Chapter 160813632

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Chapter NumberIV
Chapter Title
Chapter Urlhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article160813632
Full Date1893-11-18
Page Number37
Corrections9
Word Count3390
IllustratedN
Last Corrected2018-03-16
Newspaper TitleAdelaide Observer (SA : 1843 - 1904)
Trove TitleOn the Wrong Track
article text

CHAPTER IV.

It was a silly, sentimental, old maid who brought the mischief about. The fiercest fire must go out, fuel being denied, and Sebastian Westbrooke's suddenly conceived, romantic passion for Myrtis Elliot must have perished in course of time had the young people never met. But for Miss Langley, a rich woman without family ties, who, despite her fifty years, was half in love with the poetic-looking son of a gaolbird, Myrtis and Sebastian probably never would have met. Miss Langley was clever in her way and cultured, full of crude generosities, of schemes for un- ravelling social tangles, ideas which were not without germs of noble feeling, but her moral fibre was lax. She had met young Westbrooke at the house of a mutual friend, nearer in the social scale to the class in which he was born than to her own. She had been attracted to him by his history and his good looks. The victory over her fancy was completed by Sebastian's manners, his vivid personality, and the high reputation be had earned as head boy at St. Peter's Collegiate School. Miss Langley lived about ten miles from Bea Bay and close to the Jindu Mine. She wrote to young West- broke on hearing of his discovery of the new lode and his subsequent investments, asking him to visit her, with a view to advising her on the subjeot of venturing some of her own capital in the new-old mine. Westbroke obeyed the summons, though secretly inclined to resent this display of an interest which he suspected to arise chiefly from curiosity. But he was won over by her kindness, her clever talk, and still more by the conviction that her interest in him was genuine. How it came about he never knew, but on the occasion of his third visit ,she wormed out of him the admission of his secret admiration for Myrtis Elliot, together with his despair of ever meeting her. The romance of his confession appealed power- fully to Miss Langley's fancy. She at once perceived that she was destined to bring the young people together. Miss Langley invested no money in the Jindu Mine, but she paid flattering attention to the Elliots, finally obtaining leave to carry off Myrtis to stay with her for two or three days. Curiously enough, she omitted to mention to Dr. and Mrs. Elliot that young Westbrooke was a guest at her house at the time.

Myrtis experienced a rare sense of rest and relief when the light buggy was drawn up before a house built of grey marble, which sparkled in the cold June sunlight. Three steps led to a verandah in which an empty hammock was swinging near three lounging chairs. All was sweet with flower fragrance, neat and clean. A handrail ran round the outer edge of the verandah, over which a blossoming creeper hung. In the neat garden beds below roses and heliotrope were still blooming, with violets and mignonette, and all the early flowering bulbs.

"You must take one peep at the mine, because we are so proud of the new discovery," said Miss Langley to Myrtis. "Then we will go in and get warm."

Myrtis looked at the smoking funnel and the great rugged wound in the hillside opposite, privately thinking that the view would have gained much in beauty if the mine had been out of sight.

"But you shall see the new shaft for your self to-morrow, my dear. It will be described to you by some one who understands the whole business."

Myrtis could not meet the eyes of her hostess. She could not understand the curious thrill of excitement which vibrated through her frame, nor the vague sense of discomfort, of a throb of conscience, as if she were about to do something wrong. Miss Langley did not explain further, but led her into a prettily furnished hall, where she was asked to lay aside her heavy wraps, and afterwards to a cosy bedroom with a bright fire burning in the grate, flowers on the dressing table, and two or three new books in a tiny enamelled shelf upon the wall. Myrtis was feeling her nerves strung up to a high pitch by this time: she was trembling with agitation from an unknown cause. Something was about to happen she felt sure; the still current of her life was flowing rapidly—where? But she would ask no questions; there was always now the pos- sibility that she might find herself doing some thing that her parents would disapprove. She was not anxious to meet trouble halfway. After a delightful hour spent with a novel in an armchair by the fire, Myrtis thought she would vary her pleasures by dressing for the evening. Before she could quite resolve to drag herself out of the chair's embrace Miss Langley came in with a teatray in both hands. A few loose violets lay on the shining tray cloth, their scent mingled enchantingly with the fragrance of the tea. Miss Langley looked delightfully civilized, by contrast with the people at Bea Bay, in a handsome dark-green teagown, trimmed with cascades of ivory coloured lace, and her office of carrying in the teatray brought out the capable womanly side of her nature, which was really the attractive one. She hated being waited upon.

