A Bride from the Bush, by E. W. Hornung

Chapter 3

Pins and Needles

Slanting mellow sunbeams fell pleasantly upon the animated face of the Bride, as she stepped lightly across the gangway from the steam-launch to the lawn; and, for one moment, her tall supple figure stood out strikingly against the silver river and the pale eastern sky. In that moment a sudden dimness came over Lady Bligh’s soft eyes, and with outstretched arms she hurried forward to press her daughter to her heart. It was a natural motherly impulse, but, even if Lady Bligh had stopped to think, she would have made sure of being met half-way. She was not, however, and the mortification of the moment was none the less intense because it was invisible. The Bride refused to be embraced. She was so tall that it would have been impossible for Lady Bligh to kiss her against her will, but it never came to that; the unbending carriage and man-like outstretched hand spoke plainly and at once — and were understood. But Lady Bligh coloured somewhat, and it was an unfortunate beginning, for every one noticed it; and the Judge, who was hurrying towards them across the lawn at the time, there and then added a hundred per cent of ceremony to his own greeting, and received his daughter-in-law as he would have received any other stranger.

‘I am very happy to see you,’ he said, when Alfred had introduced them — the Judge waited for that. ‘Welcome, indeed; and I hope you have received agreeable impressions of our River Thames.’

‘Oh, rather!’ said Gladys, smiling unabashed upon the old gentleman. ‘We’ve no rivers like it in Australia. I’ve just been saying so.’

Granville, who had been watching for a change in his mother’s expression when she should first hear the Bride speak, was not disappointed. Lady Bligh winced perceptibly. Judges, however, may be relied upon to keep their countenances, if anybody may; it is their business; Sir James was noted for it, and he merely said dryly, ‘I suppose not,’ and that was all.

And then they all walked up the lawn together to where tea awaited them in the veranda. The Bride’s dark eyes grew round at sight of the gleaming silver teapot and dainty Dresden china; she took her seat in silence in a low wicker chair, while the others talked around her; but presently she was heard exclaiming:—

‘No, thanks, no milk, and I’ll sweeten it myself, please.’

‘But it’s cream,’ said Lady Bligh, good-naturedly, pausing with the cream-jug in the air.

‘The same thing,’ returned Gladys. ‘We never took any on the station, so I like it better without; and it can’t be too strong, if you please. We didn’t take milk,’ she turned to explain to Sir James, ‘because, in a general way, our only cow was a tin one, and we preferred no milk at all. We ran sheep, you see, not cattle.’

‘A tin cow!’ said Sir James.

‘She means they only had condensed milk,’ said Alfred, roaring with laughter.

‘But our cow is not tin,’ said Lady Bligh, smiling, as she still poised the cream-jug; ‘will you not change your mind?’

‘No, thanks,’ said the Bride stoutly.

It was another rather awkward moment, for it did seem as though Gladys was disagreeably independent. And Alfred, of all people, made the moment more awkward still, and, indeed, more uncomfortable than any that had preceded it.

‘Gladdie,’ he exclaimed in his airiest manner, ‘you’re a savage! A regular savage, as I’ve told you over and over again!’

No one said anything. Gladys smiled, and Alfred chuckled over his pleasantry. But it was a pleasantry that contained a most unpleasant truth. The others felt this, and it made them silent. It was a relief to all — with the possible exception of the happy pair, neither of whom appeared to be over-burdened with self-consciousness — when Lady Bligh carried off Gladys, and delivered her in her own room into the safe keeping of Miss Bunn, her appointed maid.

This girl, Bunn, presently appeared in the servants’ hall, sat down in an interesting way, and began to twirl her thumbs with great ostentation. Being questioned, in fulfilment of her artless design, she said that she was not wanted upstairs. Being further questioned, she rattled off a string of the funny things Mrs ‘Halfred’ had said to her along with a feeble imitation of Mrs ‘Halfred’s’ very funny way of saying them. This is not a matter of importance; but it was the making of Bunn below stairs; so long as Mrs Alfred remained in the house, her maid’s popularity as a kitchen entertainer was assured.

