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  ― 205 ―

XXII The Betrothal

“MAY is offended with you, Lucas,” said Edward to me next morning. “She believes that you have some motive in avoiding her. I knew what your motive was, but I did not put you away.”

“And what do you think my motive was, Ned?”

“To pique her by affecting indifference, eh, boy?”

I smiled. “No, Ned, you are wrong; I really had an engagement last night, otherwise I should have loved to dine with you! How is your mother?”

“Splendid; the tour has done her worlds of good. But she, too, is huffy with you. She says that if you don't call very soon she will know just what you think of her. An awful consequence, eh?”

“Will she be at home to-night, Ned?”

“Yes, you'd better come to dinner. The Englishman will be there.”

“What is his name? Is he nice?”

“Your rival's name is Walter Ballack; he is a Captain of Hussars, and seems a very nice fellow. He's infernally handsome, and rather dudish; but his manners are pleasant. He came out last evening after dinner, and May flirted with him desperately. I should class him as dangerous—in your regard.”

It took me quite two hours to dress that evening. I tore off collar after collar, spoiled tie after tie, before I could be satisfied that I looked my best. After all it was a very poor best. I was pallid with apprehension, and my counterfeit presentment in the mirror seemed nothing but a spirit framed in black 'and white; a wan-faced spirit, with two big, glaring eyes. I entered Mrs. Shaw's drawing-room obsessed with my old familiar demon sense of nervous unreality, feeling that I myself was far away, and imagining the experience of another man. Mrs. Shaw seized both my hands, and assured me that I was very wicked not to have called on her before. I told her that I had already suffered


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terribly from a remissness which had not been my fault at all. She smiled, and led me forward. Miss Denton was seated upon a settee conversing with a well-built and very handsome man, about thirty-five years of age. He had beautiful pink cheeks, and a pair of sweeping chestnut moustaches. His head was covered with real golden curls. His nose was good, his eyes magnificent—big and blue as the sea, his mouth was hidden, but his chin was rather weak. I looked at him first, and coveted his good looks with a pang of insupportable jealousy; he was beautiful to see. Then I looked at the girl. She seemed his match in every respect, so perfectly did she contrast with him; she was as dark as he was fair, as bewitching as he was handsome! With a sort of despairing conviction I muttered to myself, “These are counterparts, it would be only right for them to mate!”

She had improved; my swift, jealous glance noted every change. She was stouter than of old, and more assured in her demeanour. Her figure had rounded, and taken to itself a fine free dignity. She rose to meet me, and looked a girl stepped from the frame of one of Gibson's drawings—tall, queenly, mistress of herself, carelessly gracious. I felt chilled to the bone.

Our eyes met, she extended her hand. “How do you do?” she enquired.

I gazed at her steadily, her eyes were cold. “Quite well, I thank you!” I muttered; then, half stupidly, “Welcome home, Miss Denton!”

“Thank you”—icily.

“Mr. Rowe, Captain Ballack,” cut in Mrs. Shaw.

The Captain got slowly to his feet, looked me up and down, and nodded.

“Glad to meet you!” he condescended, and sat down again.

“Please excuse me for a moment,” said Mrs. Shaw, and left the room. I opened the door for her, then found a seat.

Miss Denton rather ostentatiously put her left hand palm downwards on her knee, looking at me the while. The third finger was ornamented with a plain gold ring, which exactly resembled the one which she had sent me from


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Albany, and which at that moment rested above my heart. I was curiously thrilled to mark it.

“You are very much changed, Mr. Rowe!” she said, presently.

“Two years is a long time!” I replied. “You, too, are changed.”

“A great deal may happen in two years!” observed Captain Ballack.

“Or in ten minutes,” said the girl, quickly, glancing at him.

The Captain looked a trifle disconcerted, and I felt sure that he had asked her for a private ten minutes of her time. Perhaps he wished to propose to her. I hated him.

“Are you glad or sorry to be home again?” I asked.

“My feelings are mixed. I am quite unsettled yet. I scarcely know.”

“Did you like England?”

“Not so much as Italy; we spent most of our time on the Continent and travelling. I simply adore travelling.”

“You will find Sydney rather humdrum for a time.”

“I am afraid so.”

And then we all three fell silent. Miss Denton was preoccupied. The Captain looked sulky. I was sad and moody, cruelly disappointed. In none of my dreams had I pictured a meeting so formal, cold, and unsatisfactory. I felt de trop, and was filled with a sense of burning injustice that it should be so. I endured the silence for a few moments, then stood up.

“If you will excuse me, I'll run up and see Ned,” I said.

Miss Denton flushed suddenly, and gave me a glance full of indignation and reproach. “Certainly, if you wish,” she said.

“Thanks!” I marched out of the room, and in the passage ground my teeth. I vowed that at any rate she should not have the satisfaction of knowing that I still loved her. I thought she had treated me abominably.

