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The Land of The Lost

Chapter XXIV

page 213

Chapter XXIV

"So that was the reason you desired to be free?"

Roller said, as they entered the dining-room.

"That was the reason," she replied.

"Why did you not tell me so yesterday? You said some things hard for me to hear; why did you reserve that?"

"Would it have made any difference if I had told you?" she asked.

He seated himself heavily, without replying.

Esther remained standing, her fingers idly straying among the pages of a magazine on the table. After the first shock of his abrupt entry on the scene, Esther had accepted the situation with the calmness with which mankind usually accepts the inevitable.

She was keenly alive to, and absorbed in, the possibilities of the interview before her, but she was astonished at the coolness and apparent indifference with which she awaited the conflict. She had expected violence, bitter reproaches, furious anger, and it was perhaps the non-fulfilment of these expectations that was responsible for her present dangerous mood of acceptance.

"I cannot give you up, Esther," he said at last, rousing himself as though from a reverie; "not even now. Least of all can I give you up to this man.

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Have you spoken of love to him before? Was this one scene of many? Or was it the first and last?"

"It was the first," she said.

"Will it be the last?"

With the sound of Hugh's voice still lingering in her ears, with the passion of his kiss still stirring her blood, the girl stood silent.

"Answer me," he said, turning his gaze for the first time full upon her.

She met his look unflinchingly.

"I love him," she said. "I cannot cease to love him at your direction. You complained that I did not tell you the whole truth; this time you shall have no ground for complaint."

"I trust you, Esther," he replied; "you cannot frighten me into releasing you. I know the whole truth now, and I am not afraid of it. Afraid!" he repeated scornfully—and for the first time the volcano beneath revealed itself in a flash of fire—"What can there be to fear in the rivalry of a gum-digger and a thief?"

She smiled slowly, and the smile drove him to frenzy.

"A thief," he went on, "who will descend to stealing trinkets from the girl he pretends to love."

Esther's face wore a look of bewilderment.

"What can you mean?" she asked.

"Mean?" he echoed, rejoicing savagely in the possibility of inflicting pain. "I mean that you were thrown into his society with money and jewellery, you left him with neither."

"You cannot really imagine that he was responsible for that?" she said, her lip curling.

"There is no imagination about it," he declared, page 215with a brutal laugh. "I accused him to his face, and he did not deny it."

Esther stood rigid, watching him with blazing eyes.

"You told him to his face that he was a thief?" she exclaimed.

"I did," he replied. "I told him so more than once."

"I wonder you dared!"

"Esther!" he exclaimed, shrinking under the deadly significance of the words.

"No," she said wildly, "you shall not have the right to call me Esther. Wild horses shall not drag me to marry you now. You have committed a cowardly and unpardonable outrage, so gross and wicked that I wonder you are alive to tell it me. It is not true that you had any cause to suspect or dislike him. Until to-night there was not one word passed between us which might not as well have been said in your presence. He has never from the first treated you otherwise than as one gentleman should treat another, but you have continually made him a butt for vulgar insult, even in my presence, when, if you had had a spark of manly feeling, you would have known that he could not possibly answer you as you deserved."

Roller sat dazed in the midst of the whirlwind of his own creation. So accustomed had he become to the girl's unquestioning obedience that the possibility of her freeing herself without his consent had never seriously occurred to him. In the fierce blaze of her anger his own wrath for the moment died away, and only the desire to appease her held possession of his mind.

"Forgive me, Esther," he said. "It was the distraction of the thought of losing you that maddened me so that I hardly knew what I was saying."

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"It is impossible I should forgive you," she replied; "there is no forgiveness for an insult so baseless and unprovoked. When I think of the kindness with which he treated me on that dreadful night, and remember that it was under my father's roof this indignity was done him, I stand loaded with shame. No, so long as I had for you one spark of respect, I was prepared to stand by my promise though I wrecked my life in doing so, but I will not tie myself to a man for whom I have neither respect nor love, and nothing shall persuade or compel me to do so."

