She in her virginal beauty
As pure as a pictured saint,
How should this sinning and sorrow
Have for her danger or taint?
The reason our sweet pale Margaret had been reluctant of her smiles was on account of the very man who alone missed them.
Quite a warm friendship had sprung up during the month between the little fair-faced girl, who looked with such serene blue eyes to a future she felt must be beautiful, and the world-worn man, who looked back to a past all blackened and unlovely by his own acts.
He rode with the two girls every-day, because Mrs. Hassal did not like them going long distances alone; and, seeing Judy seldom walked her horse, and Meg's steed had not a canter in it, it fell out that he kept beside the slow and timid rider all the time.
"You remind me of a little sister I had who died," he said slowly to Meg once, after a long talk. "Perhaps if she were alive now I should not be quite so contemptible."
Meg's face flushed scarlet, and a shamed look had come into her eyes. It seemed altogether terrible to her that he should know she knew of his failing.
"Perhaps it makes her sorry now," she said in a whisper he scarcely heard, and then she grew pale at her boldness, and rode on a little way to hide her distressed looks.
On the way home the pale-blue ribbon, that tied the strands of her sunny plait together, blew off. He dismounted and picked it up. Meg stretched out her hand for it, but he untied the bow and folded it slowly round his big hand.
"May I keep it?" he said in a low voice. "For my blue ribbon? I know the conditions that attach."
"If you would—oh, if you would!" Meg breathed rather than said. Then Judy galloped up and they rode home three abreast. It was such happiness to her all the hot, long days that followed; to a girl just entering life there can be no purer, deeper feeling of pleasure than that brought by the knowledge that she is influencing for good some man or woman older than herself, more sin-worn and earth-wearied. Poor little Meg! Her tender rose dreams had pictured her big protege a man among men again, holding up his head once more, taking his place in the world, going back to the old country, and claiming the noble lady her fertile imagination had pictured; waiting so patiently for him; and all this because she, Meg Woolcot, had stepped into his life and pointed the way he should go.
And then she went to swing in a hammock on the back veranda, and all her castles came tumbling about her ears, dealing her sharp, bitter blows. There was a thick creeper of passion-fruit vines behind her, and through it she could hear Tettawonga talking to the cook.
"Marse Gillet on the burst agen," he said, and chuckled through the side of his lips where his pipe did not rest.
Meg sat up in horror. Since she had been at Yarrahappini she had heard the phrase applied to too many of the station hands: not to know that it meant a reckless drinking bout.
"Lor'! I'M not surprised," the woman said, "he's been too sober late days to keep it up; s'pose he's been trying to last the visitors out, but found it too much. Who's got the keys?"
"Mis' Hassal," he said, "you to helpin' her—ba`al good for stores to-day, Marse Gillet—he, he, ha, ha!"
So that was what had happened to him all these three days she had not seen him! She had heard he had ridden over to the next station on business for Mr. Hassal, but had not dreamed such 'a thing had overtaken him. The fifth day she had seen him in the distance, once coming out of the storeroom and looking exactly like himself, only his shoulders stooped a little more, and once smoking outside his own door.
The sixth day was the picnic.
Just as light-hearted and merry as the others she could not feel, with this disappointment at her heart, this shaken trust in human nature.
How weak he was, she thought, how ignoble!
All her pity was swept away in a young, large indignation.
She had hardly shaken hands when they had met in the morning, and all the long drive she was persistently cold towards him.
After lunch the party became scattered. Judy took the General and went over to the belt of trees; Pip and Bunty occupied themselves with catching locusts; Baby and Nell gathered wild flowers. Meg knelt down to collect the spoons and forks: and put the untouched food back into the baskets away from the ants.
"I will do this—you look hot, Miss Meg; sit down quietly," Mr. Gillet said.
"Thank you, but I prefer to do it myself," Miss Meg said, with freezing dignity.
She did not look at him, but there was a certain tightness about her lips that made him know the light in her clear young, eyes was a scornful one.
He did not offer again, but sat and watched her pack up the things with an untranslatable look on his face. When she had almost finished he took something out of his pocket.
"I have to give you this again," he said, and handed her the blue length of ribbon, folded smoothly, but showing the crease where it had been tied.
She took it without lifting her eyes, crushed it up in her hand, and slipped it into her pocket.
"I had almost hoped you would say I might keep it, in spite of everything," he said, "just as a talisman against the future, but your lips are too severe, Miss for me to cherish the hope longer."
"It would be as useless as it has been," she said stiffly. Her hands moved nervously, however, and she wrapped up the remains of a duck and a jam tart together.
