The Crooked Stick

Chapter II

Rolf Boldrewood

THE heiress of Corindah had been carefully educated in a manner befitting her birth, as also the position she was likely to occupy in after-life. Governesses had been secured for her of the highest qualifications, at the most liberal salaries. Her talents for music and drawing had been highly cultivated. For the last three years of her educational term she had resided in Sydney with a relative, so that she might have the benefit of masters and professors. She had profited largely by instruction. She had read more widely and methodically than most young women. Well grounded in French and Italian, she had a handy smattering of German, such as would enable her, in days to come, either to perfect herself in the language by conversation or to dive more deeply into the literature than in the carelessness of youth she thought necessary.

These things being matters of general knowledge and common report in the district, it was held as a proved fact by the wives and daughters of her neighbours that Pollie Deveretix had got everything in the world that she could possibly wish for. Agreed also that, if anything, she was a great deal too well off, having been petted and indulged in every way since her babyhood. That she ought to be only too thankful for these rare advantages, whereas at times she was discontented with her lot in life, and professed her desire for change—which was a clear indication that she was spoiled by overindulgence, and did not know what was for her real good. That her mother, poor Mrs. Devereux, ought to have been more strict with her. These well-intentioned critics were not so far astray on general principles. They, however, omitted consideration of one well-established fact, that amid the hosts of ordinary human beings, evolved generation after generation from but slightly differing progenitors, and amenable chiefly to similar social laws, strongly marked varieties of the race have from time to time arisen. These phenomenal personages have differed from their compeers in a ratio of divergence altogether incomprehensible to the ordinary intelligence.

Whence originating, the fact remains that each generation of mankind is liable to be enriched or confounded by the apparition of individuals of abnormal force, beauty, or intellect. Neither does it seem possible for the Attila or the Tamerlane, the Semiramis or the Cleopatra of the period to escape the destiny that accompanies the birthright, whether it be empire or martyrdom, the sovereignty of hearts or the disposal of kingdoms. In spite of all apparent restraint of circumstance, the unchangeable type, dormant perhaps for centuries, reasserts its ancestral attributes.


                    ‘Till the sun turns cold,
                    And the stars grow old,
And the leaves of the Judgment-book unfold,’

will be the course of Nature. The ‘mute inglorious Milton’ is the poet’s fiction. He is not mute, but bursts into song, which, if a wild untutored melody, has the richness of the warbling bird, the power of the storm, the grandeur of heaven’s own wind-harp. The ‘Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood’ remains not in the stern world of facts the patient hind, the brow-beaten servitor. He leads armies and sways nations. To the soldier of fortune, who smiles only on the battle-field, and comprehends intuitively the movements of battalions, book-knowledge is superfluous and learning vain. He finds his opportunity, or makes it. And the world of his day knows him for its master.

And the queen of society, what of her? Like the poet, nascitur non fit, she is born not manufactured. Doubtless, the jewel may be heightened by the setting, but the diamond glitters star-like in the rough. The red gold-fire burns in the darksome mine. Pollie Devereux, her admirers asserted, would have ruled her monde had she been born a nursery-maid or an orange-girl. Her beauty, her grace, her courage, her natural savoir-faire, would have carried her high up the giddy heights of social ladders in despite of all the drawbacks which ever delayed the triumph of a heroine.

Still, the while we are indulging in these flights of imagination, our bush-bred maiden is a calmly correct damsel, outwardly conventionally arrayed, and but for a deep-seated vein of latent ambition and an occasional fire-flash of brilliant unlikeness, undistinguishable from the demoiselles bien-élevées of eighteen or twenty that are to work such weal or woe with unsuspicious mankind. In a general way this young woman’s unrest and disapproval of her environments merely took the form of a settled determination to explore the wondrous capitals, the brilliant societies, the glory and splendour of the Old World—to roam through that fairy-land of which from her very childhood she had eagerly read the legends, dreamed the dreams, and learned the languages. ‘Eager-hearted as a boy,’ all-womanly as she was in her chief attributes, she could not slake the thirst for change, travel, and adventure, even danger, with a draught less deep than actual experience. If she had been her father’s son instead of his daughter, the inborn feeling could hardly have been stronger.