Ned was in the balcony smoking one of his eternal cigarettes. He turned and looked hard at me. “Well, boy?” he muttered.




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I shook my head, breathing hard. “It's all up, Ned. I resign!”

He wrung my hand. “Poor old chap, poor old chap,” he said.

“I'll get over it, Ned, but I wish I could get away to-night.”

“A sudden illness?” he suggested.

“No, I have my pride, Ned. I'll not let her know, ever!”

“Good man! but there's the gong; we'll have to go down. Will you take a drop of whiskey first?”

“No, thanks!”

He took my arm, and together we entered the dining-room; the Shaws kept up but little ceremony in their establishment. I was placed between Mr. and Mrs. Shaw, and immediately opposite Miss Denton. I scarcely glanced at her once during the meal. My spirits were feverishly excited. I drank a good deal of wine, and talked incessantly to Mrs. Shaw, amusing her by recounting my impressions, gathered during her absence, of Sydney society. I relaxed my ordinary caution, and fearlessly criticised numbers of her acquaintances and friends. Often the whole table listened and laughed; for with a recklessness foreign to my nature, I painted characters known to all, with the merciless language of a tongue dipped in gall. I was quite miserable, and only bent on concealing my misery; I think I succeeded in my object.

After dinner Captain Ballack sang “Let me like a soldier fall!” He did it very well, and Miss Denton played his accompaniment. We were allowed to smoke in the drawing-room. In order to conceal my bitter rage and burning jealousy, I forced myself to pay court to the Captain. I gave him a cigarette, and held a match for him to light it, then devoted myself to him with a hypocritical assiduity I could never have dreamed myself capable of. I persuaded him to talk, and listened to his conversation with an attention he must have found quite captivating, for he responded very frankly, and seemed to take a fancy to me. The fact was Captain Ballack was rather dull of intellect. Any man must be who cannot immediately perceive that he is disliked, no matter how skilfully the feeling be concealed. He saw


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nothing except that I apparently admired him, and my admiration touched him. When I had thoroughly effected my desire I abandoned him to Miss Denton, and as about a dozen other people had dropped in, I flitted about like a butterfly for the rest of the evening, until Edward challenged me to a game of billiards. We played a hundred up, and by that time the visitors had gone. I bade good-night to my hostess, but Miss Denton had disappeared. “She has gone to the gate with Captain Ballack,” said Mrs. Shaw.

“Then I shall see her as I pass out,” I said, smiling. I felt capable of murder by that. Edward wished to see me off, but I begged him to let me go alone. Miss Denton was not on the path, she was not by the gate; the road was deserted, save for a cab trailing off into the distance.

I said to myself, “This false girl has taken Captain Ballack to our old trysting-place!”

Carried away by a wild, unreasoning impulse, I sharply banged the gate, and ran swiftly down the sea-path towards the larn tarner hedge and the cleft in the rocks, where in the past I had so often spent rapturous hours with Amber Eyes. The moon was at its full, and shone with a cold, golden brilliance. What I wished or thought to do I do not know, unless it were to catch the lovers together, and wildly upbraid Miss Denton for her treachery to memories which I felt she should have held sacred, even though she had never loved me. The path was broken now and overgrown with weeds. The prickly larn tarner plucked at me with every step I took, and held out angry arms to stay my progress. I dashed through like a mad thing, burning with hate and love; my face and hands cruelly scratched with thorns. I sprang down the broken causeway by the sea, and turned the corner of the rock, all in a whirl of passion. She was standing at the entrance of the cave cleft, bathed in the splendid moonlight; the tide was low, and a bitter salty smell rose from the narrow streak of glittering sands before her feet, against which the waters lapped and frothed and spumed continuously.

She was alone, and she gazed dreamily out across the bay towards the dark-clad coverts of the far shore. She held


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in her hand a golden ring, which she seemed to weigh upon her palm.

She did not turn or look at me; but she murmured softly, “I knew that you would come!”

Anger, passion, jealousy, all vanished from me, charmed by the word. I looked, and worshipped her. She seemed an angel of beauty in her soft, white gown. She was framed in a shimmering haze, a halo of golden light. I bent my knee before her.

I said, “I love you, May. I have been true to you in word and deed and thought.”

She bent her head and answered, “I have been miserable away from you, Lucas. I should have returned sooner if I had not been bound!”

“You love me?” I cried.

She smiled divinely.

I sprang to my feet, dizzy with rapture. “Tell me!” I implored.

She pointed to the ring on her palm. “Where is yours?”

“Here!” I cried, and touched my breast. “It is always here. It was your message—yours!”

“Ah!” she cried. “I looked for it!”

“You should have known.”

She shook her head. “Show it me!”

In a moment it was before her.

