Now Herbert was taking part in the match, and Ruth was in the ladies’ tent, trying not to think of Christina, who was playing a single-wicket game in another place. But Erskine Holland was rolling the rectory court gloomily and quite alone, and he was tired of Essingham. Not only had the day kept fine in spite of its threats, but toward the end of the afternoon it turned out very fine indeed, and the light became excellent for lawn tennis, because there was nobody to play with poor Erskine. Even the good Willoughby was on the accursed field over yonder; and he mattered least. Ruth was there. Tiny was there. Herbert was not only there, but playing for Lord Manister, who was notoriously short of men. One can hardly wonder at Erskine’s condemnation of his brother-in-law, out of his own mouth, as a stultified young fraud in the matter of Lord Manister. As to the girls, some old tenets of his concerning women in general returned to taunt him for the ship-wreck of his holiday at least. Yet Ruth had but plotted for her sister’s advancement, not her own. Whether Christina cared in the least for the man whom she evidently meant to marry, if she could, was, after all, Christina’s own affair. Erskine had only heard her disparage him behind his back — at which Herbert himself could not beat her — whereas Ruth had at least been openly in favor of the fellow from the very first. But if Herbert was a fraud, what was the name for Tiny? Clearly the only trustworthy person of the three was Ruth, who at least — yet alone — was consistent.
To this conclusion, which was not without its pleasing side, Erskine came with his eyes on the ground he was rolling. But as he pushed the roller toward the low stone wall dividing the lawn from the churchyard, into which the balls were too often hit, one came whizzing out of it for a change, and struck the roller under Erskine’s nose. And leaning with her elbows on the low wall, and her right hand under her chin, as though it were the last right hand that could have flung that ball, stood the girl for whom a bad enough name had yet to be found.
“Where on earth did you spring from?” Holland asked, a little brusquely, as he stopped for a moment and then rolled on toward the wall.
“If you mean the ball,” replied Tiny, “it must be the one we lost the last time we played. I have just found it among the graves, and it slipped out of my hand.”
“I meant you,” said Erskine, with an unsuccessful smile; and he pushed the roller close up to the wall, and folded his arms upon the handle.
“Oh, I have come from the hall by the forbidden path over Gallow Hill; but it seems that wasn’t meant for us, and at any rate I have leave to use it whenever I like.” She was puzzling him, and she knew it, but she met his eyes with a mysterious smile for some moments before adding: “You can’t think what a view there is from the top of the hill — I mean a view of the hall. Just now the sun was blazing in all the windows, like the flash of a broadside from an old two-decker; you see it made such an impression on me that I thought of that for your benefit.”
Erskine acknowledged the benefit rather heavily with a nod.
“What have you done with Ruth?”
“To the best of my belief she is watching the match; at least she was an hour ago.”
“Something has happened!” exclaimed Erskine Holland, starting upright and leaving the roller handle swinging in the air like an inverted pendulum. His eyes were unconsciously stern; those of the girl seemed to quail before them.
“Something has happened,” she admitted to the top of the wall. “I suppose you would get to know sooner or later, so I may as well tell you myself now. The fact is Lord Manister has just proposed to me.”
Erskine dropped his eyes and shrugged slightly; then he raised them to the setting sun, and tried to look resigned; then, with a noticeable effort, he brought them back to her face, and forced a smile.
“I’m not surprised. I saw it coming, though I hardly expected it so soon. Well, Tiny, I congratulate you! He is about the most brilliant match in England.”
“Quite the most, I thought?”
“And I am sure he is a first-rate fellow,” added Erskine with vigor, regretting that he had not said this first, and disliking what he had said.
“Oh, he is a very good sort,” acknowledged Tiny to the wall.
“So you ought to be the happiest young woman in the world, as you are perhaps the luckiest — I mean in one sense. And I congratulate you, Tiny, I do indeed!”
To clinch his congratulations he held out his hand, from which she raised her eyes to him at last — with the look of a cabman refusing his proper fare.
“And I took you for the most discerning person I knew!” said Tiny very slowly.
“You don’t mean to say ——”
His eagerness and incredulity arrested his speech.
“I do mean to say.”
“That you have — refused him?”
Tiny nodded. “With thanks — not too many.”
They stared at one another for some moments longer. Then Erskine sat down on the roller and folded his arms and looked extremely serious, though already the corners of his mouth were beginning to twitch.
“Now, you know, Tiny, I’m in loco parentis as long as you’re in England. In this one matter you’ve no business to chaff me. Honestly, now, is it the truth that Lord Manister has asked you to marry him, and that you have said him nay?”
