The Crooked Stick

Chapter XII

Rolf Boldrewood

WHEN Bertram Devereux, who had waited patiently for the chatelaine’s appearance, received the intimation that she would not appear again that night, that Miss Pollie being indisposed, he was requested to order in dinner, he was considerably astonished. He addressed himself mechanically to his solitary meal, but after an absent, desultory fashion and with less than his ordinary appetite. He failed to understand or account for the sudden seizure. She had walked with him to the outer gate in the morning, had patted his horse’s neck, apparently as well and handsome as ever she was in her life. Why then this astonishing change for the worse? The whole thing was vexatious and disappointing in the last degree. He would go over to the barracks, smoke his cigar, and read his letters. A chat with old Gateward would be better than a solitary evening in the drawing-room.

Carrying over his mails, the young man lit a cigar and wended his way to the barrack-room. Mr. Gateward was out; the storekeeper was in the store writing up his accounts; so he threw his letters upon the large dining-room table and commenced to sort them with a strong sense of ill-treatment.

The first that attracted his notice was like the one which he had described as a cousin’s to his unsuspecting fiancée. He opened it hastily; his brow clouded and his face grew dark as he commenced to devour rather than read the contents. ‘Confound the woman!’ he said with a fierce oath, before he had read half a dozen lines; ‘she was born to be my ruin, I believe, and by—! she has managed it this time.’

This was her letter.

WYNTON HALL, 9th August 188-.        

BERTRAM DEVEREUX—When you learn that I have written by this mail to Miss Devereux explaining all, and that she has received my letter, your wrath will be bitter against me. N’importe. I know you as well, aye, better than you know yourself. The wound to your vanity will be sore, your spirit will chafe, nay, agonise for a time, but your ultimate good will result directly from this éclaircissement.

Now look me in the face, mentally, and say, what is this thing that you have been proposing to do? To marry an innocent, unsophisticated girl, partly for her beauty, partly for her money; to desert and betray me, who have loved you long, truly, wildly well; and to pretend to yourself that you were going to be happy—yes, happy! ha! ha!

No, Bertram Devereux, it is not in you. You have deceived yourself as well as her. You would have cheated me, but the attempt has failed. You know in your heart, or rather in your inmost consciousness, that you are incapable of love, pure, unsullied, constant—such as the poets sing of; such as this young girl, doubtless, has brought to you. In the maelstrom of London life, under the spell of old associations, you would have fallen as you have fallen before, and dragged others with you. In that hour I am the only one who has power over you. Is it not so? And my hand withdrawn from the helm, your bark and its inmates would have gone down into depths unfathomable. Angel or demon, I, and I alone, am qualified to act as your guardian. Elude my power, and you are lost, irrevocably and eternally.

I see from the papers that old Walter Devereux is dead, and has left you an income, which, though not large, ought to suffice for your reasonable needs. So take my advice once more; soyez bon enfant; quit the wild country of your banishment; make your adieux with the best grace you may to these Arcadian relatives; and return to a society where you have been missed—strange to say—and to a civilised life amid people that understand you. Among those who are ready to welcome the returned wanderer will most likely be your true friend as of yore,

SYBIL DE WYNTON.                

He went patiently through his letters after reading this one, with a countenance which gave but little clue to the nature of the communications. One business-appearing epistle in round, legal handwriting he put aside and re-read. He then lighted a fresh cigar, and for nearly an hour remained in deep meditation before he sought his room. There he employed a portion of the night in arranging his effects, so as to be ready for that departure on the morrow upon which he had determined.

Mrs. Devereux did not appear at the breakfast table, but as he walked to and fro along the lagoon path, smoking the matutinal cigar, he saw her come into the garden. He threw down his cigar, and at once went to meet her.

She stopped a few paces ere she came to him, and looking at him with a sad, reproachful gaze, said, ‘Oh, Bertram, what is this you have done to us? Did we deserve this at your hands?’