The Bride wished to be alone; at all events she desired no personal attendance. What should she want with a maid? A lady’s-maid was a ‘fixing’ she did not understand, and did not wish to understand; she had said so plainly, and that she didn’t see where Miss Bunn ‘came in’; and then Miss Bunn had gone out, in convulsions. And now the Bride was alone at last, and stood pensively gazing out of her open window at the wonderful green trees and the glittering river, at the deep cool shadows and the pale evening sky; and delight was in her bold black eyes; yet a certain sense of something not quite as it ought to be-a sensation at present vague and undefined — made her graver than common. And so she stood until the door was burst suddenly open, and a long arm curled swiftly round her waist, and Alfred kissed her.

‘My darling! tell me quickly ——’

‘Stop!’ said Gladys. ‘I’ll bet I guess what it is you want me to tell you! Shall I?’

‘Yes, if you can, for I certainly do want you to tell me something.’

‘Then it’s what I think of your people!’

‘How you like them,’ Alfred amended. ‘Yes, that was it. Well, then?’

‘Well, then — I like your mother. She has eyes like yours, Alfred, large and still and kind, and she is big and motherly.’

‘Then, oh, my darling, why on earth didn’t you kiss her?’

‘Kiss her? Not me! Why should I?’

‘She meant to kiss you; I saw she did.’

‘Don’t you believe it! Even if she had, it would have been only for your sake. You wait a little bit; wait till she knows me, and if she wants to kiss me then — let her!’

Alfred was pained by his young wife’s tone; he had never before heard her speak so strangely, and her eyes were wistful. He did not quite understand her, but he did not try to, then; he varied the subject.

‘How about Gran?’

‘Oh, that Gran!’ cried Gladys. ‘I can’t suffer him at all.’

‘Can’t suffer Gran! What on earth do you mean, Gladys?’

‘I mean that he was just a little beast in the boat! You think he was as glad to see you as you were him, because you judge by yourself; but not a bit of it; I know better. It was all put on with him, and a small “all” too. Then you asked him to tell me about the places we passed, and he only laughed at me. Ah, you may laugh at people without moving a muscle, but people may see it all the same; and I did, all along; and just before we got here I very near told him so. If I had, I’d have given him one, you stake your life!’

‘I’m glad you didn’t,’ said Alfred devoutly, but in great trouble. ‘I never heard him say anything to rankle like that; I thought he was very jolly, if you ask me. And really, Gladdie, old Gran’s as good a fellow as ever lived; besides which, he has all the brains of the family.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Gladys, softening, ‘my old man has got a double share of something better than brains!’

‘Nonsense, darling! But at least the Judge was pleasant; what did you think of the Judge?’

‘I funked him.’

‘Good gracious! Why?’

‘He’s so dreadfully dignified; and he looks you through and through — not nastily, like Gran does, but as if you were something funny in a glass case.’

‘What stuff and nonsense, Gladdie! You’re making me miserable. Look here: talk to the Judge: draw him out a bit. That’s all he wants, and he likes it.’

‘What am I to call him —“Judge”?’

‘No: not that: never that. For the present, “Sir James,” I think.’

‘And what am I to talk about?’

‘Oh, anything — Australia. Interest him about the Bush. Try, dearest, at dinner — to please me.’

‘Very well,’ said Gladys; ‘I’ll have a shot.’

And she had one, though it was not quite the kind of shot Alfred would have recommended — at any rate, not for a first shot. For, on thinking it over, it seemed to Gladys that, with relation to the Bush, nothing could interest a Judge so much as the manner of administering the law there, which she knew something about. Nor was the subject unpromising or unsafe: it was only her way of leading up to it that was open to criticism.

‘I suppose, Sir James,’ she began, ‘you have lots of trying to do?’

‘Trying?’ said the Judge, looking up from his soup; for the Bride had determined not to be behindhand in keeping her promise, and had opened the attack thus early.

‘As if he were a tailor!’ thought Granville. ‘Trials, sir,’ he suggested suavely. He was sitting next Gladys, who was on the Judge’s right.

‘Ah, trials!’ said the Judge with a faint — a very faint — smile. ‘Oh, yes — a great number.’

A sudden thought struck Gladys. She became the interested instead of the interesting party. She forgot the Bush, and stared at her father-in-law in sudden awe.

‘Are there many murder trials among them, Sir James?’

By the deliberate manner with which he went on with his soup, the Judge apparently did not hear the question. But Lady Bligh and Alfred heard it, and were horrified; while Granville looked grave, and listened for more with all his ears. He had not to wait long. Gladys feared she had expressed herself badly, and quickly tried again.

