For a month Christina declined to leave her father’s side, much against his will, but the girl’s will was stronger. She was as though tethered to the long deck chair until the lame man became able to leave it on two sticks. Then she flew to the other extreme.
North of the Lachlan the recent rains had been less heavy than in Lower Riverina. On Wallandoon less than two inches had fallen, and by February it was found necessary to resume work at the eight-mile whim. But the whim driver had gone off with his check when the rain gave him a holiday, and he had never returned. There was a momentary difficulty in finding a man to replace him, and it was then that Miss Tiny startled the station by herself volunteering for the post. At first Mr. Luttrell would not hear of the plan, but the manager’s opinion was not asked, and he carefully refrained from giving it, while Herbert (who was about to be intrusted with a mob of wethers for the Melbourne market) took his sister’s side. He pointed out with truth that any fool could drive a whim under ordinary circumstances, and that, as Tiny would hardly petition to sleep at the whim, the long ride morning and evening would do her no harm. Mr. Luttrell gave in then. He had tried in vain to drive the young girl from his side. She had watched over him with increasing solicitude, with an almost unnatural tenderness. She had shown him a warmer heart than heretofore he had known her to possess, and an amount of love and affection which he felt to be more than a father’s share. He did not know what was the matter, but he made guesses. It had been his lifelong practice not to “interfere” with his children; hence the earliest misdeeds of his daughter Tiny; hence, also, the academic career of his son Herbert. Mr. Luttrell put no questions to the girl, and none concerning her to her brother, which was nice of him, seeing that her ways had made him privately inquisitive; but he took Herbert’s advice and let Christina drive the eight-mile whim.
The experiment proved a complete success, but then plain whim driving is not difficult. Christina spent an hour or so two or three times a day in driving the whim horse round and round until the tank was full, after which it was no trouble to keep the troughs properly supplied. The rest of her time she occupied in reading or musing in the shadow of the tank; but each day she boiled her “billy” in the hut, eating very heartily in her seclusion, and delighting more and more in the temporary freedom of her existence, as a boy in holidays that are drawing to an end. The whim stood high on a plain, the wind whistled through its timbers, and each evening the girl brought back to the homestead a higher color and a lighter step. In these days, however, very little was seen of her. She would come in tired, and soon secrete herself within four newspapered walls; and she went out of her way to discourage visitors at the whim. Of this she made such a point that the manager, on coming in earlier than usual one afternoon, was surprised when Herbert, whom he met riding out from the station, informed him that he was on his way to the eight-mile to look up the whim driver. Herbert seemed to have something on his mind, and presently he told Swift what it was. He had awkward news for Tiny, which he had decided to tell her at once and be done with it. But he did not like the job. He liked it so little that he went the length of confiding in Swift as to the nature of the news. The manager annoyed him — he had not a remark to make.
Herbert rode moodily on his way. He was sorry that he had spoken to Swift (whose stolid demeanor was a surprise to him, as well as an irritation); he had undoubtedly spoken too freely. With Swift still in his thoughts, Luttrell was within a mile of the whim, and cantering gently, before he became aware that another rider was overtaking him at a gallop; and as he turned in his saddle, the manager himself bore down upon him with a strange look in his good eyes.
“I want you to let me — tell Tiny!” Jack Swift said hoarsely, as Herbert stared. Jack’s was a look of pure appeal.
“Yes —— You understand?”
“That’s all right! I thought I couldn’t have been mistaken,” said Herbert, still looking him in the eyes. “By ghost, Jack, you’re a sportsman!”
He held out his hand, and Swift gripped it. In another minute they were a quarter of a mile apart; but it was Swift who was riding on to the whim, very slowly now, and with his eyes on the black timbers rising clear of the sand against the sky. He could never look at them without hearing words and tones that it was still bitter to remember; and now he was going — to break bad news to Tiny? That was his undertaking.
He found the whim driver with her book in the shadow of the tank.
“Good-afternoon,” Christina said very civilly, though her eyebrows had arched at the sight of him. “Have you come to see whether the troughs are full, or am I wanted at the homestead?”
“Neither,” said Swift, smiling; “only the mail is in, and there are letters from England.”
“How good of you!” exclaimed the girl, holding out her hand.
Swift was embarrassed.
“Now you will pitch into me! I haven’t seen the letters, and I don’t know whether there is one for you: but I met Herbert, and he told me he had heard from your sister; and — and I thought you might like to hear that, as I was coming this way.”
“It is still good of you,” said Christina kindly; and that made him honest.
“It isn’t a bit good, because I came this way to speak to you about something else.”
“Yes, because one sees so little of you now, and soon you will be going. The truth is something has been rankling with me ever since the night you arrived — nothing you said to me; it was my own behavior to you ——”
“Which wasn’t pretty,” interrupted Tiny.
“I know it wasn’t; I have been very sorry for it. When you offered to tell me about your engagement I wouldn’t listen. I would listen now!”
