Christina was awakened in the morning by the holland blind flapping against her open window. It was a soft, insinuating sound, that awoke one gradually, and to Christina both the cause and the awakening itself seemed incredibly familiar. So had she lain and listened in the past, as each day broke in her brain. When she opened her eyes the shadow of the sash wriggled on the blind as it flapped, a blade of sunshine lay under the door that opened upon the veranda, and neither sight was new to her. The same sheets of the Australasian with which her own hands had once lined the room, for want of a conventional wallpaper, lined it still; the same area of printed matter was in focus from the pillow, and she actually remembered an advertisement that caught her eye. It used to catch her eye two years before. Thus it became difficult to believe in those two years; and it was very pleasant to disbelieve in them. More than pleasant Christina found it to lie where she was, hearing the old noises (the horses were run up before she rose), seeing the old things, and dreaming that the last two years were themselves a dream. Her life as it stood was a much less charming composition than several possible arrangements of the same material, impossible now. This is not strange, but it was a little strange that neither sweet impossibilities nor bitter actualities fascinated her much; for so many good girls are morbidly introspective. As for Christina, let it be clearly and early understood that she was neither an introspective girl by nature nor a particularly good one from any point of view. She was not in the habit of looking back; but to look back on the old days here at the station without thinking of later days was like reading an uneven book for the second time, leaving out the poor part.
In making, but still more in closing that gap in her life (as you close a table after taking out a leaf) she was immensely helped by the associations of the present moment. They breathed of the remote past only; their breath was sweet and invigorating. Her affection for Wallandoon was no affectation; she loved it as she loved no other place. And if, as she dressed, her thoughts dwelt more on the young manager of the station than on the station itself, that only illustrates the difference between an association and an associate. There is human interest in the one, but it does not follow that Tiny Luttrell was immoderately interested in Jack Swift. Even to herself she denied that she had ever done more than like him very much. To some “nonsense” in the past she was ready to own. But in the vocabulary of a Tiny Luttrell a little “nonsense” may cover a calendar of mild crimes. It is only the Jack Swifts who treat the nonsense seriously and deny that the crimes are anything of the sort, because for their part they “mean it.” Women are not deceived. Besides, it is less shame for them to say they never meant it.
“He must marry Flo Trevor of Meringul,” Christina said aloud. “It’s what we all expect of him. It’s his duty. But she isn’t pretty, poor thing!”
The remarks happened to be made to Christina’s own reflection in the glass. She, as we know, was very pretty indeed. Her small head was finely turned, and carried with her own natural grace. Her hair was of so dark a brown as to be nearly black, but there was not enough of it to hide the charming contour of her head. If she could have had the altering of one feature, she would probably have shortened her lips; but their red freshness justified their length; and the crux of a woman’s beauty, her nose, happened to be Christina’s best point. Her eyes were a sweeter one. Their depth of blue is seen only under dark blue skies, and they seemed the darker for her hair. But with all her good features, because she was not an English girl, but an Australian born and bred, she had no complexion to speak of, being pale and slightly freckled. Yet no one held that those blemishes prevented her from being pretty; while some maintained that they did not even detract from her good looks, and a few that they saved her from perfection and were a part of her charm. The chances are that the authorities quoted were themselves her admirers one and all. She had many such. To most of them her character had the same charm as her face; it, too, was freckled with faults for which they loved her the more.
One of the many she met presently, but one of them now, though in his day the first of all. Swift was hastening along the veranda as she issued forth, a consciously captivating figure in her clean white frock. He had on his wide-awake, a newly filled water-bag dripped as he carried it, the drops drying under their eyes in the sun, and Christina foresaw at once his absence for the day. She was disappointed, perhaps because he was one of the many; certainly it was for this reason she did not let him see her disappointment. He told her that he was going with her father to the out-station. That was fourteen miles away. It meant a lonely day for Christina at the homestead. So she said that a lonely day there was just what she wanted, to overhaul the dear old place all by herself, and to revel in it like a child without feeling that she was being watched. But she told a franker story some hours later, when Swift found her still on the veranda where he had left her, but this was now the shady side, seated in a wicker chair and frowning at a book. For she promptly flung away that crutch of her solitude, and seemed really glad to see him. Her look made him tingle. He sat down on the edge of the veranda and leaned his back against a post. Then he inquired, rather diffidently, how the day had gone with Miss Luttrell.