"Don't move, child," she exclaimed, as Myrtis sprang up to lift the small table. "I am going to sit here."

She poured out the tea, pressed Myrtis to taste the various discs and circlets of baked foam which filled the cakebox, all the while regarding her as if she were anxious to learn by heart the principal points of her appear-

ance.

"Now make yourself as pretty as you can for this evening," she said when the tea drinking was at an end. "We dine at 7. I like people to look nice."

She whisked the tray out of the room, letting the door clap to behind her, without giving Myr- tis time to ask questions, and Myrtis refused to ask questions of herself. If her eyes shone more lustrous than usual when she met their reflection in the glass, if her hands trembled

ever so slightly while she wound her wavy coil of hair round and round, if her cheeks took on a faint flush, no other explanation was needed than this delightful beginning to her

visit.

Home was hard, cold, and prosaic; in truth Dr. Elliot's marble house at Bea Bay was not yet home in its real sense to his eldest daughter; while Miss Langley's house, so far as she had seen it, was full of comfort for body and mind. Never, in the three months since she had left Adelaide, had she until this after noon been allowed to read a book for a whole

hour at a stretch.

By the time the dressing-bell rang Myrtis was dressed in her white nun's veiling gown, trimmed with white fur, her hair and eyes shining, her cheeks just tinged with colour, her lips softly red, her lithe figure erect and pliant in its trailing white robes. Now she wished she had not dressed so early; then she

felt tempted to explore further into this delightful house; and again she hesitated lest she should meet all unprepared this mystery with which the air seemed vibrating. While she stood, her hand on the door, uncertain whether to go or to stay, Miss Langley pushed it open

from the other side.

"Dressed already!" she said, looking pleased. "You may as well go into the drawing room; I will show you the way. But you have no flower. Let me pin these in for

you."

The room gave a jerk, and every object seemed displaced for the moment to the girl's eye as Miss Langley raised her other hand showed a spray of safrano roses, half-blown and exactly like those which Myrtis had carried to the concert. She dared not resist, but she longed to push away the haunting flowers. She began to feel as if her will was being mastered by some spell; her healthy instinct revolted against blind submission. But since she could not explain her objection to wear the flowers,

she did submit so far.

"Come this way," said Miss Langley, walk ing swiftly down the corridor, herself a stately figure, crowned with magnificent masses of black hair, in which a silver thread or two were visible. Once more they crossed the entrance hall. A door stood half open, the blaze of a wood fire enlightened the dusk, and showed the graceful appointments of the

room.

"Go in there and make yourself happy until dinner time," said Miss Langley. Myrtis thought she saw signs of amusement in the

handsome face of her hostess.

At this moment the figure of a young man

rose from beside the fireplace rose and stood abso-- lutely still for an instant. Myrtis felt her own

heart stand still too, for, even in the uncertain mingling of firelight and twilight, she recog- nised him and knew that she had been brought here to meet him. His eye went straight to

her roses.

Miss Langley's hasty and rather embarrassed

introduction of each to the other was soon over. She left them, to make her own toilet, and Myrtis sank into a chair which was placed well in the shadow of the mantelpiece. A servant entered with a large shaded lamp, which she placed on a side table, and Myrtis's shadow deserted her. Her confusion lasted no longer than sixty seconds, but it was percep- tible to him, who was far more confused than she. She immediately began to talk to him upon the safe subject of the mine. He, fol- lowing her lead, exerted himself to remove the slightest sense of embarrassment from their interview. When Miss Langley joined them her guests were conversing with perfect com- posure. She was almost disappointed to find them mutually so much at ease. She could only guess at the sensations experienced by

either.

