“I like a dance where you can dance,” said Herbert, who was looking at himself in a glass and wondering how long his white tie had been on one side. “It was worth fifty of the swell show you took us to in town, Ruth.”
“I am glad you two have enjoyed it so,” returned Ruth, with her eye, however, upon her husband. “Of course there’s a great difference between a big dance in town and a little one in the country.”
Tiny seemed busy. She was tearing her programme into small pieces, and dropping them at her feet, so that when she had gone up to bed it was as though a paper chase had passed through the rectory study, where they had all gathered for a few moments on their return from the dance. Christina, however, was not too preoccupied to chime in on her own note:
“It’s like the difference between Riverina and Victoria — there were acres to the sheep instead of sheep to the acre.”
Now there was no merit in this speech, but to those who understood it the comparison was apt, and Erskine knew enough of Australia to understand. Moreover, he had taught Tiny to listen for his laugh. So when he made neither sound nor sign the girl felt injured, but remembered that he had been extremely silent on the way home. And he was the first to go upstairs.
“It has bored him,” observed Christina.
“He don’t like dancing,” said Herbert. “He’s no sportsman.”
“I am afraid he cares for nothing but lawn tennis when he’s here,” sighed Ruth, who looked a little troubled. “I am afraid he dislikes going out in the country.”
They were silent for some minutes before Tiny exclaimed with conviction:
“No; it’s the Dromards he dislikes.”
And presently they made a move from the room. But on the stairs they met Erskine coming down, having changed his dress suit for flannels; and Ruth followed him back to the study, eying the change with dismay.
“Surely you’re not going to sit up at this hour?”
Ruth had raised her glance from his flannels to his face, which troubled her more.
“I’m afraid the fine weather’s at an end,” Erskine answered crookedly; “it’s most awfully close, at any rate. And I want a pipe.”
He proceeded to fill one with his back to her.
“I won’t be ‘dear’ to you when you’re cross with me. I want to know what I have done to vex you.”
He had struck a match, and he lit his pipe before answering. Then he said gently enough:
“If you think I’m cross with you I should run away to bed; I certainly don’t mean to be.”
But he had not turned round.
“You succeed, at any rate! As you seem to wish it, I shall take your advice.”
Erskine heard her on the stairs with a twinge in his heart. He went to the door to call her down and be frank with her, but the shutting of her own door checked him. Setting this one ajar, he threw up the window, and stood frowning at the opaque pall that seemed to have been let down behind it like an outer blind. So he remained for some minutes before remembering the easy-chair. No one knew better than Erskine that he had just been unkind to his wife. He was not pleased with her, but he had refused to explain his displeasure when she invited him to do so. There was this difficulty in explaining it — that he knew it to be unreasonable, since the person who had vexed him most was not Ruth, but Christina. And not more reasonable was his disappointment in Christina, as he also knew. Yet the one thing in life not disappointing to him at the moment was his pipe; even the fine weather was most surely at an end.
He was tired of the rectory, which, wet or fair, had no longer either light or shadow of its own, for both were now absorbed in the deepening shadow of the hall. A week ago they had all dined there, now they had been dancing there, and meanwhile the girls had watched one of the matches, and were going to another. Erskine had been opposed to the dance, but the wife had prevailed; he was against their going to another match, but doubtless Ruth would have her way again, for she had shown a tenacity of purpose that surprised him in her, while he was crippled by a conscious lack of logic in his objections. He was not an arbitrary person, and it seemed that Ruth would stop for nothing less than a command where her heart was set; and her sister was with her. The whole trouble was, where their hearts were set.
He tried hard not to think the worst of Tiny, or rather the worst as it seemed to him. To make it easier, he called to mind various things she had said to him at various times concerning Lord Manister, of whom she had seldom failed to make fun. It amused and consoled Erskine to remember the fun; there must be hope for her still. Then he recalled common gossip about Lord Manister and his affairs; and there was hope on that side too. In less than a week the danger would be past, and those two would never see each other again. Consideration of the danger he had in mind, quá danger, provoked a smile. Tiny herself would have enjoyed the humor of that, she was so quick to see and to enjoy. But she could appreciate more than a joke, or did she only pretend to like those books? And the soul that shone sometimes in her eyes, did it lie much deeper? She interested Erskine the more because he could not be sure. She was a fascinating study to him, whatever she did or was trying to do. In any case, there was much good in her that he had fathomed, and more was suggested; and the finer the nature, the stronger the contrasts. Now as to contrasts — yet he had never seen that in Australia.