“I am ashamed to tell you,” said Christina graciously, for though his diffidence irritated her, she was quite as glad to see him as she looked, “that I have been bored very nearly to death!”
“I knew you would be,” Swift said quite bitterly; but his bitterness was against an absent man, who had gone indoors to rest.
“I don’t see how you could know anything,” remarked Christina. “I certainly didn’t know it myself; and I’m very much ashamed of it, that’s another thing! I love every stick about the place. But I never knew a hotter morning; the sand in the yard was like powdered cinders, and you can’t go poking about very long when everything you touch is red hot. Then one felt tired. Mrs. Duncan took pity on me and came and talked to me; she must be an acquisition to you, I am sure; but her cooking’s better than her conversation. I think she must have sent the new chum to me to take her place; anyway I’ve had a dose of him, too, I can tell you!”
“Oh, he’s been cutting his work, has he?”
“He has been doing the civil; I think he considered that his work.”
“And quite right too! Tell me, what do you think of him?”
Christina made a grotesque grimace. “He’s such a little Englishman,” she simply said.
“Well, he can’t help that, you know,” said Swift, laughing; “and he’s not half a bad little chap, as I told you last night.”
“Oh, not a bit bad; only typical. He has told me his history. It seems he missed the army at home, front door and back, in spite of his crammer — I mean his cwammer. He was no use, so they sent him out to us.”
“And he is gradually becoming of some use to us, or rather to me; he really is,” protested Swift in the interests of fair play, which a man loves. “You laugh, but I like the fellow. He’s much more use — forgive my saying so — than Herbert ever would have been — here. At all events he doesn’t want to fight! He’s willing, I will say that for him. And I think it was rather nice of him to tell you about himself.”
“It’s nicer of you to think so,” said Christina to herself. And her glance softened so that he noticed the difference, for he was becoming sensitive to a slight but constant hardness of eye and tongue distressing to find in one’s divinity.
“He went so far as to hint at an affair of the heart,” she said aloud, and he saw her eyes turn hard again, so that his own glanced off them and fell. But he forced a chuckle as he looked down.
“Well, you gave him your sympathy there, I hope?”
“Not I, indeed. I urged him to forget all about her; she has forgotten all about him long before now, you may be sure. He only thinks about her still because it’s pleasant to have somebody to think about at a lonely place like this; and if she’s thinking about him it’s because he’s away in the wilderness and there’s a glamour about that. It wouldn’t prevent her marrying another man tomorrow, and it won’t prevent him making up to some other girl when he gets the chance.”
“So that’s your experience, is it?”
“Never mind whose experience it is. I advised the young man to give up thinking about the young woman, that’s all, and it’s my advice to every young man situated as he is.”
Swift was not amused. Yet he refused to believe that her advice was intended for himself: firstly, because it was so coolly given, which was his ignorance, and secondly, because, literally speaking, he was not himself situated as the young Englishman was, which was merely unimaginative. In his determination, however, not to meet her in generalizations, but to get back to the storekeeper, he was wise enough.
“I know something about his affairs, too,” he said quietly; “he’s the frankest little fellow in the world; and I have given him very different advice, I must say.”
Tiny Luttrell bent down on him a gaze of fiendish innocence.
“And what sort of advice does he give you, pray?”
“You had better ask him,” said Swift feebly, but with effect, for he was honestly annoyed, and man enough to show it. As he spoke, indeed, he rose.
“What, are you going?”
“Yes; you go in for being too hard altogether.”
“I don’t go in for it. I am hard. I’m as hard as nails,” said Christina rapidly.
