Chapter 138605093

See chapter in newspaper

Chapter NumberNone
Chapter Title
Chapter Urlhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article138605093
Full Date1898-09-24
Page Number51
Corrections5
Word Count3235
IllustratedN
Last Corrected2019-02-20
Newspaper TitleThe Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946)
Trove TitleHow Grace Lost a Lover
article text

THE STORYTELLER.

HOW GRACE LOST A LOVER

By ETHEL MILLS.

Tom Wycherley used to say that It was all the fault of that "beastly black trunk", whose untimely interference spoilt the best match that was ever likely to come the way of his sister. Tom was only fourteen, but wise with the wisdom of forty, and since the big drought which had landed the family, shorn of their former glory, in little mountain Waveney he had decided there was only one way to lift it from the slough of misfortune, and that was by the advantageous marriages of his two elder sisters.

They were both pretty girls, Grace especially, for her beauty was of the red and white, golden-haired, Juno-like style to attract the eye at once.

He had heard opinions differ so about Barbara that his own was apt to vary. Some people called her "lovely", some "scarcely pretty"; yet, again, as that "strange-looking girl", but more often as not she was described as "fascinating".

But about Grace there was but one opinion, and Waveny and its district knew her as the "handsome Miss Wycherley".

So Tom pinned all his hopes on her, and spied the beginning of the end when the owner of Gundara took to coming into town twice a week, and paying a stately call at the ruinous rose-covered house which sheltered the Wycherleys.

Joseph Field had made his money in beer, but money is money however it is made, and he owned the finest station on the Bar- won. Under an able manager it paid him well. He usually spent some months of the year at Gundara, which was quite close to Waveney, and had met Grace Wycherley at one of Waveney's soulless "evenings", given in his honour by the lawyer's wife.

He was not a young man, as his portly form and thinly-thatched head proclaimed, but he dressed well, and had an air of solid wealth, which delighted Tom's heart, so that young gentleman did all in his power to help matters along.

One would naturally think that the power of a shock-headed schoolboy must be of a limited order. His hands were more than full, considering that all the rest of the family (perhaps excluding Grace herself) were hopelessly romantic and unpractical, and stout, middle-aged Mr Field did not appeal to their imaginations at all.

It was Tom who used to hunt Grace up when Mr. Field called, and persuade her to abandon her book and garden chair, in the shadiest part of the old orchard, to give Mr. Field tea in the shabby old drawing- room. It was Tom who devised messages to be run by the twins, and so kept those curious mortals out of the way, for Tom held that no man would care to propose to a girl while two yellow-haired children stared at him with round, eager eyes. The twins had a passion for strangers, which no diffidence on the stranger's part could diminish.

It was Tom who strolled up and down the weed-grown drive, and kept other callers away, with polite fictions as to his family's

whereabouts. And the lad stuck manfully to his task, in spite of the fact that bright- winged king-parrots flew about the orchard, and tempted a shanghai-shot, though sport- ing rivals of his own sex and age passed along the road, bound for the craw-fish holes in the cemetery paddock, their jam- tins full of bait—apparent to more senses

than one. There was Philip Steele to be managed too, and that was the hardest task of all, for Steele was a detrimental, and the best footballer in Waveney; and if there was one thing on earth placid, calm-eyed Miss Wycherley loved, it was to watch a stirring game of football.

Philip would call for her sometimes on his way to the ground on Saturday after- noons, with an old coat thrown loosely over his mud-stained jersey, rich in scars of honour, but as Mr. Field often chose Sa- turday for his visits, Tom saw that a stop must be put to this, and was no doubt re- sponsible for the sudden coolness in Grace's manner towards Phil, coolness which put an end to the walks through the tree- planted square to the football ground.

Philip was not in the least good-looking, but he had an honest, manly face, and a trim, athletic figure, though his height was below the average, and Gracie's slightly above. He was the chosen friend and com- pianion of Lance, Tom's elder brother, who possessed the pleasure-loving, happy-go- lucky traits of the Wycherleys to their ful- lest extent. And who could not be brought to see that unless something happened the increasing expenses of his widowed mother's growing family would probably land the re- sponsible members of it in the Bankruptcy Court.

One day Gracie appeared (after a pro- longed call of Mr. Field's) with a bright dia- mond ring sparkling on her finger, and a new, half-startled, half-worried look in her usually calm, grey eyes.

She came into the diningroom, and Bar- bara noted the ring at once.

"So you have accepted him," she said. "Of course it would have been flying in the face of Providence to refuse; but I'm so glad it is you and not me!"

Mrs. Wycherley stopped rocking the youngest child in her arms, and looked, anxiously at her eldest daughter.

"It is best to marry for love," she said doubtfully. "I hope you care for him, dear—he will make an excellent husband. Still, I am very glad it isn't Barbara."

"What about Philip Steele?" said Leonie, who was still in short skirts and given to asking awkward questions.

Tom gave her a vicious kick under the table, for a faint colour stole into Gracie's cheeks and deepened the roses there.

"Philip Steele thinks of nothing on earth but breaking other men's necks or his own at football," she said. "I can't see how my affairs could concern him."

