The Crooked Stick

Chapter XI

Rolf Boldrewood

EVEN in the first flush and transport of her love-dream Pollie could not wholly divest herself of the dread that Bertram Devereux might in England have loved with all the depth of his nature some one who even now had claims upon him. In vain she asked herself why such a thought should have passed through her mind. She could not tell. But, to her deep unrest, it remained to arise and torment her at intervals, like an unquiet spirit. On the subject of his feminine correspondence she had noticed, as she thought, a departure from his usual calmness, a studied air of carelessness. What if her surmises should be true, that he was either engaged or had been the victim of one of those absorbing, soul-engrossing attachments which leave the heart of man a burnt-out volcano—barren, lifeless, dead to all succeeding influences? She would ask him. The torment of doubt on such a subject was too acute for endurance. Yet so far had she softened towards him, so far was her whole nature in a malleable state, that if he had but made frank confession she could have forgiven him.

And one day accident led up to the subject of previous attachment. Having disclaimed, on her part, the slightest tenderness in the past to living man, she looked her lover full in the face, as was her wont when aroused, and said—

‘You have had my disclaimer, but tell me now, Bertram, if there lives any woman in the land you have left who is able to say, “That is my lover. This is the man whose vows, if kept, would bind him to me till death. He has broken faith and betrayed love in deserting me now.” Answer me truly, on your soul’s peril, and the subject shall be buried for evermore.’

As she realised in her own mind the slow torture, the melancholy days, the ‘dead unhappy nights’ to which a woman is doomed who waits in vain for him whom she loves, hoping against hope, refusing the sad truth, until all limit of credence be passed, so vehement an indignation fired her every feeling against the imaginary recreant that she looked like an inspired vestal denouncing the sins of a nation. ‘Tell me truly, Bertram,’ she said, ‘that there is no hateful ghost of a dead love between you and my soul’s devotion.’

A thrill passed through his inmost heart as he thought how nearly her random shaft had touched the dark secret of his life. Yet his eyes met hers fully and fairly. With men he had ever been exact and truthful, even to bluntness, but in the school of ethics in which he had been reared it was held no dishonour to lie frankly where a woman was concerned. So he bore himself accordingly.

‘I scarcely think,’ he said slowly, ‘that a man is bound to lay bare the whole of his former life to the woman he is about to marry, nor is she wise to ask it. But,’ and here he looked steadily into her innocent, trustful eyes, ‘if it comforts you to think that you are the sole possessor of this invaluable heart of mine, I give you my word that no other woman has the shadow of a claim upon it.’

‘I believe you,’ she said; ‘it removes my last lingering doubt as to our perfect happiness. In sickness, in health, in poverty or riches, by land or sea, never had man a truer mate than you will find in me.’

He drew her to his side in silence, even then repenting of his falsehood to this trusting, easily deceived creature. Still, what good would it do her to know? Why pain her sensitive heart? And was there any—the remotest—chance of his deceit being exposed? An ocean rolled between him and that passionate, headstrong woman whom he had loved with the unreflecting ardour of youth. Circumstances had certainly tended of late years to favour the idea that she would be free. In that event he had sworn a thousand times to make her his wife. But it was a contingency which might never arise. In the meantime was he to give up a career such as was now opening before him? A lovely, loving bride, who would be an envied possession wherever they went? A fortune which would enable him to satisfy all desires and tastes hitherto ungratified? Was all this to be sacrificed—for what? For a passion of which he had overrated the force and permanence in the days of inexperience? The price was too great to pay.

.     .     .     .     .

The marriage was fixed for the ensuing November, the first summer month. They would leave the hot plains of the North-West for New Zealand, after visiting the Australian capitals. Side by side they would revel in the glories of Rotomahana, sail on the magic lake, and marvel over the fairy terraces, returning only with the last month of autumn, when the peerless winter of the interior would be before them. A year’s peaceful enjoyment of the quiet Corindah life would prepare them for the momentous, unutterably delicious expedition to the Old World, when the dream of Pollie’s life would be realised and an elysium of bliss, a paradise, intellectual, social and material, would open before her.

