Aboard the Ballaarat Christina committed a new eccentricity, but it may be well to state at once, a perfectly harmless one. She confided in another girl — a practice which Tiny had avoided all her life. And this very girl had offended her at first sight by looking aggressively happy when the boat sailed and all nice women were in tears.
There had been a time when Christina seldom cried, but in England she had grown very soft in some ways, and she looked her last at it, and at the snow that had fallen in the night as if to please her, through blinding tears. She had never in her life felt more acutely wretched than when saying good-by to Ruth and Erskine, and her sorrow was heightened by the feeling that she had been both unkind and ungrateful to Ruth, to whom she clung for forgiveness at the last moment. The reason why her parting words were jocular, though broken, was because the sight of an honest, smiling face, which might have blushed for smiling then, sent a fleam of irritation through her heart that awoke the latent mischief in her wet eyes.
“I do wish you would ask Erskine to throw a snowball at that depressing person,” she whispered to Ruth, “who does nothing but laugh and look really happy! If it was only put on for the sake of her friends I could forgive her; but it isn’t. Tell him I mean it — there’s no fun in me today; and you may also tell him that it would have been only brotherly of him to kiss me on this occasion, when we may all be going to the bottom!”
Erskine, who had crossed the gangway before his wife, so that she need not feel that he overheard her final words to her own kin, shook his head at Tiny when Ruth joined him on the quay. But his smile was lifeless; there was no fun in him either today. He drew his wife’s arm through his own, and Tiny saw the last of them standing together thus. They stood in snow and mud, but the railway shed behind them was a great sheet of unsullied whiteness, softly edging the bright December sky, and Christina never forgot her first glimpse of the snow and her last of Ruth and Erskine. When their figures were gone and only the snow was left for Christina’s eyes, they filled afresh, and she broke hastily from Herbert, who was himself uncommonly dejected. She hurried unsteadily to her cabin, to find her cabin companion singing softly to herself as she unstrapped her rugs; for her cabin companion was, of course, the odiously cheerful person who already on deck had done violence to Christina’s feelings.
Thus the acquaintance began in a particularly unpromising manner; but the cheerful person turned out to be as bad a sailor as Christina was a good one, and she met with much practical kindness at Christina’s hands, which had a clever, tender way with them, though in other respects the good sailor was not from the first so sympathetic. It is harder than it ought to be to sympathize with the seasick when one is quite well one’s self; still Christina found it impossible not to admire her extraordinary companion, who kept up her spirits during a whole week spent in her berth, and was more cheerful than ever at the end of it, when she could scarcely stand. Then Christina expressed her admiration, likewise her curiosity, and received a simple explanation. The cheerful person was on her way to Colombo and the altar-rails. Her trousseau was in the hold.
The two became exceeding fast friends, and their friendship was founded on mutual envy. Tiny was envied for the various qualities which made her greatly admired on board, for that admiration itself, and for the marked manner in which she paid no heed to it; and she envied her friend a very ordinary love story, now approaching a very ordinary end. The cheerful girl was plain, unaccomplished, and not at all young. But there was one whom she loved better than herself; she was properly engaged; she was happy in her engagement; her soul was settled and at peace. Also she was good, and Christina envied her far more than she envied Christina, who would listen wistfully to the commonplace expression of a commonplace happiness, but was herself much more reserved. It was only when the other girl guessed it that she admitted that she also was “as good as engaged.” The other girl clamored to know all about it; and ultimately, in the Indian Ocean, she discovered that Christina was not the least in love with the man to whom she was as good as engaged. Then this honest person spoke her mind with extreme freedom, and Christina, instead of being offended, opened her own heart as freely, merely keeping to herself the man’s name and never hinting at his high degree. She declared that she was morally bound to him, adding that she had treated him badly enough already; her friend ridiculed the bond, and told her how she would be treating him worse than ever. Christina argued — it was curious how fond she was of arguing the matter, and how she allowed herself to be lectured by a stranger. But these two were not strangers now; the cheerful girl was the best friend Tiny had ever made among women. They parted with a wrench at Colombo, where Tiny saw the other safely into the arms of a gentleman of a suitably happy and ordinary appearance; and so one more friend passed in and out of the young girl’s life, leaving a deeper mark in the three weeks than either of them suspected.
The rest of the voyage dragged terribly with Christina, which is an unusual experience for the prettiest girl aboard an Australian liner; only on this voyage the prettiest girl was also the most unsociable. Beyond her late companion (whose berth remained empty to depress Christina whenever she entered the cabin) Miss Luttrell had formed few acquaintances and no friendships between London and Colombo; between Colombo and Melbourne she simply preyed upon herself. Herbert remonstrated with her, and the third officer — who had been fourth on the boat in which they had come over — was excessively interested, remembering the difference six months earlier. Then, indeed, Christina had found a good deal to say to all the officers, including the captain, whom she had chaffed notoriously; but now she would stay out late and alone on the starlit deck without ever breaking the rules by conversing with the officer of the watch (her pet trick formerly), and only the third, who knew her of old, had the right to bid her good-day. Tiny’s cheerful friend had left her wretched and apprehensive. She saw the Southern Cross rise out of the Southern Sea without a thrill of welcome, but rather with a vague dismay; from the after-rail she said good-by to the Great Bear with a shudder at the thought of seeing it again. Neither end of the earth presented a very peaceful prospect to Christina as she hovered between the two on the steamer’s deck. She had quite made up her mind to return to England, however, and to reward Lord Manister’s long-suffering docility by marrying him at the end of the six months. Meanwhile she would enjoy Australia and tell only one of her friends there. One she must tell, and with her own lips, in case she should be misjudged. And thinking not a little of her own justification, she invented a small sophistry with which to defend herself as occasion might arise. She argued that two men were in love with her, that she herself was in love with neither, but that she liked one of them too well to marry him without love. Therefore, she said, the easiest way out of it was to marry the other, who not only had less in him to satisfy, but who had more to give in place of real happiness. She was proud of this argument. She was sorry it had not occurred to her before stopping at Colombo — forgetting that she had told her friend of only one man who was in love with her. But the heart starves on sophistry with nothing to it; and with Christina the voyage dragged cruelly to its end.
