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The Land of The Lost

Chapter XVI

page 134

Chapter XVI

Soon after breakfast the following morning Esther retired to her room to prepare herself for the ride.

This was the first occasion since the accident that she had donned her riding habit, and her attention was arrested by a withered bunch of violets attached to the breast of her jacket Her first impulse was to remove the flowers, but before the pin was half withdrawn she hesitated and thrust it back into its place. Standing before the glass, her face wore a doubtful, partly guilty expression, and as she proceeded with her toilet it was evident by the look in her eyes that her thoughts were far away. Finally, before pinning her hat with its long streamers of white, shimmering veil to her thick masses of hair, she did remove the flowers, but instead of throwing them away laid them on the toilet table. Then she ran downstairs into the garden.

Esther was passionately fond of violets. Her name in the minds of those who knew her was associated with the delicate scent of these flowers. In order to gratify her love for these delicate children of the earth, she had reserved a well-shaded corner of the garden to their sole use, and from this spot she was in the habit of picking the blossoms long after they had ceased to be found elsewhere. The season, however, was very late, and as page 135Esther made her way to the spot where they grew, it was with small hope of finding sufficient for the purpose that had taken possession of her mind. She was consequently highly delighted to discover that the recent rains had enabled her favourites to put forth a last display, and to these she helped herself so liberally that when she rose to her feet not one remained on the bed.

"Vision of splendour!" exclaimed Wilfrid, who had come up unperceived and now regarded her with admiring eyes. "How thoughtful of you; but won't you keep some for yourself?"

"These are all for myself," said Esther, laughing, and holding the flowers behind her back. "You may have roses or mignonette, or what you will."

"Violets or nothing," he said resolutely.

"Then nothing," she replied.

He laughed, but she read curiosity in his eyes, and with a faint increase of colour left him and ran up to her room.

Here she proceeded to tie up the bunch, but before the task was half completed her eye caught sight of the withered nosegay on the table and she paused, looking rather more guilty than before. Presently she unwound the thread, and speading the bunch open in her hand, laid the withered flowers in the centre. When this was done she again tied them up, and holding the bunch against her breast, looked at the reflected image in the glass. The result appeared to be unsatisfactory, for again she unwound the thread, and this time placed the withered violets to one side, subsequently pinning that side against her bosom; and with this, though her eyes had not lost their guilty expression, she seemed more pleased. Then she gathered together her whip page 136and gloves and moved slowly, half irresolutely to the gate, where the horses were already waiting.

Wilfrid, helping her to the saddle, looked for and discovered the violets. He himself sported a very large and ragged cactus blossom, measuring between two and three feet in circumference, which he had found growing on the rockery beside the stable. In reply to her laughing remonstrance, he said he was prepared to effect an exchange, but would not part with his flower on any other terms.

"People will think we are going to be married," she said thoughtlessly, as they rode away.

"No such luck," was the unexpected though scarcely unmerited reply.

They rode gaily forward, Esther delighting in the rush of fresh air after her perfunctory confinement to the house. As they neared the "Scarlet Man" her manner became thoughtful and somewhat absent. Wilfrid noticed with his habitual quickness of observation that her eyes continually roamed across the wide, sunlit expanses on either side of the road, as though in search of someone or something, but he was careful to let his knowledge of her manœuvres remain unseen. After they had passed the inn her manner became more than ever distrait and her replies to his remarks were monosyllabic and less and less apposite. He was thinking whether or no to rally her on some very inconsequential reply to which she had just given utterance, when she surprised him by saying, "That is the first sign of human life, with the exception of the inn, we have seen since we started."

Following the direction of her gaze, Wilfrid discovered the roof of a tent rising above the scrub about a hundred yards from the road. Fixing his eye page 137reflectively on this object, he brought his horse to a standstill.

"Would you mind my riding over there?" he asked presently, turning towards her.

"I would rather you did not," she replied.

"No?" he inquired, with a glance of astonishment.

"You could call as we return."

"Very well," he said quietly.

Wilfrid was a person remarkably skilful in putting two and two together. He had determined on some association between the tent and the bunch of violets, and the idea made him increasingly watchful.

"I have something to tell you about that tent, Wilfrid," Esther said as they moved forward.

He was a trifle staggered at this evidence of his discernment, but no emotion was visible in his face as he replied encouragingly, "Tell away."

"You remember the accident to my foot," she began.

"I have reason to, for I have been the chief sufferer."

"But you have never heard the whole truth," she went on. "It is true that I was thrown, but it was at night-time and within a few yards of this spot. My horse escaped; I was left alone by the side of the road."

"I had not heard that," he said, seeing that she paused.

"A gentleman came to my assistance," continued Esther, a trifle breathlessly. "I was unable to walk, and suffering extreme pain. I hardly knew what I did. I let him carry me—in his arms."

"Where did this 'gentleman' spring from?" he asked, as she again came to a stop.

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"He lives in the tent we have just passed; he carried me there."

"I see," said Wilfrid, with a thoughtful contraction of the brows. "Well?"

"I remained there all night."

"To be sure. Could you have remained on the road?"

"Should I have remained on the road?"

"What nonsense!" said Wilfrid uneasily. "Who has been putting that notion into your head?"

"Well, I remained in the tent. Mrs. Brandon was there the greater part of the night, but not all."

"Mrs. Brandon is the gentleman's wife, I suppose?"

"His wife!" exclaimed Esther. "His mother you mean! No, she is Upmore's housekeeper at the 'Scarlet Man.' When the gentleman left me to fetch Mrs. Brandon he gave me a pistol to protect myself in case anyone should come during his absence—you see?" Her face was aglow with vivid recollection as she spoke. "And someone did come—a man. He came into——"

"Stay a moment!" exclaimed Wilfrid. "Was this the gentleman, or merely a man?"

