Tiny Luttrell, by E. W. Hornung

Chapter 12.

Ordeal by Battle.

If Tiny Luttrell suffered at all from self-consciousness as she followed Lady Dromard from the tent, she hid it uncommonly well. Her color did not change, while her expression was neither bashful nor bold, and unnatural only in its entire naturalness. Considering that the conversation in the ladies’ tent underwent a momentary lull, by no means so slight as to escape a sensitive ear, the girl’s serene bearing at the countess’ skirts was in its way an achievement of which no one thought more highly than Lady Dromard herself. Christina had not merely imagined that she was being systematically watched. No sooner were they in the open air than the countess wheeled abruptly, expecting to surprise some slight embarrassment, not unpardonable in so young a face; and this was not the only occasion on which she was agreeably disappointed in little Miss Luttrell. The short cut to the house was a narrow path that crossed an intervening paddock. They followed this path. But now Lady Dromard walked behind, with eyes slightly narrowed; and still she approved.

Presently they reached the conservatory. It was large and lofty, and the smooth white flags and spreading fronds gave it an appearance of coolness and quiet very different from Christina’s recollection of the place on the night of the dance, when Chinese lanterns had shone and smoked and smelt among the foliage, and a frivolous hum had filled the air. The gum tree proved to be a sapling of no great promise or pretensions. Nor was it seen to advantage, being planted in the central bed, in the midst of some admirable palms and tree-ferns. But Tiny made a long arm to seize the leaves and pull them to her nostrils, setting foot on the soft soil in her excitement; and when she started back, with an apology for the mark, her face was beaming.

“But that was a real whiff of Australia,” she added gratefully —“the first I’ve had since I sailed. It was very, very good of you to bring me, Lady Dromard. If you knew how it reminds me!”

“I thought it would interest you,” remarked Lady Dromard, who was herself more interested in the footprint on the soil, which was absurdly small. “If you like I will show you something that should remind you still more.”

“Oh, of course I like to see anything Australian; but I am sure I am troubling you a great deal, Lady Dromard!”

“Not in the least, my dear Miss Luttrell. I have something extremely Australian to show you now.”

Countess Dromard led the way through the room in which Tiny had danced. It was still carpetless and empty, and the clatter of her walking shoes on the floor which her ball slippers had skimmed so noiselessly struck a note that jarred. The desire came over Tiny to turn back. As they passed through the hall, a side door stood open; the girl saw it with a gasp for the open air. It was an odd sensation, as of the march into prison. It made her lag while it lasted; when it passed it was as though weights had been removed from her feet. She ran lightly up the shallow stairs; Lady Dromard was waiting on the landing, and led her along a corridor.

Here Tiny forgot that her feet had drummed vague misgivings into her mind; she could no longer hear her own steps the corridor was so thickly carpeted. It was a special corridor, leading to a very special room of delicate tints and dainty furniture, and Christina was so far herself again as to enter without a qualm. But her qualms had been a rather singular thing.

“This is my own little chapel of ease, Miss Luttrell,” the countess explained; “and now do you not see a fellow-countryman?”

She pointed to the window; and in front of the window was a pedestal supporting a gilded cage, and in the cage a pink-and-gray parrot, of a kind with which the girl had been familiar from her infancy. “Oh, you beauty!” cried Christina, going to the cage and scratching the bird’s head through the wires. “It’s a galar,” she added.

“Indeed,” said Lady Dromard, watching her; “a galar! I must remember that. By the way, can you tell me why he doesn’t talk?”

Christina answered, in a slightly preoccupied manner, that galars very seldom did. She had become quite absorbed in the bird; she seemed easily pleased. She went the length of asking whether she might take him out, and received a hesitating permission to do so at her own risk, Lady Dromard confessing that for her own part she was quite afraid to touch him through the wires. In a twinkling the girl had the bird in her hand, and was smoothing its feathers with her chin. The sun was beginning to struggle through the clouds; the window faced the west; and the faint rays, falling on the young girl’s face and the bird’s bright plumage, threw a good light on a charming picture. Lady Dromard was reminded of the artificial art of her young days, when this was a favorite posture, and searched narrowly for artifice in her guest. Finding none she admired more keenly than before, but became also more timid on the other’s account, so that she could fancy the blood sliding down the fair skin which the beak actually touched.

“Dear Miss Luttrell, do put him back! I tremble for you.”

Tiny put the quiet thing back on the perch. Then she turned to Lady Dromard with rather a comic expression.

