Tiny Luttrell, by E. W. Hornung

Chapter 21.

A Deaf Ear.

The manager of Wallandoon was harder at work that afternoon than any man on the run. This was generally the case when there was hard work to be done; when there was not, however, Swift had a way of making work for himself. He had made his work today. Nothing need have prevented his meeting the coach himself; but it had occurred to Swift that he would be somewhat in the way at the meeting between Mr. Luttrell and his children, while with regard to his own meeting with Christina he felt much nervousness, which night, perhaps, would partly cloak. This, however, was an instinct rather than a motive. Instinctively also he sought by violent labor to expel the fever from his mind. He was absurdly excited, and his energy during the heat of the day was little less than insane. So at any rate it seemed to the youth who was helping him by looking on, while Swift covered in half a tank with brushwood. The tank had been almost dry, but was newly filled by the rains, and the partial covering was designed to delay evaporation. But Swift himself would execute his own design, and thought nothing of standing up to his chest in the water, clothed only in his wide-awake, though he was the manager of the station. The young storekeeper did not admire him for it, though he could not help envying the manager his thick arms, which were also bronzed, like the manager’s face and neck, and in striking contrast to the whiteness of his deep chest and broad shoulders. There had been a change in storekeepers during recent months, a change not by any means for the better.

Near the tank were some brushwood yards, which were certainly in need of repairs, but the need was far from immediate. Swift, however, chose to mend up the fences that night, while he happened to be on the spot, and his young assistant had no choice but to watch him. It was dark when at last they rode back together to the station, silent, hungry, and not pleased with one another; for Swift was one of those energetic people whom it is difficult to help unless you are energetic yourself; and the new storekeeper was not. This youth did little for his rations that day until the homestead was reached. Then the manager left him to unsaddle and feed both horses, and himself walked over to the veranda, whence came the sound of voices.

Mr. Luttrell was lying in the long deck chair which had been procured from a neighboring station, and Herbert was smoking demurely at his side. Christina was not there at all.

“You will find her in the dining room,” Mr. Luttrell said, as his son and the manager shook hands. “She has gone to make tea for you; she means to look after us all for the next few weeks.”

The dining room was at the back of the house, and as Swift walked round to it he stepped from the veranda into the heavy sand in which the homestead was planted. He could not help it. His love had grown upon him since that short week with her, nine months before. He felt that if his eyes rested upon her first he could take her hand more steadily. So he stood and watched her a moment as she bent over the tea table with lowered head and busy fingers, and there was something so like his dreams in the sight of her there that he almost cried out aloud. Next instant his spurs jingled in the veranda. She raised her head with a jerk; he saw the fear of himself in her eyes — and knew.

It did not blind him to her haggard looks.

When they had shaken hands he could not help saying, “It is evident that the old country doesn’t agree with you, as you feared.” And when it was too late he would have altered the remark.

“Seeing that it’s six weeks since I left it, and that I have been traveling night and day since I landed, you are rather hard on the old country.”

So she answered him, her fingers in the tea caddy, and her eyes with them. The lamplight shone upon her freckles as Swift studied her anxiously. Perhaps, as she hinted, she was only tired.

“I say, I can’t have you making tea for me!” Swift exclaimed nervously. “You are worn out, and I am accustomed to doing all this sort of thing for myself.”

“Then you will have the kindness to unaccustom yourself! I am mistress here until papa is fit to be moved.”

And not a day longer. He knew it by the way she avoided his eyes. Yet he was forced to make conversation.

“Why do you warm the teapot?”

“It is the proper thing to do.”

“I never knew that!”

“I dare say it isn’t the only thing you never knew. I shouldn’t wonder if you swallowed your coffee with cold milk?”

“Of course we do — when we have coffee.”

“Ah, it is good for you to have a housekeeper for a time,” said Christina cruelly, she did not know why.

“It’s my firm belief,” remarked Swift, “that you have learnt these dodges in England, and that you did not detest the whole thing!”

The words had a far-away familiar sound to Christina, and they were spoken in the pointed accents with which one quotes.

“Did I say I should detest the whole thing?” asked Christina, marking the tablecloth with a fork.

“You did; they were your very words.”

“Come, I don’t believe that.”

“I can’t help it; those were your words. They were your very last words to me.”

“And you actually remember them?”

She looked at him, smiling; but his face put out her smile, and the wave of compassion which now swept over hers confirmed the knowledge that had come to him with her first frightened glance.

The storekeeper, who came in before more was said, was the unconscious witness of a well-acted interlude of which he was also the cause. He approved of Miss Luttrell at the tea tray, and was to some extent recompensed for the hard day’s work he had not done. He left her with Swift on the back veranda, and they might have been grateful to him, for not only had his advent been a boon to them both at a very awkward moment, but, in going, he supplied them with a topic.

“What has happened to my little Englishman?” Christina asked at once. “I hoped to find him here still.”

“I wish you had. He was a fine fellow, and this one is not.”

“Then you didn’t mean to get rid of my little friend?”

“No. It’s a very pretty story,” Swift said slowly, as he watched her in the starlight. “His father died, and he went home and came in for something; and now that little chap is actually married to the girl he used to talk about!”

Tiny was silent for some moments. Then she laughed.

“So much for my advice! His case is the exception that proves my rule.”

“I happen to remember your advice. So you still think the same?”

“Most certainly I do.”

He laughed sardonically. “You might just as well tell me outright that you are engaged to be married.”

The girl recoiled.

“How do you know?” she cried. “Who has told you?”

“You have — now. Your eyes told me twenty minutes ago.”

“But it isn’t true! Nobody knows anything about it! It isn’t a real engagement yet!”

“I have no doubt it will be real enough for me,” answered Swift very bitterly; and he moved away from her, though her little hands were stretched out to keep him.

“Don’t leave me!” she cried piteously. “I want to tell you. I will tell you now, if you will only let me.”

He faced about, with one foot on the veranda and the other in the sand.

“Tell me,” he said, “if it is that old affair come right; that is all I care to know.”

“It is; but it hasn’t come right yet — perhaps it never will. If only you would let me tell you everything!”

“Thank you; I dare say I can imagine how matters stand. I think I told you it would all come right. I am very glad it has.”

“Jack!”

But Jack was gone. In the starlight she watched him disappear among the pines. He walked so slowly that she fancied him whistling, and would have given very much for some such sign of outward indifference to show that he cared; but no sound came to her save the chirrup of the crickets, which never ceased in the night time at Wallandoon. And that made her listen for the champing of the solitary animal in the horse yard, until she heard it, too, and stood still to listen to both noises of the night. She remembered how once or twice in England she had seemed to hear these two sounds, and how she had longed to be back again in the old veranda. Now she was back. This was the old, old veranda. And those two old sounds were beating into her brain in very reality — without pause or pity.

“Why, Tiny,” said Herbert later, “this is the second time today! I believe you can sleep on end like a blooming native-companion. You’re to come and talk to the governor; he would like you to sit with him before we carry him into his room.”

“Would he?” Tiny cried out, and a moment later she was kneeling by the deck chair and sobbing wildly on her father’s breast.

“Just because I told her she’d dish herself,” remarked Herbert, looking on with irritation, “she’s been and gone and done it. That’s still her line!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hornung/ew/tiny-luttrell/chapter21.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 21:16