“He’s done it at last!”
Erskine brandished a letter as he spoke, and then leant back in his chair with a guffaw that alarmed the Portuguese waiters. The letter was from Herbert Luttrell, a Cambridge man of one month’s standing, of whose academic outset too little had been heard. His sisters were anxious to know what it was that he had done at last; they put this question in the same breath.
“Oh, it might be worse,” said Erskine cheerfully. “He has stopped short of murder!”
“We should like to know how far he got,” Tiny said, while Ruth held out an eager hand for the letter.
“I don’t think you must read it, my dear; but the fact is he has at last filled up somebody’s eye!”
Tiny breathed a sigh of relief.
“Is he in prison?” asked Ruth.
“No, not yet; but I am afraid he must be in bad odor, though perhaps not with everybody.”
“Whose was the eye?” Christina wanted to know.
“The proctor’s!” suggested Ruth.
“Not yet, again — you must give the poor boy time, my dear. It may be the proctor’s turn next, but at present your little brother has contented himself with filling the eye of the man who was coaching his college trials. It’s a time-honored privilege of the coach to use free language to his crew, and it doesn’t give offense as a rule; but it seems to have offended Herbert. Young Australia don’t like being sworn at, and Herbert admits that he swore back from his thwart, and said that he fancied he was as good a man as the coach, but he hoped to find out when they got to the boathouse. They did find out; and Herbert has at last filled up an old country eye; and for my part I don’t think the less of him for doing so.”
“The less!” cried Tiny, whose blue eyes were alight. “I think all the more of him. I’m proud of Herbs! You have too many of those savage old customs, Erskine; you need Young Australia to come and knock them on the head!”
“Well, as long as he doesn’t knock a proctor on the head, as Ruth seems to fear! If he does that there’s an end of him, so far as Cambridge is concerned. He tells me the eye was unpopular, otherwise I’m afraid he would have had a warm time of it; though a quick fist and an arm that’s stronger than it looks are wonderful things for winning the respect of men, even in these days.”
“And mayn’t we really see the letter?” Tiny said wistfully.
Erskine shook his head.
“I am very sorry, but I’m afraid I must treat it as private. It’s a verbatim report. I can only tell you that Herbert seems to have been justified, more or less, though he is perhaps too modest to report himself as fully as he reports the eye. He says nothing else of any consequence. He doesn’t mention work of any kind; but he’s not there only, or even primarily, to pass exams. On the whole, we mustn’t fret about the eye, so long as the dear boy keeps his hands off the authorities.”
Their hotel was no longer at Cintra, but in Lisbon, where Mr. Holland was being sadly delayed by the business men of the most unbusinesslike capital in Europe. Already it was the middle of November. They had left Cintra as long ago as the 5th of the month, expecting to sail from Lisbon on the 7th; but out of his experience Erskine ought to have known better. It is true that on landing in the country he had attended first to business. The business was connected with the forming of a company for certain operations on Portuguese territory in the East, the capital coming from London; a board was necessary in both cities, and very necessary indeed were certain negotiations between the London directors, as represented by Erskine Holland, and their colleagues in Lisbon. The latter had promised to do much while Erskine was at Cintra, and duly did nothing until he returned; knowing their kind of old, he ought never to have gone. He quite deserved to have to wait and worry and smoke more Portuguese cigarettes than were either agreeable or good, with the women on his hands; with all his knowledge of the country and the people he might have known very well how it would be-as indeed Erskine was told in a letter from Lombard Street, where an amusing dispatch of his from Cintra had rather irritated the senior partners.