‘You romantic child!’ Bertram said, looking almost pityingly at her, as in one of her imaginative flights she was, like an improvisatrice, picturing vividly a long list of pleasures to come. ‘And so you believe in happiness! I only trust you will not be disillusioned when we reach this wonderful dream England of yours. And yet it may be so,’ he said, smoothing her bright hair as one placates a child. ‘In your company, O my sweet, I shall renew the youth I have been in danger of losing.’

Whatever might have been Mr. Bertram Devereux’s secret thoughts on the subject of his prospects, he appeared to have improved outwardly, as all the neighbours and employees agreed. The alteration extended to his general demeanour. He threw off in great part the reserve which had marked his earlier tone, and assumed a genial rôle which no one could, when he liked, sustain better than himself. He took occasion to visit Wannonbah more frequently. He identified himself with the local interests and occupations of the district. He utilised his exceptional gifts and attainments to such purpose that all envy at his good fortune disappeared. He was finally voted by the younger squatters and the Wannonbah society generally to be a ‘deuced good fellow’ (when you came to know him), who would take his position among them, and be an acquisition to the district.

Harold Atherstone had gone away for change of air about the time when his arm was recovering its strength, and did not return until the engagement between Pollie and her cousin was matter of general comment. He heard of it, indeed, before he left town, at his club. What his sensations were at the announcement none ever knew. A man who bore his griefs and failures in secret, he disclosed none of his deeper feelings. When he met Pollie Devereux in her own home, it was with an untroubled brow. The kind, brave face, the wise, steadfast eyes, which she had known from childhood, were unaltered.

Pollie herself had vague misgivings that her all-important step would not meet with his approbation. Knowing that she needed not to hold herself responsible to him or any other, she yet feared lest a kind of indefinable injustice had been done by forsaking so loyal a friend. She would have felt unspeakably relieved by his full approbation and consent.

‘You have heard of my engagement,’ she said, as he held her hand at their first meeting after his return. ‘Are you not going to give me joy and congratulate me on my happiness?’

‘I may congratulate him’ he said, a little sadly. ‘My wishes for your happiness need no renewal. They do not date from to-day, as you well know. Whatever renders you happy and preserves you so will always be a part of my joy in life. May God bless you, dear, and keep you from sorrow evermore!’

In a half-unconscious way he drew the girl towards him, and kissed her as might a brother—tenderly, but without passion. Then he turned and left her, while she walked slowly and pensively towards the house. She felt that he had forgiven her; that he was too noble to harbour envy or resentment. But with woman’s quickness she divined that he was grieved to the heart, and that all his self-command was needed to enable him to appear unmoved. Again and again she asked herself whether she had done wisely in following the passion-cries of her heart rather than the dictates of reason. A vain wish that she could have combined both agitated her. Of how many women and men might the same tale be told!

Mrs. Devereux was rather resigned to the arrangement as inevitable and impossible to amend than wholly approving. More acute and experienced, she had noticed the smaller defects of character in Bertram Devereux which had escaped the eye of her daughter. Not that Pollie would have suffered them to influence her. But the unconscious selfishness, the irritability, the ignoring of the tastes of others, which she had observed in her future son-in-law, did not, in her estimation, augur well for her child’s happiness. When she thought of Harold Atherstone’s long, unrewarded devotion, she could scarcely repress her vexation. ‘What fools we women are!’ she said bitterly to herself. ‘We trample on pearls and gems of manhood, only to prize some glittering pebble without intrinsic value or beauty. When, as in my case, one is blessed with a husband who unites all the qualities which women love and men respect, Fate steps in and deprives her of him. How little real happiness there seems to be in this world of ours!’