When she thought of leaving her mother, in whom all the softer feelings of her heart found their natural home and refuge, she wept long and often. But still the passionate desire to be a part of all of which she had read and dreamed, to see with her eyes, to hear with her ears, the sights and sounds of far lands, grew with her growth and strengthened with her strength. As the months, the years rolled on, it acquired the power of fate, of a resistless destiny for good or evil; of a dread, unknown, controlling power, which beckoned her with a shadowy hand, and exercised a mysterious fascination.

That there are men so formed, so endowed with natures apart from the common herd of toilers and pleasure-seekers, no one doubts. It is equally true that there are women set apart by original birthright as clearly distinct from the tame tribes of conventional captives. But society, to strengthen its despotic rule, chooses to ignore the fact, preferring rather to coerce rebellion than to decorate distinction.

The eventful days leading slowly, but all too surely, towards the tragedy which is too apt to follow the idyllic course of our early years, fleeted by; a too peaceful, undisturbed period had arrived. Another morning broke clear and bright, as free from cloud or wind, mist or storm wrack, in that land of too changeless summer, as if winter had been banished to another hemisphere.

‘Oh dear!’ exclaimed Pollie, as springing from her bed she ran lightly to the open window, and drawing up the green jalousies gazed wistfully at the red golden shield of the day-god slowly uprearing its wondrous splendour above the pearl-hued sky-line, while far and near the great plain-ocean lay in dim repose, soundless, unmarked by motion or shadow. ‘Ah me, how tired I am of the sight of the sun! Will it never rain again? How long are we to endure this endless calm? this bright, dismal, destructive weather? I never realised how cruel the sun could be before. As a child I was so fond of him, too, the king of light and warmth, of joy and gladness. But that is only in green-grass countries. Here he is a pitiless tyrant. How I should delight in Europe to be sure, with ever-changing cloud and mist, even storm! I am aweary, aweary. I have half a mind to ride out and meet the coach at Pine Ridge—I feel too impatient to sit in the house all day. What a time I have been standing here talking or thinking all this nonsense! I wish I could help thinking sometimes, but I can’t if I try ever so hard. Mother says I ought to employ myself more; so I do, till I feel half dead sometimes. Then I get a lazy fit, and the thinking, and restlessness, and discontent come back as bad as ever. Heigho! I suppose I must go and dress now. There’s no fear of catching cold at any rate. Now I wonder if Wanderer was brought in from Myall Creek?’

Acting upon this sensible resolution, and apparently much interested in the momentous question of her favourite hackney having been driven in from a distant enclosure, failure of which would have doomed her to inaction, Pollie’s light form might have been seen threading the garden paths; after which she even ventured as far as the great range of stabling near the corner of the other farm buildings. Here she encountered the overseer, Mr. Gateward, when, holding up the skirts of her dress so as to avoid contact with the somewhat miscellaneous dust which lay deeply over the enclosure, she thus addressed him—

‘Good-morning, Mr. Gateward! Do you think it will ever rain again? Never mind answering that question. Russell himself knows no more than we do, I believe. What I really want to know is, did they bring Wanderer in from the Myall Creek? because I must ride him to-day.’

‘Yes, Miss Pollie, the old horse came in. I told them not to leave him behind on any account. There’s no knowing what may happen in a dry year. Very well he looks too, considering. You’ll find him in his box. We’ll soon have him fit enough. He’s worth feeding if ever a horse was, though chaffs as dear as white sugar.’

‘I should think he was, the dear old fellow. I knew you’d look after him, and I wasn’t mistaken, was I? I can always depend on you.’