‘My dearest Aunt Mary,’ he said, advancing and taking her hand with a show of natural feeling which she could not resent, ‘I cannot justify myself wholly, but it is due to me that I should be permitted to explain. All is over, I know, between your daughter and myself; still I do not wish her to think worse of me than is needful. When I won her love I pledged my word to her in good faith and sincerity to do all that a man might to promote her happiness. Whether I should have kept that resolution God knows, but I should have given my whole being to the task.

‘By a fatal mischance she has been made acquainted with a dark chapter in my life. I do not excuse it, but it is such as many men who show fairly before the world keep locked away in secret cabinets. No doubt I deceived Pollie in denying the existence of former passages of so compromising a nature; but I thought myself justified in keeping the whole thing from her pure mind. I think so still. And now,’ he said, with a return to his old charm of manner, ‘I fear that nothing remains but to thank you fervently for the kindness with which you have always treated me, in sickness and in health. I owe my life to your tender nursing. Corindah will be amongst my purest, happiest memories to my life’s end.’

By this time they had reached the house. Entering the old dining-room, Bertram threw himself into a chair, and Mrs. Devereux took her seat near him.

‘No words can describe, Bertram,’ said Mrs. Devereux, with softened air, ‘how grieved I feel that we should part in this manner. I have always looked upon you as a near relative; latterly I have regarded you as a son. It is unspeakably sad to me to think that all is over—that henceforth we must be as complete strangers, as if we had never met.’

‘And how little I thought yesterday that this would be my last day at Corindah!’ he said half musingly. ‘And yet it is best so. As if in mockery of my position, I have just been left an income by an old grand-uncle which will enable me to return to England and more or less take my former place in society.’

‘I am sincerely glad for your sake,’ she said warmly, ‘and I know Pollie will be so also. We could not have borne that you should leave Corindah to go we knew not where. Now we shall have no fear on that score.’

‘I should like to see her once before we part for ever, if you would consent,’ he said pleadingly—‘if it were but to hear her say that she forgives me.’

‘No, Bertram!’ said the matron firmly, if sorrowfully. ‘Such a meeting would answer no good end. You have had forgiveness. She will never harbour a bitter thought, believe me. She has overcome her first natural feeling of resentment, such as any woman would feel who had been deceived by the man she loved. But she will grieve over the circumstances which led to your estrangement; she will pity and forgive one so near her heart as you have been.’

‘If I may not see her, will you let her read a farewell letter which I will leave with you? Surely it is not necessary to debar me from the humblest felon’s privilege—that of defence before condemnation.’

‘She shall have your letter. I have no intention of being in the least degree harsh, Bertram, but it is by her own wish that I decline an interview. Our paths will henceforth lie separate. We shall pray for your welfare. You have a powerful will. Oh, may God guide you to use it aright! Your welfare will always concern us; but in this world we shall meet no more. And now farewell! May God bless and keep you, and forgive you even as you are forgiven by me and my poor child!’

He wrung the kindly, high-souled matron’s hand in silence. An unwonted glistening in his dark eyes showed the depth to which his feelings were stirred, and if there ever was a moment in which Bertram Devereux truly repented of the sins of the past and vowed amendment of life in the future, that was the hour and the minute.

It was shortly after this interview that he held a colloquy with Mr. Gateward, and rode over to Wannonbah, with a black boy behind him, who duly led back Guardsman. He had apparently arranged for the transmission of his luggage, inasmuch as the portmanteaux, three in number, were taken on by the coach when that indispensable vehicle arrived in due course. Next morning it was announced by Mr. Gateward to the storekeeper and other employees of the station generally that Mr. Devereux had been left a fortune, which he had to go ‘home’ to claim, owing to law matters and other details not comprehensible by ordinary intelligence.

‘He’ll be back afore next shearing,’ quoth one of the boundary riders. ‘Leastways I know I should if I was in his place.’