“It is the truest truth I ever uttered in my life. I refused him point-blank,” added Tiny, with eyes once more lowered, as though the memory were not unmixed with shame, “and before his own mother!”
“In the presence of Lady Dromard?”
She nodded solemnly, but with a blush.
“Good Lord!” murmured Erskine. “And I was ass enough to think you were leading him on!”
She whispered, “And so I was.”
For one moment Erskine stared at her more seriously than ever; then the reaction came, and she saw him shaking. He shook until the tears were in his eyes; and when he was rid of them he perceived the same thing in Tiny’s eyes, but obviously not from the same cause.
“I don’t think it’s such a joke,” said the girl, in the voice of one pained when in pain already. “I am pretty well ashamed of myself, I can tell you. If you really consider yourself responsible for me I think you might let me tell you something about it; for you must tell Ruth — I daren’t. But if you’re going to laugh . . . let me tell you it’s no laughing matter to me, now I’ve done it.”
“Forgive me,” said Holland instantly; “I am a brute. Do tell me anything you care to; I promise not to laugh unless you do. And I might be able to help you.”
“Ah, you would if anybody could; but nobody can; I have behaved just scandalously, and I know it as well as you do, now that it’s too late. Yet I wish that you knew all about it, Erskine!” She looked at him wistfully. “You understand things so. Would it bore you if I were to tell you how the whole thing happened?”
The gilt hands of the church clock made it ten minutes to six when Erskine shook his head and bent it attentively. When the hour struck he had opened his mouth only once, to answer her question as to how much he knew of her affair with Lord Manister in Melbourne. He had known for a day and a half as much as Ruth knew; and he did not learn much more now, for the girl could speak more freely of recent incidents, and dwelt principally on those of that afternoon, beginning with Lady Dromard’s extraordinary attentiveness on the cricket field.
“I felt there was something behind that, though I didn’t know what; I could only be sure that she had her eye on me. However, I took a tremendous vow to face whatever came without moving a muscle. I think I succeeded, on the whole, but I was on the edge of a panic when she took me upstairs. I wanted to clear! I had qualms!”
She was startlingly candid on another point.
“I also made up my mind to behave as prettily as possible, just to show her. I was really pleased with the interest she seemed to take in what I told her about the bush, and I was quite delighted to see a galar again. But I needn’t have made the fuss I did in taking it out of its cage; that was purely put on, and all the time I was mortally afraid that it would peck me. Yet I suppose,” added Tiny, after some moments, “you won’t believe me when I tell you that I am ashamed of all that already?”
Erskine declared that there was nothing in the world to be ashamed of; on the contrary, in his opinion she was perfectly justified in all she had done. With kind eyes upon her, he added what he very nearly meant, that he was proud of her; and his remark wrought a change in her expression which convinced him finally that at least she was not proud of herself.
“Ah, you weren’t there, Erskine,” said Christina sadly, her blue eyes clouded with penitence; “you don’t know how kind poor Lady Dromard was with all her dodges! She said it would be more comfortable to have tea up there. Comfortable was the last thing I felt in my heart, but I never let her see that; and besides, I didn’t as yet guess what was coming. Even when she wanted me to tell her my own name, I couldn’t be sure that she suspected me. I wasn’t sure until she asked me whether the girl had got over it, when I knew from her voice. And I saw then that she really rather liked me, and half wished it to be; and I was sorry because I liked her; and though I spoke my mind to her about her son, I should have made a clean breast of everything to her if he hadn’t come in just then. I should have told her straight that I didn’t care that for him — not now — and that I had been flirting with him disgracefully just to try to make him smart as I had smarted. That’s the whole truth of it, Erskine; and I meant to tell her so in another second, because I couldn’t stand her kissing me and crying, and all that. I should have been crying myself next moment. But just then he came in, and I remembered everything. I remembered, too, what she had had to do with it, on her own showing; and when I saw what she wanted me to say I think I became possessed.”
Her brother-in-law was very curious to know all that Christina had said, but she would not tell him. She merely remarked that he would think all the worse of her if he knew, even though at the moment she could hardly remember any one thing that she had said. Then she paused, and recalled a little, and the little made her blush.
“I didn’t come well out of it,” she declared.
Erskine threw discredit on her word in this particular matter; he sniffed an extravagant remorse.
“Talk of hitting a man when he’s down!” exclaimed Tiny miserably. “I hit Lady Dromard when the tears were in her eyes, and Lord Manister when he was hitting himself. He took it splendidly. He is a gentleman. I don’t care what else he is — lord or no lord, he would always be a perfect gentleman. What’s more, I am very sorry for him.”
