"Oh, sweet pale Margaret,
Oh, rare pale Margaret,
What lit your eyes with tearful power?"
The dusk had fallen very softly and tenderly over the garden, and the paddocks, and the river. There was just the faintest wind at the waters edge, but it seemed almost too tired after the hot, long day to breathe and make ripples. Very slowly the grey, still light deepened, and a white star or two came out and blinked up away in the high, far heavens. Down behind the gum trees, across the river, there was a still whiter moon; a stretch of water near was beginning to smile up to it. Meg hoped it would not climb past the tree-tops before eight o'clock, or the long paddocks would be flooded with light and she would be seen. At tea-time, and during the early part of the evening, she was preoccupied and inclined to be irritable in her anxiety, and she snubbed Bunty two or three times quite unkindly.
He had been hovering about her ever since six o'clock in almost a pitiable way.
It was characteristic of this small boy that when he had been tempted into departing from the paths of truth he was absolutely wretched until he had confessed, and rubbed his little unclean hands into his wet eyes until he was "a sight to dream of, not to tell."
Pip said it was because he was a coward, and had not the moral courage to go to sleep with a lie on his soul, for fear he might wake up and see an angel with a fiery sword standing by his bedside. And I must sorrowfully acknowledge this seemed a truer view of the case than believing the boy was really impressed with the heinousness of his offence and anxious to make amends. For the very next day, if occasion sufficiently strong offered, he would fall again, and the very next night would creep up to somebody and whimper, with his knuckles in his eyes, that he had "t—t—told a s—s—story, boo—hoo!"
By seven o'clock this particular evening he was miserably repentant; several tears had trickled down, his cheeks and mingled with the ink of the map he was engaged upon for Miss Marsh. He established himself at Meg's elbow, and kept looking up into her face in a yearning love-and-forgive-me kind of way that she found infinitely embarrassing; for she had begun to suspect, from his strange conduct, that he had in some way learned the contents of her note, and was trying to discourage her from her enterprise. The more he gazed at her the redder and more uncomfortable she became.
"You can have my new c—c—catapult," he whispered once, giving her a tearful, imploring look, that she interpreted as an entreaty to stay safely at home.
At last the clock had travelled up to eight, and the children being engaged in a wordy warfare over the possession of a certain stray dog that had come to Misrule in the afternoon, she slipped out of the room unobserved. No one was in the hall, and she picked up the becoming, fleecy cloud she had hidden there, twisted it round her head, and crept out of the side door and along the first path.
Down in the garden the ground was white with fallen rose leaves, and the air full of their dying breath; a clump of pampas grass stood tall and soft against the sky; some native trees, left growing among the cultivated shrubs, stretched silver-white arms up to the moon and gave the little hurrying figure a ghostly kind of feeling. Out of the gate and into the first paddock, where the rose scent did not come at all, and only a pungent smell of wattle was in the thin, hushed air. More gum trees, and more white, ghostly arms; then a sharp movement near the fence, a thick, sepulchral whisper, and a stifled scream from Meg.
"Here's the c—c—c—catapult, M—Meg; t—take it," Bunty said, his face white and miserable.
"You little stupid! What do you mean coming creeping here like this?" Meg said, angry as soon as her heart began to beat again.
"I only w—wanted to p—p—please you, M—M-Meggie," the little boy said, with a bitter sob in his voice.
He had put both his arms round her waist, and was burying his nose in her white muslin dress. She shook him off hastily.
"All right; there—thanks," she said. "Now go home, Bunty; I want to have a quiet walk in the moonlight by myself."
He screwed his knuckles as far into his eyes as they would go, his mouth opened, and his lower lip dropped down, down.
"I t—t—told y—y—you a b—b—big st—st—story;" he wept, rocking to and fro where he stood.
"Did you? Oh, all right! Now go home," she said impatiently. "You always ARE telling stories, Bunty, you know, so I'm not surprised. There-go along."
"But—but I'm—must tell you all ab—ab—about it," he said, still engaged in driving his eyes into his head.
"No, you needn't; I'll forgive you this time," she said magnanimously, "only don't do it again. Now run away at once, or you won't have your map done, and miss Marsh will punish you."
His eyes returned to their proper position, likewise his hands. His heart was perfectly light again as he turned to go back to the house. When he had gone a few steps he came back.