“And now I shouldn’t dream of telling you a word,” Tiny said, staring coolly in his face; “not even if I were engaged.”
“Well, it amounts to that,” Swift told her steadfastly, for he knew what he meant to say, and was not to be deterred by the snubs and worse to which he was knowingly laying himself open.
“Pray how do you know what it amounts to?”
“On your side, at any rate, it amounts to an engagement; for you consider yourself bound.”
“Upon my word!” cried Tiny hastily. “Do you mind telling me how you come to know so much about my affairs?”
“I am naturally interested in them after all these years.”
“How very kind of you! How interested you were when I foolishly offered to tell you myself! So you have been talking me over with Herbert, have you?”
“We have spoken about you today for the first time; that is why I’m here.”
Christina was white with anger.
“And I suppose,” she sneered, “that you have told him things which I have forgotten, and which you might have forgotten as well!”
“I don’t think you do suppose that,” Swift said gently. “No, he merely told me about your engagement.”
“Then why do you want me to tell you?”
“Because you alone can tell me what I most want to know.”
“Yes — whether you are happy!”
She had found her temper, which enabled her to put a keener edge on the words, “That, I should say, is not your business”; and she stared at Swift coldly where he stood, with his hands behind him, looking down upon her without wincing.
“I am not so sure,” said he sturdily. “I loved you dearly; I could have made you happy.”
“It is well you think so,” was the best answer she could think of for that; and she did not think of it at once. “Do you know who he is?” she added later.
“Herbert told me. It seems you have tampered with a splendid chance.”
“I have tampered with three. I shall jump at the next — if I get another.”
“And if you don’t?”
Involuntarily she drew a deep breath at the thought. Her head was lifted, and her blue eyes wandered over the yellow distance of the plains with the look of a prisoner coming back into the world.
“Nobody could blame him,” she said at last, “and I should be rightly served.”
Swift crouched in front of her, almost sitting on his heels to peer into her face.
“Tiny,” he suddenly cried, “you don’t love him one bit!”
“But I think he loves me,” she answered, hanging her head, for he held her hand.
“Not as I do, Tiny! Never as I have done! I have loved you all the time, and never anyone but you. And you — you care for me best; I see it in your eyes; I feel it in your hand. Don’t you think that you, too, may have loved me all the time?”
“If I have,” she murmured, “it has been without knowing it.”
It was without knowing it that she trod upon the truth. Their voices were trembling.
“Darling,” he whispered, “this would be home to you. It’s the same old Wallandoon. You love it, I know; and I think — you love ——”
She snatched her hand from his, and sprang to her feet. He, too, rose astounded, gazing on every side to see who was coming. But the plain was flecked only with straggling sheep, bleating to the troughs. His gaze came back to the girl. Her straw hat sharply shadowed her face like a highwayman’s mask, her blue eyes flashing in the midst of it, and her lips below parted in passion.
“You? I hate you! I do consider myself bound, and you would make me false — you would tempt me through my love for the bush, for this place — you coward!”
Swift reddened, and there was roughness in his answer:
“I can’t stand this, even from you. I have heard that all women are unfair; you are, certainly. What you say about my tempting you is nonsense. You have shown me that you love me, and that you don’t love the other man; you know you have. You have now to show whether you have the courage of your love — to give him up — to marry me.”
This method must have had its attractions after another’s; but it hurt, because Tiny was sensitive, with all her sins.
“You have spoken very cruelly,” she faltered, delightfully forgetting how she had spoken herself. “I could not marry anyone who spoke to me like that!”
“Oh, forgive me!” he cried, covered with contrition in an instant. “I am a rough brute, but I promise ——” He stopped, for her head had drooped, and she seemed to be crying. He stood away from her in his shame. “Yes, I am a rough brute,” he repeated bitterly; “but, darling, you don’t know how it roughens one, bossing the men!”
Still she hung her head, but within the widened shadow of her hat he saw her red mouth twitching at his clumsiness. Yet, when she raised her face, her smile astonished him, it was so timorous; and the wondrous shyness in her lovely eyes abashed him far more than her tears.
“I dare say — I need that!” he heard her whisper in spurts. “I think I should like — you — to boss — me — too.”
These things and others were tersely told in a letter written in the hot blast of a north wind at Wallandoon, and delivered in London six weeks later, damp with the rain of early April. The letter arrived by the last post, and Ruth read it on the sofa in her husband’s den, while Erskine paced up and down the room, listening to the sentences she read aloud, but saying little.
“So you see,” said Ruth as she put the thin sheets together and replaced them in their envelope, “she accepted him before she knew of Lord Manister’s engagement. He knew of it, and had undertaken to tell her, but that was only to give himself a last chance. Had she heard of it first he would never have spoken again.”
“I question that,” Erskine said thoughtfully. “He might not have spoken so soon; but his love would have proved stronger than his pride in the end. Yet I like him for his pride. That was what she needed, and what Manister lacked. It is very curious.”