“Why on earth be sorry for him?” asked Erskine with a touch of irritation; for when Tiny spoke of Lady Dromard’s tears, her own eyes swam with them; and to do a thing like this and start crying over it the moment it was done seemed to Erskine a bad sign. The event was so very fresh, and so entirely contrary to his own most recent apprehensions, that at present his only feeling in the matter was one of profound satisfaction. But the symptoms she showed of relenting already interfered not a little with that satisfaction, while, even more than by the remark that had prompted his question, he was alarmed by her answer to it:
“Because I believe he does care for me, a little bit, in his own way — or he thinks he does, which comes to the same thing; and because, when all’s said and done, I have treated him like a little fiend!”
“My good girl!” said Holland uneasily, “I should remember how he treated you.”
“Ah, no,” answered Christina, shaking her head; “I have remembered that far too long as it is. That’s ancient history.”
“Well, be sorry for him if you like; be sorry for yourself as well.”
That was the best advice that occurred to him at the moment, but it set her off at a tangent.
“I should think I am sorry for myself — I should be sorry for any girl who could so far forget herself!” cried Christina, speaking bitterly and at a great pace. “Shall I tell you the sort of thing I said? When I told him I could not possibly believe in his really caring for me, after the way in which he left Melbourne without so much as saying good-by to me or sending me word that he was going, he said it wasn’t then he really loved me, but now. So I told him I was sorry to hear it, as in my case it might perhaps have been then, but it certainly wasn’t now. I actually said that! Then Lady Dromard spoke up. She had been staring at me without a word, but she spoke up now, and it served me right. I can’t blame her for being indignant, but she didn’t say half she could have said, and it was more what she implied that sticks and stings. It didn’t sting then, though; I was thinking of all the talk out there. It was when Lord Manister stopped her, and held out his hand to me and said, ‘Anyway you forgive me now? I thought you had forgiven me’— it was then I began to tingle. I said I forgave him, of course; and then I bolted. But I was sorry for him, and I am sorry for him, whatever you say, for I had cut him to the heart. . . . And he looked most awfully nice the whole time!”
With these frivolous last words there came a smile: the normal girl shone out for an instant, as the sun breaks through clouds; and Erskine took advantage of the gleam.
“To the heart of his vanity — that’s where you cut. You’ve humiliated him certainly; but surely he deserved it? In any case, you’ve given young Manister the right-about; and upon my soul that’s rather a performance for our Tiny! I should only like to have seen it.”
“It’s good of you to call me your Tiny,” returned the young girl rather coldly. “But don’t talk to me about performances, please, unless you mean disgraceful performances. I wish I had never come to England — I wish I was back in Australia — I wish I was up at the station!” she cried with sudden passion. “I am miserable, and you won’t understand me; and Ruth couldn’t if she tried.”
“My dear girl,” Erskine said in rather an injured tone, “surely you’re a little unfair on us both? Ruth will understand when I tell her; and as for me — I think I understand you already.”
“Not you!” answered Tiny disdainfully. “You call it a performance! You treat it as a joke!” And she left him, with the tears in her eyes.
He watched her enter the garden by the little gate lower down, and saunter toward the house with lagging steps. The low sun streamed upon her drooping figure. Even at that distance, and with her face hidden from him, she seemed to Erskine the incarnation of all that was wayward and willful and sweet in girlhood. And her tears and temper made her doubly sweet, as the rain draws new fragrance from a flower; but they had also made her doubly difficult to understand. One moment he had seen her plainly, as in the lime light; in another, she had retired to a deeper shade than before. The explanation of her conduct toward Lord Manister had been a sufficiently startling revelation, yet a perfectly lucid one; but what of this prompt transition to tears and penitence? The only interpretation which suggested itself to Erskine was one that he refused to entertain. He preferred to attribute Christina’s present state of mind to mere reaction; if the reaction had taken a rather hysterical form, that, perhaps, was not to be wondered at. Moreover, this seemed to be indeed the case; for the girl was seen no more that day, save by Ruth, who by night was perhaps the most disappointed person in the parish; only she managed to conceal her disappointment in a way that it was impossible not to admire.