‘You’ll never want a horse, or anything else you fancy, Miss Pollie, while I’m on Corindah,’ said the veteran bushman, looking tenderly at the girl. ‘What a little thing you was, too, when I first know’d you; and what a grand girl you’ve grow’d into! I hope you’ll be as happy as you deserve. You’ve a many friends, but none of ’em all will do more for you than poor old Joe Gateward, ’cept it might be Mr. Atherstone. That’s what I’d like to see, miss——

‘Never mind Mr. Atherstone; you’re all so good to me,’ said the girl, blushing, as she took the hard, brown hand in hers and pressed it warmly in her slender palm. ‘I feel quite wicked whenever I feel discontented. I ought to be the happiest girl in Australia. Perhaps I shall be when I’m older and wiser. And now I must run in. I want to put fresh flowers on the breakfast-table; but I must first go and say good-morning to dear old Wanderer.’

She dashed off to the loose box, and opening the door, gazed with sparkling eyes at the good horse that stood there munching his morning meal of chaff and maize with an appetite sharpened by weeks of abstinence from anything more appetising than extremely dry grass and attenuated salt-bush.

‘Oh, you darling old pet!’ she cried, as she walked up to his shoulder, passing her taper fingers over his velvety face and smooth neck, silken-skinned and delicate of touch even after the trials of so hard a season. ‘And your dear old legs look as clean as ever! Was it starved and ill-treated in that nasty bare paddock? Never mind, there’s a load of corn come up. I know who’ll have his share now, however the rest may come off. Now go on with your breakfast, sir, for I must get mine, and we’ll have a lovely gallop after lunch.’

The grand old hackney, nearly thoroughbred, and showing high caste in every point, looked at the speaker with his mild, intelligent eyes, and then waving his head to and fro, as was his wont when at all excited, betook himself once more to his corn.

The day wore on slowly, wearily, with a dragging, halting march, as it seemed to the impatient maiden. The sun rose high in the hard blue sky, and glared, as was his wont, upon the limitless pastures, dry and adust, the pale-hued, melancholy copses, the fastfalling river, the forgotten creeks. The birds were silent; even the flies held truce in the darkened rooms—there was a death-like absence of sound or motion. Hot, breezeless, unutterably lifeless, and for all less vigorous natures relaxing and depressing, was the atmosphere. To this girl, however, had come by inheritance, under the mysterious laws of heredity, a type of quenchless energy, a form combining the old Greek attributes of graceful strength and divinely dowered intellect, impervious alike, as were her antitypes, to sun and shade, to fatigue or privation, to climatic influence or untoward circumstance.

‘Mother,’ she said, after tossing about from sofa to chair, from carpet to footstool, the while the elder woman sat patiently sewing as if the family fortunes depended upon the due adjustment of

Seam and gusset and band,
Band and gusset and seam,

‘I must go and put on my riding-habit. I shall die here, I’m certain, if I stay indoors much longer. I feel apoplexy coming on, or heart disease, I’m sure. Besides, there is a breeze always outside, or we can make one, Wanderer and I, on the plain.’

‘My darling, it’s surely too hot to go out yet,’ pleaded the mother.

‘It’s twice as hot indoors,’ retorted the wilful damsel, rising. ‘I’ll ride as far as the Mogil Mogil clump; you can send little Tarpot after me as soon as he gets the cows in. But a gallop I must have.’

The sun was declining as the girl rode out of the paddock gates, but no hint of coolness had as yet betokened the coming eve. The homestead was still and solitary of aspect, as a Mexican hacienda at the hour of the siesta, but for a different reason. Hot and wearisome as had been the day, every man about the place had been hard at work in his own proper department, and had been so occupied since sunrise.

In Australia, however scorching the day, how apparently endless and desolating the summer, no man, being of British birth or extraction, thinks of intermitting his daily work from sunrise to nightfall, except during the ordinary hours allotted to meals.