"Then I am not to have another chance?" he said.
"It would be no use," Meg repeated, gathering up bananas and oranges with a heightened colour.
He does not realize how wicked he has been, he thinks he ought to be forgiven at once was her thought.
He emptied the billy slowly on the ground, he put on its blackened lid and tied the newspaper around it. Then he looked at her again, and the way her soft hair fell on her forehead made him think of his young dead sister.
"I BEG you to give it to me again, little Miss Meg," he said.
Meg's heart and head had a rapid battle; the former was tender and charitable, and bade her take the little ribbon and give it to him instantly; the latter said he had sinned greatly, and she must show him her disapproval by her manner, even if she yielded what he asked her in the end. The head won.
"My influence is evidently useless—that bit of ribbon would make no difference in the future," she said very coldly.
He leaned back against the tree and yawned, as if the subject had no more interest for him.
"Ah well," he said, "I dare say you are right." Meg felt a little taken down.
"Of course, if you really want the ribbon you can have it," she said loftily. She took it from her pocket and tendered it to him.
But he made no effort to take it.
"Keep it to tie your hair again, little girl," he said; "after all, I don't suppose it would be any use."
Meg continued her packing with burning cheeks, and he filled up his pipe and smoked it, watching her idly the while.
"It's an odd thing," he said, more as if making an observation than addressing her, "but the gentlest-looking women are nearly always the hardest."
Meg opened her mouth to speak, but found nothing to say, so closed it again and began to count Mrs. Hassal's forks for the fourth time.
"I wonder would you mind if I gave you a little advice, Miss Meg, in return for all you have given me," he said, taking his pipe from his mouth and looking at it as if he were trying to find out the lettering on its nickel plate.
She laid down the bundle and looked at him with calm, surprised eyes. "Say whatever you please, I do not mind in the very least."
He sat up and played with the handle of a strap while he spoke.
"You have brothers," he said; "some day they will go a little astray—for it is only women like you, Miss Meg, and angels who can keep to the path always. Don't be too hard on them. Don't make an effort to show them the difference between your whiteness and their blackness. They will see it right enough, but they won't like you to draw their attention to it. Try and look gentle and forgiving—they'll feel quite as miserable as you could wish them to feel. The world has a beautiful frown of its own, and an endless vocabulary of cold words—wouldn't it do if the little sisters left it the monopoly of them?"
"Oh-h-h!" said Meg. Her cheeks were crimson, and all the dignity had oozed out of her voice.
He buckled the strap round nothing with infinite care, and went on again in a low tone:
"Suppose Pip did something very wrong some day, and the world flung stones at him till he was bruised all over. And suppose feeling very wretched, he came home to his sisters. And Meg, because wickedness was abhorrent to her, threw a few more little stones, so that the pain might teach him a lesson he could not forget. And Judy, because he was her brother and in trouble, flung her arms round him and encouraged him, and helped him to fight the world again, and gave him never a hard word or look, thinking he had had plenty. Which sister's influence would be greater, Miss Meg?"
Meg's little soft mouth, was quivering, her eyes were on the ground, because the tears would have splashed out if she had lifted them.
"Oh-h-h!" she said again. "Oh, how very horrid I have been—oh-h-h!"
She covered her face with her hands, for one of her quickly gathered tears was trembling on her lashes.
Mr. Gillet dropped the strap and the pipe, and looked across to her with tender eyes.
"I am more than twice your age, Miss Meg, old enough nearly to be your father—you will forgive me for saying all this, won't you? I was thinking, of my sister who died. I had another little sister, too, a year older, but she was hard—only event to her once. She is one of the best women in England now, but her lips are severe. Little Miss Meg, I could not bear the thought of you growing hard."
Half a dozen big tears had fallen down among the forks. Meg was crying because it was borne upon her what a very hateful creature she was. First Alan lectured her and spoke of his sister, and now this man.
He misinterpreted her silence.
"I have no right to speak to you like this, because my life has been any colour but white—that is it, isn't it, Miss Meg?" he said with great sadness.
Meg dropped her sheltering hands.
"Oh, no," she said, "oh! how CAN you think so? It is only I am so horrid." She rummaged in her pocket and brought out the ribbon.
"Will you take it again?" she said—"oh, PLEASE, just to make me feel less horrid. Oh, please take it!"
She looked at him with wet, imploring eyes, and held it out.
He took it, smoothed its crumpledness, and placed it in his pocket-book.
"God bless you," he said, and the tone made Meg sob.