Nevertheless dinner at the rectory was a dismal meal, and the more so for the high spirits of Herbert, which, meeting with no response, turned to silence. Poor Herbert happened to have distinguished himself in the match, which, indeed, he had been largely instrumental in winning for his side; but neither Ruth nor her husband showed any interest in his exploit, and Tiny was not there. Erskine was no cricketer; Herbert hated him for it, and made a sullen attack on the claret. But at length it dawned upon him that there was some special reason for the silence and glum looks at either end of the table, for which Christina’s alleged headache would not in itself account; and when Ruth left the table early to look after Tiny, he said bluntly to Erskine:
“You’re enough to give a fellow the blues, the pair of you! What’s wrong? Have I done anything, or has Tiny?”
Erskine temporized, pushing forward the claret. “I understand you have done something,” he said with a first approach to geniality; “but, upon my word, old fellow, I don’t know what it is. I couldn’t listen, for the life of me; and you must forgive me. Tiny’s upset, and that’s upset Ruth, which I suppose has upset me in my turn. Please call me names — I deserve them — and then tell me again what you have done.”
Herbert did not require two invitations to do this. He had not only acquitted himself brilliantly, but there was a peculiar piquancy in his success; he had saved the side which had treated him with unobtrusive but galling contempt until the last moment, when he opened their eyes, and their throats too. They had put him to field at short leg; during the intervals, after the fall of a wicket, not one of them had spoken a word to him, save good-natured Mr. Willoughby; and they had sent him in last, with hopeless faces, when there were many runs to get. The good batsmen, beginning with Lord Manister, had mostly failed miserably. The Honorable Stanley Dromard, who had been in fine form all the week, had alone done well; and he was still at the wicket when Herbert whipped in, with his ears full of gratuitous instructions to keep his wicket up, and not to try to hit the professional, and his heart full of other designs. Those instructions were given without much knowledge of this young Australian, who took a sincere delight in disregarding them. He had hit out from the very first, particularly at the professional, who disliked being hit, and who was also somewhat demoralized by the extreme respect with which he had been treated by preceding batsmen. There were thirty runs to make when Herbert went in, and in a quarter of an hour he made them nearly all from his own bat, exhibiting an almost insolent amount of coolness and nerve at the crisis. The best of it was that no one had considered it a crisis when he went in; but his truculent batting had immediately made it one, and ultimately, in a scene of the greatest excitement, of which Herbert was the hero, an almost certain defeat had been converted into a glorious victory. All this was confirmed by the local newspaper next day; considering his achievement and his character, the hero himself told his tale with modesty.
“He bowled like beggary,” he concluded, in allusion to the discomfited professional; “but I tell you, old toucher, we were too many measles for him!”
“They were more civil to you after that?”
“My oath!” said Herbert complacently. “Those Eton jokers kicked up hell’s delight! Stanley Dromard shook hands with me between the wickets, and said I ought to be going up to Trinity; but he’s a real good sportsman, with less side than you’d think. His governor, the earl, congratulated me in person — you bet I felt it down my marrow! He wants to know how it is I’m not playing for the Australians. The only man who didn’t say a word to me was that dam’ fool Manister.”
“Ah, he was on the ground, then?”
“He turned up as I went in; and when I came out he didn’t look at me. Who the blazes does he think he is? I’m as good a man as him, though I’m a larrikin and he’s a twopenny lord. I don’t care what he is, I had the bulge over him today — he made four!”
“Perhaps someone else has had the bulge over him, too,” suggested Erskine gently.
“Yes; he has asked her to marry him, and she has refused him on the spot.”
Herbert shot out of his chair.
“So’re you crackin’! I thought something was wrong, man? O Lord, this is a treat!”
“It’s a treat she didn’t prepare one for. I had visions of a very different upshot.”
“Aha! you never know where you have our Tiny. No more does old Manister. Oh, but this is a treat for the gods!”
“I told Tiny it was a performance,” Erskine said reflectively; “it struck me as one, and I was trying to cheer her up — but that wasn’t the way.”
“No? She’s a terror, our Tiny!” murmured Herbert, with a running chuckle. “Now I know why the brute was so civil to me the first time I met him in these parts. Even then my hand itched to fill his eye for him, but I didn’t say anything, because Tiny seemed on the job herself. To think this was her game! I must go and shake hands with her. I must go and tell her she’s done better than filling up his eye.”
“Don’t you,” said Erskine quietly. “I wouldn’t say much to her afterward, either, if I may give you a hint. She doesn’t take quite our view of this matter. Not that we can pretend that ours is at all a nice view of it, mind you; only I really do regard it as a bit of a performance on our Tiny’s part, and I should like to have seen it.”
“By ghost, so should I! And seriously,” added Herbert, “he deserved all he’s got. I happen to know.”
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16