But the moment she landed in Melbourne a good thing happened to her — she was snatched out of herself. A common shock and anxiety awaited both Christina and Herbert Luttrell: they found their mother in tears over a piece of very bad news from Wallandoon. It seemed that Mr. Luttrell had gone up to the station the week before to choose the site for a well which he was about to sink at considerable expense, and that he was now lying at the old homestead with a broken leg, the result of a buggy accident with a pair of young horses. He was able to write with his own hand in pencil, and he mentioned that Swift had fetched a surgeon from the river in the quickest time ever known; that the surgeon had set the leg quite successfully, so that there was no occasion for anxiety, though naturally he should be unable to leave Wallandoon for some weeks. He expressed forcibly the hope that his wife would not think of joining him there; she was not strong enough, and he needed no attention. Nevertheless, had the Ballaarat arrived one day later, Mrs. Luttrell would have gone. Her two children were in time to restrain her, but only by undertaking to go instead. Before they could realize that they had spent an afternoon and a night in Melbourne they had left the city and had embarked on an inland voyage of five hundred miles up country.
So their first full day ashore was spent in a railway carriage; but all that night the stars were in their eyes, and the gum trees racing by on either hand, and the warm wind fanning their faces, because Tiny would never travel inside the coach. They were back in Riverina. The Murray coiled behind them; the Murrumbidgee lay before. And the night after that they were creeping across the desert of the One Tree Plain, with the Lachlan lying ahead and the Murrumbidgee left behind. Here the leather-hung coach labored in the mud, for the Lachlan district was suffering before it could profit from a rather heavy rainfall three days old; and the driver flogged seven horses all night long instead of mildly chastening five, and the girl at his side could not have slept if she had tried, but she did not try. To her the night seemed too good to miss. The stars shone brilliantly from rim to rim of the unbroken plain, and upward from the overflowing crab-holes, and even in the flooded ruts, where the coach wheels split and scattered them like quicksilver beneath the thumb. There was no conversation on the coach. On the eve of facing his father Herbert was rehearsing his defense, while Tiny was just reveling in the night, and feeling very happy, so she said.
For a couple of hours before dawn they rested at Booligal. But Booligal is notorious for its mosquitoes, and there had been three inches of rain there, so the rest was a mockery. Tiny had a bed to lie down on, but she did not lie long. She was found by Herbert (who smoked six pipes in those two hours), leaning against one of the veranda posts as if asleep on her feet, but with eyes fixed intently upon a dull, reddening arc on the very edge of the darkling plain.
“By the time we get there,” said Herbert severely, “you’ll be just about dished! What on earth are you doing out here instead of taking a spell when you can get it?”
“I’m watching for the sun,” murmured Christina, without moving. “It’s a regular Australian dawn; you never saw one like it in England. Here the sun gets up in the middle of the night, and there he very often doesn’t get up at all. Oh, but it’s glorious to be back — don’t you think so, old Herbs?”
“I might — if it wasn’t for the governor.”
Tiny flushed with shame. She had forgotten the accident. Being reminded of it she turned her back on the sunrise in deep contrition, but she had not taken Herbert’s meaning.
“I funk facing him,” said he gloomily. “I have nothing to say for myself, and if I had a fellow couldn’t say it with the poor governor lying on his back.”
“Poor old Herbs!” said Tiny kindly. “I don’t think you have much to fear, however. It was our mistake in wanting you to go to Cambridge when you’d been your own boss always. You were born for the bush — I’m not sure that we both weren’t!”
He did not hear her sigh.
“It’s all very well for you to talk, Tiny! You haven’t to make your peace with anybody — you haven’t to confess that you’ve made a ghastly fool of yourself!”
“Have I not?” exclaimed the girl bitterly.
“I thought you weren’t going to mention his name?” Herbert said in surprise.
“No more I am,” replied Tiny, recovering herself. “So, as you say, it is all very well for me to talk.” And as she turned a ball of fire was balanced on the distant rim of the plain, and the arc above was now a semicircle of crimson, which blended even yet with the lingering shades of night.
Even Herbert was not in all Tiny’s secrets. He never dreamt that she had before her an ordeal far worse than his own. When they sighted the little township where the station buggy always met the coach, he thought her excitement due to obvious and natural causes. The township roofs gleamed in the afternoon sun for half an hour before one could distinguish even a looked-for object, such as a buggy drawn up in the shade at the hotel veranda. Herbert had time to become excited himself, in spite of the ignoble circumstances of his return.
“I see it!” he exclaimed with confidence, at five hundred yards. “And good old Bushman and Brownlock are the pair. I’d spot ’em a mile off.”
“Can you see who it is in the buggy?” asked Tiny, at two hundred. She was sitting like a mouse between Herbert and the driver.
“I shall in a shake; I think it’s Jack Swift.”
He did not know how her heart was beating. At fifty yards he said, “It isn’t Swift; it’s one of the hands. I’ve never seen this joker before.”
“Ah!” said Tiny, and that was all. Herbert had no ear for a tone.
Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16