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The Passionate Puritan

Chapter XVI

page 160

Chapter XVI

That night Sidney told herself she really cared for Arthur. But as she was not yet sure he was the right kind of man to care for she embarked upon her first experience of decisions that did not decide. What a mess that experience was to make of her principles and her peace of mind she fortunately did not foresee.

When she met Arthur the next time or two she was prepared for advances that he did not make. He talked better than ever, and on parting from her kissed her hand and put it against his cheek, as he had before. His restraint baffled Sidney. She had expected that he would try to kiss her. She was sure now that he cared for her, that he meant to make her care. She wondered what was holding him back, and suspected it was the caution born of some sad previous love affair.

She grew extremely restless. One evening after eight o'clock she was overcome by an impulse to go off on her horse. It was an irresistible night. There were moments when the stars talked so eloquently about the magnitude of the universe that she forgot the human atom. Herpage 161 friends the stumps mourned more arrestingly than ever the loss of their former glory, and every breeze that stirred the mantling fern whispered to her the secrets of the spring.

Within her a potent force was stirring. It seemed to swell to bursting point the bounds of skin and bone while something about her in the night pressed from without to get in. She had a curious sense of being caught up and carried off on a great wind, even though the night was very still.

She rode on into the ranges, not caring where she went. The pony always seemed to know his way, and when she turned him he found the road home. She had no fear of meeting anybody dangerous. The bush workers had other ways of working off their emotions than assaulting solitary women. She would only have had to say who she was to be treated with respect.

When she had ridden for some time, believing she had kept her sense of direction, she pulled up on a ridge, looked round at the unfamiliar skyline, and saw she was lost. But only for a minute did she feel uneasy. It was too warm for her to catch cold. She decided to give the pony his head, believing he would get somewhere.

She took out her cigarettes, and let him stand while she smoked. She looked up at the stars and round at the sleeping hills and gullies, andpage 162 grew drunker every moment with the allurement of the night.

Some time after she had started her pony again he turned off the well-defined road upon a track that passed through straggly bush down a slope and ended at a gate. In a clearing ahead Sidney saw a light. Whether it was a bush camp or a farm she did not know, but she thought it might be wise to go ahead and ask where she was.

As she proceeded two dogs ran out and barked furiously, and when she got nearer she saw a horse tied to a post near the house. The figure of a man moved on the verandah.

"I've lost my way," she called at once, pulling up. "Would you be good enough——"

"Good heavens, Miss Carey. I've been thinking of you, and wishing I had you here to go for a ride with me. I was just about to set out alone. And now the gods have brought you."

Though he spoke lightly Arthur had a sense that Fate had taken a hand in this, and he felt a sudden rush of vitality through his limbs.

He had been about to go to spend the night with Mana. He had told her he would go, but he did not want to go. He had been sitting for an hour shirking it, swearing it should be the last time. He had always hated breaking with worn-page 163en, and he disliked the thought of hurting Mana more than he had disliked anything for years.

Sidney's heart jumped when she heard his voice. She, too, recognised the hand of Fate.

"Why," she gasped, smitten with embarrassment. "I was lost. I had no idea where I was. The pony turned in here."

"Well, you needn't apologise for him," he laughed. "He's a most intelligent animal. Perhaps he was born here, and grew reminiscent out under the stars." He patted the pony with his face turned up to her. "Now that you're here," he went on, "get off, and come in and look at my diggings."

"Oh, thank you, but I think I'd better get back," she said quickly. "It must be late."

He felt her uncertainty was due to something besides the lateness of the hour.

"It's only about ten o'clock. For heaven's sake, child, come in. I'm not an ogre. I won't eat you."

She felt at once that her hesitation was silly.

"There's nobody else here, and nobody will come," he added. "Of course I should not ask you to be seen and gossipped about."

Sidney jumped off her pony, determined to take the adventure as adventures should be taken.

"Why, you are an awful way off," she said, as he tied up her horse.