“So I see,” he said, and another weak return was strengthened by his firmness; for he was going away as he spoke, and he never looked round.
“I wouldn’t lose my temper,” she called after him.
Her face was white. He disappeared. She colored angrily.
“Now I hate you,” she whispered to herself; but she probably respected him more, and that was as it only should have been long ago.
But Swift was in an awkward position, which indeed he deserved for the unsuspected passages that had once taken place between Tiny Luttrell and himself. It is true that those passages had occurred at the very end of the Luttrells’ residence at Wallandoon; they had not been going on for a period preceding the end; but there is no denying that they were reprehensible in themselves, and pardonable only on the plea of exceeding earnestness. Swift would not have made that excuse for himself, for he felt it to be a poor one, though of his own sincerity he was and had been unwaveringly sure. Beyond all doubt he was properly in love, and, being so, it was not until the girl stopped writing to him that he honestly repented the lengths to which he had been encouraged to go. It is easy to be blameless through the post, but they had kept up their perfectly blameless correspondence for a very few weeks when Christina ceased firing; she was to have gone on forever. He was just persistent enough to make it evident that her silence was intentional; then the silence became complete, and it was never again broken. For if Swift’s self-control was limited, his self-respect was considerable, and this made him duly regret the limitations of his self-control. His boy’s soul bled with a boy’s generous regrets. He had kissed her, of course, and I wonder whose fault you think that was? I know which of them regretted and which forgot it. The man would have given one of his fingers to have undone those kisses, that made him think less of himself and less of his darling. Nothing could make him love her less. He heard no more of her, but that made no difference. And now they were together again, and she was hard, and it made this difference: that he wanted her worse than ever, and for her own gain now as much as for his.
But two years had altered him also. In a manner he too was hardened; but he was simply a stronger, not a colder man. The muscles of his mind were set; his soul was now as sinewy as his body. He knew what he wanted, and what would not do for him instead. He wanted a great deal, but he meant having it or nothing. This time she should give him her heart before he took her hand; he swore it through his teeth; and you will realize how he must have known her of old even to have thought it. The curious thing is that, having shown him what she was, she should have made him love her as he did. But that was Tiny Luttrell.
She was half witch, half coquette, and her superficial cynicism was but a new form of her coquetry. He liked it less than the unsophisticated methods of the old days. Indeed, he liked the girl less, while loving her more. She had given him the jar direct in one conversation, but even on indifferent subjects she spoke with a bitterness which he thoroughly disliked; while some of her prejudices he could not help thinking irredeemably absurd. As a shrill decrier of England, for instance, she may have amused him, but he hardly admired her in that character. In a word, he thought her, and rightly, a good deal spoilt by her town life; but he hated towns, and it was a proof of her worth in his eyes that she was not hopelessly spoilt. He saw hope for her still — if she would marry him. He was a modest man in general, but he did feel this most strongly. She was going to England without caring whether she went or not; she would do much better by marrying him and coming back to her old home in the bush. That home she loved, whether she loved him or not; in it she had grown up simple and credulous and sweet, with a wicked side that only picked out her sweetness; in it he believed that her life and his might yet be beautiful. The feeling made him sometimes rejoice that she had fallen a little out of love with her life, so that he might show her with all the effect of contrast what life and love really were; it thrilled his heart with generous throbs, it brought the moisture to his honest eyes, and it came to him oftener and with growing force as the days went on, by reason of certain signs they brought forth in Christiana. Her voice lost its bitterness in his ears, not because he had grown used to notes that had jarred him in the beginning, but because the discordant strings came gradually into tune. Her freshness came back to her with the charm and influence of the wilderness she loved; her old self lived again to Jack Swift. On the other hand, she came to realize her own delight in the old good life as she had never realized it before; she felt that henceforward she should miss it as she had not missed it yet. Now she could have defined her sensations and given reasons for them. She spent many hours in the saddle, on a former mount of hers that Swift had run up for her; often he rode with her, and the scent of the pines, the swelling of the sand-hills against the sky, the sense of Nothing between the horses’ ears and the sunset, spoke to her spirit as they had never done of old. And even so on their rides would she speak to Swift, who listened grimly, hardly daring to answer her for the fear of saying at the wrong moment what he had resolved to say once and for all before she went.