"Did he kiss you, Gracie?' said the twins

"Of course not, you little sillies. Mother, those children are becoming unbearable."

"Won't the Stephens family be wild," said Tom, the diplomatist.

"Tom, don't be vulgar," commanded the bride elect. "Still, I shall enjoy telling them, they have been so horrid about him sometimes."

"He will be able to take you some lovely trips. He says he means to 'do' New Zea- land thoroughly," put in Tom again.

Lance pushed away his plate, and began

to whistle; then he got up and searched for his hat. Lance's silence was more eloquent

than words.

"When will you be married, Sis?" asked Leonie, with a glance at Tom to see if her question was a safe one, and an involuntary

"tucking up" of her long legs out of the reach of his "serviceable boots".

"Oh, not for ages and ages," said Grace carelessly. "He will wait years if I like, he is so good-natured."

"Good natured," shouted the twins in chorus. "Just you should have heard him when he caught his foot in the hole in the hall oilcloth. He said— ."

"Shut up," shouted Tom, "or I'll knock both your canary heads together, you noisy

little wretches."

He had heard enough of his future brother-in-law's remarks himself, and did not wish them repeated.

In fact, Joseph Field sincerely hated the discomforts and peculiarities of his sweet- heart's home, coming as he did from a well- appointed, well-ordered house, replete with comfort. This creeper-covered, paintless dwelling, with its jambing doors and hasp- less windows, seemed a truly dreadful place, and he made a mental vow that the engage- ment should be very short.

So Grace's dreams of a long, long engage- ment were soon put to flight.

They were going to New Zealand for their honeymoon, combining business with plea- sure, for Joseph wished to inspect and buy some famous rams from a station in the North Island, and it was this plea of busi- ness which hurried matters up, so that Grace found herself in a whirl of dress- making and packing before she quite real- ised what was happening.

She had felt pleased with the new dignity her engagement had given her in Waveny society, and all combined in congratulating and envying her. Still she would have felt happier if Philip Steele had not glowered at her so mournfully when they met at the Stephens's tennis-court; or if Mr. Field had been a little less "fussy" and particular, and was not always pulling her up about the way she laced her shoes, or pinned her belt, or read the "Family Herald." Grace was lazy, with an inherent hatred of punc- tuality and system, just as these two vir- tues formed the background of her lover's

creed.

He had a way, too, of calling her diminu- tive pet names, which annoyed her sense of fitness, and made her long to laugh. When one is 5ft. 9in., and splendidly developed

into the bargain, such terms as "Pity little sing," "Little woman," "Joseph's own little birdie," seem strangely inappropriate. "Really, if he must be so commonplace as

to use terms of endearment at all, I wish to goodness he would call me 'His beloved elephant', or 'his own dear giraffe'," she said.

"It is too ridiculous. I am always in terror lest the twins should hear him, and what a life I should have then."

"He will make a very good husband," was all Mrs. Wycherley could say, in an- swer to her daughter's unexpected out

burst. And Barbara, who was making her bridesmaid's dress, with her clever, quick fingers, smiled her mysterious smile

(which had done, and would do more, ma- terial damage than all her sister's orthodox

charms), and said—

"Good as gold, mother mine, but a man

who can't see and appreciate a joke should never aspire to become a member of such a remarkably humorous family as ours."

"How strange you are, Barbara, as if a sense of humour or the want of it would make any difference in married life. I was anxious at first, but every day convinces

me that things are for the best, and it will be such a help if Gracie marries well, and

such a relief when everything is settled."

"Poor old mother. Such a relief when you can wear your cap crooked again with- out your son-in-law's mathematical eye

being hopelessly offended. Now, isn't that what you really mean, mother?"

"He is horribly tidy," sighed Gracie. "You would have suited him best, after all, Barbara, I believe. I often wish he had fallen in love with you, instead of me."

"God forbid!" cried Barbara piously. However, things went on smoothly in the desired direction, and the days of Grace Wycherley's maidenhood were growing brief indeed. It was within a week of the date fixed for the wedding that the big black trunk changed the whole course of

events, with its uncalled for interference.

And it was such an innocent-looking

trunk, too; bound with iron, and disfigured with the remains of many labels, for it had done duty continually during the palmy days of the family.

It had stood empty on the landing for a long time, until Grace decided to fill it with her books, and some heavy things she

wished sent out to Gundara.

One of the Gundara men was in with a

dray for stores, and Mr. Field called round to tell Grace to take the chance, and send

out anything she did not wish to take on the voyage.

Leone was in the hall sewing at part of

her sister's outfit, and weaving bright

dreams of that beautiful sister's future. Of the long days to be spent in the "lovely land" during the honeymoon, with visions of Gracie floating in a white-sailed boat up

the land-locked sounds; of Gracie picnick- ing in fern-shaded hollows—but here the picture would be spoilt by the thought of Mr. Field, with his stout figure, his im-

maculate coat, his shiny forehead, and pro- minent blue eyes, who must be there, too.