"Is this, then, the end of it all, Esther?" he asked after a while. "Have you led me on and deluded me for six months to throw me aside in favour of the first man you meet more to your liking? What term do you think people will apply to conduct such as that?"

"It is not true," she replied, "that I have led you on or deluded you, or been anything else than completely frank with you all through our engagement. I have never professed any feeling for you stronger than liking and respect, and I have never given you reason to suppose that I entertained any. I was mistaken in you and in myself, and for that, in so far as it has led to disappointment for you, I am sorry, but there is no more to say."

"There is a little more for me to say, however," he replied, with a sneer, "and I fancy if it were said openly in the township it would bear a rather ugly interpretation. Until you met this man Clifford you had no fault to find with me. Even until he comes on a visit to the house there is nothing to lead me to suppose that I have lost favour with you. Then, however, on that very day, I ask you to name the time for our marriage, and you put me off for a fortnight Why? Because you page 217want to make sure of the new love before you are off with the old. Even so recently as last night you tell me again that you will marry me; but then you are not certain of him, and nothing but certainty will justify you in throwing over your chance of an establishment. To-night he has declared himself; I have served the purpose for which I was required; I am of no further use; I can go. And you avail yourself of the first possible pretext to dismiss me. There is the whole truth."

Her cheeks flamed at the coarse insult, but her voice remained steady as she replied," Have it so; you can then feel nothing but satisfaction in escaping me."

"I know that you are quick-witted," he said, watching her," and that in argument I am no match for you; but there is one thing I can do, and that is ensure the failure of your designs. You think that you can get rid of me and marry Clifford. Not while I live."

She looked at him, and for the first time there was a shadow of fear in her eyes.

He rose and crossed to the door, his face working. "Remember what I say," he said, pausing with his hand on the handle and regarding her steadfastly. "You shall not marry this man while I live to prevent it. You have tricked and deceived me; for months I have lived in a fool's paradise of your making, and your whole life has been one long lie from the moment when in this very room you promised yourself to me: therefore this man, of all the world, shall never be your husband. And that is my last word to you." He stood a moment looking at her, then, opening the door, passed swiftly out of the room and the house.

She was still standing in the same position when page 218Wilfrid and Hugh came in. Her face was pale from the stress of the scene through which she had just passed, and she looked at them at first with unseeing eyes.

"Dinner, Esther, if you love me," Wilfrid said after a keen glance, and he threw himself full length on the sofa.

There was something in the request, unfeeling and trivial as it seemed, which roused her and did her good, and Wilfrid knew as she turned to him that its effect had been calculated to a nicety.

"Poor thing!" she said, with quite the old mocking tenderness. "Where have you been?"

"Wrestling with death," he replied, "and worsting him."

They all three drew in their chairs to the table while Wilfrid discussed his meal, and though Esther and Hugh said little or nothing, yet in the rattle of Wilfrid's conversation, skimming lightly from subject to subject, with an undercurrent of serious feeling revealing itself here and there, the strain of self-consciousness vanished, and the cloud that had darkened their days seemed to melt and disappear.

"No news of the doctor?" asked Wilfrid. "Well, give me a cup of tea.

'Lo! I myself, when flushed with fight or hot, Before I first have drunken scarce can eat.'

Have some tea, Hugh? Give the boy a cup, Esther—hang the expense."

After his wants were satisfied and Maria had cleared away, they still sat at the table while Wilfrid smoked his cigar.

"I shall have to return to town soon," he said; "my cigars are nearly all gone."

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"I will provide you with cigars," said Esther, "if you will stop here until I am tired of paying for them."

Wilfrid looked at her, and then turned to Hugh. "Isn't she the most perfect girl in the world," he said, "bar one?"

Hugh nodded, but his look spoke volumes.

