Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life
Chapter XI. — Under the Willows
Under the Willows
"The reason why so few marriages are happy is because young ladies spend their time in making nets, not in making cages."
Ottalie Ewart sat alone in the darkened drawing-room at Pakeloa. The day was hot and sunny out of doors, but the room where Ottalie sat was pleasant and cool looking. Arrayed in a morning dress of pure white, with only a pale blue ribbon at the throat, she seemed to any one entering from the glare of the sunlight the very personification of coolness. She held a book in her hand, but she was not reading, for with half-closed eyes she seemed to be watching a narrow ray of sunlight which, coming in at the side of the blind, made a bright line on the opposite wall. Could we read her thoughts, we should know she was thinking of some one whom she could scarcely be said to love, but one who had caught her fancy and impressed her pleasantly, so that she was already disposed to love him if circumstances should afford page 155an opportunity. Those inexorable circumstances, how much have they to answer for! A man and woman meet once or twice, and are by subtle magnetism attracted towards one another, and each begins to think of the other more than of any mere friend, and to wonder what the other of them feels; but before any sign or spoken word of love has passed, they are separated and do not meet again. The man may perhaps make some attempt to see the girl once more, but should he fail, or should his business cares or duties debar him from doing so, the impression made upon his susceptible heart begins to fade, and by and by he has forgotten even the name of her who might have been his wife had circumstances permitted them to meet again; and he marries, perchance, a woman differing greatly from her to whom he had previously been attracted. And the girl? Why, she dreams awhile; but when "he comes not," she too forgets, and once more "fancy free," she weds another. And yet, had circumstances permitted, deep, strong, mutual love might have originated, and each have found in the other the most suitable mate they could have chosen.
"I wonder if he cares for me," thought Ottalie.
She did not even ask herself in thought if he loved her. No; it had not yet come to that, but did he care for her? she asked. The answer was, page 156she thought he did, and yet he seemed to be as pleasant and attentive when at Pakeloa to Nellie, and even to her mother, as to her. Then why should she think he cared for her? She knew not, but still her heart answered with strangely mingled diffidence and confidence, "I think he does!" That his caring for her might ripen into love she dreamed of as being possible, but beyond that hope she did not venture; she did not think of marriage as a possibility even, and the fruition of the love she pictured.
The spell of her dreams was broken by her brother's voice calling to her from the hall.
"What is it, Harry?" she asked, rising and opening the door.
"Oh! you are there, are you?" said Harry, "here's a letter for you, Totts. And I have one for Miss Cameron. Is she in the drawing-room too?"
"No, she went into the garden. Shall I take her letter to her?"
"No, thanks; you need not trouble. I am going out again, and will no doubt see her. Go and read your own letter, which seems to be from some of your old school-friends in town. What you girls get to write about is always a mystery to me." And off he went whistling an operatic chorus, shutting the front door behind him with a bang as he went out.page 157
The garden looked white and hot in the bright sunlight. The walks and soil seemed equally baked and dry, and they both reflected the dazzling glare of the sun. The green of the hedges and shrubs lessened in some degree the general whiteness, but they would not have afforded much relief to the eye or sense of shade had it not been for the soft greenery of the weeping willows, now in full and luxuriant leaf, as they drooped their long, pendant, tress-like branches to the very earth. Beneath this leafy shade a rustic seat had been placed, and thither Harry Ewart directed his steps in search of Miss Cameron. He found Nellie, as he expected, enjoying the grateful shade of the trees, while she read an English magazine.
As he entered the grove Harry could not but admire the appearance of Nellie Cameron as she sat in an easy attitude, and looked so fresh and cool in her dress of light print.
On his approach she raised her eyes from her magazine, and as she looked up at him from under her broad-brimmed hat, she indeed looked very pretty, and to Harry she seemed inexpressibly so.
"How jolly you do look here, Miss Cameron!" said he; "you look as cool as a cucumber, and that is something to be desired on a hot day like this."
"Yes, it is pleasanter here than indoors, I think. page 158The light softened by the leaves of the trees is pleasant to the eyes too."
"There is more here than the softened light which is pleasant to the eyes, Miss Cameron," said Harry, making an awkward attempt to pay a compliment.
"Indeed!" said Nellie, and though his tone must have told her what he meant if his words did not, she added, "Yes, the light green of the willow leaves and the little gleams of sunshine are certainly very pretty."
"No doubt they are," replied Harry; "but you are the real sunshine here, Miss Nellie."
