Waitaruna: A Story of New Zealand Life
Chapter XXIII. — An Eventful Journey
An Eventful Journey
"A heaven on earth I've won in wooing thee."
Gilbert Langton had been manager of Waitaruna station for some twelve months or more when it became necessary to send a mob of sheep to Dunedin; and as he had never visited town since his first arrival nearly five years ago, he resolved to avail himself of the present opportunity. Accordingly, when the sheep had been got in and drafted, or as Dougal M'Lean phrased it, "quartered into three halves," one of which mysterious divisions was destined for town, Gilbert started to give notice to the different stations along the route that the sheep were coming, leaving Dougal installed in charge of Waitaruna till his return.
He found that Dunedin had increased and improved greatly since he last saw it, and had every appearance of being a thriving place.
Ascertaining from the waiter at his hotel what was going on in the way of amusements, he selected the opera, and found his way to the theatre, where an Italian opera company were to play "Il Barbière." page 303The opera had begun when he reached the theatre, and at first he saw nothing besides the stage and what was going on there; but at the first pause in the performance he looked round the house, which was crowded, and as he did so he thought, "Is it not strange that in all this multitude I do not know a single soul." But he had hardly completed his thought when his eye caught a lady's head just in front of him. He started with surprise, but was in no doubt as to who it was. No other head was poised so neatly on such graceful shoulders, nor was there any hair of such a bright and golden hue save that of Ottalie Ewart.
Yes; there without doubt sat Ottalie, and from that moment the music's charms were lost on Gilbert. He had not known she was in Dunedin, for though he had been a pretty frequent visitor at Pakeloa, he had not been there for at least a couple of months, having been too busy to get away for even a day.
Ottalie's companion was a gentleman of about thirty-five, very good-looking; and he was seemingly bent on making himself very agreeable to his fair neighbour. Two other ladies, who evidently belonged to the party, sat on the other side of Ottalie, but though she now and again addressed a remark to one of them, she conversed most with her gentleman friend, and seemed to enjoy his conversation thoroughly.
"These must be some of Ottalie's school friends, page 304and that dandified puppy is, I suppose, their brother. He seems to be quite at home, palavering and grinning there, but I expect he would cut a sorry figure if he were stuck on an old stock horse, and sent after a mob of cattle. I wonder Ottalie can be bothered talking to such a chattering baboon."
Little did poor Ottalie know how closely she was being watched, nor yet by whom her every motion was being eagerly scanned. By and by the gentleman left his seat to speak to some one else, and Gilbert at once made for the vacant place.
"Good evening, Miss Ewart," said he, as he sat down; "you appear to have found pleasant companions."
"Ah! Mr. Langton, this is an unexpected pleasure," said Ottalie, turning towards him, and blushing slightly from the pleasure and excitement of meeting him; while in Gilbert's eyes it was a sign of shame at having been caught by him in the act of carrying on a flirtation.
"I did not know you were in Dunedin," said Gilbert. "When did you come?"
"Oh! I have been here for nearly three weeks, but I am going home soon. Papa has just come to town to do some business, and take me back. How do you like the opera?"
"Immensely, but I suppose it is not such a treat to you as it is to me, for I noticed that you seemed to have a great deal of amusing conversation."
"Yes, do you know, I felt quite annoyed with page 305Mr. Smith for talking so much, while I wanted to listen to the music, but he is such an amusing man. Mrs. Smith is an old schoolfellow of mine, and I have been staying with them. Let me introduce you to Mrs. and Miss Smith. I was at school with both of them, so you may fancy what talks we have over old times."
So Gilbert was introduced to the Smith family, and was even invited home to supper after the opera. He gladly accepted the invitation, and why it was he hardly knew, yet the mere mention of Mrs. Smith's name had removed a weight from his mind.
It was very fortunate for Gilbert that Ottalie happened to be in town, for he, through her, came in for a fair amount of gaiety, which he would otherwise have missed, as he knew scarcely any one in Dunedin.
He enjoyed himself immensely, but his holiday drew to a close, and he had regretfully made up his mind that he must start for Waitaruna in a couple of days. After having come to this resolution, he called to say good-bye to the Smiths, where Ottalie was still staying.
