Once Upon a Time, when the days were long and hot
Next day was Sunday--a blazing one it was too. I proposed that in the afternoon some of us should go to church. Father sat upon the idea as a mad one. Walk two miles in such heat for nothing! as walk we would he compelled to do, horseflesh being too precious in such a drought to fritter it away in idle jaunts. Surprising to say, however, Harold, who never walked anywhere when he could get any sort of a horse, uttered a wish to go. Accordingly, when the midday dinner was over, he, Stanley, and I set out. Going to church was quite the event of the week to the residents around Possum Gully. It was a small Dissenting chapel, where a layman ungrammatically held forth at 3 P.m. every Sunday; but the congregation was composed of all denominations, who attended more for the sitting about on logs outside, and yarning about the price of butter, the continuance of the drought, and the latest gossip, before and after the service, than for the service itself.
I knew the appearance of Harold Beecham, would make quite a miniature sensation, and form food for no end of conjecture and chatter. In any company he was a distinguished-looking man, and particularly so among these hard-worked farmer-selectors, on whose careworn features the cruel effects of the drought were leaving additional lines of worry. I felt proud of my quondam sweetheart. There was an unconscious air of physical lordliness about him, and he looked such a swell--not the black-clothed, clean-shaved, great display of white collar-and-cuffs swell appertaining to the office and city street, but of the easy sunburnt squatter type of swelldom, redolent of the sun, the saddle, the wide open country--a man who is a man, utterly free from the least suspicion of effeminacy, and capable of earning his bread by the sweat of his brow--with an arm ready and willing to save in an accident.
All eyes were turned on us as we approached, and I knew that the attentions he paid me out of simple courtesy--tying my shoe, carrying my book, holding my parasol--would be put down as those of a lover.
I introduced him to a group of men who were sitting on a log, under the shade of a stringybark, and leaving him to converse with them, made my way to where the women sat beneath a gum-tree. The children made a third group at some distance. We always divided ourselves thus. A young fellow had to be very far gone ere he was willing to run the gauntlet of all the chaff levelled at him had he the courage to single out a girl and talk to her.
I greeted all the girls and women, beginning at the great-grandmother of the community, who illustrated to perfection the grim sarcasm of the fifth commandment. She had worked hard from morning till night, until too old to do so longer, and now hung around with aching weariness waiting for the grave. She generally poured into my cars a wail about her "rheumatisms", and "How long it do be waiting for the Lord"; but today she was too curious about Harold to think of herself.
"Sure, Sybyller, who's that? Is he yer sweetheart? Sure he's as fine a man as iver I clapped me eyes on."
I proceeded to give his pedigree, but was interrupted by the arrival of the preacher, and we all went into the weatherboard iron-roofed house of prayer.
After service, one of the girls came up to me and whispered, '11at is your sweetheart, isn't it, Sybyller? He was looking at you all the time in church."
"Oh dear, no! I'll introduce him to you."
I did so, and watched him as they made remarks about the heat and drought. There was nothing of the cad or snob about him, and his short season of adversity had rubbed all the little crudities off his character, leaving him a man that the majority of both sexes would admire: women for his bigness, his gentleness, his fine brown moustache--and for his wealth; men, because he was a manly fellow.
I know he had walked to church on purpose to get a chance of speaking to me about Gertie, before approaching her parents on the matter; but Stanley accompanied us, and, boy-like, never relaxed in vigilance for an instant, so there was no opportunity for anything but matter-of-fact remarks. The heat was intense. We wiped the perspiration and flies from our face frequently, and disturbed millions of grasshoppers as we walked. They had devoured all the fruit in the orchards about, and had even destroyed many of the trees by eating the bark, and now they were stripping the briers of foliage. In one orchard we passed, the apricot, plum, and peach-stones hung naked on their leafless trees as evidence of their ravages. It was too hot to indulge in any but the most desultory conversation. We dawdled along. A tiger-snake crossed our path. Harold procured a stick and killed it, and Stanley hung it on the top wire of a fence which was near at hand. After this we discussed snakes for a few yards.