This was a much bolder attempt, and meant, as Nellie well knew, a great deal from such a man as Harry Ewart, who was of too genuine and sincere a nature to be always making pleasant speeches to ladies, as some men are, which, from them, however, as their lady friends soon learn to know, are absolutely meaningless. And yet, strange to say, the generality of women like to listen to the pleasant little compliments, even when they know thoroughly their insincerity and worthlessness. But in this perhaps they are no worse than a great many of the sterner sex, who are as susceptible to flattery as are womankind, though it is doubtless flattery of a different nature. Woman's most vulnerable point is her personal appearance, while a man's may be his strength, ability, bonhomie, or shrewdness; but whatever it may be, page 159the weak place is to be discovered somewhere or other in most male constitutions.
Harry Ewart had never called Nellie anything before but Miss Cameron, and was almost surprised at his own temerity in calling her "Miss Nellie;" for though he had long admired the girl, and had during her present visit to the station paid her not a little attention as his sister's friend and visitor, yet he could hardly be said to have thought of her in any other light. He may have had a passing thought that Nellie would make a good wife, and a wife of whom any man might be proud, but he had never seriously contemplated taking upon himself the bonds of matrimony. Living happily at home with the pleasant companionship of his parents and sister, he had hardly as yet experienced the feeling that "it is not good for man to be alone."
Nellie's answer to Harry's compliment was a pleasant laugh, but she also replied in words, and said, "Then, Mr. Ewart, as you are such an admirer of coolness and shade, you had better retire from the presence of the sunshine;" at the same time she gathered up the skirt of her dress, so as to draw attention to the fact that there was plenty of room on the seat if Harry desired to sit down. Without so much as noticing the apparent invitation for him to do so, he unconsciously accepted it and seated himself by her.page 160
"Ah! Miss Nellie," he said, "you are too severe. Your sunshine warms, but would never scorch."
Nellie cast down her eyes and blushed slightly, and then raising them again, looked Harry full in the face, when she said, a little gravely, "I am surprised at you, Mr. Ewart; I did not think you were given to flattery."
It was a perfect piece of acting. Harry did not doubt but that she was perfectly natural and guileless, and he answered warmly—
"Indeed, Miss Nellie, I never flatter. I mean what I say."
"Well, well!" said Nellie, "never mind. Let us talk of something else. You were speaking of going to live up at the lake district this morning at breakfast, but I did not know whether you were joking or not. I think that is why poor Ottalie has been so dull all morning; she does not like the prospect of losing you, and no wonder either. But do you know, Mr. Ewart, I am afraid that Ottalie has lost her heart to one of the recent visitors here, though she won't own it."
"Do you think so? I can't fancy our Tott married; and yet I suppose she will be so one day, and Ramshorn is a very good fellow. Though he is not well off, yet, if Ottalie loved him, I should be glad to see her married to him. Money is not by any means everything in such affairs,page 161
"Oh! by no means," answered Nellie, "although I think it is a great mistake for girls to marry men who are really incapable of earning even a decent livelihood, as I have known one or two instances of; yet I do not like your mercenary girls, who won't look at a man, be he ever so good and true, unless he has a good balance at his banker's. My idea, Mr. Ewart, is, that if a man be one who is capable of success, and has enough to keep a wife in tolerable comfort, that he should, if he is attached to a girl, marry; and if the girl is what she ought to be, she will be a great comfort and assistance to him. But perhaps I am mistaken about Ottalie; at any rate, I am sure she is dull to-day at the idea of your leaving Pakeloa."
"Well, leave it I must; for my father has bought another station, and he wishes me to go and manage it. I am hardly required here, for we have an excellent head-shepherd, and with my father to refer to and consult, he will be able to manage capitally. It will be worse for me than for Ottalie, however, for I shall be all alone."
"How very lonely you will be!" said Nellie; "but you should get Ottalie up to keep house for u. I have no doubt she would enjoy the change; only perhaps she might not like to go so far away from Waitaruna."
"No, no! I would not ask Ottalie to leave home page 162to keep house for me," replied Harry; "the old folks could not spare her; besides, she would mope to death in an out-of-the-way place like Hawera. I fear I shall have to keep Bachelor's Hall, unless," he added in a lower tone, "I can get some one to take pity on me and share my banishment."
"Perhaps you might find some one willing to do so if you tried, Mr. Ewart," said Nellie, looking down, and seemingly discovering something very interesting in the structure of a pebble lying at her foot, which she nervously rolled backwards and forwards with the toe of an exceedingly neat little boot.
Harry Ewart did not at once reply, but remained silent for some seconds, which to Nellie seemed an age. "Have I said too much?" thought she. "What if I have been too plain and frightened him? If I have, I shall have great difficulty in regaining the ground I shall lose."
She started like a guilty thing when Harry's voice broke the silence.