The dinner was a pleasant meal, well appointed, well served, and seasoned with agreeable talk. After dinner there was a little music, more talk, chiefly discussion of new books, then bedtime came, and all the food which Sebastian's heart had had to keep hope alive was compressed into the instant during which he held the hand of Myrtis in his own. He meant to shake hands with her in the quiet undemonstrative way proper to a gentleman who is allowed to touch the hand of a strange lady; but the con- tact of that soft, warm, white hand of hers was too much for his resolution, and he felt that his clasp of the slim fingers had expressed more than he ought to reveal. After breakfast Miss Langley made Myrtis put on her hat to visit the mine. Down the shaft they went, all the workings being explained to them, and a score of small opportunities offered them selves during the morning of which West- brooke was not slow to take advantage, showing those little cares for the two women in his charge, which help rapidly to ripen acquaintance. In the afternoon Miss Langley and Myrtis were alone, greatly to the relief of

the latter.

"What do you think of Mr. Westbrooke, Myrtis?" Miss Langley asked, speaking out of a long silence which had fallen upon them as they sat in the pleasant warmth of the dining-room with books.

"I have not had time to think—anything," Myrtis answered. "I am afraid my mother and father may be angry with me for having made his acquaintance."

"Indeed, and why? May I not invite what guests I please!"

"Dear Miss Langley, don't be angry with me. But I have heard my father speak very badly of old Mr. Westbrooke."

"Nothing too bad could be said of the old rascal. However, he paid well to have his son educated, and that is more than better men are willing to do sometimes. The young man should be judged on his own merits."

"Then, on his own merits, I think he is very nice," said Myrtis. Miss Langley

laughed.

"You are cautious, I see," she said. "I fancy Mr. Westbrooke might be able to express himself more warmly about you."

"I hope not," Myrtis cried, with flaming

cheeks.

"My dear girl, why do you say that? Do you remember seeing him at a concert given in your neighbourhood about a fort night ago?"

"Yes; I thought it was he—I mean I knew for my father said so as we drove

home."

"And I have no doubt endeavoured to

prejudice you against the young man by tell- ing you that his father was disreputable?".

"I knew as much as that," said Myrtis. "I remember hearing of him as an old reprobate before I went away from home in the days when he used to keep the Miner's

Arms."

"His being the son of a publican would tell against him with your father," pursued Miss Langley, in a musing tone. "I can forgive old people's prejudices; but I trust that you are more enlightened than to allow a man's parentage to militate against him in your

esteem."

"I am enlightened enough to respect a man for himself if I really know anything of him; but I shall most likely never see Mr. West- brooke again. I heard him say that he must return to town to-morrow."

"That is why I am venturing to probe your feelings, my dear." Forgive me, Myrtis, if I seem almost indelicate. My warm friendship

for Sebastian Westbrooke must be my excuse. You must know that with him, to love you from the first moment he saw you, was his fate."

Myrtis did feel that Miss Langley was not almost but quite indelicate; but she was spell- bound, and could not speak.

"I am forty-nine years old, Myrtis with per- haps many lonely years stretching on out before me which might have been sweetly companioned. I won't tell you my story now, except that two lives touched which ought to have remained in contact, and were parted for ever, for want of a friendly voice to bid them stay. There is sufficient resemblance between my case and yours to make me careless about overstepping strict propriety to save you from a like fate.

Miss Langley looked years younger than her age while she was speaking. In her tone was a compelling earnestness; in her look and manner was a sad and tender majesty which overawed Myrtis. Yet, though she believed

her own fable for the moment, the truth was that the young man to whom she alluded had loved and ridden away of his own accord. After that episode Miss Langley had become celebrated as a desperate flirt who had trifled

away all her chances of a sensible marriage. When she inherited her present comfortable income, leaving poverty and discomfort in the past, she left her girlhood along with the in- conveniences; and perhaps a wholesome dread of falling a prey to a fortune, hunter had kept her single ever since.

