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(xvi)

THE girl walked fast. The hot roads seemed short to her; the dust, though she blinked at it, was powerless to annoy. She was on a pinnacle of anger up above it all. Her young pride puzzled away at its wound like an animal at a thorn. She was white in spite of the day's heat as she turned in at the doorway under the barber's sign.

Half-way across the shop on her way to the stairs she stopped. A nose that she incredulously recognised was between her father's fingers, his razor was clearing soap, together with some very fine fair hair, from a lip more familiar in dreams than in fact. She stood; and for the first time in her life the thought came to her mind: How do people feel that are going to faint, going to die? Then Mr. Adare, one cheek white, the other ruddy, was beside her. She held to him instinctively for an instant.

“I'm back, my dear.”

“I see you are,” said she; pitiful translation of all that was in her heart.

“Can I speak with you?”

“You better let Dad finish,” said she, her eyes on his soapy cheek.




  ― 275 ―

“Damn Dad. (No offence, Mr. Quaife.) Where can I talk to you? Let's go and walk somewhere.”

Mr. Adare impatiently wiped the soap off with a handkerchief. She said nothing, steadily looked at him. She heard her father's voice:

“No going out of my shop like that, like a half-clipped prad.note No, you don't, Mister.”

Susan pushed open a door that led to the kitchen. The customers waiting, of whom one had already established himself in the forsaken chair, exchanged glances. Mr. Quaife himself executed a complex gesture involving both hands and one eye, of which the meaning was not to be mistaken; Gent, spoony, on the square, she's hobbled him. Adare shut the door.

The kitchen was small and hot. It smelled soapy; steam rising from towels drying on their horses clouded its one small window. Susan, for something to do, was wiping this with her hand.

“That's it,” said Mr. Adare. “Plenty of light. Turn round now, let's look at you.” He took both her hands, the damp and the dry, and turned her. “Different, a little. Your hair is done another way. I like it. Susan, have you remembered me?” She nodded. “Is that all? Remembered now and then? With kindness? Or indifferently? That fellow I ran away from on the night of the ball, that silly young man who talked too much and made me angry. Is that how you thought of me?” She moved her head slightly; do what she would, she could not


  ― 276 ―
look at him full in the eyes. “Not like that? Well, I'll tell you a secret. It isn't the way I've been thinking of you either, away in the bush.”

Suddenly she recollected the anger which had been startled out of her at sight of him, and pulled her hands away.

“What is it?” said he, letting her go. “I won't touch you, if you don't want. But I don't deny it's something I've contemplated more than a little these last months. Touch of you; sight of you. I saw you most clearly—here's a queer thing—the night I thought I was dying.”

“Have you been very sick? You're thin.”

“Very sick,” said he gravely. “Sick. Lost. Lonely. It was the devil of an expedition.”

“It'll put you off, I shouldn't wonder.”

He answered the half-expressed meaning, her fear lest these past unhappy and dangerous months should have sickened him of the country, with an outburst that astonished her.

“Susan, you don't know it, you've never put your nose out of George Street. Sydney's nothing, a makeshift. But the country's great and exciting. Susan, it's country that could feed the world and that you can be quiet in. Put me off! It's got me; I can never leave it now.”

“I'd have thought——”

“Don't think. You haven't seen it. You will, though, with me. Come on, and we'll forget all the barbers' shops in creation.”

She backed a step away from him, and at last met his


  ― 277 ―
eyes. They were honest and eager, above ridiculous cheeks that did not match. She said, watching for the expression to change:

“I've been out at Woolloomooloo these last weeks—”

“You have?” said he, catching her up. “God bless Lady Hattie! There's a dear, there's a great woman. No wonder you're changed; just a little, just enough to be delightful. I wrote to her, did you know? And asked her to find you.”

“She wasn't fair to me. She——”

“Susan,” said Mr. Adare with simplicity, “we're together again. We hardly know anything about each other yet. Does Lady Hattie matter?”

She would not give in so soon. Her instinct warned her that anger was barren; told her, too, that he was honest. But she could not yield up, with only this brief parley, her freedom. She said stubbornly:

“She's your sort. Talk, and the way she dresses.”

“What's that to do with it? What's the matter with you?” Susan said nothing. “One moment, just before we go on to more important matters, just to ease my mind. Is she keeping off the drink?”

“No,” Susan answered, too readily, triumphantly, “she isn't.”

“Observe,” said he, half-smiling, “the results of schooling. Six months ago you'd have said ‘She ain't.’ ” He was grave again, a young man in earnest, Lady Hattie forgotten. “Six months ago, I was a bit of a fool. I've learned too. If I'd stayed on in this town, coming


  ― 278 ―
here every day for a shave, carrying on playboy fashion—I don't say, my dear, it wouldn't have been an honest pursuit of you. But it would have been ignorant; it would have been the pursuit of a man who was still running after himself. Look at me.”

She obeyed, with an effort that was grievous to something in her, the coltish free spirit. He did not attempt to touch her.

“I'm not changed. (I still talk too much, you see.) Nobody changes, even in the shadow of death. But such as I am, I know and can use myself. Will you have me?”

She held back, still valiantly battling, refusing her own desire to give and have done. He went on softly:

“You are like the country I have been seeing. It is sullen, silent; but if its beauty is for you, then there is nothing to compare, nothing so near heaven.”

She said, feeling the nearness of tears:

“You're changed.”

“I believe you liked the playboy better. Did you? He's there still, he's in grain. You can't kill him, thank God, not with a hatchet.” He put a hand suddenly to the stubbed side of his face, laughed, and rasped fingers back and forth among the bristles. “Look at me again. You behold in Charles Adare's visage at this moment the epitome of his soul. Smooth, the playboy. Rough, the man. Choose which, and choose now. Ah, Susan, quickly, choose——”

With a queer little rueful smile she came to him, hesitated; put a hand first to this cheek, then to that; but at last kissed his mouth.

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