While poor Mrs. Devereux thus bemoaned herself over the anomalies of life, the weeks of the short spring and early summer passed quickly along the flowery track, which, even in the Waste, is fair with wealth of leaf and blossom, with joyous birds and tempered sunshine, with high hope and joy and expectation of the coming year. The season had again been favourable. Wealth was flowing into Corindah and the neighbouring stations after the abundant fashion which, during a succession of good years, obtains in Australia Deserta. After her child was gone, Mrs. Devereux thought she would sell out and take up her abode in Europe for good. After tasting the glories and social splendours of the Old World, which she would fully appreciate, Pollie would not choose to return to Australia. Men sometimes came back to the land of spur and snaffle and wide-acred freedom, weary of cities and the artificial European life; but women, in her experience, never. They had reached across the ocean a fairy realm, where the supreme social luxuries were purchasable and abundant; servants and equipages, households and surroundings, music and the drama, art and literature, society at once congenial and aristocratic, travel and excitement—all these things were to be had for money. This they possessed. Why should they return to a land where much of this enticing catalogue did not exist, where a tithe of civilisation was difficult, the rest impossible to obtain?

So Mrs. Devereux sadly looked forward to passing the close of her days in England—a foreign land, as far as she was concerned—far from the home, the friends, the associations of her youth, her whole life indeed, up to this stage. To her the prospect was simply one of exile and endurance.

It had been arranged that the marriage was to take place in Sydney early in November. Mrs. Devereux would go thither with her daughter immediately after that important annual ceremony, the shearing at Corindah, was concluded. The good lady preferred in a general way to manage her own affairs. She signed her own cheques, which during September and October were like the sands of the sea for multitude. Mr. Gateward was economical and loyal. Still, it was always worth while to attend to one’s own business, she thought. So that, although Bertram had pleaded for an earlier day, the month of November was fixed for the wedding, principally on account of the said shearing and its responsibilities—which he had come to loathe in consequence as a comparatively trifling, but none the less vexatious, obstacle.

So when the October mail-steamer arrived he was still at Corindah, and thither his letters came. He happened to be away on the day of arrival, and Pollie, emptying on the hall table the well-filled Corindah mail-bag, sorted out the different addresses to ‘Bertram Devereux, Esq., Corindah, Wannonbah, New South Wales, Australia,’ as was the general superscription of his European letters. Among them Pollie descried two letters in the feminine handwriting which she had before remarked. One was addressed to her lover, one to herself.

Yes, there could be no mistake. ‘Miss Devereux, Corindah, Wannonbah, New South Wales, Australia.’ It was doubtless from her good, motherly cousin Eleanor, in congratulation. It was very kind of her. She had had only just time to write, too. Had the marriage been in the month of October as Bertram wished, she would have been too late.

So, with smiling eyes and unsuspicious eagerness to behold the kindly, unfamiliar lines from the probable kinswoman, Pollie opened the letter. A painter would have seized the moment for a priceless portrait, had he been at hand to mark the instantaneous changes of expression—first wild surprise, then horror; the slow, expressive alteration from trusting confidence and loving hope to disappointment unspeakable, dismay, despair.

This was the fatal sheet upon which her eyes, first flashing indignant surprise, then fell:—

WYNTON HALL, 9th August 188-.        

I should owe you an apology, Miss Devereux, for thus addressing you, would the occasion admit of unnecessary courtesy or delay. If the lifelong happiness or misery of two women—of yourself or me—be sufficient reason for disregarding ceremony, you will hold me excused, nay, bless me in the future, whatever may be the shock to your present feelings. I have accidentally discovered, what before I only surmised, that Bertram and yourself are about to be married. He was careful not to give me a hint of his plot—for such I must consider it to be. An Australian gentleman, a Mr. Charteris, however, happened to be staying in the house where I was visiting, and mentioned that his friend Bertram Devereux was about to be married to the beautiful heiress of Corindah. He had just heard the news from a correspondent. From what I have heard of your character, I assume that you would prefer to know the truth at all hazards. You would not be willing, as are some weak women, to pardon in the man of your choice shameless falsehood, base betrayal, and broken vows.