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"Oh, no. Not so far. You have been wandering round, I expect. I don't wonder you came out. What a night! And the moon is coming up. One step. And don't expect to find my diggings like yours."

She was intensely curious to see how he lived, and horribly disappointed with her first look round his front room.

The unpapered walla were bare of anything save an enormous pipe rack holding an incredible number of pipes, and several guns. There was no couch of any kind. On the three tables were piles of books, papers and magazines. There were several more or less comfortable chairs. The floor was bare. Two doors opened into a bedroom and a lean-to. It was clean and fresh enough except for a concentrated odour of tobacco.

But to her it seemed an impossible setting for the man, other than as a hunting shack or a temporary lamp. Surely he did not regard it as a home. (The forlornness of living that way struck her. She wondered what on earth lay behind it, and felt she must know before she went any further with him.

He had the air of having money behind him. She knew he did not need to live this way. She told herself there must be some reason for it other than mere aimlessness.

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He sensed her critical attitude, but waited for her to put it into words. He took out his cigarette case.

"Do you like living this way?" she asked, with more of an incredulous tone than she had meant to use.

"At times, yes. One gets the value of contrast, you see."

He smiled across the corner of his table as he handed her a cigarette.

"That's true. Government House must be really interesting as an antidote to this."

As he had forgotten that he had ever mentioned the Governor to her, he wondered how she knew he went there, and asked himself if James Ridgefield had been talking.

"Exactly," he answered lightly. "And after Government House this is health and the other half of wisdom."

"You Englishmen certainly are funny. You find wisdom in such out-of-the-way places."

"That explains the Empire," he retorted.

"Why do you do it?" she asked, impertinently,

"Do what?"

"Go to the ends of the earth?"

She looked at him over a puff of smoke.

"Meaning why did I come here?" he smiled. He knew she was quizzing him, and he admittedpage 166 her right to. But he would tell her only in his own good time.

"Let me see," he went on. "Why does anybody ever do anything? Does anybody know?"

"The whole of humanity is not as aimless as you. I certainly know why I go here or there."

"Wonderful," he said solemnly. "If you had the Wanderlust would you know why you had it?" Do you know why you are healthy and sane?"

"Oh, well, if you come to inherited complications——"

"Are there any that aren't? But let's avoid that interminable subject. I'll come to something much more pleasant."

He rose and went out through one of his doors. She heard the sound of glasses. Something about being there alone with him in his own house excited her to an extent that alarmed her. She took another of his cigarettes, and tried to calm her nerves.

Arthur came back with a tray. He had the gay air of a boy preparing himself to do something solemn in a game.

When Sidney saw the shape of the bottle and the brand of the Burgundy she recognised an aristocrat, and instantly remembered the smart saying of a friend to the effect that a man never wasted good wine on a tête-â-tête without hope of reward.

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Alarmed at her own excitement and uncertainty, and not at all sure of him, and quite inexperienced in such a situation, she ran into a blunder.

"Oh, that's awfully good of you," she said hastily, "but please, don't open it. I don't want any. I never drink wine."

"You don't want any!"

She flushed furiously under his astonished look. It made her feel she had committed the unpardonable sin in an evening of good fellowship. She saw at once she had blundered. She felt as happy as a nervous person who has just upset a glass of water into his neighbour's plate at a formal dinner.

For the minute he was merely boyishly disappointed to find there was an occasion to which she could not rise. If she had not looked so attractive as she flushed, so absolutely distressed, he would have been hurt.

He knew she had lied about not drinking wine.

"Why, my dear girl, do you know what that is?" he held the bottle up, gazing adoringly at the label.

"I know," she stumbled. "But please, I— don't care for any now. It would be a shame to waste it on me." She knew she was making it worse.

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Then he saw there was something in her mind that he did not get.

"All right," he said. "Then it's consecrated to a future party. You promise that?"

"Yes," she answered, trying to be light, and glad to put it off that way.