The colour mantled in her cheek. She sat leaning forward, her face pillowed in her hand, her whole attitude full of trustful repose. Her voice was low, and charged with the tired tenderness of emotional exhaustion. After the blistering words—yet repeating themselves in her mind—which, however baseless, had still wounded her self-respect, how sweet was the love and praise of these two men! Yet—and she shrank visibly at the thought—what if, after all, their praise were misplaced, and she were indeed as blameworthy as her rejected lover had told her?

How much Wilfrid guessed of the late interview is not easy to say, but he had never previously shown his cousin such deference as he did to-night. If he had deliberately set himself to annul every one of Roller's strictures he could not have shown a clearer perception of what was required.

But there was one trouble at the back of Esther's mind which remained untouched and undiminished, and that was the attitude her father would assume on hearing of the broken engagement. With which of his many moods would he receive the announcement, and how long would it be before he became reconciled to the fact that the marriage was not to be? Her father, it was true, had never displayed any pleasure in Roller's society, and had even shown symptoms of dislike for him, especially when, as occasionally happened, he had page 220been contradicted under his own roof in matters concerning which the storekeeper was manifestly ignorant. But it was no certain corollary from this that the breach would be welcome to him, or that serious consequence might not result from the view he took of Roller's dismissal. Esther knew from past experience that a good deal in her father's reception of a new idea depended on the mood he was in at the time, and also upon the manner in which it was first presented.

But it so happened that the desire to break the news to the doctor carefully was rendered abortive by the fact that when he arrived he was already in possession of the facts, and his first words to Esther, even before any greeting had been interchanged, showed the source from which his information was derived.

"What nonsense is this Albert is telling me about your breaking off your engagement with him? Write to him at once, and tell him it is all childishness, and that you are sorry for it."

Esther shook her head. "No, father," she said, recognising that her worst fears were realised, "I shall never marry Mr. Roller. I don't know what he has told you of what passed between us, but I shall never engage myself to him again."

"Pooh, pooh!" said the doctor. "We shall see—wait till I have got my boots off." And he retired into the house with that object.

But Esther was no longer fighting her battle alone, and the doctor's determination to give battle after his boots were off having been reported in all seriousness to Wilfrid, the latter was seized with such uncontrollable mirth that Esther, despite her misgivings, was compelled to join in, and her heart was greatly lightened in consequence. page 221"Stand to your guns, Esther," Wilfrid directed, "and if necessary, take your boots off also. Remember we are behind you and no retreat is possible. I have never gone back in my life, though perhaps I should be ashamed to confess it. As for Hugh, you know the sort of stubborn, immovable mass he is."

"But Hugh has got to go," she said. "Father must have heard something, because Maria tells me that he came into the dining-room while she was setting the table and asked her who the fourth place was for, and when she told him he said, 'Mr. Clifford will not be here to dinner!' in a voice that made her jump. So what ought we to do?"

Wilfrid whistled, and throwing aside his book, got quickly to his feet. "Where is Hugh?" he asked. "I must go and give him a gentle hint to make himself scarce till the storm blows over. We can't have him insulted again, for though the young man is roused into action only with difficulty, he is deucedly active when he gets going."

Hugh, in consequence, did not appear at dinner, and his visit, so far as the shelter of the doctor's roof was concerned, was thus brought to an abrupt conclusion.

The young man, however, was not to be immediately driven from the township, and when Wilfrid, smoking his cigar in solitude on the lawn, heard the cry of a morepork from the region of the orchard, he at once recognised it as one of Hugh's accomplishments, and bent his steps in that direction.

"Do you think she would see me?" Hugh asked eagerly. "If you told her I am here, would she come?"

"Like a swallow," replied Wilfrid. "Stay where you are." And he returned to the house.

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Hugh opened the gate and came into the shadow of the path, and in a moment Esther joined him.

"Oh, Hugh!" she said. "I am sorry, but it cannot be helped. What will you do?"