"Miss Cameron," he began with an unwonted tremor in his tone, "I have long admired you, and"—his tongue failed him, but his great brown hand somehow succeeded in getting hold of the tiny white fingers which lay in Nellie's lap. Her hand was not withdrawn, and the assurance thus obtained enabled Harry to exclaim, "Nellie dear, will you share my banishment?"page 163
There was no reply in words, but he felt a gentle pressure from the little hand he held in his own; his arm crept unforbidden round her waist, and presently Nellie's glossy head was nestled on his shoulder, with her beautiful eyes turned timidly upwards towards his, which looked down lovingly. "My Harry!" she murmured, and he answered with a kiss, the first blest kiss of new-found love.
To say that he was happy would convey no idea of his state of mind. He was in a state of tranquil ecstatic excitement. It may be somewhat paradoxical to say so, but yet no other words would describe his feelings. How long they remained beneath the shade of the willows neither of them could have told, but it seemed a very short time, and they were astonished that it was so late, when they heard Ottalie calling from the verandah to Nellie that it was nearly time for luncheon.
"What will Ottalie think of me for stealing her brother?" said Nellie with a little laugh.
"Why, only that she has found a sister; shall we tell her now?" asked Harry.
"No, no; not just yet," said Nellie as they emerged together from beneath the trees.
"Why, Harry," exclaimed Ottalie, as he and Nellie came up the garden walk together, "have you been with Nellie all this time? I thought page 164she must have found her book or her letter particularly interesting to have stayed by the seat so long."
Harry involuntarily put his hand into his coat-pocket, while Nellie said—
"What letter? I have had none."
"You don't mean to say, Harry, that you have never given Nellie her letter yet? You cruel fellow! it is, no doubt, from her lover," said Ottalie mischievously.
"Even if it were not addressed in a lady's hand, I could guarantee that it was not from Miss Cameron's lover. Could I not, Nellie?" said Harry, turning to her.
"You must tell her all," whispered Nellie; and adding, in a louder tone, "I must away and dress before lunch," she hurried to the house, leaving the brother and sister together.
"What is it, Harry, boy?" asked Ottalie, as soon as Nellie had gone.
"What is what, Totts?" was Harry's query in return.
"You and Nellie know best, I should say, judging from appearances, but I won't ask any questions if you don't want me to, only do tell me why you did not give Nellie her letter?"
"Well, Ottalie, if you must know, Nellie has promised to be my wife," said Harry gravely.
"O Harry! I am so glad to hear it," said Ottalie, page 165as she kissed her brother. "I am sure Nellie will make you a good wife, and you deserve one. I understand now your anxiety to take Nellie her letter yourself."
"You are quite wrong there, Ottalie," said Harry vehemently, "for I had not the least intention of doing what I have done when I looked in with your letter this morning."
But he might as well have held his peace, for Ottalie had tripped away to Nellie's room and heard not his reply. Harry's statement was nevertheless true, and he wondered within himself how it had all come about. "I am sure I shall be happy," he repeated to himself, "and I shall do my best to make Nellie so." It was a strange thought for one in Harry's situation. Surely he could not doubt but that he would find happiness where he so late had sought it. Why else did he seek to win Nellie as his wife? And yet, now that she was won, he doubted what the result would be. He looked gloomy and restless, and very unlike an accepted lover, as Nellie remarked when she reappeared; but her smile, her beauty, and the charm of her conversation quickly banished his dubious questionings.
Ottalie had found Nellie quietly reading her letter in her room, and apparently quite unconcerned by recent events; but, in reality, she too had her doubting thoughts.page 166
She was afraid that perhaps she had precipitated matters a little too quickly, and that perhaps Harry would, when he came to think over their interview, see how she had led up to the proposal, and despise her for it. She did not fear his endeavouring to free himself, for she was certain that, whatever he thought, he would not try to do so, especially since Ottalie knew; yet still she feared that she might lose his respect, as she thought she must do if he knew all.
Nellie returned Ottalie's sisterly kiss with warmth, and said, "Am I not a lucky girl, Totts, to gain his love? I don't know whether you expected anything of the kind, but it was a very great and pleasant surprise to me."
"Not altogether a surprise, Nellie, surely," replied Ottalie.
"Yes, Ottalie dear; for though I admired and loved your brother, I did not think he cared for poor little me. Oh! I am so happy, Ottalie dear, and I hope you may be as happy when your turn comes, which I don't think will be long in coming."
"Oh! don't talk rubbish, Nellie. I can't leave papa and mamma, and won't do anything so foolish as you and Harry,—at least not just yet," she added as she left the room.