So the overseer was away on his neverending round of inspection of stock—‘out on the run,’ as the phrase is—to return at, or perhaps long after, nightfall. The boundary riders were each and all on their different beats—some at the wells; others at the now treacherous and daily more dangerous quagmires surrounding the watering-places, from which it was their duty to extricate the feeble sheep. No one was at home but a small native boy named Tarpot, with whose assistance Pollie managed to saddle her loved steed. Leaving injunctions with him to follow her as soon as he should have brought up the cows, she turned her horse’s head to the broad plain; and as he snuffed up the fresh dry air and bounded forward in a stretching gallop along the level sandy track, the heart of the rider swelled within her, and she wished it was not unfeminine to shout aloud like the boy stockriders who occasionally favoured the musters of Corindah with their company.

The well-bred animal which she rode was fully inclined to sympathise with his mistress’s exhilaration. Tossing his head and opening his nostrils, Wanderer dashed forward along the far-stretching level road, just sufficiently yielding to be the most perfect track a free horse could tread at speed, as if he were anxious to run a race with the fabled coursers of that sun now slowly trailing blood-red banners and purple raiment towards his western couch. Mile after mile was passed in a species of ecstatic eagerness, which for steed and rider seemed to know no abatement. The homestead faded far behind them, and still nothing met the view but the endless grey plain; the mirage-encircled lines of slender woodland opening out north and south, each the exact counterpart of the other. An ever-widening, apparently illimitable waste, a slowly retreating sun, a sky hopeless in unchanging, pitiless splendour of hue, looking down upon a despairing world of dying creatures.

‘The Mogil Mogil clump is a short ten miles,’ she said, as she reined her impatient steed and compelled him to walk. ‘I mustn’t send along the poor old fellow so fast; he’s not quite in form yet. I shall be there before the coach passes, and then have plenty of time to ride home in the cool. What a blessed relief this is from that choking atmosphere indoors!’

Another half-hour and the clump is reached. Still no sign of the stage-coach visible, as it should be for a mile or two, even more on that billiard table of a plain. The girl’s impatient spirit chafed at the unlooked for delay. As she gazed upon the red sun, the far-seen crimson streamers, the endless, voiceless plain, the spirit of rebellion was again roused within her. She sat upon her horse and looked wistfully, wearily over the arid drought-stricken levels. She marked the sand pillars, whirling and eddying in the distance. They seemed to her fanciful imagination the embodied spirits of the waste—the evil genii of the Eastern tale, which might at any time, unfolding, disclose an Afreet or a Ghoul. The thought of long years to be spent amid these vast solitudes seemed to her hateful—doubly unendurable. Before her rose in imagination the dull familiar round of all too well known duties, occupations, tasks, and pleasures, or but feeble, pulseless alternations from the millhorse track which people call duty.

‘Was I born only for such a fate?’ she passionately exclaimed. ‘Is it possible that the great Creator of all things, the Lord and Giver of Life, made this complex, eager nature of mine to wear itself out with aimless automatic movements, or frantic struggles against the prison bars of fate? Oh! had my father not been cut off in his prime, in what a different position we should have been! We could have afforded to travel in Europe, to revel in the glories of art, science, and literature, to look upon the theatres of the great deeds of mankind—to live, in a word. We do not live in Corindah—we grow.’

Overcome by the emotions which the enthusiasm of her nature had suffered temporarily to overwhelm her ordinary intelligence, she had not noticed that the stage-coach, bringing its bi-weekly freight of letters, newspapers, and passengers, had approached the clump of wild orange trees, on the edge of which she had reined her steed. The sensitive thorough-bred, more alive to transitory impressions than his mistress, aroused by a sudden crack of the driver’s whip, started, and as she drew the curb-rein, reared.

‘What a naughty Wanderer!’ she exclaimed, as, slackening her rein, she leaned a little forward, stroking her horse’s glossy neck, and soothing him with practised address. At the same moment the fourhorse team swept past the spot, and revealed the unwonted apparition to the gaze of the passengers, male and female, who, from the fixed attention they appeared to bestow upon her, were much interested in the situation. Apparently the young lady was not equally gratified, inasmuch as she turned her horse’s head towards the distant line of timber which marked the line of the homestead, and swept across the plain like the daughter of a sheikh of the Nejd.