And he chose the wrong moment after all. It was the eve of her going, and they were riding together for the last time; he felt that it was also his last opportunity. So in six miles he made as many remarks, then turned in his saddle and spoke out with overpowering fervor. This may be expected of the self-contained suitor, with whom it is only a question of time, and the longer the time the stronger the outburst. But Christina was not carried away, for she did not quite love him, and the opportunity was a bad one, and Swift’s honest method had not improved it. She listened kindly, with her eyes on the distant timbers of the eight-mile whim; but her kindness was fatally calm; and when he waited she refused him firmly. She confessed to a fondness for him. She ascribed this to the years they had known each other. Once and for all she did not love him.
“Not now!” exclaimed the young fellow eagerly. “But you did once! You will again!”
“I never loved you,” said the girl gravely. “If you’re thinking of two years ago, that was mere nonsense. I don’t believe its love with you either, if you only knew it.”
“But I do know what it is with me, Tiny! I loved you before you went away, and all the time you were gone. Since you have been back, during these few days, I have got to love you more than ever. And so I shall go on, whatever happens. I can’t help it, darling.”
Neither could he help saying this; for the hour found him unable to accept his fate quite as he had meant to accept it. Her kindness had something to do with that. And now she spoke more kindly than before.
“Are you sure?” she said.
“Am I sure!” he echoed bitterly.
“It is so easy to deceive oneself.”
“I am not deceived.”
“It is so easy to imagine yourself ——”
“I am not imagining!” cried Swift impatiently. “I am the man who has loved you always, and never any girl but you. If you can’t believe that, you must have had a very poor experience of men, Tiny!”
For a moment she looked away from the whim which they were slowly nearing, and her eyes met his.
“I have,” she admitted frankly; “I have had a particularly poor experience of them. Yet I am sorry to find you so different from the rest; I can’t tell you how sorry I am to find you true to me.”
“Sorry?” he said tenderly; for her voice was full of pain, and he could not bear that. “Why should you be sorry, dear?”
“Why — because I never dreamt of being true to you.”
For some reason her face flamed as he watched it. There was a pause. Then he said:
“You are not engaged; are you in love?”
“Very far from it.”
“Then why mind? If there is no one else you care for you shall care for me yet. I’ll make you. I’ll wait for you. You don’t know me! I won’t give you up until you are some other fellow’s wife.”
His stern eyes, the way his mouth shut on the words, and the manly determination of the words themselves gave the girl a thrill of pleasure and of pride; but also a pang; for at that moment she felt the wish to love him alongside the inability, and all at once she was as sorry for herself as for him.
“What should you mind?” repeated Swift.
“I can’t tell you, but you can guess what I have been.”
“A flirt?” He laughed aloud. “Darling, I don’t care two figs for your flirtations! I wanted you to enjoy yourself. What does it matter how you’ve enjoyed yourself, so long as you haven’t absolutely been getting engaged or falling in love?”
Her chin drooped into her loose white blouse. “I did fall in love,” she said slowly —“at any rate I thought so; and I very nearly got engaged.”
Swift had never seen so much color in her face.
Presently he said, “What happened?” but immediately added, “I beg your pardon; of course I have no business to ask.” His tone was more stiff than strained.
“You have business,” she answered eagerly, fearful of making him less than friend. “I wouldn’t mind telling you the whole thing, except the man’s name. And yet,” she added rather wistfully, “I suppose you’re the only friend I have that doesn’t know! It’s hard lines to have to tell you.”
“Then I don’t want to know anything at all about it,” exclaimed Swift impulsively. “I would rather you didn’t tell me a word, if you don’t mind. I am only too thankful to think you got out of it, whatever it was.”
“I didn’t get out of it.”
“You don’t — mean — that the man did?”
Swift was aghast.