Thus Mr. Holland had his own worries throughout this trip, but it is a pleasure to affirm that his sister-in-law did not add to them after that first day at Cintra. Thenceforward she had behaved herself as a perfectly rational and even a contented being. She had appreciated the other sights of Cintra even more than Pena (which had hardly been given a fair chance), and most of all that gorgeous garden of Monserrat, where the trees of the world are grouped together, and among them the gum trees which were so dear to Christina. She had even been overcome by a bloodthirsty desire to witness the bullfight on the Sunday; and Erskine had taken her, because her present frame was not one to discourage; but it must be confessed that Tiny was disappointed by the tameness of this sport rather than revolted by its cruelty. Negatively, she had been behaving better still; the Cintra donkey, the locality of the English hotel, and other associations of the first day never once perceptibly affected either her spirits or her temper. She had shown, indeed, so dead a level of cheerfulness and good sense as to seem almost uninteresting after the accustomed undulations; but in point of fact she had never been more interesting to those in her secret. She had promised to give Lord Manister his answer in a month, and meanwhile she was displaying all the even temper and equable spirits of settled happiness. She ate healthily, she declared that she slept well, and otherwise she was amazingly and consistently serene. That was her perversity, once more, but on this occasion her perversity admitted of an obvious explanation. The explanation was that she had never been in doubt about her decision, that in her heart she was more than satisfied, and that she had asked for a month’s respite chiefly for freedom’s sake. The matter was discussed no more between the sisters, because Tiny refused to discuss it, declaring that she had dismissed it from her mind till December. And to Erskine she never once mentioned it while they were in Portugal, nor had she the least intention of doing so on the homeward voyage, which they were able ultimately to make within a week of the arrival of Herbert’s letter.
But the voyage was rough, and Tiny happened to be a remarkably good sailor, which made her very tiresome once more. Holland had his hands full in attending to his wife in the cabin, while keeping an eye on her sister, who would remain on deck. Through the worst of the weather the unreasonable girl clung like a limpet to the rail, staring seaward at the misty horizon, or downward at the milky wake, until her pale face was red and rough and sparkling with dried spray.
“I do wish you would come below,” Erskine said to her, in a tone of entreaty, toward dusk on the second day, but by no means for the first time. “There’s not another woman on deck; and you’ve chosen the one spot of the whole vessel where there’s most motion.”
Until he joined her Tiny had indeed been the only soul on the hurricane deck, where she stood, leaning on the after-rail, with eyes for nothing but the steamer’s track. They were on the hem of the bay and the wind was ahead, so the boat was pitching; and you must be a good sailor to enjoy leaning over the after-rail with this motion — but that is what Christina was. The wind welded her garments to the wire network underneath, and loosened her hair, and lit lamps in her ears; but it seemed that she liked it, and that the long, frothy trail had a strong fascination for her; for when she answered, it was without lifting her eyes from the sea.
“You see, I like being different from other people; that’s what I go in for! Honestly, though, I love being up here, and I think you might let me stay. However, that’s no reason why you should stay too — if it makes you feel uncomfortable.”
“Thanks, I think I am proof,” returned Erskine rather brusquely, for this is a point on which most men are either vain or sensitive; “but of course I’ll leave you, if you prefer it.”
“On the contrary, I should like you to stay,” Christina murmured — in such a lonely little voice that Erskine stayed.
It was difficult to believe in this young lady’s sincerity, however. She not only made no further remark herself, but refused to acknowledge one of Erskine’s. Men do not like that, either. Tiny’s eyes had never been lifted from the endless race of white water, now rising as though to their feet, now sinking from under them as the steamer labored end on to the wind. Apparently she had forgotten that Erskine was there, as also that she had asked him to remain. He was on the point of leaving her to her reverie when she swung round suddenly, with only one elbow on the rail, and looked up at him with a pout that turned slowly to a smile.
“Erskine, you’ve come and spoilt everything!”
“My dear child, I told you I would go if you liked, you know.”
“Ah, that was too late; you’d spoilt it then. It won’t come back.”
“Do you mean that I have broken some spell? If that’s the case I am very sorry.”
“That won’t mend it — you can’t mend spells,” said Tiny, laughing ruefully. “Perhaps it’s as well you can’t; and perhaps it’s a good thing you came,” she added more briskly. “I had humbugged myself into thinking I was on my way back to Australia. That was all.”
“But if I were to go mightn’t you humbug yourself again?”
“I don’t think I want to,” the girl answered thoughtfully; “at any rate I don’t want you to go. Don’t you think it’s jolly up here? To me it’s as good as a gallop up the bush — and I think we’re taking our fences splendidly! But it was jollier still thinking that England was over there,” nodding her head at the wake, “and that every five minutes or so it was a mile further away — instead of the other thing.”
“Poor old England!”
“No, Erskine, I meant a mile nearer Australia — that was the jolly feeling,” Tiny made haste to explain. “You know I didn’t mean anything else — you know how I have enjoyed being with you and Ruth. Only I can’t help wishing I was on my way back to Melbourne instead of to Plymouth. I’d give so much to see Australia again.”
“Well, so you will see it again.”
Her eyes sped seaward as she shook her head.