A blue sea-breeze, redolent of the bush-fires which were raging at Tocumwal and Bombala, came rushing and roaring over the ranges from the cast, and enshrouded the scene in its heavy fog-like folds. The sun was obscured, and the temperature suddenly took such a great drop that I felt chilled in my flimsy clothing, and I noticed Harold draw his coat together.
Stanley had to go after the cows, which were little better than walking hides, yet were yarded morning and evening to yield a dribble of milk. He left us among some sallie-trees, in a secluded nook, walled in by briers, and went across the paddock to roundup the cows. Harold and I came to a halt by tacit consent.
"Syb, I want to speak to you," he said earnestly, and then came to a dead stop.
"Very well; 'tear into it,' as Horace would say; but if it is anything frightful, break it gently," I said flippantly.
"Surely, Syb, you can guess what it is I have to say."
Yes, I could guess, I knew what he was going to say, and the knowledge left a dull bitterness at my heart. I knew he was going to tell me that I had been right and he wrong--that he had found some one he loved better than me, and that some one being my sister, he felt I needed some explanation before he could go in and win; and though I had refused him for want of love, yet it gave me pain when the moment arrived that the only man who had ever pretended to love me was going to say he had been mistaken, and preferred my sister.
There was silence save for the whirr of the countless grasshoppers in the brier bushes. I knew he was expecting me to help him out, but I felt doggedly savage and wouldn't. I looked up at him. He was a tall grand man, and honest and true and rich. He loved my sister; she would marry him, and they would he happy. I thought bitterly that God was good to one and cruel to another--not that I wanted this man, but why was I so different from other girls?
But then I thought of Gertie, so pretty, so girlish, so understandable, so full of innocent winning coquetry. I softened. Could any one help preferring her to me, who was strange, weird, and perverse--too outspoken to be engaging, devoid of beauty and endearing little ways? It was my own misfortune and nobody's fault that my singular individuality excluded me from the ordinary run of youthful joyous-heartednesses, and why should I be nasty to these young people?
I was no heroine, only a common little bush-girl, so had to make the best of the situation without any fooling. I raised my eyes from the scanty baked wisps of grass at my feet, placed my hand on Hal's arm, and tiptoeing so as to bring my five-foot stature more on a level with his, said:
"Yes, Hal, I know what you want to say. Say it all. I won't be nasty."
"Well, you see you are so jolly touchy, and have snubbed me so often, that I don't know how to begin; and if you know what I'm going to say, won't you give me an answer without hearing it?"
"Yes, Hal; but you'd better say it, as I don't know what conditions--"
"Conditions!"--catching me up eagerly at the word. "If it is only conditions that are stopping you, you can make your own conditions if you will marry me."
"Marry you, Harold! What do you mean? Do you know what you are saying?" I exclaimed.
"There!" he replied: I knew you would take it as an insult. I believe you are the proudest girl in the world. I know you are too clever for me; but I love you, and could give you everything you fancied."
"Hal, dear, let me explain. I'm not insulted, only surprised. I thought you were going to tell me that you loved Gertie, and would ask me not to make things unpleasant by telling her of the foolish little bit of flirtation there had been between us."
"Marry Gertie! Why, she's only a child! A mere baby, in fact. Marry Gertie! I never thought of her in that light; and did you think I was that sort of a fellow, Syb?" he asked reproachfully.
"No, Hal," I promptly made answer. I did not think you were that sort of fellow; but I thought that was the only sort of fellow there was."
"Good heavens, Syb! Did you really mean those queer little letters you wrote me last February? I never for an instant looked upon them as anything but a little bit of playful contrariness. And have you forgotten me? Did you not mean your promise of two years ago, that you speak of what passed between us as a paltry bit of flirtation? Is that all you thought it?"
"No, I did not consider it flirtation; but that is what I thought you would term it when announcing your affection for Gertie."
"Gertie! Pretty little Gertie! I never looked upon the child as anything but your sister, consequently mine also. She's a child."
"Child! She is eighteen. More than a year older than I was when you first introduced the subject of matrimony to me, and she is very beautiful, and XX times as good and lovable as I could ever be even in my best moments."
