But the girl herself chose to think otherwise. That was her perversity. She could now see excuses for her own ill-treatment in the past, but none for the revenge she had just taken on the man who had treated her badly. A revenge it had certainly been, plotted systematically, and carried out from first to last in sufficiently cold blood. But already she was ashamed of it. So sincerely ashamed was Christina, now that she had completed her retaliation and secured her triumph, that she very much exaggerated the evil she had done, and could imagine no baser behavior than her own. She had, indeed, felt the baseness of it while yet there was time to draw back, but the memory of her own humiliation had been her goad whenever she hesitated; and then the way had been made irresistibly easy for her. But this was no comfort to her now. Neither was that goad any excuse to her self-accusing mind; for she could feel it no longer, which made her wonder how she had ever felt it at all. Her judgment was obscured by the magnitude of her meanness in her own eyes. The revulsion of feeling was as complete as it was startling and distressing to herself.
In her trouble and excitement that night it became necessary for her to speak to someone, and she spoke with unusual freedom to Ruth, who displayed on this occasion, among others, a really lamentable want of tact. Tiny sought to explain her trouble: it was not that she could possibly care for Lord Manister again, or dream of marrying him under any circumstances (Ruth said nothing to all this), but that she half believed he really cared for her (Ruth was sure of it), in his own way (Ruth seemed to believe in his way); and in any case she was very sorry for him. So was Ruth. In all the circumstances the sorrow of Ruth might well have received a less frank expression than she thought fit to give it.
But it is only fair to say that this did not occur to Ruth. She was in and out of the room until at last Christina was asleep, and dreaming of the hall windows ablaze against the sunset, while again and again in her sleep the warm, broken voice of Lady Dromard turned hard and cold. Ruth watched her affectionately enough as she slept, and consoled herself for her own disappointment by the reflection that at least they understood one another now. Therefore it was a rude shock to her when Christina came down next day and would hardly look at any of them.
Her mood had changed; it was now her worst. She was pale still, but her expression was set, and there was a quarrelsome glitter in her eyes; the fact being that she was a little tired of chastising herself, and exceedingly ready to begin on some second person. So Erskine himself was badly snubbed at his own breakfast table, and when Tiny afterward took herself into the kitchen garden Ruth followed her for an explanation, in the fullness of her confidence that they understood one another at last. No explanation was given, Tiny merely remarking that she was sorry if she had been rude, but that she was in an evil state all through, and unfit for human society. To Ruth, however, this only meant that Tiny was unfit to be alone. So Ruth remained in the kitchen garden too, and was good enough to resume gratuitously her consolations of the night before. But in a very few minutes she returned, complaining, to her husband.
“My dear,” said he at once, “you oughtn’t to have gone near her. Above all, you shouldn’t have broached the subject of her affairs; you should have left that to her. She seems considerably ashamed of herself, and though I must say I think that’s absurd, you can’t help liking her the better for it. She surprised us all, but she surprised herself too, because she has found that she can’t strike a blow without hurting herself at least as badly as anybody else; and that shows the good in her. Personally, I think the blow was justified; but that has nothing to do with it. The point is that if she’s mortified about the whole concern, as is obviously the case, it must increase her mortification to know that we know all about it, and that she herself has told us. Which applies more to me than to you. It was natural she should tell you; she only told me because I happened to be the first person she saw, and I can quite understand her hating me by this time for listening. We must ignore the whole matter except when it pleases her to bring it up, and then we must let her make the running.”
“I hate people to require so much humoring!” exclaimed Ruth, with some reason.
“Well, I must say I’m glad that you don’t,” her husband said prettily. “As to Tiny, her faults are very sweet, and her moods are really interesting — but I’m thankful they don’t run in the family!”
He seemed thankful.
“Yet you’re a wonderful man for understanding other people,” returned Ruth as prettily; and her eyes were full of admiration.
“Ah, well! Tiny’s not like other people. I think she must enjoy startling one. Our best plan is to expect the unexpected of her from this time forth, and to let her be until she comes to herself.”