“I wonder if you really would like him,” said Ruth, who no longer cared for the sound of Lord Manister’s name. “I don’t remember much about him, except that we all thought a good deal of him; but somehow I don’t fancy he’s your sort.”
“I wasn’t aware that I had a sort,” Erskine said, smiling.
“Oh, but you have. I am not your sort. But Tiny was!”
He laughed heartily.
“Then we four have chosen sides most excellently! It is quite fatal to marry your own sort. Didn’t you know that, my dear?”
“No, I didn’t,” said Ruth, watching him from the sofa; “but I am very glad to hear it, and I quite agree. You and Tiny, for instance, would have jeered at everything in life until you were left jeering at one another. Don’t you think so?” she added wistfully, after a pause.
“I think you’re an uncommonly shrewd little person,” Erskine remarked, smiling down upon her kindly, so that her face shone with pleasure.
“Do you?” she said, as he helped her to rise. “You used to think me so dense when Tiny was here; and I dare say I was — beside Tiny.”
“My dearest girl,” said Erskine, taking his wife in his arms, and speaking in a troubled tone, “you have never said that sort of thing before, and I hope you never will again. Tiny was Tiny — our Tiny — but surely wisdom was not her strongest point? She amused us all because she wasn’t quite like other people; but how often am I to tell you that I am thankful you are not like Tiny?”
“Ah, if you really were!” Ruth whispered on his shoulder.
“But I always was,” he answered, kissing her; and they smiled at one another until the door was shut and Ruth had gone, for there was now between them an exceeding tenderness.
Ruth had left him her letter, so that he might read it for himself; but though he lit a pipe and sat down, it was some time before Erskine read anything. Had Ruth returned and asked him for his thoughts, he would have confessed that he was wondering whether Tiny’s husband would understand the girl he had managed to tame; and whether he had a fine ear for a joke. As wondering would not tell him, he at length turned to the letter; and that did not tell him either; but before he turned the first of the many leaves, it was as though the child herself was beside him in the room.
The qualities she mentioned in her beloved were all of a serious character, and the praises she bestowed upon him, at her own expense, were a little tiresome to one who did not know the man. Erskine turned over with excusable impatience, and was rewarded on the next page by a sufficiently just summary of Lord Manister; even here, however, Tiny took occasion to be very hard on herself. She declared — possibly she would have said it in any case, but it happened to be true — that she had never loved Lord Manister. On the way she had ill-used him she harped no more; his own solution of his difficulties had, indeed, broken that string. But she spoke of her “temptation” (incidentally remarking that the hall windows haunted her still), and said she would perhaps have yielded to it outright but for her visit to Wallandoon before sailing for England; and that she would certainly have done so at the third asking had it not been for that stronger temptation to go back with Herbert to Australia. As it was, she had gone back fully determined to marry Lord Manister in the end. And if that decision had been furthered to the smallest extent by any sort of consideration for another, she did not say so; neither did she seek to defend her own behavior at any point, for this was not Tiny’s way. However, with Jack she had burned to justify herself, because love puts an end to one’s ways. She had longed to tell him everything with her own lips, and to have him forgive and excuse her on the spot. This she admitted. But she denied having known what her unreasonable longing really was. Did Ruth remember the “burning of the boats” at Cintra? Well, she had spoken the truth about Jack then; she had never “known” until the night of her last arrival at the station; she had never been quite miserable until the succeeding days. Reverting to Manister, she supposed the discovery of her departure the day after their interview — in which she had studiously refrained from revealing its imminence — had proved the last straw with him; she added that such a result had been vaguely in her mind at the time, but that she had never really admitted it among her hopes. Yet it seemed she had cured him just when she gave him up for incurable — and how thankful she was! A well-felt word about Lord Manister’s future happiness and so on led her to her own; and Erskine slid his eye over that, but had it arrested by a loving little description of the old home to which she was coming back for good. It was a hot wind as she wrote, and the beginning of a word dried before she got to the end of it — so she affirmed. The roof was crackling, and the shadows in the yard were like tanks of ink. Out on the run the salt-bush still looked healthy after the rains. She had given up whim driving; the manager had put in his word. But she was taking long rides, all by herself; and the lonely grandeur of the bush appealed to her just as it had when she first came back to it nearly a year ago; and the deep sky and yellow distances and dull leaves were all her eyes required; and she thought this was the one place in the world where it would be easy to be good.
The letter came rather suddenly to its end. There were some very kind words about himself, which Erskine read more than once. Then he sat staring into the fire, until, by some fancy’s trick, the red coals turned pale and took the shape of a girl’s sweet face with blemishes that only made it sweeter, with dark hair, and generous lips, and eyes like her own Australian sky. And the eyes lightened with fun and with mischief, with recklessness, and bitterness, and temper; and in each light they were more lovable than before; but last of all they beamed clear and tranquil as the blue sea becalmed; and in their depths there shone a soul.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55