“Do you know what we used to do with this gentleman up on the station?” said Tiny shamefacedly. “We poisoned him wholesale to save our crop. But this one seems like an old friend to me. Lady Dromard, you have taken me back to the bush this afternoon!”

“So it appears,” observed the countess dryly, “or I think you would admire my little view. That’s Gallow Hill, and I’m rather proud of my view of it, because it is the only hill of any sort in these parts. Then the sun sets behind it, and those three trees stand out so.”

“Ah! I have often wanted to climb up to those three trees,” said Tiny, who took a tantalized interest in Gallow Hill; “but I mayn’t, because I’m in England, where trespassers will be prosecuted.”

For a moment Lady Dromard stared. Then she saw that Christina had merely forgotten. “Dear me, that stupid notice board!” exclaimed the countess. “Lord Dromard never meant it to apply to everybody. Next time you come here come over Gallow Hill, and through the little green gate you can just see. You will find it a quarter of the distance.”

Christina had indeed spoken without thinking of Gallow Hill as a part of the estate, or of the warning to trespassers as Lord Dromard’s doing. Now she apologized, and was naturally a little confused; but this time the countess would not have had her otherwise. “You shall go back that way this very evening,” she said kindly, “and I promise you shan’t be prosecuted.” But Christina had to pet her fellow-countryman for a minute or two before she quite regained her ease, while her ladyship touched the bell and ordered tea.

“How fond you must be of the bush!” Lady Dromard exclaimed as the girl still lingered by the cage.

“I like it very much,” said Christina soberly.

“Better than Melbourne?”

“Oh, infinitely.”

“And England?”

“Yes, better than England — I can’t help it,” Tiny added apologetically.

“There’s no reason why you should,” said Lady Dromard, with a smile. “I could imagine your quite disliking England after Australia. I’m sure my son disliked it when he first came back.”

“Did he?” the girl said indifferently. “Ah, well! I don’t dislike England. I admire it very much, and, of course, it is ever so much better than Australia in every way. We have no villages like Essingham out there, no red tiles and old churches, and certainly no villagers who treat you like a queen on wheels when you walk down the street. We’ve nothing of that sort — nor of this sort either — no splendid old houses and beautiful old grounds! But I can’t help it, I’d rather live out there. Give me the bush!”

“You are enthusiastic about the bush,” said Lady Dromard, laughing; “yet you don’t know how fresh enthusiasm is to one nowadays.”

“I’m afraid I’m not enthusiastic about anything else, then,” answered Christina with engaging candor. “They tell me I don’t half appreciate England; I disappoint all my friends here.”

“Ah, that is perhaps your little joke at our expense!”

Christina was on the brink of an audacious reply when a footman entered with the tea tray. That took some of the audacity out of her. She had not heard the order given. Once more she reflected where she was, and with whom, and once more she wished herself elsewhere. It was a mild return of her panic downstairs. Now she felt vaguely apprehensive and as vaguely exultant. In the uncertain fusion of her feelings she was apt to become a little unguarded in what she said; there was safety in her sense of this tendency, however.

Lady Dromard was reflecting also. As the footman withdrew she had told him not to shut the door. The truth was she had got Christina to herself by pure design, though she had not originally intended to get her to herself up here. That had been an inspiration of the moment, and even now Lady Dromard was by no means sure of its wisdom. She had gone so far as to closet herself with this girl, but she did not wish the proceeding to appear so pronounced either to the footman or to the girl herself. It would make the footman talk, while it might frighten the girl. That, at any rate, was the idea of Countess Dromard, who, however, had not yet learnt her way about the young mind with which she was dealing.

The tea tray had been placed on a small table near the window. Lady Dromard promptly settled herself with her back to the light, and motioned Christina to a chair facing her.

“Now you’ll be able to watch your beloved bird,” said her ladyship craftily. “I thought we might as well have tea now we are here. I thought it would be so much more comfortable than having it in the tent.”

Tiny settled a business matter by stating that she took two pieces of sugar, but only one spot of cream. Unconsciously, however, she had followed Lady Dromard’s advice, for her eyes were fixed on the parrot in the cage.

“I have only had him a few months,” observed the countess suggestively. “Something less than a year, I should say.”

“Yes?” And Tiny lowered her eyes politely to her hostess’ face.

“Yes,” repeated Lady Dromard affirmatively. “My son brought him home for me. It was the only present he had time to get, so I rather value it.”

The girl’s gaze returned involuntarily to the bird she had caressed; apparently her interest was neither diminished nor increased by this information as to its origin.

“He was in a great hurry to run away from us, was he not?” she remarked inoffensively; but there was no attempt in her manner to conceal the fact that Christina knew what she was talking about.