‘What a handsome girl!’ said a passenger on the box-seat; ‘deuced fine horse too good across country, I should say. Not a bushranger, I suppose, driver? They don’t get themselves up like that, eh?’

‘That’s Miss Devereux of Corindah,’ answered the driver, in a hushed, respectful accent, as who should say to the irreverent querist in Britain, ‘That’s the squire’s daughter.’ ‘She came up here to see if the coach was coming; we’re past our time, nearly half an hour. Got thinking, I suppose, and didn’t know we was so close. I cracked my whip just to let her know like.’

‘But suppose her horse had thrown her,’ asked the inquiring stranger, ‘what then?’

‘Beggin’ your pardon, sir, there’s mighty few horses that can do that not in these parts anyway. She can ride anything that you can lift her on; and she’s as kindhearted and well respected a young lady as ever touched bridle-rein.’

Now ever since Corindah had been ‘taken up’ in the good old days when occupation with stock and the payment of £10 per annum as license fee were the only obligatory conditions encumbering the sovereign right to use, say, half a million acres of pastoral land, the adjoining ‘run’ of Maroobil and its proprietors had been associated in men’s minds among the floating population of the district.

Both had been ‘taken up,’ or legally occupied, the same year. The homesteads were at no great distance from each other, so placed with the view to being mutually handy in case of a sudden call to arms when the blacks were ‘bad.’ More than once on either side the ‘fiery cross’ had been sent forth, when every available horse and man, gun and pistol, of the summoned station had been furnished.

Old Mr. Atherstone, a Border Englishman, had died soon after Brian Devereux, leaving his son Harold, then a grave boy of twelve, precociously wise and practical as to the management of stock, and a great favourite with Pollie, then a tiny fairy of three years old, who used to throw up her hands and shout for joy when Harold’s pony came galloping up to the garden gate. He had watched the child grow into a tall slip of a girl, with masses of bright hair, never very neatly braided. He had seen the unformed girl ripen into a beautiful maiden, an enchanting mixture to his eye of much of the old daring, wilful nature mingled with a sweet womanly consciousness inexpressibly attractive. He could hardly recollect the time when he had not been in love with Pollie Devereux. And now, in these latter years, he told himself that there was but one woman in the world for him—nor could it ever be otherwise.

Men varied much in their dispositions. He knew that by observation and experience. There was Bob Liverstone, whose heart (as he himself repeatedly averred) was broken beyond recovery, his prospects of happiness eternally ruined, his life blasted, because of the beautiful Miss Wharton, with her pale face, raven hair, and haunting eyes, who wouldn’t have him. He broke his heart over again shamelessly within six months, after unsuccessful devotion to a blonde with eyes like blue china; and finally married a lady who bore not the least resemblance in mind, body, or estate to either of her predecessors being plump, and merely pretty, but exceptionally well dowered.

These and similar divagations of the ardent male adult Harold had seen—seen with alarm and surprise primarily, then with amused assent. For himself he could as little conceive such oscillations in his own tastes and affections as he could fancy himself emulating the somersaults of an acrobat or the witticisms of a clown. No! thrice no! For a man of his deep, dreamy, passionate, perhaps originally melancholy, nature there was but one sequel possible after the deliberate choice of youth had been ratified by the calm reason of manhood. If fate denied him this happiness, all too perfect for this world—the unearthly, unutterable bliss which her love would confer—there should be no counterfeit presentment, no mocking travesty of the heart’s lost illusions. He had rightly judged that as yet the girl’s feeling for him was that of a pure and deep friendship, but of friendship only. The love of a sister, unselfish, sinless, seraphic, not the fiercer passion akin to hate, despair, revenge in its inverted forces, bearing along with it the choicest fruits that mortal hands can cull, yet joined in unholy joy, in perverted triumph to the groans of the eternally lost, to the endless torment, the dread despair of the prison vaults beneath.