I swear to you now, as God shall judge me at the Great Day, that Bertram Devereux is mine—mine by every vow, by every tie, which can bind man to woman. Whoso accepts him, virtually takes another woman’s husband with her eyes open. As events are shaping themselves I shall be shortly free. No legal obstacle to his fulfilment of the promise which he has a hundred times made, will exist. You will wonder that I choose to hold him to his bond after his proved faithlessness. May you long be free from the forbidden knowledge which would enlighten you! That I love him still is one proof more, were it needed, of the wild inconsistency of a woman’s heart. I have told him of the letter to you. I fear him not; nothing earthly has power to daunt me now.

You are free to take your own course, but you are now warned against the sacrifice of your own happiness and that of the wretched and desperate woman who calls herself—

SYBIL DE WYNTON.                

Holding the letter in her hand, the girl walked feebly and uncertainly, like one in a dream, to her own room. She saw through the open window a horseman riding across the plain towards the entrance gate. A few short moments since she would have flown to meet him. Now all was changed. It was the loveliest afternoon. The air was warm, yet free from the least excess of heat. A sighing breeze swept along the course of the now full-fed stream, and over the vast breadth of prairie, waving with profuse vegetation. But ‘cloudless skies had lost their power to cheer.’ A wintry blight had fallen upon the summer scene, banished its gladness, and turned the bright-hued landscape into a scene of desolation and despair.

Sweet love was dead. In the heart of the maiden was fixed an immovable sense of disaster—life-wreck, woe unutterable. So, when the word of doom is pronounced by the couch of those near and dear, all know that no hope or amendment, no recovery or reparation is possible for evermore.

Such was the fatal effect in the girl’s mind. She had no further thought or speculation in the matter. Nothing was possible. All was at an end between them. Her life-dream was over. He had deceived her. He had betrayed and had planned to desert this other woman. In her innocent eyes it was guilt of a blackness and criminality inconceivable. All that had gone before was like an evil dream of hairbreadth escape amid avalanche and precipice, from which the sleeper starts, breathing gratitude for life and safe awakening.

She locked the door of her room, and casting herself upon the bed, ‘all her o’er-laden heart gave way, and she wept and lamented.’ The evening brought a partial calmness. The half-instinctive sorrow abated its poignant agony; but a dull, hopeless heartache, almost physical, remained. When the bell rang for the evening meal a maid-servant came to inquire if she had heard the summons. Her she despatched to her mother, who soon appeared with alarm and surprise in every line of her face.

‘My darling, what has happened?’ she exclaimed. ‘Bertram and I were wondering what kept you. He has had such a pleasant day.’

‘Has he read his letters?’ demanded the girl, with an air of half-veiled bitterness.

‘Oh, no! he said he should devote the morning to them. Most of them were family epistles, he expected, of no great consequence.’

‘Oh, mother, my heart is broken! I shall die!’ cried the girl, with sudden abandonment, as she threw her arms round the elder woman’s neck. ‘Read this, oh, mother, mother!’ Here she produced the fatal letter.

As Mrs. Devereux commenced to cast her eyes over the sheet they seemed to dilate like those of one who sees suddenly an object of horror and loathing. When the end was reached she threw down the letter, as if it had been a clinging serpent, and made as though she would trample upon it.

‘Let it lie there!’ she said, her ordinarily serene countenance changed as the girl had seldom seen it. ‘Not that I have any bitter feeling towards the miserable woman that has wrought this woe to us. No! my heart is filled with indignation against the man who has acted so deceitful, so treacherous a part, who so nearly succeeded in ruining your happiness, my darling. That you would have been unhappy, who can doubt?’

‘Unhappy!’ cried the girl. ‘If I had come to the knowledge of his deceit, his wickedness, his cruelty in abandoning one to whom he had sworn faith, I think I should have died; all belief in truth and honour would have deserted me. I should have hated my own existence.’

‘Let us thank God, my darling, that our eyes have been opened in time, ere it was too late. I never heartily approved of the affair. But Heaven knows, though I had a kind of intuitive distrust of him, I never dreamt of anything like this. And now I must give Mary her orders.’

‘Oh, mother, don’t leave me.’

‘I will only tell her to say that neither of us will be down, that you are not well, and that I have retired for the night. She can bring up a cup of tea, which is all that either of us is likely to need.’

The Crooked Stick - Contents    |     Chapter XII

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