Esther looked indignant. "It was a man," she said, "but"—resuming her earnest manner—"oh, Wilfrid, such a man! He wanted to kiss me——"

"So does everyone, for that matter."

"He tried to," continued Esther, waving away this flippancy; "he took all my money, my brooch, my ring——"

"The devil!" exclaimed her cousin, with a slow flush.

"Then," she continued brokenly, "I put my pistol in his eye and shot him."

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"You what!" asked the astonished Wilfrid.

"I put my pistol in his eye and fired," repeated Esther. "I think it must have frightened him; I know it made a dreadful noise."

"Let me understand this. You say you put your pistol in his eye and fired; what became of him after that?"

"He went away," said Esther, opening her eyes. "Did you expect him to remain when he knew that there were five more shots ready for him?"

"Well, I did," confessed Wilfrid. "I expected him to remain for the reason that, as a general thing, if you put a loaded revolver in a man's eye and fire, he—well, he does remain."

"That may be the case with people who know how to shoot straight," admitted Esther; "but, you see, I had never used a pistol before."

"No, no," said Wilfrid, "of course not. Well, what happened next?"

Esther related the remainder of her adventure.

"How is it I have heard nothing of this before?" asked Wilfrid not unnaturally when she had finished.

"Mr. Roller did not wish it to be spoken about, and though I had made up my mind to tell you everything, I have waited till I could do so without fear of interruption. I was afraid of speaking in my father's presence lest you should take up his impression of the affair."

"And what kind of impression is that?"

"Well, that too little cannot be said about it. He said it was an extraordinary adventure for a respectable girl, or something to that effect."

Wilfrid looked as though he did not know whether to be annoyed or amused. Both expressions were blended page 140in his face as he said, "That is the doctor all over; you must not take it to heart."

"No," said Esther, without looking at him; "but I should like to have shown him that I was grateful. I do not think that every man would have been so considerate; and he met with something that was very like insult from my father. I know he was hurt and surprised."

"You are alluding to the gum-digger?"

Esther was silent a moment. "Yes," she said presently, "a gum-digger, but none the less a gentleman."

"We might reverse the terms of that proposition," said Wilfrid quietly, "and say a gentleman, but none the less a gum-digger."

"Very well," said Esther, with a slight cooling of her tone; "I am content to bow to the opinion of the gentlemen of my own family. They must, of course, know what is right. I had supposed that a kindness merited acknowledgment, no matter by whom or in what circumstances it was conferred."

"I am far from disputing the correctness of that supposition; my doubt is concerned with the exact form of the acknowledgment and in how far you are a fit and proper person to express it."

"It will never come from either my father or Mr. Roller," Esther said, with a slight rise of colour.

"It is a duty I am disposed to take upon myself," said Wilfrid. Then, not wishing to commit himself immediately to any line of action, he fell into a silent mood, and the next few miles were covered without a word being spoken.

At length, as they arrived at a country where the increased size and luxuriance of the fern and scrub gave page 141signs that the gumfield was drawing to an end, he roused himself from his reverie to say, "Esther, I will call on this person on one condition—that you will be perfectly frank with me."

"I will try," she answered, her manner betraying a slight uneasiness.

"For whom are those violets?" he asked, looking straight into her eyes.

Esther had nerved herself for almost any question but this. She was aware of her cousin's extraordinary penetration and had steeled herself against it, but the insight displayed by his question seemed to border on the supernatural, and it shook her.

"Violets?" she said to gain time.

"Do you deny they were intended for someone?"

"For someone? For myself. I am accustomed to wear flowers in my dress."

"Are you perfectly frank with me?"

She was silent.

"Because it was on that condition I offered you my assistance."

"Wilfrid—if they were for him, is there any harm in it?"

"Esther, you have made me think so."

"Just a few violets!"

"The importance is not in the number of them nor in the nature of the gift, but in that you denied it. What must I think was intended by a gift which you thought it so necessary to conceal?"

"Not so necessary," she said, "since I have not concealed it from you."


He rode forward in silence, his brows contracted, his face full of thought. This was infinitely worse than the page 142entanglement with Roller. Confound it! It behoved him to be careful to keep the girl in her present obedient mood. She could be managed now with gentle and careful usage. Yes, but none knew so well as he the strength and daring of her nature. Once put himself in angry opposition, once let her feel he was ever so slightly unjust, and his hold over her was gone. After all, the prevarication had not been bad, and it was natural enough in the circumstances. Had she lied him down, though he would have been none the less certain of the correctness of his surmise, he must have been completely silenced.

Wilfrid had not the least doubt that his cousin entertained a kind of romantic fancy for her gentleman gum-digger, and his fear was lest by any injudicious action on his part this vague sentiment should be fanned into flame. On the one hand, such intercourse as he had had with the species gum-digger led him to believe that her mind could be best disillusioned by complete freedom of intercourse with the object of her thoughts; but on the other, was her emphatic statement that the man was a gentleman, and he was bound to give her credit for sufficient discernment to pronounce upon the point.

At this stage of his mental soliloquy a sudden thought illuminated his brain; so unexpected and abrupt that a half-uttered question leapt to his lips.

Esther looked interrogation.

"We will call at the tent as we come back," said Wilfrid, though that was not what he had been on the point of saying.

"I do not know that I particularly wish to see him," Esther replied, after a pause.

"Very well," said Wilfrid cheerfully; "then I will page 143undertake your commission. By the way, what is his name?"

"Hugh Clifford. He has a second name, which is either Hilton or Hinton."

"Probably Hilton," said Wilfrid, with an odd look in his eyes.