"Go back to the camp," he replied, "for a few days until your father relents. He cannot hold out long if you stand firm."

"I will never give in," she said. "If it were a little thing I would obey him against my will, but this is my whole life."

He kissed her passionately. "You are mine, Esther," he said. "Remember you are fighting for me as well as yourself. It will only be for a few days, and then our happiness will begin."

It was not until the following day that the doctor opened the campaign by demanding of Esther whether she had written to Roller, as directed.

"No, father," she said quietly.

"Very well," he said. "I will send for him, and you can discuss the matter in my presence."

"I shall not see Mr. Roller," she said in the same tone. "I have nothing to discuss with him."

The doctor was staggered. The girl hitherto had shown herself so amenable to his caprices that this change of front came on him like a sudden reversal of the laws of nature.

"You will not?" he asked, with an emphasis on the "will."

"No, father," she repeated; "I am sorry to disobey you, but I have made up my mind."

"It seems to me you have no mind," said her father. "Tut! tut! my girl, you cannot play fast and loose with a man in this way. You must stand to your page 223agreement It appears from what Albert tells me there has been some sort of flirtation between you and this young man Clifford. I am surprised at that young man, but since he has had the good sense to go away, we need say no more about it. Come, I will send the boy across to the store for Albert, and we will get the thing cleared up right away."

His tone was not unkind, and it seemed that he really did desire to have the business accomplished as pleasantly as possible. "What do you say?" he asked, his hand hovering over the bell on his table.

"Oh, father," said Esther, "have pity on me! I do not want to disobey you, or make you angry with me; but if I yield now I must wish that I had never been born."

It was impossible for him to disregard the anguish of her tone, and his hand fell irresolutely to the table. "Tell me what it all means," he said irritably.

"Father," she said, kneeling on the rug beside him and throwing an arm across his knee, "I do not love Mr. Roller, and I do love—somebody else. I did not know what I was doing when I promised to marry him. I have had to live my life alone, with no one to help me. God help me if I made a mistake, for there was no other to set me right. Dear"—she went on, stealing an arm round his neck and gazing at him, the tears streaming unchecked down her cheeks—"do you remember how for years, when I was a little child, you would take me on your knee and shed tears over me as you told me of the mother I never knew? Have you forgotten her?"

"Forgotten!" said the man uneasily, watching her with a strange awe.

"Father, would she have driven me into the darkness page 224if I had come to her telling her that I had done a wrong that I could not retrieve except at the cost of my life's happiness? Would she have had no pity for me too? Oh! no, no; all my life her picture has hung by my bed, and I have seen her beautiful face in my dreams, and I know that in her heart there would be nothing but love and compassion."

He laid a trembling hand on her head and continued to scan her face with the same intentness.

"Listen, dear," she continued—and it seemed to the man watching her that a spirit from the dead had arisen to plead for her—"when mother died, I know now, because I feel it in my heart, that for you the joy of life died with her. But how would it have been if by some cruel chance, her mistake or yours, you had been compelled, still loving one another, to live apart, beyond hope of reunion?—for that is the fate to which you would consign me. Could you have borne it? Can you think of her enduring it, and still have no pity for me?"

He drew a long breath, and his hand moved caressingly in her hair.

"Many and long the years have been, child," he said musingly; "and they have tired me, and I have been a failure every way. I see now how in the absorption of my grief I have missed something that might have been mine—a daughter's love."

"Oh, father," she said, with eager compunction, drawing his face down to hers, "I have loved you, but now more than ever, because I understand. Oh, my dear, my heart is sore for you—and see—I will not disobey you any more, and what you direct me I will do!"

"God forbid," he said tenderly, "that you should look page 225at me with your mother's eyes and speak to me with your mother's voice, and I should send you, as you have said, into the darkness!"

So at the first encounter, to the touch of that loving spirit, the doctor capitulated, and his household was no longer divided against itself.