‘He’ll be back,’ replied Mr. Gateward oracularly, with an expression of countenance at once severe and impenetrable, ‘when he does come back. If he shouldn’t turn up at all, I don’t know as it’s any business of ours. There’s as good men left behind, and would be if there were a dozen like him off by the next mail-steamer.’

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Those who are of opinion that provincial gossip, along with all other British traditionary institutions, is not faithfully reproduced in British colonies, underrate the vivacious ardour of bush society when presented with a brand-new topic. No sooner was it definitely announced that Mr. Devereux had been seen on his way to the metropolis, en route to England, with all his portmanteaux—the same with which he had arrived—than a perfect flood of conjecture and assertion arose.

‘He had come into a title and a fortune. Of course he was not going to marry in the colonies now, so he broke off his engagement at once.’

‘It was Pollie’s temper—nothing else—that did it; everybody knew how ungovernable that was. He couldn’t stand it any longer, though Mrs. Devereux went down on her knees to him.’

‘He wanted Mrs. D. to settle twenty thousand on Polly on her wedding-day, which she refused to do. He declared off at once.’

‘Pollie flirted so with that Mr. Atherstone; no man could stand it. He found them walking by moonlight or something, and gave her notice at once.’ ‘Mr. Atherstone was in Queensland.’ ‘Oh, was he? Then it was some one else. It came to the same thing.’

Finally the torrent of popular criticism subsided, to settle down into a trickling rill of authentic information. It ran to the effect that Bertram Devereux had been bequeathed money by a relative, and had for some reason or other left suddenly for England.

It was neither the next day nor the next week after Bertram’s departure that Pollie reappeared in her accustomed place, to lead her old life at Corindah. A weary time of illness supervened, and when the girl crept down to the drawing-room sofa to be shawled, and nursed, and petted for being graciously pleased to be better, she was but the shadow of her former self. As marked a mental change had apparently taken place, for she was mild and patient, piteously subdued in tone and bearing. How different from the wilful spoilt beauty who had turned so many heads, and who paid so little heed to good advice!

‘You will have a better daughter in the time to come, mother,’ she said, as she clasped the matron’s neck with arms that were sadly shrunken from their former lovely roundness. ‘I have had time to think over my past folly, to know who are my truest friends;’ and then both wept and embraced each other, as is the way of women—the mother thankful to Heaven for the recovery of her child, the child softened by suffering and chastened by the near approach of the Death Angel.

Harold Atherstone had been far away in Northern Queensland during this eventful time. He had apparently needed stronger excitement than the everyday life of a prosperous, long-settled station; so he had elected to report upon an immense tract of country west of the ‘Red Barcoo,’ which, taken up by a pioneer squatter some years back, had passed into the hands of a syndicate, of which he was a shareholder.

So, from one cause or another, it fell out that Corindah seemed to be more solitary, not to say monotoned, than it had ever been before. The visitors who came were of the occasional, transitory sort; all their old friends seemed to have mysteriously vanished. The Rev. Cyril Courtenay was the only one of their habitués who did not fail them. He made his monthly visitation, when, indeed, Mrs. Devereux was more than usually glad to see him.

He was sympathetic in his manner, as divining that something unusual had affected his friends. With tact, as well as sincerity, he drew forth an admission of grief. This done, he essayed to lead their thoughts to the Healer of all mortal sorrow, the Bearer of burdens, the Consoler in time of trouble. He dwelt upon the unsatisfactory nature of all earthly pleasures, the disappointment inseparably connected with mere worldly aspirations, the only sure hope of forgiveness of sins, the need of repentance, the certainty of peace.

As at the time of pain and anguish, of fear and danger, the physician attains a status which in the heedless hours of health is withheld, so, in the hour of the mind’s sickness, the physician of souls is welcomed and revered. Urged to lengthen his stay, the Rev. Cyril gladly consented to remain over the ensuing Sunday. His ministrations, he thought, had never been so appreciated before at Corindah. And when he quitted the locality his heart beat high with the consciousness that he had aided the consolation of the dearest friends and best supporters of the Church in sicco, while a yet more daring thought caused his colourless cheek to burn and his pulses to throb with unwonted speed.