He did not speak, but she heard him breathing. Stealing a look at him, her eyes fell first upon the clenched fist lying on his knee.
She made haste to defend the man.
“It wasn’t all his fault; of that I feel sure. If you knew who he was you wouldn’t blame him anymore than I do. He was quite a boy, too; I don’t suppose he was a free agent. In any case it is all quite, quite over.”
“Is it? He was from England — that’s why you hate the home people so!”
“Yes, he was from home. He went back very suddenly. It wasn’t his fault. He was sent for. But he might have said good-by!”
She spoke reflectively, gazing once more at the whim. They were near it now. The framework cut the sky like some uncouth hieroglyph. To Swift henceforward, on all his lonely journeys hither, it was the emblem of humiliation. But it was not his own humiliation that moistened his clenched hand now.
“I wish I had him here,” he muttered.
“Ah! you know nothing about him, you see; I know enough to forgive him. And I have got over it, quite; but the worst of it is that I can’t believe any more in any of you — I simply can’t.”
“Not in me?” asked Swift warmly, for her belief in him, at least, he knew he deserved. “I have always been the same. I have never thought of any other girl but you, and I never will. I love you, darling!”
“After this, Jack?”
He seemed to disappoint her.
“After the same thing if it happens all over again in England! There is no merit in it; I simply can’t help myself. While you are away I will wait for you and work for you; only come back free, and I will win you, too, in the end. You are happier here than anywhere else, but you don’t know what it is to be really happy as I should make you. Remember that — and this: that I will never give you up until someone else has got you! Now call me conceited or anything you like. I have done bothering you.”
“I can only call you foolish,” said the girl, though gently. “You are far too good for me. As for conceit, you haven’t enough of it, or you would never give me another thought. I still hope you will quite give up thinking about me, and — and try to get over it. But nothing is going to happen in England, I can promise you that much. And I only wish I could get out of going.”
He had already shown her how she might get out of it; he was not going to show her afresh or more explicitly, in spite of the temptation to do so. Even to a proud spirit it is difficult to take No when the voice that says it is kind and sorrowful and all but loving. Swift found it easier to bide by his own statement that he had done bothering her; such was his pride.
But he had chosen the wrong moment, and though he had shown less pride than he had meant to show, he was still too proud to improve the right one when it came. He was too proud, indeed, to stand much chance of immediate success in love. Otherwise he might have reminded her with more force and particularity of their former relations; and playing like that he might have won, but he would rather have lost. Perhaps he did not recognize the right moment as such when it fell; but at least he must have seen that it was better than the one he had chosen. It fell in the evening, when Christina’s mood became conspicuously sentimental; but Swift happened to be one of the last young men in the world to take advantage of any mere mood.
As on the first evening, Mr. Luttrell was busy in the store, but this time with the storekeeper, who was making out a list of things to be sent up in the drays from Melbourne. Tiny and the manager were thrown together for the last time. She offered to sing a song, and he thanked her gratefully enough. But he listened to her plaintive songs from a far corner of the room, though the room was lighted only by the moonbeams; and when she rose he declared that she was tired and begged her not to sing any more. She could have beaten him for that.
But in leaving the room they lingered on the threshold, being struck by the beauty of the night. The full moon ribbed the station yard with the shadows of the pines, a soft light was burning in the store, and all was so still that the champing of the night-horse in the yard came plainly to their ears, with the chirping of the everlasting crickets. Christina raised her face to Swift; her eyes were wet in the moonlight; there was even a slight tremor of the red lips; and one hand hung down invitingly at her side. She did not love him, but she was beginning to wish that she could love him; and she did love the place. Had he taken that one hand then the chances are he might have kept it. But even Swift never dreamt that this was so. And after that moment it was not so any more. She turned cold, and was cold to the end. Her last words from the top of the coach fell as harshly on a loving ear as any that had preceded them by a week.
“Why need you remind me I am going to England? Enjoy myself! I shall detest the whole thing.”
Her last look matched the words.
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16