And that came to pass quite in good time. Having effaced herself all the morning and again during the afternoon, and having been grotesquely polite to the others (when it was necessary to speak to them) at midday dinner, Tiny appeared at tea in another frock and flying signals of peace. She seemed anxious to acquiesce with things that were said. So Erskine forced jokes which were sufficiently terrible in themselves, but they served a good purpose very well. Christina recovered her old form, and after tea made a winsome assault upon no less redoubtable a defender of his own inclinations than her brother Herbert. Him she successfully importuned to take her to church in the evening, although not to the church close at hand, where there was never, necessarily, any service in the rector’s absence. Tiny, however, had heard from her friends in the village of a gifted young Irishman who wore a stole and held forth extempore in a neighboring parish; they found their way to it across the twilight fields. They did not return till after nine, when Christina seemed much brighter than before. Her brightness, however, was seemingly more grateful to Mr. than to Mrs. Holland, who enticed her brother into the garden after supper, to ask him whether Tiny had not mentioned Lord Manister.
“Why, yes, she did just mention him,” said Herbert; “but that’s all. I wasn’t going to say a word about the joker, and just as we came back to the drive here she got a hold of my arm and thanked me for not having asked her any questions; so I was glad I hadn’t. She said she wasn’t by any means proud of herself, and that she wanted to forget the whole thing, if we’d only let her. She doesn’t want to be bothered about it by anybody. Those were her very words, as we came up the drive. She was jolly enough all the way there, talking mostly about Wallandoon. You’ll have noticed how keen she is on the station ever since she went up there with the governor last April; I think the old place was a treat to her after Melbourne, to tell you the truth.”
Ruth nodded, as much as to say that she knew. She asked, however, whether Tiny had talked also of Wallandoon on the way home.
“No; she was a bit quiet on the way home. I think the sermon must have made an impression on her, but I didn’t hear it myself; I put in a sleep instead. In the hymns, though, she sang out immense — by ghost, as if she meant it! I rather wished I’d heard the sermon,” remarked Herbert thoughtfully, “because it seemed to set her thinking. I believe she’s given to thinking of those things now and then; I shouldn’t be surprised to see her go religious some day, if she don’t marry; I’d rather she did, too, than marry a thing like Manister!”
The next day was their last at Essingham, for which not even Ruth could grieve, in view of recent events. The day, however, was its own consolation; it was cold and dull and damp, though not actually wet, so that Erskine, who spent the greater part of the morning in front of a barometer, had hopes of some final sets in the afternoon, when the Willoughbys were coming to say good-by. Nor was he disappointed when the time arrived, though the court was dead and the light bad; his own service was the more telling under these conditions. But to the two girls, who had been brought up to better things, it was a repulsive day from all points of view, and they were very glad to spend the morning in packing up before a hearty fire.
“This is the kind of thing that makes one sigh for Wallandoon,” Tiny happened to say once as she stood looking out of the window at gray sky and sullied trees. The thought was spoken just as it came into her head with an imaginary beam of bush sunshine. There was no other thought behind it — no human mote in that sunbeam certainly. But Ruth had raised her head swiftly from the trunk over which she was bending, and she knelt gazing at her sister’s back as a dog pricks its ears.
“Why Wallandoon? Why not Melbourne?”
“Because I have had enough of Melbourne,” replied Christina quietly, and without turning round.
“I thought you took so kindly to it?”
“Perhaps I did; I have taken kindly to many things that were bad for me in my time. And that’s all the more reason why I should hanker after Wallandoon. I only wish we could all go back there to live!”
“Well, I must say I shouldn’t care to live there now,” remarked Ruth, with a little laugh; “and I don’t see how you could like it either, after civilization.”
“Ah, that’s because you never cared for the station as I did,” replied Christina, with her back still turned; “you liked the veranda better than the run, and you hated the dust from the sheep when you were riding. I can smell it now! Just think: they’ll be in the middle of shearing by this time. They were going to have thirty-six shearers on the board, and they expected the best clip they’ve had for years. Can’t you hear the blades clicking and the tar boys tearing down the board, and the bales being heaved about at the back of the shed — or see the fleeces thrown out on the table and rolled up and bounced into the bins — and father drafting in a cloud of dust at the yards? Can’t I! Many’s the time I’ve brought him a mob of woollies myself. And how good the pannikin of tea was, and the shearer’s bun! I can taste ’em now. You never cared for tea in a pannikin. Yet perhaps if you’d ever gone back to see the place since we left it, as I did, you might be as keen on it as I am. I own I wasn’t so keen when we lived there. When I went back and saw it the other day, though, I thought it the best place in the world; and you would, too.”