Just at that moment Lance came home from office, bringing with him Philip Steele,

who had come to say good-bye. Somehow or other he decided that unless he could

leave Waveny for a time life would be un- bearable; and he was going a long way, too, for the sound of wedding bells carries far at times. The sight of Philip's boyish face and well-built figure, which had become

part and parcel of the little girl's life for

so long, unconsciously changed the current of her thoughts, and she wondered how he

would look with Gracie honeymooning, in- stead of that other figure, which always

seemed so incongruous at the Priory. It

was only a day dream, and dreams are free to all.

The driver of the waggon also stood in the hall, waiting to take out the box when it should be got downstairs. It had evi- dently not entered his head that he might

go up and lend a helping hand to where Mr. Field stood patiently waiting while Grace

locked the trunk.

"I will call Jim to carry it down," he

said.

"Oh, no!" cried the girl. "No man could carry a weight like that. If you will take the handle at the other end, I will show

you how we manage. You pull and I'll push. Just spring up on the bannister

when it begins to go."

Much mystified, the portly Mr. Field did Miss Wycherley's bidding, and dutifully

pulled the box to the top of the stairs. They were dreadful stairs—carpetless, lead- sheeted, and steep, and only just the width of the black box itself, or, at any rate, only an inch or two wider. He went down

several steps and then dropped the handle.

"Well, and what next?" he said.

"Now I'll push like this," said Grace. "Oh, jump, quick—quick, I tell you. Oh! oh! oh!"

Alas! Joseph was no athlete like Lance or Phil, and if Grace had expected to see her lover spring nimbly on to the banister

while the box slid below his dangling feet she was disappointed.

It did not seem possible to him that any sane person could balance himself on a slender rail above the well of the hall, even if there was a beam to hold on to. "Good

God! Grace," he shouted, "What on earth

—," and then broke off suddenly, and, turning, fled, running as he had never run in the whole course of his life, with death

in the shape of the weighty box tearing along beside him. Perhaps all his past life

flashed before him in that awful moment, as it is said to do in times of great danger. The box gained rapidly upon him in its mad descent, and he uttered a yell of terror

as he skipped the final steps. But the box skipped also, and bounced down against the calves of his legs, turning him upside down, and leaving him lying on his back in the passage. The accident had a paralysing

effect on all the inmates of the hall, but as the twins and Mrs. Wycherley and Tom burst in to see what was making such a dreadful noise, Leone dropped her sewing and sprang to the rescue, seizing a clothes brush from the window-sill, her first thought for the welfare of the beautiful

broadcloth coat, and darting a reproachful look at Jim, the station hand, as she ran, for that worthy's shaking shoulders were pre- lude to the "roar" to come.

"Someone run upstairs and tell Miss

Wycherley that he is not killed," shouted Steele, as with Lance's help he pulled Mr. Field to his feet, glancing up as he did so where Grace sat on a heap on the top steps, her face hidden in her hands.

"Hope you are not hurt," said Lance politely.

"Who ever heard of sending good boxes

crashing down stairs, and endangering

people's lives?" shouted his prospective brother-in-law, almost off his head with pas- sion. "A most disorderly and ill-managed household. The wedding must take place to-morrow. I can stand these wretched

poverty-stricken surroundings no longer." "Oh! listen to him; he's not a gentle- man," cried the twins' voiced echo as usual. "Gentlemen never tells people they're poor!"

"Steady, old man," said Lance, "the lady has the privilege of naming the day usually, believe? Hi Grace, cheer up, your lord and master will be as fit as a fiddle after a

brush and a wash. No bones broken, I

think."

"I think," said Brian, the boy twin, to Betty, the girl, "that he's [sic] bones couldn't break: they're wrapped round six times with fat; most people's only got one piece of fat to cover them"—to which new fact in natural history Betty agreed, as usual.

"The shock alone has been enough to kill an ordinary man: the shock alone, I tell you," cried Mr. Field. "I am very much shaken and upset."

"Oh! we can all vouch for the 'upset'," said Philip, dryly.

Field glanced scornfully at the young fellow, and then walked to the foot of the

stairs.

"Grace," he said, "I entreat you to calm yourself. I am still alive."

"Oh! Joseph," she gasped. "If—if—if you could only have seen yourself."

There were tears streaming down the face she turned to his, but it was apparent to all beholders that Miss Wycherley was on the verge of hysterics—hysterics, not of grief, but of merriment.

When all the Wycherleys laughed toge- ther, it was a thing not easily forgotten.

"Jim's roar"' was but a murmur beneath the noise which shook the walls of the old house, until the startled swallows fled through the ivy and banksias from their

nests under the verandahs.

Even the solemn twins held their fat little sides, and Tom, the traitor, posi- tively howled, but remembering his role rushed into the stair cupboard, and shut the door, which prevented his seeing the final catastrophe.

"Grace," thundered her lover, "leave this untimely mirth, or—or—consider that all is over between us. Girl, you might have lost me. Lost me, I repeat, for good and

all."

"Oh! Joseph," cried the girl, breaking in to a fresh ripple of laughter, as a vision of the flying man and the pursuing box flashed across her memory again. "I can't, Joseph. I really can't."

Field picked up his hat and stick, and strode to the door. As he passed Jim he said, "Take a week's notice," and then he passed over the threshold, shaking the dust (literally) of the priory from his

feet.