Thus Harold Atherstone watched and waited—awaited the perhaps fortunate turn of events, the effect of the moral suasion which he knew Mrs. Devereux gently exercised. And she had told him that he was the one man to whom in fullest trust and confidence she could bequeath her darling, were she compelled to leave her.

‘But you must wait, Harold,’ she said. ‘My child’s nature is one neither to be controlled nor easily satisfied. I can trace her father’s tameless soul in her. Poor Pollie! it’s a thousand pities that she was not born a boy, as she says herself. How much easier life would have been for her—and for me!’ Here Mrs. Devereux sighed.

‘All very well, my dear Mrs. Devereux, but in the meantime nature chose to mould her in the form of a beautiful woman, so sweet and lovely in my eyes that I have never seen her equal, and indeed hardly imagined such a creation. She will pass through the unsettled time of girlhood in another year or two, and after that take pity upon her faithful slave and worshipper, who has adored her all his life and who will die in the same faith.’

‘That is the worst feature in your case, my poor Harold,’ said Mrs. Devereux; ‘I am as fond of you as if you were my own son, and she loves you like a brother. You have seen too much of each other. Women’s fancies are caught by the unknown, the unfamiliar: we are all alike. I wish I could help you, or bend her to my wish like another girl, for I know how happy she would be. But she cannot be guided in the disposition of her affections.’

‘And I should not wish it,’ said the young man, as his face grew hard. ‘No, though I should die of the loss of her.’


The contract time of the Wannonbah mail was indulgent. The driver had no particular reason to reach that somewhat prosaic and monotoned village before the stated hour. When Wanderer slackened speed a mile on the hither side of the Corindah gate, it was with some surprise that Pollie descried a strange four-in-hand converging from another point. Wanderer pricked up his ears, while his rider looked eagerly across the plain with the intense, far-searching gaze of a dweller in the desert, as if she had power to read, even at that distance, each sign and symbol of the equipage.

‘Can’t be a coach, surely,’ she soliloquised. ‘One mail is more than enough for all our wants in the letter and passenger way. Cobb and Co. grumble at feeding their teams now, poor things! Who in the world is likely to drive four horses in a season like this? No one but a lunatic, I should think. Such wellbred ones too! I can see the leaders tossing their heads—a grey and a bay. I can’t make out the wheelers for the dust. No! Yes! Now I know who it is. Oh, what fun! I beg his pardon. Of course it’s Jack Charteris. He said he was going to town. Poor Jack! I wish I was going with him. But that won’t do. I should like to go and meet him, only then he would make sure I was interested in him. What a misfortune it is to be a girl! Now I must go in and dress for the evening, and receive him properly, which means unnaturally and artificially. Come along, Wanderer!’

When Mr. Jack Charteris swept artistically and accurately through the entrance gate and drew up before the stable range with a fixed expectation that some one might see and admire him, he was disappointed to observe no one but Mr. Gateward and a black boy. To them it was left to perform the rôle of spectators, audience, and sympathisers generally.

‘Why, Gateward, old man, what’s the meaning of this?’ said the charioteer, signing to his own black urchin to jump down. ‘Are you and Tarpot all the men left alive on Corindah? Sad effects of a dry season and overstocking, eh? No rouseabouts, no boundary riders, no new chums, no nobody? Family gone away too? I’m not going to ruin you in the forage line either. Brought my own feed—plenty of corn and chaff inside the drag. Don’t intend to eat my friends out of house and home this beastly season.’

By this time Mr. Gateward and the black boys had applied themselves with a will to the unharnessing of the team, so that the new-comer, who had uttered the preceding remarks, exclamations, and inquiries in a loud, cheerful, confident manner, threw down his reins and descended from his seat without more ado.

Here he stood with his hands in his pockets, watching the taking out of his horses, a well-bred, well-matched, and well-conditioned team, never intermitting a flow of badinage and small-talk which seemed to proceed from him without effort and forethought.

