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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v3 - 1/8 -


by Gilbert Parker

Volume 3.




She was the daughter of a ruined squatter, whose family had been pursued with bad luck; he was a planter, named Houghton. She was not an uncommon woman; he was not an unusual man. They were not happy, they might never be; he was almost sure they would not be; she had long ceased to think they could be. She had told him when she married him that she did not love him. He had been willing to wait for her love, believing that by patience and devotion he could win it. They were both sorry for each other now. They accepted things as they were, but they knew there was danger in the situation. She loved some one else, and he knew it, but he had never spoken to her of it--he was of too good stuff for that. He was big and burly, and something awkward in his ways. She was pretty, clear- minded, kind, and very grave. There were days when they were both bitter at heart. On one such day they sat at luncheon, eating little, and looking much out of the door across the rice fields and banana plantations to the Hebron Mountains. The wife's eyes fixed on the hills and stayed. A road ran down the hill towards a platform of rock which swept smooth and straight to the sheer side of the mountain called White Bluff. At first glance it seemed that the road ended at the cliff-- a mighty slide to destruction. Instead, however, of coming straight to the cliff it veered suddenly, and ran round the mountain side, coming down at a steep but fairly safe incline. The platform or cliff was fenced off by a low barricade of fallen trees, scarcely noticeable from the valley below. The wife's eyes had often wandered to the spot with a strange fascination, as now. Her husband looked at her meditatively. He nodded slightly, as though to himself. She looked up. Their understanding of each other's thoughts was singular.

"Tom," she said, "I will ride the chestnut, Bowline, to that fence some day. It will be a big steeplechase." He winced, but answered slowly. "You have meant to say that for a long time past. I am glad it has been said at last."

She was struck by the perfect quietness of his tone. Her eyes sought his face and rested for a moment, half bewildered, half pitying.

"Yes, it has been in my mind often--often," she said. "It's a horrible thought," he gravely replied; "but it is better to be frank. Still, you'll never do it, Alice--you'll never dare to do it."

"Dare, dare," she answered, springing to her feet, and a shuddering sigh broke from her. "The thing itself is easy enough, Tom."

"And why haven't you done it?" he asked in a hard voice, but still calmly.

She leaned one hand upon the table, the other lay at her cheek, and her head bent forward at him. "Because," she answered, "because I have tried to be thoughtful for you."

"Oh, as to that," he said--"as to that!" and he shrugged his shoulders slightly.

"You don't care a straw," she said sharply, "you never did."

He looked up suddenly at her, a great bitterness in his face, and laughed strangely, as he answered: "Care! Good God! Care! . . . What's the use of caring? It's been all a mistake; all wrong."

"That is no news," she said wearily. "You discovered that long ago."

He looked out of the door across the warm fields again; he lifted his eyes to that mountain road; he looked down at her. "I haven't any hope left now, Alice. Let's be plain with each other. We've always been plain, but let us be plainer still. There are those rice fields out there, that banana plantation, and the sugar-cane stretching back as far as the valley goes--it's all mine, all mine. I worked hard for it. I had only one wish with it all, one hope through it all, and it was, that when I brought you here as my wife, you would come to love me--some time. Well, I've waited, and waited. It hasn't come. We're as far apart to- day as we were the day I married you. Farther, for I had hope then, but I've no hope now, none at all."

They both turned towards the intemperate sunlight and the great hill. The hollowness of life as they lived it came home to them with an aching force. Yet she lifted her fan from the table and fanned herself gently with it, and he mechanically lit a cigar. Servants passed in and out removing the things from the table. Presently they were left alone. The heavy breath of the palm trees floated in upon them; the fruit of the passion-flower hung temptingly at the window; they could hear the sound of a torrent just behind the house. The day was droning luxuriously, yet the eyes of both, as by some weird influence, were fastened upon the hill; and presently they saw, at the highest point where the road was visible, a horseman. He came slowly down until he reached the spot where the road was barricaded from the platform of the cliff. Here he paused. He sat long, looking, as it appeared, down into the valley. The husband rose and took down a field-glass from a shelf; he levelled it at the figure.

"Strange, strange," he said to himself; "he seems familiar, and yet--"

She rose and reached out her hand for the glass. He gave it to her. She raised it to her eyes, but, at that moment, the horseman swerved into the road again, and was lost to view. Suddenly Houghton started; an enigmatical smile passed across his face.

"Alice," said he, "did you mean what you said about the steeplechase-- I mean about the ride down the White Bluff road?"

"I meant all I said," was her bitter reply.

"You think life is a mistake?" he rejoined.

"I think we have made a mistake," was her answer; "a deadly mistake, and it lasts all our lives."

He walked to the door, trained the glass again on the hill, then afterwards turned round, and said:

"If ever you think of riding the White Bluff road--straight for the cliff itself and over--tell me, and I'll ride it with you. If it's all wrong as it is, it's all wrong for both, and, maybe, the worst of what comes after is better than the worst of what is here."

They had been frank with each other in the past, but never so frank as this. He was determined that they should be still more frank; and so was she. "Alice," he said--

"Wait a minute," she interjected. "I have something to say, Tom. I never told you--indeed, I thought I never should tell you; but now I think it's best to do so. I loved a man once--with all my soul."

"You love him still," was the reply; and he screwed and unscrewed the field-glass in his hand, looking bluntly at her the while. She nodded, returning his gaze most earnestly and choking back a sob.

"Well, it's a pity, it's a pity," he replied. "We oughtn't to live together as it is. It's all wrong; it's wicked--I can see that now."

"You are not angry with me?" she answered in surprise.

"You can't help it, I suppose," he answered drearily.

"Do you really mean," she breathlessly said, "that we might as well die together, since we can't live together and be happy?"

"There's nothing in life that gives me a pleasant taste in the mouth, so what's the good? Mind you, my girl, I think it a terrible pity that you should have the thought to die; and if you could be happy living, I'd die myself to save you. But can you? That's the question--can you be happy, even if I went and you stayed?"

"I don't think so," she said thoughtfully, and without excitement.

"No, I don't think so."

"The man's name was Cayley--Cayley," he said to her bluntly.

"How did you know?" she asked, astonished. "You never saw him."

"Oh, yes, I've seen him," was the reply--"seen him often. I knew him once."

"I do not understand you," she rejoined.

"I knew it all along," he continued, "and I've waited for you to tell me."

"How did you know?"

"Cayley told me."

"When did he tell you?"

"The morning that I married you." His voice was thick with misery.

She became white and dazed. "Before--or after?" she asked. He paused a moment, looking steadily at her, and answered, "Before."

She drew back as though she had been struck. "Good God!" she cried. "Why did he not--" she paused.

"Why did he not marry you himself?" he rejoined.

"You must ask him that yourself, if you do not know."

"And yet you married me, knowing all--that he loved me," she gasped.

"I would have married you then, knowing a thousand times that."

She cowered, but presently advanced to him. "You have sinned as much as

Cumner & South Sea Folk, v3 - 1/8

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