“Why on earth shouldn’t you?” said Erskine, laughing.
“You know why.”
Now he saw her meaning, and held his tongue. This was the subject on which he understood it to be her desire that they should not speak. To himself, moreover, it was a highly unattractive topic, and he was thoroughly glad to have it ignored as it had been; but if she alluded to the matter herself that was another thing, and he must say something. So he said:
“Is it really so certain, Tiny?”
“On my part absolutely. I’m only climbing down!”
Erskine was reminded of the pleasant things he had thought of saying to her at Cintra; they had been by him so long that he found himself saying them now as though he meant every word.
“My congratulations must keep till the proper time; but when that comes they may surprise you. My dear girl, I should like you to understand that you’re not the only person whose opinion has changed since we were at Essingham. If I may say so at this stage of the proceedings, and if it is any satisfaction to you to hear it, I for one am going to be very glad about this thing, I think him such a first-rate fellow, Tiny!”
For a moment Christina gazed acutely at her brother-in-law. “I wonder if that’s sincere?” she said reflectively. Then her eyes hurried back to the sea.
“I think he’s a very good fellow indeed,” said Erskine with emphasis.
The girl gave a little laugh. “Oh, he’s all that; the question is whether that’s enough.”
“It is, if he really loves you — as I think he must.”
“Oh, if it’s enough for him to be in love!”
There followed a great pause, during which the thought of pleasant things to say was thrown overboard and left far astern.
“I only hope,” Erskine said at last, with an earnest ring in his voice which was new to Christina, “that you are not going to make the greatest mistake of your life!”
“I hope not also.”
“Ah, don’t make light of it!” he cried impetuously. “If you marry without love you’ll ruin your life, I don’t care who it is you marry! To marry for affection, or for esteem, or for money — they’re all equally bad; there is no distinction. Take affection — for a time you might be as happy as if it were something more; but remember that any day you might see somebody that you could really love. Then you would know the difference, and it would embitter your whole existence with a quiet, private, unsuspected bitterness, of which you can have no conception. And so much the worse if you have married somebody who is honestly and sufficiently fond of you. His love would cut you to the heart — because you could only pretend to return it — because your whole existence would be a living lie!”
He was extremely unlike himself. His voice trembled, and in the dying light his face was gray. These things made his words impressive, but the girl did not seem particularly impressed. Had she remembered the one previous occasion when a similar conversation had taken place between them, the strangeness of his manner must have been driven home to her by contrast; but the contrast was a double one, and her own share in it kept her from thinking of the time when she had been serious and he had not, and now, when he was more serious than she had ever known him, she met him with a frivolous laugh.
“Well, really, Erskine, I’ve never heard you so terribly in earnest before! I think I had better not tell Ruth what you have said; my dear man, you speak as though you’d been there!”
It was some time before he laughed.
“If only you yourself would be more in earnest, Tiny! You may say this comes badly from me. I know there has been more jest than earnest between me and you. But if I was never serious in my life before I am now, and I want you, too, to take yourself seriously for once. You see, Tiny, I am not only an old married man by this time, but I am your European parent as well. I am entitled to play the heavy father, and to give you a lecture when I think you need one. My dear child, I have been in the world about twice as long as you have, and I know men and have heard of women who have poisoned their whole lives by marrying with love on the other side only; and the greater their worldly goods, the greater has been their misery! And rather than see you do as they have done ——” The sentence snapped. “You shan’t do it!” he exclaimed sharply. “You’re far too good to spoil yourself as others have done and are doing every day.”
“Who told you I was good?” inquired Christina, with a touch of the coquetry which even with him she could not entirely repress. “You never had it from me, most certainly. Let me tell you, Erskine, that I’m bad — bad — bad! And if I haven’t shocked you sufficiently already it is evidently time that I did; so you’ll please to understand that if I marry Lord Manister it is partly because I think I owe it to him; otherwise it’s for the main chance purely. And I think it’s very unkind of you to make me confess all this,” she added fretfully. “I never meant to speak to you about it at all. Only I can’t bear you to think me better than I am.”
Erskine shook his head sadly.
“At least you have a better side than this, Tiny — this is not you at all! You love and admire all that is honest and noble, and fresh and free; you should give that love and admiration a chance. But I’m not going to say any more to worry you. If you really, with your eyes open, are going to marry a man whom you do not love, I can only tell you that you will be doing at best a very cynical thing. And yet — I can understand it.” This he added more to himself than to the girl.