"Yes, I know you are young in years, but there is nothing of the child in you. As for beauty, it is nothing. If beauty was all a man required, he could, if rich, have a harem full of it any day. I want some one to be true."
"The world is filled with folly and sin, And love must cling where it can, I say; For beauty is easy enough to win, But one isn't loved every day,"
I quoted from Owen Meredith.
"Yes," he said, "that is why I want you. Just think a moment; don't say no. You are not vexed with me--are you, Syb?"
"Vexed, Hal! I am scarcely inhuman enough to be angry on account of being loved."
Ah, why did I not love him as I have it in me to love! Why did he look so exasperatingly humble? I was weak, oh, so pitifully weak! I wanted a man who would be masterful and strong, who would help me over the rough spots of life--one who had done hard grinding in the mill of fate--one who had suffered, who had understood. No; I could never marry Harold Beecham.
"Well, Syb, little chum, what do you say?"
"Say!"--and the words fell from me bitterly--"I say, leave me; go and marry the sort of woman you ought to marry. The sort that all men like. A good conventional woman, who will do the things she should at the proper time. Leave me alone."
He was painfully agitated. A look of pain crossed his face.
"Don't say that, Syb, because I was a beastly cad once: I've had all that knocked out of me."
"I am the cad," I replied. "What I said was nasty and unwomanly, and I wish I had left it unsaid. I am not good enough to be your wife, Hal, or that of any man. Oh, Hal, I have never deceived you! There are scores of good noble women in the world who would wed you for the asking--marry one of them."
"But, Syb, I want you. You are the best and truest girl in the world."
"Och! Sure, the blarney-stone is getting a good rub now," I said playfully.
Annoyance and amusement struggled for mastery in his expression as he replied:
"You're the queerest girl in the world. One minute you snub a person, the next you are the jolliest girl going, and then you get as grave and earnest as a fellow's mother would be."
"Yes, I am queer. If you had any sense, you'd have nothing to do with me. I'm more queer, too. I am given to something which a man never pardons in a woman. You will draw away as though I were a snake when you hear."
"What is it?"
"I am given to writing stories, and literary people predict I will yet be an authoress."
He laughed--his soft, rich laugh.
"That's just into my hand. I'd rather work all day than write the shortest letter; so if you will give me a hand occasionally, you can write as many yarns as you like. I'll give you a study, and send for a truck-load of writing-gear at once, if you like. Is that the only horror you had to tell me?"
I bowed my head.
"Well, I can have you now," he said gently, folding me softly in his arms with such tender reverence that I cried out in pain, "Oh, Hal, don't, don't!" and struggled free. I was ashamed, knowing I was not worthy of this.
He flushed a dusky red.
"Am I so hateful to you that you cannot bear my touch?" he asked half wistfully, half angrily.
"Oh no; it isn't that. I'm really very fond of you, if you'd only understand," I said half to myself.
"Understand! If you care for me, that is all I want to understand. I love you, and have plenty of money. There is nothing to keep us apart. Now that I know you care for me, I will have you, in spite of the devil."
"There will he a great tussle between you," I said mischievously, laughing at him. "Old Nick has a great hold on me, and I'm sure he will dispute your right."
At any time Harold's sense of humour was not at all in accordance with his size, and he failed to see how my remark applied now.
He gripped my hands in a passion of pleading, as two years previously he had seized me in jealous rage. He drew me to him. His eyes were dark and full of entreaty; his voice was husky.
"Syb, poor little Syb, I will be good to you! You can have what you like. You don't know what you mean when you say no."
No; I would not yield. He offered me everything--but control. He was a man who meant all he said. His were no idle promises on the spur of the moment. But no, no, no, no, he was not for me. My love must know, must have suffered, must understand.
"Syb, you do not answer. May I call you mine? You must, you must, you must!"
His hot breath was upon my cheek. The pleasant, open, manly countenance was very near-perilously near. The intoxication of his love was overpowering me. I had no hesitation about trusting him. He was not distasteful to me in any way. What was the good of waiting for that other--the man who had suffered, who knew, who understood? I might never find him; and, if I did, ninety-nine chances to one he would not care for me.
"Syb, Syb, can't you love me just a little?"