The summer days grew longer and longer. The fever heat of the season waxed more and more intense. The still air grew tremulous with the quivering, ardent sun-rays. Yet no suggestion was made by Pollie to go to the sea-side or to call the ocean breezes to aid her recovered health. Her mother would have rushed off directly the great event of the year was over, but the girl would not hear of it.

‘No, mother dear,’ she said, ‘I have sinned and suffered. I have been wilful and headstrong. Let me remain and mortify the flesh for a season. You do not mind the heat, I know, and I am strong enough now to bear it in the dear old place where I was born. We may have many a year to live here together yet, and I may as well commence to accustom myself to it.’

So the two women laid their account to remain patiently at home till the following summer, and Pollie set resolutely to work to utilise all her resources, natural and acquired. She commenced to be more methodical in the appointment of her time. She rose early and took exercise in the fresh morning air, before the sun had gained power—the truest hygienic rule in the torrid zone. She read and did needlework at appointed hours, and resolutely set herself to perfect her knowledge of French and German. She ‘kept up’ her music, vocal and instrumental, though it was long ere her voice recovered from a certain tremulous tendency, far different from the rich, full tones soaring upwards like the skylark to perilous altitudes unharmed. She rode regularly, or drove her mother out in the light American carriages which no station is now without. She visited the wives and children of the employees, showing a more considerate and intelligent interest in their welfare than had been before observable.

‘Mother,’ said the girl, as they sat together on the verandah in the waning summer-time, when a south wind speeding from the coast had unexpectedly cooled the air, ‘I won’t say that I was never so happy before; but I don’t think I ever was so fully occupied. There is, no doubt, a sense of relief and satisfaction to be gained when one does what one can; I never thought I should feel like this again.’

‘Let us have faith and patience, my darling,’ said the mother, looking into her child’s eyes with the measureless fondness of earlier days, ‘and happiness will still come to us. Only persevere in the duties that lie nearest to you. In His own good time God will reward and bless you. After all, there are many good things in this life yet remaining.’

It was the late autumn when Harold Atherstone returned from his far, wild journeyings. A long-practised and trained bushman ‘to the manner born,’ he was familiar with all the exigencies of the wildest woodcraft. But from his appearance this expedition had been no child’s play. Tanned and swart, almost to Indian darkness, both mother and daughter gazed at him in astonishment. He had been down with fever and ague, and was haggard and worn of aspect. He had even had a brush with the blacks, he said, on one of the far out-stations, and had managed to drop in for a spear wound. He was becoming quite a scarred veteran, he averred. However, save for a cicatrix to mark the trifling occurrence, he was unharmed. Altogether, though he had enjoyed the chances and adventures of his pioneer life, he was very glad to find himself within hail of Corindah again.

‘And we are so glad to have our old Harold back, I can tell you,’ said Mrs. Devereux. ‘We missed him dreadfully all the summer, didn’t we, Pollie? To be ill, and weak, and lonely at the same time, is hard to bear.’

Pollie made an inaudible reply to her mother’s query, but as her eyes rested upon the bronzed, athletic frame, and met the frank gaze of the Australian, it may be that a comparison, not wholly to his disadvantage, passed through her mind.

‘It is the first time when there was trouble at Corindah that I have been absent, I think,’ he said gently. ‘You must manage to have me more available in future.’

‘What reason is there for your risking your life in that terrible Never Never country?’ said Mrs. Devereux. ‘It is not as if you needed to make any more money, or had no one to care for you.’

‘One must do something with one’s life,’ he said simply. ‘I don’t know that it greatly mattered if that Myall’s spear had gone through me, as it did through poor Williamson. I had got very tired of an easy life at Maroobil. I needed a strong change, and I got it, I must say.’