‘Now then, Jerry, you put ’em that one harness along a peg, two feller leader close up, then two feller poler. Tie ’em up long a post, that one yarraman, bimeby get ’um cool, baal gibit water, else that one die. You put ’em feed along a manger all ready. Mine come out bimeby.’

‘I’ll see after ’em, Mr. Charteris, don’t you bother yourself,— said the overseer goodnaturedly. ‘Tarpot, you take ’em saddle-box belong a mahmee inside barracks. He’ll show you, sir,—you know where the bathroom is. There’s water there, though we are pretty short.’

‘Deuced glad to hear it. The dust’s inside my skin like the wool bales last summer. Must be half an inch of it somewhere. I’ve been living in it all day. Frightful season! I’m just going down to file my schedule—fact—unless my banker takes a good-natured fit. Can’t stand it much longer. Ladies well? Mrs. Devereux and Miss Pollie? Not got fever, or cholera, or consumption this God-forsaken summer?’

The grave bushman smiled. ‘I doubt we shall all have to go up King Street when you give in, Mr. Charteris! You can work it somehow or other, whoever goes under. Besides, rain ain’t far off; can’t be now. The ladies are all right, and a little cheering up won’t hurt ’em. Miss Pollie was out for a gallop just before you came up.’

‘Then it was her I saw,’ said the young man petulantly. ‘Knocked smoke out of the team to catch her up, and missed her after all.’

Mr. Jack Charteris, of Monda, was a young squatter who lived about a hundred miles to the west of Corindah, where he had a large and valuable station, a good deal diminished as to profits by the present untoward season. He was of a sanguine, intrepid, rather speculative disposition, having investments in new country as well. People said he had too many irons in the fire, and would probably be ruined unless times changed. But more observant critics asserted that under careless speech and manner Jack Charteris masked a cool head and calculating brain; that he was not more likely to go wrong than his neighbours—in fact, less so, being of uncommon energy and quite inexhaustible resource. With any decent odds he was a safe horse to back to land a big stake.

For the rest he was a good-looking, athletic, cheery young fellow, in general favour and acceptation with ladies, having a great fund of good spirits and an unfailing supply of conversation, that most of his feminine acquaintances found agreeable. He was not easily daunted, and added the qualities of perseverance and a fixed belief in his persuasive powers to the list of his good qualities.

The past masters in the science of conquest aver that the chief secret of fascination lies in the power to amuse the too often vacant and distraite feminine mind. Women suffer, it is asserted, more from dulness and ennui than from all other sources, injuries and disabilities put together. Consider, then, at what an enormous advantage he commences the siege who is able to surprise, to interest, to entertain the emotional, laughter-loving garrison, so often in the doldrums, so indifferently able to fill up the lingering hours. It is not the ‘rare smile’ which lights up the features of the dark and melancholy hero of the Byronic novelists which is so irresistible. Much more dangerous is the jolly, nonsensical, low-comedy person, in whose jokes the superior, the gifted rival can see no wit, indeed but little fun. Thackeray is true to life when he makes Miss Fotheringay unbend to Foker’s harmless mirth, rewarding him with a makebelieve box on the ear, while Pen, the sombre and dramatic, stands sulkily aloof.

This being an axiomatic truth, Mr. Charteris should have had, to use his own idiom, a considerable ‘pull’ in commending himself to the good graces of Miss Devereux, being one of those people to whom women always listened, and never without being more or less amused. But though he would hardly have sighed in vain at the feet of any of the demoiselles of the day, rural or metropolitan, he found this particular princess upon whom he had perversely set his heart, unapproachable within a certain clearly defined limit.

Not that she did not like him, respect, admire, even in certain ways to the extent of fighting his battles when absent, praising up his good qualities, delicately advising him for his good, laughing heartily at his good stories and running fire of jests and audacious compliments. That made it so hard to bear. The very fearlessness and perfect candour of her nature forbade him to hope that any softer feeling lay underneath the frankly expressed liking, and a natural dignity which never quitted her restrained him from urging his suit more decisively.

The Crooked Stick - Contents    |     Chapter III

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