“He was obliged to return rather suddenly,” said the countess after a moment’s hesitation. She made a longer pause before slyly adding, “I consider myself very lucky to have got him back at all.”

“How is that, Lady Dromard?”

And Christina outstared the countess, so that she was asked whether she would not take another cup of tea. She would, and her hand neither rattled it empty nor spilt it full. Then Lady Dromard smiled at the coronet on her teaspoon, and said to it:

“The fact is I was terrified lest he should go and marry one of you.”

“One of us?”

“Some fascinating Australian beauty,” said Lady Dromard hastily. “So many aids-decamp have done that.”

“Poor — young — men!” said Tiny, as slowly and solemnly as though her words were going to the young men’s funeral. “It would have been a calamity indeed.”

So far from showing indignation Lady Dromard leant forward in her chair to say in her most winning manner:

“I should have been all the more terrified had I known you, Miss Luttrell!”

Clearly this was meant for one of those blunt effective compliments to which Lady Dromard had the peculiar knack of imparting delicacy and grace. But the words were no sooner uttered than she saw their double meaning, and grimly awaited the obvious misconstruction. Tiny, however, had a quick perception, and plenty of common sense in little things. Instead of a snub the countess received a good-tempered smile, for which she could not help feeling grateful at the time; but now her instinct told her that she was dealing with a person with whom it might be well to be a little more downright, and she obeyed her instinct without further delay.

“Miss Luttrell, I am sure there is no occasion for me to beat about the bush — with you,” she began in an altered, but a no less flattering tone; “I see that one is quite safe in being frank with you. The fact is — and you know it — my son very nearly did marry someone out there. Now you met him out there in society, and you probably knew everyone there who was worth knowing, so pray don’t pretend that you know nothing about this.”

Their eyes were joined, but at the moment Christina’s was the cooler glance.

“I couldn’t pretend that, Lady Dromard, for it happens that I know all about it.”

The countess was perceptibly startled. “The girl was a friend of yours?” she inquired quickly.

“A great friend,” answered Tiny, nodding.

“How I wish you would tell me her name!”

“I mustn’t do that.” This was said decidedly. “But it seems a strange thing that you don’t know it.”

“It is a strange thing,” Lady Dromard allowed; “nevertheless it’s the truth. I never heard her name. You may imagine my curiosity. Miss Luttrell, I seem to have felt ever since I met you that you knew something about this — that you could tell one something. And I don’t mind confessing to you now — since I see you are not the one to misunderstand me willfully — that I have purposely sought an opportunity of sounding you on the subject.”

Christina smiled, for this was not news to her.

“My son will tell me nothing,” continued Lady Dromard, “and I have, of course, the greatest curiosity to know everything. It is no idle curiosity, Miss Luttrell. I am his mother, and he has never got over that attachment.”

“Has he not?” said Tiny with dry satire.

“He has never got over it,” repeated Lady Dromard in a tone which was a match for the other. “Has the girl?”

Tiny was startled in her turn. She hesitated before replying, and seemed to waver over the nature of her reply. It was the first sign she had shown of wavering at all, and Lady Dromard drew her breath. The girl was hanging her head, and murmuring that she really could not answer for the other girl. Suddenly she flung up her face, and it was hot, but not hotter than her words:

“Yes, Lady Dromard, you are his mother. But the girl was my friend. He treated her abominably!”

“It wasn’t his fault — it was mine,” said Lady Dromard steadily.

“I’m afraid that does not make one think any better of him,” murmured the young girl. Her chin was resting in her hand. The flush had passed from her face as suddenly as it had come. Her eyes were raised to the sky out of the window, and there was in them the sad, hardened, reckless look that those who knew her best had seen too often, latterly, in her silent moments. The sun was dropping clear of the clouds, and the brighter rays fell kindly over Tiny’s dark hair and pale, piquant face. The keen eye that was on her had never watched more closely nor admired so much.