“We shall change them!” she murmured, and offered me her left hand. I kissed it reverently, and slipped on the third finger the ring I had treasured for so long. She held out the other to me. “Can you read?” The moon was kind. I read these words: “I love you!” She took it from me, pressed it to her lips, then placed it on my finger. “Wear this openly!” she said, “and wear it always. When you came to me to-night, and I did not see the other on your hand, I thought a thousand things.”

“Was that the reason you——?”

She put swift fingers on my lips. “Yes——”

“I thought you loved the Englishman!” I cried.

“He is persistent,” said Miss Denton. “To-night for the third time I told him ‘No.’ It will be your duty next.”




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“May!” I cried out, trembling with my happiness; “you really mean——”

She looked me full and honestly in the eyes. “Do you love me?”

“Yes—yes—yes!”

“I love you!”

“Ah, at last!”

“This is our betrothal,” she murmured, softly.

We stood facing each other, separated by a yard of charmed space. I longed to clasp her in my arms, but dared not touch her.

“I have prayed for this moment,” I said, dreamily.

She swayed a little towards me, her eyes glowed with an entrancing light, her face wore an expression of melting tenderness, of happy self-surrender.

“Not yet!” I cried, and held out a warning hand. She clasped it, and placed it on her heart. I could feel the beats. “It is yours!” she said.

“Dear,” I muttered, and as I spoke a deadly fear possessed me that I was about to lose her. “There is something you should know before you bind yourself to me; something you should have known before.”

“Tell it me quickly, then!”

“It—dear, look away!” I stammered. “It is a shameful thing!”

She drew in her breath sharply. “Lucas—you—you are free.”

“Yes.”

“What is it, then?”

I blurted out. “It's myself, May. I have no right to use my father's name—do you understand?” I tore my hand away, fearing lest she would throw it from her when she realised the thing I meant. She uttered a low sob, and her bosom heaved. She gazed shyly at the ground. “Was Rowe your father's name?” she whispered, presently.

“No, my mother's.”

“Is—is she dead?”

“They are both dead.”

A deep silence fell between us. It lasted so long that I grew desperate at last.




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“I deserve for you never to look at me again,” I muttered. “I have treated you like the worst of cads. I should never have tried to win your love, remembering the thing I am. I have no name to offer you—none.”

“Hush!” she said. “Hush!”

“My life is a lie!” I cried, gloomily; “except that I loved you, I might have lived it always. No one knows of this but you and Edward Shaw.”

“Hush!” she whispered; she was deep in thought. I watched her as a lost soul might gaze at the door of Paradise. Soon she turned to me, but I could not read her face; her eyes were dark and inscrutable.

“What do you expect of me?” she asked.

“Nothing!” I muttered; “nothing, dear. Tell me to go, and I shall never reproach you!”

“I am rich,” she murmured, musingly.

“I am poor,” said I; “you might call me an adventurer.”

“But I never shall,” she cried, her sweet face breaking into a radiant smile.

“It is your charity,” I said.

“No,” she whispered, “it is my love!” and she held forth her arms.

I caught her to me with a hungry cry, but before I kissed her I looked deep into her eyes. “You forgive me, sweet?” I asked.

She shook her head and smiled. “What is there to forgive? I have loved you since I knew you. I have longed for you these two dreary years. What should part us now? Do you think I care for a name?”

Our lips met at the last word, and from her kiss I gained the dear conviction that nothing could part us, only lack of love, or death. Next moment, on a mutual impulse, we left the cavern hand in hand. “I shall be missed,” said she. “You will be missed,” said I, and we laughed, because we had said the same thing in a breath. A few yards up the path she freed herself. “Wait!” she cried, and ran back. In a moment she had returned. “Wait!” said I, and slipping back to the cavern I kneeled down and kissed the imprint of her feet upon the sand. She asked me shyly what I had gone to do. I replied that the same


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thought had called us both. “It was a sweet ‘thought,’ ” she said.

“It was a lover's thought,” said I.

We were very shy and humble each to the other, because we were confessed, and it was a new life upon which we had entered, but we were very light-hearted and happy. When we reached the gate she became for a moment grave and serious. “One day,” she said, “you must tell me all your story; it is sad, I know. When first we met I knew you had a history.”

I shivered a little. “It is a mean tale, May; a sordid tale. You will hate to hear it.”

“Only if you hate to tell it, Lucas.”

“One day you will know all, dear!” I assured her.

“I shall tell aunt at once of our engagement,” she whispered, presently.

“I shall write to your uncle to-night!”

“I am my own mistress,” said she. “It is only a courtesy to tell them; you need ask for no consent.”

“Ah, dear,” I cried, “if there were need I would make a pilgrimage barefoot across half the world to win it.”

Like two children, after we had said good-night, and the gate was closed, we ran back and kissed hands through the bars.

It was the best hour of my life.

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