‘What I mean is — Sir James — do you often have to go and put on the black cap, and sentence poor unfortunate people to be hung? Because that can’t be very nice, Sir James — is it?’

A faint flush mounted into the Judge’s pale cheeks. ‘It is not of frequent occurrence,’ he said stiffly.

Granville, sitting next her, might easily have stopped his sister-in-law by a word or a sign before this; but Alfred was practically hidden from her by the lamp, and though he tried very hard to kick her under the table, he only succeeded in kicking footstools and table-legs; and Lady Bligh was speechless.

The Bride, however, merely thought that Alfred had exaggerated the ease with which his father was to be drawn out. But she had not given in yet. That would have been contrary to her nature.

‘What a good thing!’ she said. ‘It would be so — so horrid, if it happened very often, to wake up and say to yourself, “That poor fellow’s got to swing in a minute or two; and it’s me that’s done it!” It would be a terror if that was to happen every week or so; and I’m glad for your sake, Sir James ——’

She broke off suddenly; why, it is difficult to say, for no one had spoken; but perhaps that was the very reason. At all events, she remembered her experience of Bush law, and got to her point, now, quickly enough.

‘I was once at a trial myself, Sir James, in the Bush,’ she said (and there was certainly a general sense of relief). ‘My own father was boss — or Judge, if you like — that trip. There were only four people there; the sergeant, who was jailer and witness as well, father, the prisoner, and me; I looked on.’

‘Is your father a member of the Colonial Bar?’ inquired Sir James, mildly.

‘Lord, no, Sir James! He’s only a magistrate. Why, he’d only got to remand the poor chap down to Cootamundra; yet he had to consult gracious knows how many law-books (the sergeant had them ready) to do it properly!’

They all laughed; but there was a good deal that ought not to have been laughed at. A moment before, when her subject was about as unfortunate as it could have been, she had chosen her mere words with a certain amount of care and good taste; but now that she was on her native heath, and blameless in matter, her manner had become dreadful — her expressions were shocking — her twang worse than ever. The one subject that she was at home in excited her to an unseemly degree. No sooner, then, had the laugh subsided than Lady Bligh seized upon the conversation, hurled it well over the head of the Bride, and kept it there, high and dry, until the end of dessert; then she sailed away to the drawing-room with the unconscious offender.

It was time to end this unconsciousness.

‘My dear,’ said Lady Bligh, ‘will you let me give you a little lecture?’

‘Certainly,’ said Gladys, opening her eyes rather wide, but won at once by the old lady’s manner.

‘Then, my dear, you should never interrogate people about their professional duties, least of all a judge. Sir James does not like it; and even I never dream of doing it.’

‘Goodness gracious!’ cried the Bride. ‘Have I been and put my foot in it, then?’

‘You have said nothing that really matters,’ Lady Bligh replied hastily; and she determined to keep till another time some observations that were upon her mind on the heads of ‘slang’ and ‘twang;’ for the poor girl was blushing deeply, and seemed, at last, thoroughly uncomfortable; which was not what Lady Bligh wanted at all.

‘Only, I must tell you,’ Lady Bligh continued, ‘it was an unfortunate choice to hit upon the death-sentence for a subject of conversation. All judges are sensitive about it; Sir James is particularly so. But there! there is nothing for you to look grieved about, my dear. No one will think anything more of such a trifle; and, of course, out in Australia everything must be quite different.’

Gladys bridled up at once; she would have no allowances made for herself at the expense of her country. It is a point on which Australians are uncommonly sensitive, small blame to them.

‘Don’t you believe it!’ she cried vigorously. ‘You mustn’t go blaming Australia, Lady Bligh; it’s no fault of Australia’s. It’s my fault —my ignorance —me that’s to blame! Oh, please to remember: whenever I do or say anything wrong, you’ve not to excuse me because I’m an Australian! Australia’s got nothing to do with it; it’s me that doesn’t know what’s what, and has got to learn!’

Her splendid eyes were full of trouble, but not of tears. With a quick, unconscious, supplicating gesture she turned and fled from the room.

A few minutes later, when Lady Bligh followed her, she said, very briefly and independently, that she was fatigued, and would come down no more. And so her first evening in England passed over.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hornung/ew/bride-from-the-bush/chapter3.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 20:51