“Consider!” said Lady Dromard presently, and rather gently. “Try to put yourself in our place — and consider. We have a position, here in England, of which very few people can be got to take a sensible view; half the country professes an absurd contempt for it, while the other half speaks of it and of us with bated breath. We ourselves naturally think something of our position, and we try, as we say, to keep it up. Of course we are worldly, in the popular sense. We bring up our children with worldly ideas. They must make worldly marriages in their own station. Is it so very contemptible that we should see to this, and dread beyond most things an unwise or an unequal marriage? Now do consider: we let our son go out to Australia, because it is good for a young man to see the world before he marries and settles down — and mind! that was what he was about to do. If he had not gone to Australia then, he would have been married at once. He was all but engaged. It was a case of putting off the engagement instead of the marriage. We do not believe in long, formal engagements; we do not permit them. We find them undesirable for many reasons. So, you see, he goes out to Australia as good as engaged, but unable to say so, and very young, and no doubt very susceptible. Can you wonder that I tremble for him when he has gone? Well, he is the best son in the world, and has told me everything always. That is my comfort. But presently he tells one things in his letters which make one tremble more than ever, though he tells them jokingly. Then a cousin of Lord Dromard’s stays a day or two in Melbourne and comes home with a report ——”

Christina’s face twitched in the sunlight. “I suppose that was Captain Dromard?” she said quietly; “I never met him, but I saw him.” She seemed to see him then, and that was why her face twitched. She was still staring out of the window at the yellowing sky.

“Captain Dromard had forgotten the girl’s name,” said the countess pointedly; “but he told me enough to make me write to my boy — I nearly cabled! And do you think I was wrong?”

“Not from your point of view, Lady Dromard,” answered Christina judicially, with her eyes half closed in the slanting sunbeams which she chose to face. “Certainly you cannot have had very much faith in Lord Manister’s judgment; but the case is altered if he was to all intents and purposes engaged to a girl in England; and, at all events, that’s the worst that could be said of you — looking at it from your own point of view. But is not the girl out there entitled to a point of view as well?” And the hardened reckless eyes were turned so suddenly upon Lady Dromard that the youth and grace and bitterness of the girl smote her straight to the heart.

There was a slight tremor and great tenderness in the voice that whispered, “Did she feel it very much? Come, come — don’t tell me it broke her heart!”

“No, I won’t tell you that,” said the girl briskly, but with a laugh which hurt. “That doesn’t break so easily in these days. No, it didn’t break her heart, Lady Dromard — it did much worse. It got her talked about. It poisoned her mind, it killed her faith, it spoilt her temper. It did all that — and one thing worse still. Though it didn’t break her heart, Lady Dromard, it cracked it, so that it will never ring true any more; it made her hate those she had loved — those who loved her; it made it impossible for her ever to care for anybody in the whole wide world again!”

Lady Dromard had drawn her chair nearer to the girl, and nearer still. Lady Dromard was no longer mistress of herself.

“Did it make her hate you, my dear?”

“It made her loathe — me.”

Lady Dromard was seen to battle with a strong womanly impulse, and to lose. Her fine eyes filled with tears. Her soft, white hands flew out to Christina’s, and drew them to her bosom. At this moment a young man in flannels appeared at the door, and the young man was Lord Manister; but the rich carpet had muffled his tread, and the two women had eyes for one another only — the girl he had loved — the mother who had drawn him from her. The same sunbeam washed them both.

“Now I know her name — now I know it!”

“I think you cannot have found it out this minute, Lady Dromard.”

“But I have. I have never known whether to believe it or not, since it first crossed my mind, the night you dined here. You see, I know him so well! But he didn’t tell me, and after all I had no reason to suppose it. Oh, he has told me nothing — and you are the gulf between us, for which I have only myself to thank. Ah, if I had only dreamt — of you!”

Tiny suffered herself to be kissed upon the cheek.

“Pray say no more, dear Lady Dromard,” she said quietly. “Shall I tell you why?” she added, drawing back. “Why, because it’s quite a thing of the past.”

“It is not a thing of the past,” cried Lady Dromard passionately. “He has never loved anyone else. He bitterly regrets having listened to me, and I, now that I know you — I bitterly regret everything! And he loves you . . . and I would rather . . . and I have told him what is the simple truth — how I have admired you from the first!”

The last sentence was doubtless a mistake. It was the only one that would let itself be uttered, however, and before another could be added by either woman Lord Manister had tramped into the room. They fell the further apart as he came between them and stooped down, laying his hands heavily on the little table. His eyes sped from the girl to his mother, and back to the girl, on whom they stayed. One hand held his crumpled cap. His hair was disordered. In many ways he looked at his best, as Tiny had always said he did in flannels. But never before had Tiny seen him half so earnest and sad and handsome.

“My mother is right,” he said firmly. “I love you, and I ask you to forgive us both, and to give me what I don’t deserve — one word of hope!”

The young girl glanced from his grave, humble face to that of his mother, through whose tears a smile was breaking. Lady Dromard’s lips were parted, half in surprise at the humility of her son’s words, half in eagerness for the answer to them. Tiny Luttrell read her like a printed book, and rose to her feet with a smile that was equally unmistakable, for it was a smile of triumph.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16