‘It’s positively wicked to talk in that way,’ said his hostess. ‘However, now you have come back, your friends must take care of you and keep you among them. You look dreadfully thin; but I suppose you’re not ill, are you?’ And then the kind creature looked at him with the same anxiety in her face that he remembered so well when he was a boy, over whose accidents and offences she had always mourned maternally.

‘If it comes to that, it seems to me that no one looks very pink,’ he returned playfully. ‘Pollie’s not what she used to be. You look as if you had gone through another night attack. And Bertram Devereux has gone home? What has happened? I feel abroad.’

‘You are going to stay to-night, and your old room is ready for you, of course,’ Mrs. Devereux answered. ‘Do not allude to it when Pollie comes down. (This young lady had retired temporarily to her room.) I will tell you all about it after tea.’

Harold Atherstone looked searchingly at her, but held his peace. In a minute afterwards Pollie appeared, looking, in spite of her illness, so delicately lovely and overpowering, after his long sojourn in the desert, that all doubts and conjectures were put to flight or lost in the regained pleasure of seeing her smile of welcome and hearing the well-remembered tones of her voice.

It was a happy evening. Apart from ‘love and love’s sharp woe’ there is such a thing as friendship, pure and unalloyed, between people of differing sexes. The sentiment of these friends was deep and sincere—founded upon sympathy, congenial tasks, and the long experience of mutual truth, loyalty, and affection. They were honestly glad to see each other again. Love temporarily divides friends, and, as it were, elbows out all other claimants. But as its fervour declines, the purer flame burns with a deeper glow. As the years advance, the fires of passion wax dim; the altar reared to friendship regains its votaries; while the more ornate and ephemeral edifice is too often deserted, empty, and ungarnished.

Thus, at their pleasant evening meal, all was mirthful interchange of news and adventures since last the little party had met. Harold’s favourite wine of the remembered brand was brought out as of old; then Pollie was persuaded to sing some of her oldest songs, while Mrs. Devereux and their guest talked confidentially in the verandah. It seemed as if the happy old Corindah days had come again, when no malign influence intervened; when, in Mrs. Devereux’s eyes, all things were peacefully tending towards the cherished aspiration of her life. Finally, when the parting hour—later than usual—arrived, each secretly confessed to a sensation so nearly akin to the joy long since departed from their lives, that not only wonder but even a soupçon of hope was commingled with its formation.

Harold Atherstone had been placed fully in possession of facts by Mrs. Devereux, as they sat on the verandah in the hushed southern night, while Pollie’s sweet voice trilled nightingale-like through the odorous breath of the rose and the orange bloom. He heard how she had been deceived, wounded in her tenderest feelings, and was now deserted and left desolate. When he thought of her lying wearily on a bed of sickness, wan and wasted, heart-sore and despairing, he could not repress a malediction upon the head of the man who had received such unstinted kindness at the hands of the speaker, and had thus repaid it.

When the tale was finished he took her hand and pressed it silently. ‘The poor child has suffered deeply,’ he said; ‘but matters are best as they are. Who knows but that deeper, more irrevocable misery might have been her lot had she not been warned in time? I mourn over the change in her, but she is returning to her old ways, and the memory of her sorrow will become yet more faint. Her youth and pride, with the resources at her command, will enable her to divest herself of all trace of what was one of the inevitable mistakes of youth.’

‘You think then that she acted rightly in refusing to see him again?’

‘Unquestionably; no other course was possible. I never thought him worthy of her. But he was her choice, and as a man of honour I could not disparage him, even had I any other grounds than those of mere taste and prejudice, which I had not. The event has proved that my instinctive distrust was correct. I need not tell you how I rejoice that she is again free and unfettered.’