“A penny for your thoughts!”
Ten thousand pounds would not have bought them. It was his wife on the threshold, in a pale pink wrapper.
“My dear! I pictured you asleep hours ago.”
“Were you picturing me when I spoke?” Ruth said, with a smile. “I’m not sleepy — and I want to talk to you. May I sit down? An hour more or less makes no difference at this time of the morning.”
Erskine rose from the easy-chair in which he had been smoking, and settled his wife in it against her will, and drew the curtains across the open window.
“I’m glad you’ve come down, Ruth, for I want to speak to you, too. I was a brute to you when I sent you away just now.”
“Well, I really think you were; but I know you must have had some reason; so I’ve come down to have it out and be done with it.”
“My dear Ruth!” said Mr. Holland uncomfortably; for was there any call to be frank with her at all? It would hurt; and could it do any good?
“I suppose,” pursued Ruth in a tone not perfectly free from defiance, “it’s all because we went to this horrid dance! And I’ll say I’m sorry we did go, if you like; though why you should have such a down on the Dromards I can’t for the life of me imagine.”
“My dear girl,” said Erskine, smiling now that he had determined not to say everything, “I really have no down on them at all. They’re the most amiable family I know, considering who they are. They have a charming place, and they treat you delightfully while you’re there. Considering who we are, and that we have no root in this soil, I grant you they’re particularly kind to us; but don’t you think their kindness is just a little trying? I do, though I have nothing against them, personally or otherwise. I am not even a political opponent; if I had a vote for the division young Manister should have it. But I’m not keen on so much notice from them; I’ve said so before; there’s no sense in it!”
“Ah, well, if only you would show me the harm in it!”
“Harm? Heaven forbid there should be any. One finds it a bore, that’s all. It’s a selfish reason, but it’s the truth — I should have had a better time this last week if the Dromards had been far enough!”
“And we should have had a worse — Tiny and I. No, Erskine, I know you better than you think. You’re not so selfish as all that; there’s some other reason.”
Erskine turned away with a shrug, to avoid her glance.
“Something has annoyed you to-night. One of us has behaved badly. Was it Tiny or was it ——”
“You?” said Erskine, with a smile. “From what I saw of your behavior, my dear, it was entirely creditable to you as a chaperon. Your face was seventeen, but your air was a frank fifty!”
“Then it was Tiny. I suppose she danced too much with those boys they have staying in the house. I should have thought there was respectability in numbers; I really don’t see how they could matter.”
“They seemed to matter to Manister,” remarked Erskine dryly.
Ruth winced, but he had wondered whether she would, or he would never have noticed it.
“Surely you don’t think Lord Manister cares who dances with our Tiny?”
The amusement in her tone and manner was cleverly feigned, but instead of deceiving Erskine it spurred him to speak out, after all.
“I hardly like to tell you what I think about Tiny and Lord Manister,” he said gravely.
“What on earth do you mean, Erskine?” cried Ruth, reddening. “Now you must tell me!”
Erskine temporized, already regretting that he had said so much. “It would hurt your feelings,” he warned her grimly.
“Not so much as your silence.”
“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t look on her as my own sister by this time, and if I didn’t think her the best little girl in the world — but one.”
Now he spoke tenderly.
“Say it, in any case,” said Ruth, who had been uncommonly calm.
“Then I am afraid she is making up to him, if you must know.”
“Which is absurd,” said Ruth lightly; but in her anxiety to remain cool she forgot to seem surprised; and that was a mistake.
“I wonder if you really think so?” said her husband very quietly. “If you do I can’t agree with you; I wish I could.”
“You must!” cried Ruth desperately. “Do you know how many dances she gave him to-night?”
Erskine knew only of one; his eyes rested on the remains of her programme lying on the floor in many fragments.