There was a winning charm in his manner. Nature had endowed him liberally with virile fascination. My hard uncongenial life had rendered me weak. He was drawing me to him; he was irresistible. Yes; I would be his wife. I grew dizzy, and turned my head sharply backwards and took a long gasping breath, another and another, of that fresh cool air suggestive of the grand old sea and creak of cordage and bustle and strife of life. My old spirit revived, and my momentary weakness fled. There was another to think of than myself, and that was Harold. Under a master-hand I would be harmless; but to this man I would be as a two-edged sword in the hand of a novice--gashing his fingers at every turn, and eventually stabbing his honest heart.
It was impossible to make him see my refusal was for his good. He was as a favourite child pleading for a dangerous toy. I desired to gratify him, but the awful responsibility of the after-effects loomed up and deterred me.
"Hal, it can never be."
He dropped my hands and drew himself up.
I will not take your No till the morning. Why do you refuse me? Is it my temper? You need not be afraid of that. I don't think I'd hurt you; and I don't drink, or smoke, or swear very much; and I've never destroyed a woman's name. I would not stoop to press you against your will if you were like the ordinary run of women; but you are such a queer little party, that I'm afraid you might be boggling at some funny little point that could easily he wiped out."
"Yes; it is only a little point. But if you wipe it out you will knock the end out of the whole thing--for the point is myself. I would not suit you. It would not he wise for you to marry me."
"But I'm the only person concerned. If you are not afraid for yourself, I am quite satisfied."
We faced about and walked homewards in unbroken silence--too perturbed to fall into our usual custom of chewing bush-leaves as we went.
I thought much that night when all the house was abed. It was tempting. Harold would he good to me, and would lift me from this life of poverty which I hated, to one of ease. Should I elect to remain where I was, till the grave there was nothing before me but the life I was leading now: my only chance of getting above it was by marriage, and Harold Beecham's offer was the one chance of a lifetime. Perhaps he could manage me well enough. Yes; I had better marry him.
And I believe in marriage--that is, I think it the most sensible and respectable arrangement for the replenishing of a nation which has yet been suggested. But marriage is a solemn issue of life. I was as suited for matrimony as any of the sex, but only with an exceptional helpmeet--and Harold was not he. My latent womanliness arose and pointed this out so plainly that I seized my pen and wrote:
I will not get a chance of speaking to you in the morning, so write. Never mention marriage to me again. I have firmly made up my mind--it must be No. It will always be a comfort to me in the years to come to know that I was loved once, if only for a few hours. It is not that I do not care for you, as I like you better than any man I have ever seen; but I do not mean ever to marry. When you lost your fortune I was willing to accede to your request, as I thought you wanted me; but now that you are rich again you will not need me. I am not good enough to be your wife,'for you are a good man; and better, because you do not know you are good. You may feel uncomfortable or lonely for a little while, because, when you make up your mind, you are not easily thwarted; but you will find that your fancy for me will soon pass. It is only a fancy, Hal. Take a look in the glass, and you will see reflected there the figure of a stalwart man who is purely virile, possessing not the slightest attribute of the weaker sex, therefore your love is merely a passing flame. I do not impute fickleness to you, but merely point out a masculine characteristic, and that you are a man, and only a man, pure and unadulterated. Look around, and from the numbers of good women to be found on every side choose one who will make you a fitter helpmeet, a more conventional comrade, than I could ever do. I thank you for the inestimable honour you have conferred upon me; but keep it till you find some one worthy of it, and by and by you will be glad that I have set you free.
Your sincere and affec. friend, Sybylla Penelope Melvyn.
Then I crept into bed beside my little sister, and though the air inside had not cooled, and the room was warm, I shivered so that I clasped the chubby, golden-haired little sleeper in my arms that I might feel something living and real and warm.
"Oh, Rory, Rory!" I whispered, raining upon her lonely-hearted tears. "In all the world is there never a comrade strong and true to teach me the meaning of this hollow, grim little tragedy--life? Will it always be this ghastly aloneness? Why am I not good and pretty and simple like other girls? Oh, Rory, Rory, why was I ever born? I am of no use or pleasure to any one in all the world!"