While he was there Mr. Ewart came in, and after a hurried greeting he said—
"Ottalie, my dear, we must go home at once. I have a letter from your mamma, and she has not been well, and wishes us to go back. I don't know what to do, for I have not finished my business, and page 306I don't think your mamma has much the matter with her."
"Oh! let us go at once," said Ottalie; "you can come back and do your business, or do it by letter, or Mr. Smith or Mr. Langton could perhaps see after it."
"I shall be most happy if I can be of any service," said Gilbert, who was the only one of the two gentlemen named by Ottalie then present.
"I am much obliged, but I fear this business must be attended to by myself. There's your mamma's letter, Ottalie, you will see from that, she is only wearying for our return, and will probably be in robust health by the time we get home. I'll tell you what, Langton, if you are ready to leave town, you might drive Ottalie back, and leave your horse for me. I shall then be able to do my business, and reach home almost as soon as you will. What do you say to that?"
"I shall be very glad to do so," said Gilbert, "if Miss Ewart has no objections. I had decided on leaving Dunedin at any rate," he added in order that Mr. Ewart might not see how he caught at the proposal.
"You are sure you won't be more than a day behind us, papa dear, will you?" said Ottalie.
"No, I won't, dear. You need not start before to-morrow morning, and I think I shall be able to leave in the evening. You had better get off by daylight, Langton. Come, we shall walk down as page 307far as the stables and see about the horses being ready in the morning."
As they walked down to the stables Gilbert felt as though he were walking on air; and instead of feeling regretful that he had to leave Dunedin, he was now counting the hours which must elapse before he started.
Next morning, shortly after dawn, Gilbert was ready with the Ewarts' buggy and pair at Mr. Smith's door waiting for Ottalie, who did not keep him long, but appeared on the doorstep dressed in a neat, well-fitting travelling dress of dark homespun.
"Good morning, Mr. Langton," she said brightly. "I hope I haven't kept you waiting, but it is a most unusual thing for me to get up at this hour, and in the Smith household I don't think such a thing has ever been heard of before."
They were soon away, trotting rapidly through the silent streets. The morning was rather raw and cold, and the travellers were at first disposed to be silent, but after a time, when they began to ascend the hill, which rises from the valley at the north end of the town, and the pace of the horses was of necessity slackened, they found a little more opportunity for conversation. Ottalie was in capital spirits, and appeared to have got over any little anxiety she had about her mother.
"When I read mamma's letter again, I saw papa was right in thinking she was only a little out of sorts, and that I made an unnecessary fuss about page 308starting yesterday. But after all, I am glad to be going home, for I am sure mamma must be feeling very dull, and I am really tired of gaiety, and shall be glad to settle down to my old humdrum ways."
The chief events of the visit to Dunedin afforded an almost exhaustless topic of conversation, and they brought several of those events under review as the horses toiled up the hill. When they gained a higher level Ottalie called Gilbert's attention to the place whence they had come, by remarking that the view of Dunedin from that point was a good one. Looking back, Gilbert checked the horses and paused to admire what was indeed a beautiful view. In the foreground was the wooded hill sloping downwards from where they stood to the green, bush-fringed valley below, while beyond it lay the white and silent city. Even on a dull grey morning such as this, when some of the higher hills were cloud-capped, and everything looked cold and sombre, the view was a fine one. On the level ground the buildings clustered closely, with here and there some public edifice rising into prominence, while on the hills ascending from the bay the white houses were thickly scattered, and seemed in many instances to be nestling among the trees. Away beyond were seen grassy hills, the line of white sand dunes, and the dark deep blue of the ocean.
"Dunedin is really a very pretty place," said Gilbert, again starting the horses; "and the views from different parts of the town looking down the page 309bay are very fine. I have seen more of it this time than I did before, but this is a new point of view for me altogether, as when I went to Waitaruna we took the other road as we were riding."
"You will see a fine view a little further on," said Ottalie; "the prospect in the other direction, looking over Port Chalmers and the Heads, is one I never tire of. We shall see it immediately. Ah! how disappointing!" she exclaimed, as they came to where she expected to see the landscape lying below them; for instead of seeing the beautiful harbour of Port Chalmers with its picturesque islands, and the peninsula with its varied outline and wooded hills, they saw instead that the whole valley below was filled with a dense white mist which hid the bay.