“Well, that one was the lot!” he was informed severely. “And pray did you count how many times she spoke to him the other evening when we dined at the hall?”
“Not often, I grant you; I noticed that.”
“Yet you think she is making up to him!”
“It’s a strong way of putting it, I know,” said Erskine reluctantly; “but really I can’t think of any other. I wonder you don’t realize that there are more ways of making up to a man than the dead-set method. Can’t you see that a far more effective method is a little judicious snubbing and avoiding, which is coquetry? You take my word for it, that’s the touch for a man like Manister, who is probably accustomed to everything but being snubbed and avoided. Then you speak of the one dance she gave him. Now I happen to know that they didn’t dance it at all; they spent the time under the stars, for it was my misfortune to see them and their misfortune not to see me.”
“Well?” whispered Ruth; and though she had never been so dark until now, that whisper would have drawn his lantern to her real hopes and fears.
“I only saw them for an instant: I bolted; so I may easily be wrong; but it struck me that our Tiny was making up for her snubbing and avoiding. It has since occurred to me that they must have known each other rather well in Melbourne — rather better, at any rate, than you have ever led me to suppose.”
As a woman’s last resource, Ruth aimed a stone at his temper.
“So that’s it!” she exclaimed viciously.
“The secret of your bad temper.”
“Well, to be kept in the dark doesn’t sweeten a man, certainly,” Erskine answered, in a tone, however, that was far from bitter. “Then one can’t help feeling disappointed with Tiny; and in this matter — to be frank with you at last — I am just a little disappointed in you too, my dear.”
“I always knew you would be,” said Ruth dolefully. For her stone had missed, and there was no more fight in her.
“Now don’t be a goose. It’s only in this one matter, in which — I can’t help telling you — I don’t think you’ve been perfectly straight with me.”
“Oh, indeed!” cried Ruth, as her spirit made one spurt more. It was the last. The next moment she was weeping.
It annoys most men to make a woman cry. Those who do not become annoyed make impetuous atonement, partly, no doubt, to drown the hooting in their own heart. But Erskine could not feel himself to blame, and though he spoke very kindly, his kindness was too nearly paternal, and he spoke with his elbow on the chimney-piece. He told Ruth not to do that. He pointed out to her that there was no crime in her want of candor concerning her sister’s affairs, which were certainly no business of his. Only, if there really had been something between Christina and Lord Manister in Melbourne — if, for instance, Mrs. Willoughby had gossiped unwittingly to Christina about none other than Christina herself — Erskine put it to his wife that she might have done more wisely to place him in a position silently to appreciate such capital jokes. He would have said nothing; but as it was he might easily have said much to imperil the situation; in fact, he had been in a false position all along, more especially at the hall. But that was all. There was really nothing to cry about. Perhaps to give her the fairest opportunity to compose herself, Erskine crossed the room and drew back the curtains to let in the gray morning; for the birds had long been twittering.
But Ruth had been waiting for the touch of his hand, and he had only given her kind words. She looked up, and saw through her tears his form against the gray window, as he shut down the sash. The lamp burnt faintly, and in the two wan lights it was a chamber of misery, in which one could not sit alone. Ruth rose and ran to Erskine, and laid her hands upon his arm.
“It is raining,” he said, without looking at her tears. “I knew we were in for a break up of the fine weather.”
“Never mind the rain!” Ruth cried piteously, with her face upon his coat. “Will you forgive me now if I tell you everything that I know — everything? It isn’t much, because Tiny has been almost as close with me as I have been with you.”
“My dear,” he said, patting her head at last, and with his arms around her lightly, “you both had a perfect right to be close.”
“But suppose I’ve been at the bottom of the whole thing? Suppose I turn out a horrid little intriguer — what then?”
She waited eagerly, and the pause seemed long.
“Well, you won’t have been intriguing for yourself,” sighed Erskine — so that her face rose on his breast, as on a wave.
And then, playing nervously with a button of his coat, Ruth confessed all. As she spoke she gathered confidence, but not enough to watch his face. That was turned to the gray morning, and looked as gray as it. The fine weather had indeed broken up, and Essingham had lost its savor for Erskine Holland.
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16