"D'ye want that catapult very much, Meg?" he said gently. "You're only a girl, so I don't 'spect it would be very much good to you, would it?"
"No, I don't want it. Here, take it, and hurry back: think of your map," Meg returned, in a very fever of impatience at his slowness.
And then Bunty, utterly happy once more, turned and ran away gaily up to the house. And Meg let down the slip-rail, put it back in its place with trembling fingers, and fled in wild haste through the two remaining paddocks.
The wattle-scrub at the end was very quiet; there was not a rustle, not a sound of a voice, not a sound of the affected little laugh that generally told when Aldith was near.
Meg stopped breathless, and peered among the bushes; there was a tall figure leaning against the fence.
"Andrew!" she said in a sharp whisper, and forgetting in her anxiety that she never called him by his Christian name—"where are the others? Hasn't Aldith come?"
There was the smell of a cigar, and, looking closely, she saw to her horror it was Alan.
"Oh!" she said, in an indescribable tone.
Her heart gave one frightened, shamed bound, and then seemed to stop beating altogether.
She looked up, at him as if entreating him not to have too bad an opinion of her; but his face wore the contemptuous look she had grown to dread and his lips were finely curled.
"I—I only came out for a little walk; it is such a beautiful evening," she said, with miserable lameness; and then in a tone of justification she added, "it's my father's paddock, too."
He leaned back against he fence and looked down at her.
"Flossie gave me your note, and as it seemed addressed to me, and I was told it was for me; I opened it," he said.
"You KNEW it was for Andrew," she said not looking at him, however.
"So I presumed when I had read it," he returned slowly; "but Andrew has not come back to-night yet, so I came instead; it's all the same as long as it's a boy, isn't it?"
The girl made no reply, only put her hand up and drew the cloud more closely round her head.
His lips curled a little more.
"And I know how to kiss, too, I assure you. I am quite a good hand at it, though you may not think so. Oh yes, I know you said you did not want to be kissed; but then, girls always say that, don't they?—even when they expect it most."
Still Meg did not speak, and the calm, merciless voice went on.
"I am afraid it is hardly dark enough for you, is it? The moon is very much in the way, do you not think so? Still, perhaps we can find a darker place farther on, and then I can kiss you without danger. What is the matter?—are you always as quiet as this with Andrew?"
"Oh, DON'T!" said Meg, in a choking voice.
The mocking tone died instantly out of his voice, "Miss Meg, you used to seem such a nice little girl," he said quietly; "what have you let that horrid MacCarthy girl spoil you for? For she is horrid, though you may not think so."
Meg did not speak or move, and he went on with a gentle earnestness that she had not thought him capable of..
"I have watched her on the boat, systematically going to work to spoil you, and can't help thinking of the pity of it. I imagined how I should feel if my little sister Flossie ever fell in with such a girl, and began to flirt and make herself conspicuous, and I wondered would you mind if I spoke to you about it. Are you very angry with me, Miss Meg?"
But Meg leaned her head against the rough fence and began to sob—little, dry, heartbroken sobs that went to the boy's warm heart.
"I oughtn't to have spoken as I did at first—I was a perfect brute," he said remorsefully; "forgive me, won't you? Please, little Miss Meg—I would rather cut my hand off than really hurt you."
This last was a little consoling, at any rate, and Meg lifted her face half a second, white and pathetic in the moonlight, and all wet with grievous tears.
"I—I—oh! indeed I have not been quite so horrid as you think," she said brokenly; "I didn't want to come this walk—and oh! indeed, indeed, indeed I wouldn't allow ANYONE to kiss me. Oh, PLEASE do believe me!"
"I do, I do indeed," he said eagerly; "I only said it because—well, because I am a great rough brute, and don't know how to talk to a little, tender girl. Dear Miss Meg, do shake hands and tell me you forgive my boorishness."
Meg extended a small white hand, and he shook it warmly. Then they walked up the paddocks together, and parted at a broken gate leading into the garden.
"I'll never flirt again while I live," she said with great earnestness, as he bade her good-bye; and he answered encouragingly, "No, I am quite sure you won't—leave it to girls like Aldith, won't you? you only wanted to be set straight. Good-bye, little Miss Meg."