If they were disappointed, they were also pleased, for the sight which met their eyes was a most singular one. They appeared to be upon an island, and the compact and fleecy mist formed a calm and milk-white sea, from which the peaks and summits of the peninsula hills rose like so many little islets. The illusion was perfect, but that away in the distance on the horizon was displayed a broad line of dazzling brightness between the misty sea and sky. It was the ocean reflecting from its restless surface the low rays of the morning sun. The mist hung along the coast, and at some distance from the land there was none. The effect was marvellous, and involuntarily Gilbert again stayed his horses, while he and his companion gazed in wondering silence on the scene.page 310
"How strange!" "How wonderful!" were their exclamations; but even as they gazed, a change set in. The mist began to break, and through a rift, which quickly closed again, they had a momentary glimpse of the lake-like harbour at their feet.
A slight breeze sprang up, before which the mist began to roll away in masses and disclose the hidden beauties of the landscape.
"We have a long day before us and must not linger here, however," said Gilbert, touching his horses with the whip; "we shall never get on if we have much more scenery to admire."
"Oh! there are many pretty views on this road," replied Ottalie.
Nevertheless, they did not attract much observation from Gilbert, who was very silent for some time. At length he said, meditatively, "If you had not been with me I should not have known what was hidden by that mist, and its breaking might have shown either a perfect picture or a dreary waste. … I feel as though I were standing looking down on such another mist which covers my future and hides either a paradise or a purgatory."
"But you can surely guess which it covers," said Ottalie; "are there no hill-tops from which you can form some idea of what lies below?"
"Yes, there are, and I do so guess. Your very reply is a hill-top that promises well for what is hidden," said Gilbert, and then suddenly stopping, he remained silent for some moments.page 311
The silence was oppressive to both, but Gilbert knew not what to say, and he received no assistance from his companion. At last he said abruptly—
"I love you, Miss Ewart. I hope you won't think me presumptuous in asking if you will promise to be my wife." He waited a moment for a reply but no answer came, and he said, nervously, "I don't think that you are indifferent to me. If you cannot give me a favourable answer, give me some hope. I do so love you, Ottalie!"
Gilbert had not dared to look at his fair companion while he spoke, but as he mentioned her Christian name he glanced towards her, and though her downcast face was suffused with blushes, her expression was not one of displeasure. Gathering courage from her look, he said—
"Say yes, Ottalie—only yes," and he took her hand. She looked up timidly into his face, and before he heard her whisper, "Yes, Gilbert;" he had seen through the mist by the windows of her violet eyes and knew that paradise lay before him.
"Hullo! there," sounded along the road, almost drowning Ottalie's answer, and causing them both to start like guilty things. They could see nothing for the hood of the buggy, but they heard the sound of an advancing vehicle. Gilbert had barely pulled to the side of the road when Cobbs' coach, crowded with passengers, rolled past.
"What a fright I got, Gilbert," said Ottalie, as they returned to the middle of the road and con-page 312tinued their journey at a little more rapid pace than they had previously been proceeding at. Gilbert felt inclined to clasp her in his arms and kiss her, but as there were several outside passengers on the coach, which was still near enough for them to have been edified by any such display of affection, he had to restrain his inclinations.
"Ah! Ottalie, my love, it is so pleasant to hear you call me by my name."
"Is it, Gilbert? but I have often called you by your name before, I think," she replied, looking archly at him.
"You are a darling girl, and have made me so happy by your answer. I was half afraid that you wouldn't give me one, which would have made it awkward for you for the rest of the day, to say nothing of my feelings."
"It was really too bad of you, Gilbert, to take advantage of me in the way you did. When I saw what you were aiming at, it was impossible for me to retreat if I had wished."
"But you did not wish to retreat, Ottalie. Did you, dear?"
"No, Gilbert. But will the future be paradise or purgatory, do you think?"
"You know which," he replied; "I am sure you will make me a better and happier man. And my own dear Ottalie, if the future is not as near paradise as this world can be, it will not be from any fault of yours."