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The Land of The Lost

Chapter XXII

page 193

Chapter XXII

Nor was the trouble long delayed. That evening after dinner Hugh was out in the garden, smoking his pipe by the gate, when Roller crossed the road and came in. The storekeeper hesitated when he saw him and finally came to a standstill.

"I should like to speak to you, Clifford," he said, "if it is convenient."

"Perfectly," said Hugh, surprised. "What is it?"

"I have intended talking to you for some time," Roller began; "but it is not a very pleasant matter, and I wished to give you the opportunity of broaching the subject yourself."

"Just so," said Hugh, who scented battle in every word; "I haven't the remotest idea what you mean."

Roller laughed unbelievingly, and there was insult in the sound. "Of course you know very well," he said, "that I am alluding to Miss Hamilton's brooch and ring. Don't you think it would be better if they were found and returned?"

Hugh was completely staggered. "It is not possible that I can understand you aright," he said.

"Then let me put the thing quite plainly," said Roller, with brutal sarcasm. "The jewellery I speak of was of comparatively little value, but as the things were my gift to Miss Hamilton we are naturally concerned at losing them. You will probably not be able to sell page 194them for half their cost, and sooner than run any risk I will write you a cheque for twice their value. Do you understand me now?"

"I do indeed," said Hugh. "You make yourself incredibly clear."

"Then what do you say?"

"I was wondering whether I should break every bone in your skin; but the imputation is too contemptibly ridiculous, and I refuse to be moved by it."

"You cannot carry the thing off in that high-handed manner," said the storekeeper in a white heat. "You seem to be acquainted with Miss Hamilton's cousin, and for that reason I have spared you; but unless the things are returned forthwith I shall certainly put the matter in the hands of the police."

"I have had a suspicion of you, Roller," said Hugh, disregarding all this, "and now it is confirmed. You are a confounded little cad."

"By God, I will stand that from no man!" exclaimed the storekeeper.

"Lower your voice," said Hugh, "and keep calm. If you want a thrashing I shall be glad to give it you, but not in this garden. You appear to have no sense of decency, and it is necessary, therefore, for me to think for us both. Don't make a row,"

"You are here under false pretences," said Roller furiously. "I will ring up the police first thing in the morning, and have you put where you ought to be."

"Go away, and don't be absurd," said Hugh, resuming his pipe.

"I will speak to Miss Hamilton and the doctor about you, masquerading about the place as a gentleman and loafing on their hospitality."

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"I refuse to lose my temper with you," said Hugh, turning his back on him. "Go and do as you please."

The storekeeper stood a moment, then, turning sharply, went swiftly up the path into the house.

Standing alone, Hugh saw a shadow cross the lawn, and Wilfrid came up in his house slippers.

"What was all the noise I heard?" he asked.

"Noise," said Hugh. "What noise?"

"I thought I heard Roller's voice."

"Oh, talking, you mean. Yes, he has just gone inside."

"He seemed to be excited," persisted Wilfrid. "We heard it inside, and Esther turned quite pale. What was the matter?"

Hugh swore under his breath. "Have you any money, Wilf?" he asked suddenly.

"Yes," replied Wilfrid, surprised, "do you want some? How much is it?"

"I don't know," said Hugh, and walked a pace or two impatiently up and down the drive. "What do rings and brooches cost?" he asked.

"All kinds of prices," replied Wilfrid wonderingly, "from pounds to hundreds."

Hugh uttered an exclamation of impatience. "I'd give something to know what he paid for the ring and brooch he gave your cousin," he blurted out.

"So that's it. You had better make a clean breast of it and tell me what occurred."

"It's too absurd," said Hugh, with disgust. "They were lost in my tent, you know, and he pretends to think I've got them. Of course, what he thinks doesn't affect me a penny piece, but then, I am responsible for what happened, though the idea never suggested itself to me before, and I'd like to fix the thing up on the instant."

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Wilfrid stood silent awhile. "Fancy her engaging herself to a cur of that description," he said bitterly at length; "it's almost beyond belief."

"Could she have been driven to it?" Hugh wondered, forgetting his grievance in the interest of the new topic.

"God knows!" said Wilfrid. "She was alone—a motherless girl in a God-forsaken land. What influenced her, who can tell? I expect she got precious little sympathy at home. She could not have loved him, or had the vaguest idea what marriage meant, poor little girl!"

Hugh moved about as though under the stress of great emotion, and at last gripped Wilfrid by the arm with a hand that shook.

"Wilfrid," he said, "I love her with all my heart and all my soul and all my strength. It sounds blasphemous, but it is God's truth."

"Do you, my boy?" said Wilfrid. "I wish you all the good luck in the world."

"You do?" exclaimed Hugh, with a catch of astonished delight.

