The Beechams were vacating Five-Bob almost immediately--before Christmas. Grannie, aunt Helen, and uncle Jay-Jay went down to say good-bye to the ladies, who were very heartbroken about being uprooted from Five-Bob, but they approved of their nephew settling things at once and starting on a clean sheet. They intended taking up their residence--hiding themselves, they termed it--in Melbourne. Harold would be detained in Sydney some time during the settling of his affairs, after which he intended to take anything that turned up. He had been offered the management of Five-Bob by those in authority, but could not bring himself to accept managership where he had been master. His great desire, now that Five-Bob was no longer his, was to get as far away from old associations as possible.
He had seen his aunts off, superintended the muster of all stock on the place, dismissed all the female and most of the male employees, and surrendered the reins of government, and as Harold Augustus Beecham, boss of Five-Bob, on Monday, the 21st of December 1896, was leaving the district for ever. On Sunday, the 20th of December, he came to bid us good-bye and to arrive at an understanding with me concerning what I had said to him the Sunday before. Grannie, strange to say, never suspected that there was likely to be anything between us. Harold was so undemonstrative, and had always come and gone as he liked at Caddagat: she overlooked the possibility of his being a lover, and in our intercourse allowed us almost the freedom of sister and brother or cousins.
On this particular afternoon, after we had talked to grannie for a little while, knowing that he wished to interview me, I suggested that he should come up the orchard with me and get some gooseberries. Without demur from anybody we set off, and were scarcely out of hearing before Harold asked me had I really meant what I said.
"Certainly," I replied. "That is, if you really care for me, and think it wise to choose me of all my sex."
Ere he put it in words I read his answer in the clear brown eyes bent upon me.
"Syb, you know what I feel and would Eke, but I think it would be mean of me to allow you to make such a sacrifice."
I knew I was not dealing with a booby, but with a sensible clear-sighted man, and so studied to express myself in a way which would not for an instant give him the impression that I was promising to marry him because--what I don't know and it doesn't matter much, but I said:
"Hal, don't you think it is a little selfish of you to want to throw me over just because you have lost your money? You are young, healthy, have good character and influential connections, and plenty of good practical ability and sense, so, surely, you will know no such thing as failure if you meet the world bravely. Go and be the man you are; and if you fail, when I am XX-one I will marry you, and we will help each other. I am young and strong, and am used to hard work, so poverty will not alarm me in the least. If you want me, I want you.
"Syb, you are such a perfect little brick that I couldn't be such a beggarly cur as to let you do that. I knew you were as true as steel under your funny little whims and contrariness; and could you really love me now that I am poor?"
I replied with vigour:
"Do you think I am that sort, that cares for a person only because he has a little money? Why! that is the very thing I am always preaching against. If a man was a lord or a millionaire I would not have him if I loved him not, but I would marry a poor cripple if I loved him. It wasn't because you owned Five-Bob Downs that I liked you, but because you have a big heart in which one would have room to get warm, and because you are true, and because you are kind and big and--" Here I could feel my voice getting shaky, and being afraid I would make a fool of myself by crying, I left off.
"Syb, I will try and fix matters up a bit, and will claim you in that time if I have a home."
"Claim me, home or not, if you are so disposed, but I will make this condition. Do not tell anyone we are engaged, and remember you are perfectly free. If you see a woman you like more than me, promise me on your sacred word that you will have none of those idiotic unjust ideas of keeping true to me. Promise."
"Yes, I will promise," he said easily, thinking then, no doubt, as many a one before him has thought, that he would never be called upon to fulfil his word.
"I will promise in return that I will not look at another man in a matrimonial way until the four years are up, so you need not he jealous and worry yourself; for, Hal, you can trust me, can you not?"
Taking my hand in his and looking at me with a world of love in his eyes, which moved me in spite of myself, he said:
"I could trust you in every way to the end of the world."
"Thank you, Harold. What we have said is agreed upon--that is, of course, as things appear now: if anything turns up to disturb this arrangement it is not irrevocable in the least degree, and we can lay out more suitable plans. Four years will not be long, and I will be more sensible at the end of that time--that is, of course, if I ever have any sense. We will not write or have any communication, so you will be perfectly free if you see anyone you like better than me to go in and win. Do you agree?"
"Certainly; any little thing like that you can settle according to your fancy. I'm set up as long as I get you one way or another, that's all I want. It was a bit tough being cleared out from all the old ways, but if I have you to stand by me it will be a great start. Say what you said last Sunday. again. Syb, say you will be my wife."
I had expected him to put it in that way, and believing in doing all or nothing, had laid out that I would put my hand in his and promise what he asked. But now the word wife finished me up. I was very fond of Harold--fond to such an extent that had I a fortune I would gladly have given it all to him: I felt capable of giving him a life of servitude, but I loved him--big, manly, lovable, wholesome Harold--from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot he was good in my sight, but lacking in that power over me which would make me desirous of being the mother of his children.
As for explaining my feelings to him--ha! He would laughingly call them one of my funny little whims. With his orthodox, practical, plain, commonsense views of these things, he would not understand me. What was there to understand? Only that I was queer and different from other women. But he was waiting for me to speak. I had put my hand to the plough and could not turn back. I could not use the word wife, but I put my hand in his, looked at him steadily, and said--
"Harold. I meant what I said last Sunday. If you want me--if I am of any use to you--I will marry you when I attain my majority."
He was satisfied.
He bade us good-bye early that afternoon, as he intended departing from Five-Bob when the morrow was young, and had two or three little matters to attend to previous to his departure.
I accompanied him a little way, he walking and leading his horse. We parted beneath the old willow-tree.
"Good-bye, Harold. I mean all I have said."
I turned my face upwards; he stooped and kissed me once--only once--one light, gentle, diffident kiss. He looked at me long and intently without saying a word, then mounted his horse, raised his hat, and rode away.
I watched him depart along the white dusty road, looking like a long snake in the glare of the summer sun, until it and he who travelled thereon disappeared among the messmate- and hickory-trees forming the horizon.
I stood gazing at the hills in the distance on which the blue dreaming mists of evening were gathering, until tears stole down my cheeks.
I was not given to weeping. What brought them? I hardly knew. It was not because Harold was leaving, though I would miss him much. Was it because I was disappointed in love? I persuaded myself that. I loved Harold as much as I could ever love anyone, and I could not forsake him now that he needed me. But, but, but, I did not want to marry, and I wished that Harold had asked anything of me but that, because--because, I don't know what, and presently felt ashamed for being such a selfish coward that I grudged to make a little sacrifice of my own inclinations to help a brother through life.
"I used to feel sure that Harry meant to come up to the scratch, but I suppose he's had plenty to keep him going lately without bothering his head about a youngster in short frocks and a pigtail," remarked uncle Jay-Jay that night.
"Well, Sybylla, poor Harry has gone: we will all--even you included--miss him very much, I am sure. I used to think that he cared for you. It may be that he has not spoken to us on account of his financial failure, and it may be that I made a mistake," said aunt Helen when she was bidding me good night.
I held my peace.