He said no more. The summer had passed. The nights became longer, colder. The calm, peaceful, autumnal season, which in this south land brings no fall of the leaf, commenced to herald the mild but well-marked winter of the plains. It was the Indian summer of their old, peaceful Corindah life. They rode, and walked, and drove together, the three friends, much as in the old days before the advent of the disturbing stranger from beyond the sea. Then Harold Atherstone had been the favourite companion of the girl, the trusted friend and counsellor of the elder woman. The bon vieux temps had returned. Once more the heavens were bright, and the storm-cloud had disappeared with the tempest which had so nearly wrecked the frail bark of a woman’s happiness.

And yet both were changed. The girl, mild and pensive, was almost humble in mien. All her wilfulness and obstinacy had departed. A deeper, more reasoning spirit of advance and inquiry seemed to possess her, to mould her every action and thought. He, on the other hand, had acquired broader views of life, and had seriously modified many of his earlier opinions.

But their parting was near. Harold received a telegram, without warning or notice, which necessitated instant action. His presence was again required at the far North, where everything was going on as badly as could be imagined. The chief manager lay dying of fever, the blacks were troublesome, and becoming emboldened, had commenced to scatter off the cattle. To mend matters, a drought of unprecedented severity had set in. ‘If Mr. Atherstone did not go out,’ the telegram stated, ‘the whole enterprise might be wrecked, and ruinous loss accrue to shareholders.’

At first he rebelled, swore stoutly, indeed, that he would not go. He would let things take their course. He was happy where he was, and there was no reason why he should risk his life and tempt again the dangers of the Waste. However, cooler reflection decided him to take the field as a duty to his comrades in the enterprise, as well as to the shareholders, who had risked their money perhaps on the guarantee of his known judgment and reputation for management.

He made his preparations quickly, as was his wont, bade farewell to Corindah and its inmates, and set off on the long, hazardous journey.

Somehow Corindah seemed more lonely than ever. He had been very kind and thoughtful as a brother, but no word of warmer admiration had passed his lips. Pollie pursued her tasks and occupations with accustomed regularity, but was more unequal in her spirits than ever. One day her mother surprised her in tears. A letter had been received from Harold, and the tone of it had aroused her from habitual indifferentism.

‘Why is he always so studiously cool and brotherly?’ she said, with something of her old impetuosity. ‘Does he think that I am likely to misconstrue his feelings? That he requires to keep a guard over his expressions? But I know how it is. He has met some one else in that far country. He spoke of some English families settled there. I have lost his love, which once was so truly mine. I despised it then. Now I am rightly punished by contempt and desertion.’

Mrs. Devereux gained from this little speech a fresh and accurate insight into the state of her daughter’s heart. It went to confirm the suspicion which she had lately entertained that the recent companionship of Harold Atherstone, the daily experience of his strong, true character, had not been without its effect. He had come most opportunely to cheer their loneliness. His manner had somewhat altered, too, of late, they had remarked; had become more gay and carelessly mirthful, more easy and conventional. His travels and adventures had supplied him with a larger field of observation, had added to his conversational powers, or else he had exerted himself exceptionally for their entertainment.

His sense of humour seemed to have developed, and withal there were occasional touches of tenderness and deep feeling which, always latent, had been rarely exhibited. Both women confessed that they had never done justice to the versatile force of his character; never had they dreamed he could exert fascination in addition to his power of compelling respect.

And now he was gone thousands of miles away—the true friend, the gallant gentleman, the loyal lover—to brave the risks of the Waste, perhaps die there, as had done many a brave man before him; perhaps to be attracted by some newer, fresher face, never to return to his old allegiance. The thought was bitter. No wonder that Pollie’s tears flowed fast.

Harold Atherstone had exhibited his habitual self-control in quitting Corindah for a long absence without making sign or giving expression to his feelings. He had carefully considered the situation, had come to certain conclusions, had decided upon his course of action. His feelings were unchanged with respect to Pollie. It had been hard to bear, almost unendurably torturing, to know that she preferred another; to witness her bright glances and hear her tender tones directed towards one whom in his heart he deemed unworthy of her. In his chivalric generosity he felt this to be the crowning bitterness of the whole. Unable to bear it longer, he elected to join this dangerous enterprise, reckless of life and health, hoping only for ‘surcease of sorrow’ in peril and privation.