Wilfrid laid a hand on his shoulder and wheeled him on to the lawn. "I don't know," he said, "what strict honour demands in these cases, but I do not value it one snap of the fingers if it is to be matched against her life's happiness."

"I should think not," said Hugh.

"She has made a mistake. Any girl as young and inexperienced might make such a mistake, but it shall not blast her whole life, if I—if we can prevent it."

"We will prevent it," said Hugh.

"It is, of course, unfortunate that the making of mistakes frequently inflicts pain on innocent persons.

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That, however, is an arrangement beyond human control, and it would be absurd to batter ourselves against destiny in an attempt to alter it."

"Perfectly absurd," Hugh considered.

Wilfrid wheeled him round and again escorted him across the lawn. "So much for the morality of the thing," he said. "Now Roller will get her as certain as we are here, if he only plays his cards properly and goes slow. She will trample on her heart sooner than cause suffering to anyone she respects. He has only to adopt the proper manner with her, and she will go like a lamb to the altar."

"But that is too horrible," said Hugh restively. "He is twice her age, to begin with."

"I don't look upon that as of great importance," Wilfrid replied. "Character is the only thing that matters, and there is exactly where we have him. He is a surly, ill-conditioned beggar without an ounce of refinement in his nature. His only interest is in making money, and I expect he is pretty ruthless in the methods he adopts to do it. Fancy Esther, with her tender heart and her glowing enthusiams, tied to a clown of that description! Can't you see him in your mind's eye trampling across her flower-beds?"

"Don't," said Hugh; "you make me sick."

"Yet," repeated Wilfrid, "he will get her if he has the cunning to treat her in the right way."

"What is to be done, then?" Hugh inquired, with a shade less confidence in his tones.

"Stand by," said Wilfrid, "and give him rope and trust that presently he will hang himself. Unless he develops the cunning of the old gentleman himself he will shortly come to grief. There is one thing Esther detests with every fibre of her being, and that is mean-page 198ness. You may be weak, even wicked, and she will find excuses for you; but to be mean is to shut yourself out of her good graces for ever. I believe it is nothing but the way he has treated her friend Rewi that has alienated any affection she may once have felt for him. Just a little more of that, and her passive indifference will turn into active dislike, and out he goes. I don't say that she might not attempt to carry out her promise even then; but if we can once win her whole heart to our side she must surrender."

"And supposing he has the cunning of the devil?" suggested Hugh.

"We must hope for his own sake that he has nothing of the kind," said Wilfrid; "but if it should prove otherwise, there is nothing for it but to stir him up with a judicious administration of pin-pricks—just one here and there on the raw. This thing has got to be done, and I shall not scruple to do it merely because I have a feeling that I would rather not."

Meanwhile Esther and the storekeeper were seated in the dining-room, equally deep in conversation. Dr. Hamilton was away at the Bay, having been called over to a patient early in the morning; and with the exception of Maria, who was probably reading a novelette in her bedroom, the betrothed pair were alone in the house.

When he left Hugh, Roller was moved by an insane intention of attacking Hugh's character before Esther; but before he reached the house he had recognised the smallness of the foundation he had to build upon, and he entered the room where Esther was sitting, his mind a tumult of rage, seeking in vain for an outlet.

Esther, who was at work with her needle, started at page 199his abrupt entry, and looked with a frightened curiosity at his face, which was of a patchy whiteness and twitched spasmodically.

"Are you unwell?" she asked, as he stood making faces which were the expression of an endeavour to smile at her.

"How can I be well," he asked, detecting his opportunity and controlling his emotion by a fierce effort of the will, "so long as I am in doubt of you? Esther, what have I done that you avoid me and remain silent except in reply to my questions?"

"Avoid you?"

"It is avoiding me, when you do not come to me as once you did. There is a change in you, and I have a right to know the reason. Upon my soul, one would think we were no longer lovers!"

"Tell me what you complain of," said Esther, "and if I have done wrong I will try to amend."

"It is your manner that wounds me, its lack of spontaneity. With me you are either grave or dejected; with others I hear you—I heard you to-day while you were standing with that fellow Clifford on the lawn—talking and laughing freely, but with me you are silent. Is there no longer anything to talk of between us that we meet and part with hardly a word?"

"Is it my talking with Mr. Clifford on the lawn you object to?" Esther asked.

"Clifford! Hang Clifford! Why is he dragged into everything? Who in heaven's name is this man?" he demanded, with a gleam of fury.

"You mentioned him," said Esther coldly. "I merely desired to know definitely what your grievance was, that I might see if you were justified. There is no need to shout at me."

