been an Academy picture and observed, "Wouldn't it be a good subject, that mass of pink and white blossom, with the dark bush in the shadow of the hill for a back-ground?"

To which Adelaide replied, "Horace would never have been happy with me. He was mistaken in thinking he cared much about me."

"How can you tell, Adelaide? Horace does not show his feelings on the surface. Englishmen never do. But they are deep down."

Adelaide thought that Horace's feelings were so very deep down that there was no hope of their ever coming up, and that on the whole—Well, she was ecstatically in love and the conclusion was foregone. Thoughts of this kind she always kept entirely to herself.

"I admire Horace too much to marry him. I want some one nearer my own level, who has faults of his own and can forgive me mine."

"You want a husband you can rule over, instead of obeying as a wife ought to do. It is not right. You like having your own way, Aidie."

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Adelaide confessed her guilt but pleaded some extenuations. "Only now and then, Evie. Not always. And not with an Englishman. I should never think of trying to have my own way with Horace. Only with Dennis." She looked around at the cloud of apple blossom and picked a spray, and suddenly saw that it was the loveliest thing in the world, and her own face, what with spring air and one thing and another, grew as deliciously pink and white as the blossoms. "I don't think Dennis minds," she said softly.

"It is not right," repeated Evelyn.

Adelaide thought it was nevertheless delightful, and that she would chance the iniquity. She also thought that there was a good deal of Spring and apple blossom in the world, and that if she was going to die early she might as well have a good time while she was on the earth.

Horace, meanwhile, had been trying to draw MacDiarmid out.

Horace's manner all through this interview was irreproachably artistic and well-bred. He shook his rival's hand with engaging cordiality, congratulated him on his good luck, and then—Englishmen being notoriously expansive on sentimental topics—started a conversation on stock-breeding. It was so nice and self-effacing of him to talk about sheep and cattle, because it was the one subject of which he knew absolutely nothing, and of course MacDiarmid page 124could not converse on any other. MacDiarmid, though known to be a first-class farmer, stubbornly ignored the chances so tactfully offered him, and his churlishness became fatiguing. A boor he was and a boor he would remain. It was a relief when Adelaide and Evelyn re-entered the sitting-room and Horace got up to go. His manner towards Adelaide was as perfect as towards her lover. It suggested that she need fear no reproaches from him, that he was sincerely sorry for her (he really was), but that he and she and everybody else must now make the best of this fiasco. All he actually said was—"Goodbye, Miss Borlase. It is really goodbye this time. I am going to the North Island next week. Evie will join me in Auckland after Christmas, and we will get home in time for the season. You know you have my best wishes. I hope we may see you and Mr. MacDiarmid in London some day." He could not imagine any form of bliss for people who had no hope of ever getting to London.

The farewells were not over when Major and Mrs. Brandon arrived in state, that is to say, in the best carriage with a liveried groom on the box seat. Mrs. Brandon wore a very costly dress, but her manner showed the artistic simplicity which is a great improvement on nature, while her husband chose the out-of-door bluff British style. These amiable people had a high opinion of Dennis MacDiarmid, and page 125favoured him with that affability which never fails to endear the aristocracy to its social inferiors. Major Brandon in particular possessed that preternatural gift for detecting merit and ability even in the most unlikely circumstances, which is one of the special characteristics of the English nobility. It is only the middle class who, in spite of repeated exposures in society novels, still ignore and spurn modest merit, and the Brandons would be anything rather than middle class.

"I have known Dennis since he was a boy, Aidie," the Major said, reviving an indistinct memory of a barefoot boy driving cows across the river. "Remember your father too, Dennis." He did. Dougal MacDiarmid once poured a flood of untutored Celtic eloquence upon him for blocking up a narrow part of the Pass with his carriage. "Always felt sure you would do something uncommon, and now you are carrying off our little Aidie. You must think of getting into Parliament some day and making a name for yourself. If ever there's anything I can do to help you, you can count on my help—such as it is, and I hope you won't hesitate to ask for it, for Aidie's sake and your own. I thought Horace was to be the favourite, but if we can't have Adelaide for our niece, we shall keep a charming neighbour."

The Major had left home in rather a luke-warm state, but he was warming up nicely. Adelaide, all spring pink and white, with apple page 126blossoms in her silk muslin dress, and so much in love with her lover that some of the love overflowed on everyone around, charmed his middle-aged heart so thoroughly that he went on to say he had a favour to ask of them both. So nice of him to put it in that way. He wanted the bride to be married from his own house and in the Miramar chapel, and to give her away himself. Dennis was about to open his lips when Adelaide, deftly interposing, went over to the old gentleman, thanked him prettily, gave him a stage kiss—Dennis did not envy him that kiss—said Emmeline would never let her be married from any other house than Haeremai, and wasn't it too soon for her to settle all these things?

As they drove home in state, Mrs. Brandon remarked: "I am glad that engagement with Horace did not come to anything. It would have been too much like taking away MacDiarmid's one ewe lamb. And Adelaide's income is really not worth considering. It will be a help to Mr. MacDiarmid, but it would have been nothing to Horace. He has so many prospects."

"Any more of that tribe coming?" Dennis asked, when Adelaide returned from the verandah step where she had been smiling and waving her hand to the occupants of the retreating carriage.

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"Dennis, you are not to be rude to my friends."

"D—those Brandons! Pardon, Aidie. I must go up to the sheepyards and swear for half an hour. I'll come back to you when I feel decent again."

"You are going to leave me, Dennis?"

"Oh, well." He sat down. "I know you want something, Aidie, and you know you are going to get it. Now, let's hear what it is."

"I don't like to be married in the parlour, Dennis. I want a proper wedding."

"You shall have the thing if it is to be got in this district. What is a proper wedding, dearie?"

"I want to be married in the Miramar chapel."

"All right. I don't mind making an idiot of myself for once."

"I want Major Brandon to give me away."

"No, that he shall not. I'll be—What, Aidie, haven't you outgrown that?" Adelaide had quite forgotten about behaving nicely, and was pressing her cheek against his and saying, "Please, Dennis, please," as if she were six years old. Dennis thought he might forget too, and he forgot in rather an overwhelming manner. His wrath vanished, and his sentiments became so mixed up with hers that there was no disentangling them. "Of course, darling," he concluded, "you can do whatever page 128you like on your own wedding day. You always had a fancy for arranging the whole ceremony yourself. Though I don't see how Major Brandon is to give you away, when you always have belonged to me and you never were his."