As he carried the tray out he wondered why she had refused to drink with him. He had had more than a hospitable idea in offering that wine, but it was not the idea she had feared he might have had. It was a sentimental idea that amused him, suggested by her fateful appearance, the idea of cementing a secret contract with his soul.

When he returned, Sidney was standing in his doorway watching the moon coming up.

"We are wasting a wonderful night," she said, trying to be casual. She wanted to get out. She felt she could not stay inside any longer now that she had done something to the pleasant flow of their mood indoors.

"Then we won't waste any more of it," he said, as willing as she to go.

He called in his dogs, shut his door, and they mounted the horses. As they reached the end of his track they heard a rider, travelling fast down the main road towards them.

"Damn!" exclaimed Arthur. "Quick. Get back."

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They turned round and got behind a clump of ti-tree.

The rider came up and passed, but a dog following him stopped, sniffed and barked.

The horseman slowed down.

"Here, Tiger, Tiger," he called, whistling it off.

"Jack Ridgefield," said Arthur, under his breath.

"More like the eye of God than ever," laughed Sidney.

She had now recovered her composure, and was determined to make amends for her mistake.

"I'm glad he didn't see us. He would not approve my nocturnal rides."

"I suppose not," he mused. "There must have been an accident up this way, or something gone wrong. It's wonderful the way he gets round this place. There isn't a thing he doesn't know. He's a most disturbing beggar. It isn't pleasant to be constantly reminded of one's own futility."

"Then why are you futile?" she asked snippily.

"Yes, indeed. That is the question. But, my dear girl, you take my up-bringing—the usual thing, tutors, public school, Oxford, sport, the estate, family, clubs, the Code, and you have your machine-made product—me, futile because I am machine-made. Put me against a man like Jack Ridgefield, why, I'm pathetic. I'm a pleasant no-page 170body. And worse still, I know it. I've never done a big thing in my life. I couldn't build anything. I haven't an original idea about life. You think. So does Jack Ridgefield. You've both got the courage to change your habits. You'd change half of them for the sake of a new idea. I wouldn't think any new idea was worth changing one of mine for. That is what the system has done to me. But, by God! I can appreciate men like Jack. The capacity to do that has not been trained out of me."

She had never heard him say as much about himself before. He ended with the first touch of bitterness she had known in him. But his little speech of depreciation drew her to him.

"Well, at least you Englishmen can die wonderfully. Look at Captain Scott, and those men——"

"How like a woman!" he interrupted her. "Your sex thinks so much of dying decently. That's training, like everything else. Of course Englishmen die decently. The country trains them to die. It would be much more sensible if it trained them to live half as well."

She laughed.

"Well, there must be a few Englishmen living usefully. The British Empire is a substantial affair."

"Yes, my dear, but the English aristocrat isn'tpage 171 running it. He's riding on the shoulders of the men who are, and they are coming from what he is pleased to call the inferior classes. In London a man like Jack Ridgefield would not be allowed to join an exclusive club. Bally rot! Thank God I've learned that by getting away from England."

She enjoyed his castigation. But none the less did she admire a great deal of what he stood for, and the picturesque class that had produced him.

Also, she noticed that for the third time that evening he had said "my dear" to her.

The full moon was now well up. Arthur stopped his horse, and she reined in hers beside him. They were on the crest of a ridge that she did not know. They could hear water falling somewhere below them.

"What is that?" she asked.

"That's a fall, a beautiful little fall, too. There'll be a lunar rainbow. Let's go down."

"All right," she assented willingly.

"We shall have to walk."

They jumped off and tied their horses.

He led the way, turning now and again to see if she needed assistance, for the track was rough. She caught her divided skirt over one arm, and but for it looked like a boy in her leggings and pantaloons, as she scrambled down after him.

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Once or twice he stopped to admire her sure-footed litheness.

They came out of scrub at the bottom onto a large flat rock. The fall dropped into an exquisite little gully, a natural conservatory of selected ferns. As he had hoped, the moon illuminated it all. And arched in the spray above the palms there was a perfect silver bow.