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"No," he said apologetically. "I beg your pardon; but, Esther, you must see that I am greatly troubled over all this. There is a change, and you must know it; tell me what is the meaning of it. When I asked you a week or so ago to name the day of our marriage—and surely it was a natural question for me to put and for you to answer—you seemed surprised and dumb-foundered, and finally you appointed a day a fortnight distant on which to answer me. The day is nearly at hand, but in the meantime all your attention has been given to others, and for me you have had nothing but monosyllables. What was your meaning when you said you would answer me? Was it as to the day of our marriage? Or was there something else in your mind?"

"If there were," Esther replied, without looking at him—"if I suggested that we should both reconsider our engagement, would—would it cause you—unhappiness?"

"So that is it," he said bitterly. "And you speak of unhappiness! Have you no notion of the serious nature of a contract of this kind?"

"It is for that very reason that I hesitate. It is so easy to do, so impossible to undo. And, Albert, if we are making a mistake, think of the consequences to us both."

"You should have thought of them at the time," he replied; "not now when my life's happiness is bound up in the fulfilment of your promise."

"Your life's happiness!" she repeated in awe-stricken tones. "Surely you exaggerate. Why should you feel the loss of a girl who did not know her own mind?"

"Because I know mine. I am older than you, Esther, and my mind, maybe, is not so easily made up; but on the other hand, the resolutions it arrives at are based page 201not on impulses, but on judgment, and they stand. I had never before put to a woman the question I addressed to you. My proposal was deliberate, and the cost had been counted in every detail before it was spoken. I loved you, Esther, as strongly and sincerely as a man can love a woman, and I knew that there was no one else in the world for me. From the moment when the words of consent fell from your lips, from that moment I regarded you as mine, and since then every thought of the future has been connected with you."

Esther regarded him steadfastly with dilating eyes. "Why—oh why," she whispered, "have you never spoken like this to me before?"

His glance shifted under the steady gaze. "Because," he replied, "your manner has kept me silent."

"But," she said, with wondering simplicity, "if you had loved me like that, surely, surely I must have known. Can a great love, such as you describe, be concealed even when there is every incentive for it to display itself?"

"Blame yourself for that, Esther," was the reply, "not me."

"Myself? Yes, it is myself I blame for everything; but are we both to suffer for my mistake?"

"There can be no suffering for me, Esther, in a marriage with you." He crossed the room and seated himself beside her. "If I have seemed to be neglectful of you, dear, or if my love has not shown itself in the demonstrative fashion of other men, is it too late to alter? Surely you have not ceased to love me altogether."

For a while Esther sat motionless, looking straight before her with wide, absent eyes. The way of escape lay open—could she take it? She had never loved page 202him, and now she felt that what he complained of was true. She did avoid him; his presence seemed to chill and restrain her, so that before him she became, as he had said, dejected and speechless. Latterly too there had grown up a physical shrinking, against which she wrestled in vain. Could she—must she—marry a man whose very touch was distasteful to her? She gave a little shiver, and rising to her feet, laid her work absently on the table.

He reached out his hand for one of hers and, after a movement of withdrawal, she bit her lip and allowed it to remain in his possession. Slowly the absent look died out of her eyes, and she stood gazing down on him with an expression he could not fathom.

"I have no love for you," she said mercilessly, "none."

He winced at the cruel little speech, but did not loose his gaze from hers.

"Understand," she went on, "that I have no heart in this marriage, absolutely none. I would sooner be free. I do not think I shall make you a suitable wife or add to your happiness. I shall not be happy myself." The sentences fell like knife-stabs, but the man, after the first stroke, took them unflinchingly. No doubt he saw whither they tended, and in the contemplation of the promised land the terrors of the way passed unheeded.

She moistened her lips, and her voice fell to a lower key. "I have told you the truth as I feel it, so that you may understand clearly what you are doing. I promised to marry you. I think now I was mad when I made that promise; but it is done, and only you can set me free."

"That I will never do," he said resolutely, with a smile.

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She turned deathly pale. "Then," she said breathlessly, "take my answer now—I will marry you."


"When you please."

Roller reflected a moment. In the strong exultation, masked by the smiling face, was no shadow of relenting. The interview should be final, and no loose thread should threaten its unravelling. "Then it shall be on the tenth of March," he said, and he attempted to draw her towards him.

With a gesture of unmistakable repulsion she tore herself free.

"No," she exclaimed, breathing quickly, "not that. Let it be when you will, but until then——" She spread her hands towards him and was silent.

He watched her with sullen eyes. "Have you no affection for me at all?" he asked in spite of himself.

Esther laughed mirthlessly. "Can you ask such a question of the girl who has consented to marry you? Surely in the circumstances it is the strangest question that a man ever put to a woman."

"Ah, well," he said, rising, "my love shall suffice for us both. With or without love, you are mine, and I will never let you go."

So, in spite of the conspirators still perambulating the lawn, the lover they sought to depose secured himself yet more firmly in his hold.