But on his return he found that the enchanted portal had been opened, the captive princess liberated. The glamour had fallen from her eyes. The magic fetters had been unloosed. He could picture the scorn and indignation with which she had renounced Bertram Devereux for ever. From his lifelong knowledge of her character he believed that she had freed herself from the memory of his treason as from something foul and revolting; that it had fallen from her pure soul as earth from a golden robe; that she had returned instinctively to the simple loyalty and freedom of her youth. From his experience of life and woman’s nature he foresaw that she would turn to him as to one of the lost ideals of her girlhood, if only he were not precipitate and premature. These were not the faults with which men charged Harold Atherstone. So he returned silent and self-contained to the far North.

His unswerving courage and iron will stood him in good stead in this supreme hazard.

When Harold returned from the far country, his friends at Corindah were unaffectedly glad to see him. Pollie especially was so radiant in renewed health and beauty that he felt irresistibly impelled to ask the momentous question.

He chose an appropriate time and place—one of the star-bright, cloudless nights which in the southern hemisphere so glorify the majestic solitude of nature. Low-toned and musical was the whispering breeze which, stealing over the ‘lone Chorasmian waste,’ stirred the slumbering lemon sprays and murmured to the love-fraught roses as they walked by the margin of the lakelet, all silver-bright in the wondrous transparent atmosphere. It seemed as though, after the rude experiences of his desert life, he had re-entered paradise. He was so delighted to return, so charmed with the warm welcome accorded to him, that he would never more return to the wilderness. He would indeed promise and guarantee to do so, but on one condition only. Need we say what that was, or that the concession was made?

‘Are you sure that you think me worthy of your love, after all my folly?’ murmured she. ‘But I have suffered—you will know how much. I have repented, and, dearest Harold, I will try to be the woman you would have me to be.’

‘There has been but one woman in the world for me,’ he said, clasping her to his heart. ‘She is mine now for ever; life holds no other prize henceforth that I will stretch out my hand to seize.’

What more remains to tell? Pollie’s probation was ended. Her wayward, errant woman’s heart, ‘with feelings and fancies like birds on the wing,’ had found rest, relief, and safety on the manly breast of Harold Atherstone. Henceforth there was no fear, uncertainty or anxiety. She felt a wavering dread at times lest he, requiring so much love (as she had gauged his temperament), would find her nature unequal to the demand. But, as generally happens in similar cases, this proved to be a groundless apprehension.

As for Mrs. Devereux, she was prepared to sing ‘Nunc dimittis.’ Her cherished hope had been realised. Maroobil and Corindah in conjunction would make a princely property, no matter how many there might be to inherit it. In every relation of life Harold was a tower of strength. Now she had a son whom she had loved since the days of his fearless childhood. Now was she proud, happy, thankful. Providence did sometimes settle affairs of mortals aright. She had only to thank God humbly on her bended knees that night, to pray with tears and sobs for her darling’s happiness, believing in her inmost heart that it was now assured and lasting.

And she was happy—perfectly, utterly, completely, if there be such a thing in this world below. They lived for the greater part of the year at Maroobil or Corindah, choosing by preference the quiet home life, where they had full enjoyment of each other’s society, varied only by the ordinary demands upon their hospitality, which they were careful to recognise fully as of old. Maroobil was voted to be the pleasantest visiting-place in the West, and Mrs. Harold Atherstone the most perfect hostess.

‘What a fortunate thing that you were able to sell out of that horrid Queensland country so advantageously!’ said Mrs. Atherstone a month after their marriage, when, resting under the shadows of Mount Wellington, they absorbed rather than admired the charms of the varied Tasmanian landscape. ‘I shall never forget my fears on your account during that last journey.’