He was turning away, but she laid a restraining hand upon his arm.
“Don’t go,” she exclaimed impulsively. “I can’t let you go when — when you understand me better than anyone else ever did — and when I am never, never going to speak to you like this again.”
“If only I could help you!”
“You cannot!” Tiny cried out. “I’m too far gone to be helped. I feel hopelessly bad and hard, and nobody can mend that. But if there’s one grain of goodness in my composition that wasn’t there when I came over to England, you may know, Erskine, if you care to know it, that it’s you, and you alone, who have put it there!”
“Nonsense,” he said; “what good have I done you?”
“You have talked sense to me, as only one other man ever did — and he wasn’t as clever as you are. You’ve given me books to read, and they’re the first good books I ever read in my life; you have dug a sort of oyster knife into my miserable ignorance! You have been a real good pal to me, Erskine, and you must never turn your back on me, whatever I do. I know you never will. I believe in you as I believe in very few people on this footstool; but there’s one thing you can do for me now that will be even kinder than anything that you have ever done yet.”
“There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for you, Tiny,” said Erskine tenderly. “What is it?”
The corners of her mouth twitched — her eyes twinkled.
“It’s not to say another serious word to me this month! I know I began it this time; I won’t do so again. I’m trying to be happy in my own way, if you’ll only let me. I’m trying to make the most of my time. When I’m really engaged I shall need all the help and advice you can give me; for I mean to be very good to him, Erskine; I do indeed! Then of course I shall need to cultivate the finest manners; but until it actually comes off I’m trying to forget about it — don’t you see? I’m doing my level best to forget!”
What Erskine saw was the tears in her eyes, but he saw them only for an instant; instead of his leaving Christina on the deck it was she who left him; and there he stood, between the high seas and the gathering shades of night, until both were black.
It was their last conversation of the kind.
One more night was spent at sea; the next they were all back in Kensington. Here they were greeted with a pleasant surprise: Herbert was in the house to meet them. Cambridge seemed already to have done him good; he was singularly polite and subdued, though a little uncommunicative. They, however, had much to tell him, so this was not noticed immediately. His sisters supposed that he was in London for the night only, as he said he had come down from Cambridge that day. It was not until later that they knew that he had been sent down. Erskine broke the news to them.
“I’m afraid,” he added, “that they’ve sent him down for good and all. The fact is, Ruth, your fears have been realized. He has done his best to fill another eye; and this time the proctor’s! He says he shall go back to Melbourne immediately.”
“Never!” cried Ruth; and she went straight to her brother, who was smoking viciously in another room.
“Yes, by ghost!” drawled Herbert through his hooked nose. “I’m going to clear out. I’m full up of England, Ruth, and I guess England’s full up of me. The best thing I can do is to go back, and turn boundary rider or whim driver. That’s about all I’m fit for, and it’s what I’m going to do. The Ballaarat sails on the 2d — I’ve been to the office and taken my berth already. My oath, I drove there straight from Liverpool Street this afternoon!”
Nor was there any moving him from his purpose, though Ruth tried for half an hour there and then. Twice that time Herbert spent afterward in Tiny’s room; but it was not known whether Tiny also had attempted to dissuade him. When he left her the girl stood for five minutes with a foot on the fender and an elbow on the mantelpiece. Then she sought Ruth in haste.
Ruth had just gone upstairs. Erskine was surprised to see her back in his study almost immediately, and startled by her mode of entrance, which suggested sudden illness in the house.
“What in the world has happened?” he said, sitting upright in his chair.
“Happened?” cried Ruth bitterly. “It is the last straw! I give her up. I wash my hands of her. I wish she had never come over!”
“Tiny? Why, what has she been doing now?”
“It isn’t what she has been doing — it is what she says she’s going to do. You may be able to bring her to reason, but I never shall. I won’t try — I wash my hands of her. I will say no more to her. But it is simply disgraceful! She is far worse than Herbert!”
“Has she unmade her mind,” Holland asked eagerly.
“No, no, no! But worse, I call it. O Erskine, if you knew what she says ——”
“I am waiting to hear.”
“You’ll never guess!”
“No, I give it up.”
“So must Tiny — I never heard a madder idea in my life!”
“Than what, my dear?”
“Her going out with Herbert in the Ballaarat!”
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16