“Is Jack Swift managing it now?” Ruth asked indifferently.
“You knew he was.”
“Really I’m afraid I don’t know much about it; but if you’re so fond of the place as all that, Tiny, I should just marry Jack Swift, and live there ever after.”
“I suppose you’re joking,” said the young girl rather scornfully; “but in case you aren’t perhaps it will relieve you to hear that, if ever I do marry, I shall marry a man — not a place.”
And she turned round and stared hard through another window, which commanded a view of the Mundham gates and grounds; and Ruth made no more jokes; but neither, on the other hand, did Tiny expatiate any further on the attractions of station life at Wallandoon.
The Willoughbys came in the afternoon, when Mrs. Willoughby was severely disappointed, owing to the rudeness of Christina, who had disappeared mysteriously, although she knew that these people were coming. Mrs. Willoughby had seen her last leaving the cricket ground at Mundham under the wing of Lady Dromard — Mrs. Willoughby had looked forward immensely to seeing her again. But Christina had gone out, and none knew whither; the visitor’s idea was some private engagement at the hall; and this was not the only idea she expressed, a little too freely for the entire ease of Christina’s sister. Happily they were only ideas. Mrs. Willoughby knew nothing.
Tiny, as it turned out later, had spent the whole afternoon in the village, saying good-by to her friends there. Ruth found this rather difficult to believe, as she had heard so little of the friends in question. Nevertheless it was strictly true, and Tiny had taken tea with Mrs. Clapperton, whose tears she had kissed away when they said good-by; but that was only the end of a scene which would have been a revelation to some who prided themselves on knowing their Tiny as well as anyone could know so unaccountable a person. At dinner that evening she seemed chastened and subdued, yet her temper, certainly, had never been sweeter. It was noticeable that, while she had a responsive smile for most things that were said, she made fun of nothing herself; and she was far too fond of making fun of everything. But for two whole days her moods had come and gone like the shadows of the clouds when sun and wind are strong together; and the last of her whims was not the least puzzling at the time. Later Ruth read it to her own extreme satisfaction; but at the time it did seem odd to her that anyone should desire a walk on so chilly and unattractive a night. Yet when they had left the men to themselves this was what Tiny said she would like above all things. And Ruth, who humored her, had her reward.
For she found herself being led through the churchyard; and when she hesitated as they came to the notice to trespassers, Tiny muttered in a dare-devil way:
“Lady Dromard gave me leave to come this way whenever I liked, and I mean to make use of my privilege while I can. I want to see the hall once again — it has a sort of fascination for me!”
More amazed than before, Ruth followed her leader up the western slope of Gallow Hill. The night was so dark that they heard the rustle of the beeches on top before they could discern their branches against the sky; and standing under them presently, panting from their climb, they gazed down upon a double row of warm lights embedded in blackness. These were the hall windows, in even tier, with here and there one missing, like the broken teeth of a comb. Outline the building had none; only the windows were bitten upon a sable canvas in ruddy orange and glimmering yellow, from which there was just enough reflection on the lawn and shrubs to chain them to earth in the mind of one who watched.
“Only the windows,” murmured Tiny musingly. “Those windows mean to haunt me for the rest of my time.”
“I wish it were moonlight,” Ruth said. “I wish we could see everything.”
“No, I like it best as it is,” remarked Tiny, after further meditation. “It leaves something to your imagination. Those windows are going to leave my imagination uncommonly well off!”
They stood together in silence, and the beeches talked in whispers above them. When Ruth spoke next she whispered too, as though they were just outside those lighted windows:
“Yet you would rather live at Wallandoon than anywhere else on earth!”
Tiny said nothing to that; but after it, at a distance, there came a sigh.
“What’s the matter, Ruth?”
“I’d rather not tell you, dear; it might make you angry.”
“I think I like being made angry just at present,” said Christina, with a little laugh; “but you’ve spiked my guns by saying that first; you are quite safe, my dear.”
“Then I was thinking — I couldn’t help thinking — that one day you might have been mistress ——”
“Of the windows? Then it’s high time we turned our backs on them! That’s just what I was thinking myself!”
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16