‘I take great credit for not committing myself before I started,’ he said. ‘It grieved me sore, but I held out. I was mortally afraid, too, that you might have another proposal in my absence. I suppose you hadn’t?’

‘Well, not quite a proposal, only from Mr.——.’

‘Why, you insatiable woman, you don’t mean to say that? Tell me this moment who it was. Why didn’t I know before?’

‘Don’t look so fierce, and I’ll confess everything. It is not much. But Mr. Courtenay, the Rev. Cyril, did call while you were away.’

‘Confound him! The smooth-faced humbug!’ growled Harold, twirling his moustache. ‘However, “Better men than he,” etc. Well, go on, Circe——’

‘None of your heathen innuendoes, or I stop. But really, love, the poor fellow said he had been left a competence by an uncle, and that as he could not now be accused of mercenary feelings, he wished me to know, etc.; we should be able to do so much good with his means and those Providence had gifted me with. Of course I explained gently that it could not be. I felt quite clever, I assure you. I had only to alter what I said to Mr. MacCallum a very little. It would have served you right, sir, if I had taken him after your leaving me in that way.’

‘H—m, you won’t be left much in future, madam, as you are not to be trusted.’

.     .     .     .     .

Brian Devereux Atherstone and Harold the second were respectively three years and one year old when, the season being a good one, and wool above the average, it was decided by the collective wisdom of the family that a suitable opportunity had occurred for the long-promised visit to Europe. Mrs. Devereux had no objection to offer, except that the dear children might not in all respects be benefited. But this was overruled. Statistics were quoted to the effect that on board the P. and O. and Messageries steamers children were stronger, happier, and longer lived than on shore. Finally the project was carried out, Mr. Gateward being left in full possession of the station for the three years which it was intended that the tour should embrace.

Why attempt to portray here with what supreme, almost unutterable, delight two cultured persons of congenial tastes and fresh, unworn mental palates savoured the intellectual banquets placed before them? Again and again did Mrs. Atherstone declare that her cup of happiness was filled to the brim, even running over.

On one of those elysian days, as Pollie sat dreamily under the columns of the Temple of Poseidon, while around them stretched the green plain of Pæstum, Harold, who had been reading Galignani with a Briton’s never-failing interest, handed the paper to her with a pencil-marked paragraph.

Her cheek paled for an instant, then glowed more brightly, her eye flashed, her head was raised, as she ran over the following extract from a society paper:—‘We observe with regret that the demise of Sir Ralph de Wynton at his seat, Wynton Hall, Herefordshire, took place on Thursday last. The announcement will not surprise many who were acquainted with the sombre family history of the last male heir of this ancient race. The deceased baronet had been for many years a hopeless invalid. It was believed, indeed, that he was placed in confinement at those periods when he was supposed to be travelling abroad. Owing to differences which had arisen at an early period of their union, it was generally supposed that Lady de Wynton, who resided chiefly at Florence, had arranged a virtual separation. The estates, with all property, real and personal, excepting only her ladyship’s ample jointure, pass to Colonel de Wynton of the Life Guards.’

‘So, poor thing, she has been freed from her fetters at last!’ said the fair reader, as she handed back the paper with a smile of loving content and absolute trust to her husband. ‘She will now be free to marry Bertram, and I trust sincerely they will be happy. I always pitied her from my heart, and thought it a case of cruel wrong and injustice.’

‘H—m!’ replied Harold, with cautious non-committal. ‘I suppose very probable. “More sinned against,” etc. But I don’t wonder at your sympathy. You are under greater obligations to Sybil, Lady de Wynton, than to any living woman, the grandmum only excepted.’

‘Obligations indeed! Why?’ she demands, in much astonishment. ‘Oh! I know—though it’s like your cool audacity to say so—because but for her I should have gone through the wood, and through the wood, and taken—as I fully believe and acknowledge now—“The Crooked Stick” at last.’


The Crooked Stick - Contents

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