He dropped down on to the rock, and she sat beside him. For a while they thought they forgot themselves and each other. Then, without any preliminary manœuvres, Arthur stretched himself out on his back, and calmly moving her hands out of the way, put his head in her lap. He took out his cigarette case. His whole action was designed to give the impression that he meant to be comfortable.

Then he lit Sidney's cigarette from his own and handed it to her. Coming from him it was a significant familiarity, and she knew it. But she took it with a calm "Thank you" and looked up at the moon. Here under the stars she was not afraid of herself or him.

He turned his face slightly away from her, so that she could see against her dark skirt the lines of his clear-cut features. His cap had dropped off.

For the first time in her life Sidney's fingers itched to caress a man's hair. And because itpage 173 was the first time she supposed it would have been too bold a move. She had the old idea that a man must make all the gestures that lead up to a declaration of love. But she longed to do it. Her desires were now speeding fast ahead of her traditions.

After Arthur had lain still for some time she moved slightly to relieve the stiffness of her legs, and when she settled she let one arm drop easily across his chest. Then he caught her hand, holding it firmly, and continued to lie apparently absorbed in the beauty of the night.

Presently he raised himself.

"Am I hurting you?" he asked, with deep notes in his voice.

"Not at all," she said, catching his eye, and looking quickly away again.

But he sat up.

"I'm sure that's not comfortable," he said positively.

And he drew her round till her head was against his shoulder, and his arms were clasped about her as if she had been a child. Then, as her heart began to thump alarmingly, he threw his head up and started to sing softly to the moon.

He sang Hindoo melodies, weird and crooning. And as he sang he became more irresistible every minute.

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Sidney forgot her uncertainty, forgot her feeling about Mana, forgot how little she knew of his life. And if she had remembered she would not have cared. When a man can sing to a woman and the moon as he sang what else matters in a sad world?

When he stopped they both stayed very still for an eternity. Then his face looked down as hers looked up. Mysteriously the distance between them was eliminated.

They kissed as if they both felt they should have begun years before, and as if their lives would never be long enough to make up the loss. When the first passion of abandonment was over Arthur let his lips wander about her hair, her ears, her eyes, her cheeks, in a seductive trifling.

"I'm glad you got lost, dear," he whispered.

So am I," she whispered back.

She was so blissfully engulfed in this first drunken orgy that she did not want to speak. And though it was much less of an emotional upheaval for him, he did not want to either. As he sat with her head perfectly placed for the play of his lips, he could think of other things— of the witchery of the night, of the witchery of all such nights, of the painful transitoriness of all such nights, of the flat aftermath of such nights. But he had spells of complete absorption in thepage 175 present. It was an unforgettable memory for both of them. As they sat there certain of each other, they touched heights seldom reached and never quite duplicated in poor human lives, so pitifully barren of great moments, and yet so capable of great moments, if only the champion miser, Circumstance, would yield more opportunity from her secret treasure.

They realized then and remembered afterwards that the hour had not been spoiled by either trying to put into words things that can not be put into words.

Once Arthur broke into a few bars of song having nothing to do with the progress of love, and once he quoted his favourite Ossian on the moonlight.

Some time in the night they both found themselves growing cold. They got up together, stood and looked at each other, threw their arms about each other, and swayed upon the flat rock. Then silently they climbed up the ridge to their wondering horses.

It was not till they stopped on the road near the mill that Arthur said the words she was expecting him to say.

The horses, who seemed to understand the situation, stood still together.

Arthur pulled Sidney half of her saddle.

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"I love you, dear," he said simply. "Goodnight."

And as she rode on she did not wonder why he had said no more.

After he had left her he rode fast for some miles. When he pulled his horse to a walk, he looked up at the moon.

"The devil! What am I to do with Mana?" he asked himself.

Then he sought forgetfulness from that unpleasant question in his faithful pipe.