"I know you mean kindly by me," said Myrtis, tremulously; "but"—

"But what, my child? Do you mean to tell me that you cannot respond at all to his

feeling for you?"

"I can't tell—it is too soon. I ought not to answer such a question—and however I might feel—if I saw more of him—it would be use- less. My parents would never tolerate any thing of the kind. I am certain of it from what I heard them say on the night of the

concert."

"But, my dear girl, your parents must lay aside their old world prejudices. Old Westbrooke is dead; the mother is a highly respectable person; and as for Sebastian, he might be a prince. Your parents must yield when common sense is against them."

"Dear Miss Langley, need we talk of this now? It makes me feel so dreadfully forward

and bold."

"But, Myrtis, don't you understand? Sebastian confided his trouble to me, and I plotted and planned to bring you together. For heaven's sake don't waste time in con- sidering petty proprieties! He loves you to desperation, as a woman, believe me, is never but once loved in her lifetime. You have been in his society for as many hours as if you had known him for months, merely meeting in the ordinary way. You must have some idea how you feel towards him."

"But I have not!" exclaimed Myrtis, almost crying, her true intuition warning her that something was wrong and unsatisfactory. "I have seen, of course, something of what you say, I am attracted and repelled. I feel as if I was deceiving father and mother, and yet I can't help it."

She broke down and cried, very much to her

own vexation.

"Well, never mind! He will be gone to- morrow. But I really think you ought to give him a hearing. Let him feel able to go to your father, if he is successful in pleading his own cause with you, mentioning me as a mutual friend, and asking for the right which every man owns to claim his wife by virtue of his own character and. position."

Myrtis buried her face in her handkerchief and sobbed. Every sensibility was wounded by the well-intentioned words of Miss Lang- ley. She felt herself enclosed in a net from which she might not escape. Dimly she recog- nised that Miss Langley had taken an unfair advantage of her position, to ensnare her and make free action impossible. But, alas! her own heart, or what she believed to be her own heart, took part with Henrietta Langley, against her better judgment. She was fasci- nated by the thought of Westbrooke's in- fatuation for her. His bright talk pleased her, his handsome face charmed her, his respectful manner towards her, more distinctly reverential than ever towards Miss Langley, flattered her most delicately. Perhaps, she thought, she was really in love with him. But how unlike was this over-excited, half-irritated, half-ashamed feeling to the happiness which she had thought might some day be for her. She dreaded entering upon a long period of battling with her parents, yet she wished to be stanch. If she should ever allow Sebastian to go to them and ask for her, having promised subject to their consent to be his wife, she felt sure that she would stand firm against their displeasure, and that nothing short of the discovery of personal unworthiness in him should induce her to retract her promise. Mingling strangely with all her confused feelings for and against Westbroke, came a new perception of her parents' view of the question —of their mortification and disappointment in finding that the daughter for whom they had sacrificed much, that she might be educated suitably to her station, was anxious to ally herself to a man of inferior birth and disrepu table parentage. With all her selfwill she could not help sympathizing with them and wishing that she could escape before she was again obliged to meet Sebastian Westbrooke. She still clung to the desire to be useful at home, to take her true place with her parents, to fulfil the duties so long neglected, to realize the ideal which George Heywood had set before her. The remembrance of George Heywood startled her into quietness. With the thought of him came calm and repose. He was a strong friend who would not want to bewilder her with complications at the outset of her home life; he would help her to keep steadily forward until she had attained to something of the peace which she believed

could only be earned by making her value felt at home.

"I will not engage myself to any one at present," she said, drying her eyes and feeling strong in her resolve to do what was right at

all costs.

Miss Langley went quietly out of the room. She had not yet learned to endure contradic- tion. She believed her young guest's scruples

to be mere affectation. Her vanity, too, was involved in triumphing over Myrtis.