Chapter 160814930

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Chapter NumberI
Chapter Title
Chapter Urlhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article160814930
Full Date1893-11-11
Page Number37
Corrections18
Word Count2777
IllustratedN
Last Corrected2018-04-07
Newspaper TitleAdelaide Observer (SA : 1843 - 1904)
Trove TitleOn the Wrong Track
article text

THE NOVELIST.

ON THE WRONG TRACK.

[By Jessie Waterhouse.]

CHAPTER I.

"I shall be quite mad by 7 o'clock if those

people don't send the dresses home!" cried Elsie Lethbridge from the bay window of her mother's drawing-room, out of which she was looking fretfully. Though her face was not wearing what a photographer would have described as her best expression, she was un- deniably handsome, dark haired, dark eyed, with fine teeth and well-formed features. Her figure was tall and finely formed. In style she was obtrusively modern, her dress and arrangement of hair displaying all the ugliness and absurdity of the fashion of the day.

"They won't come while you watch for them," said a voice from out of the darkness enclosed by the sides of an immense easy chair, set beside the fire.

"Oh, much you care whether they come or not, since you are not going! I should have thought that you would sympathize with my disappointment."

"I don't know that you have been disap-

pointed," replied the voice. "You don't want your gown before 7 o'clock. Come upstairs and let me do your hair. Why can't you take things quietly, as Annie does?"

"Why can't I be somebody else? What stupid things you say for a clever girl, Myrtis. Annie is a homely, jog-trot creature who takes

life as it comes, and you know how Mr. St. Leonards described me?"

"No," answered Myrtis from the fireside. "Did that vapid person ever say anything worth remembering?"

"Not to you, perhaps. You were so much taken up with those disreputable young men, Mr. Whitelock and Mr. Lucas, that you had neither eyes nor ears for any one else."

"They may have been disreputable," said Myrtis, after a little pause; "they were very certainly amusing, which is more than I can say for your Mr. St. Leonards. But what did he say of you?"

"He said I was a vivid creature, all fire and spirit," said Elsie, rather shamefacedly.

"Very impertinent of him to say anything of the kind on one evening's acquaintance."

Myrtis replied, "My friends did not make personal remarks."

"Why are you sitting in the dark, girls?" asked Mrs. Lethbridge, opening the door.

The quick ears of Myrtis heard her set some- thing down on a chair before she struck a

match.

"O don't light the gas yet, mother!" cried Elsie. "It looks so late when you have lights. Can't Lizzie run round to the shop again? Those dresses have not been sent yet."

"Lizzie's work is cut out for her, my dear, from now till bedtime. Besides, the shops are shut."

Elsie dragged the blinds down with angry impatience as the gaslight flooded the room. Turning towards her mother, she saw three large, brown-paper-covered boxes on a chair beside the door. With a shriek of delight she pounced upon them, too much excited by the knowledge that the longed-for dresses had arrived, to await her mother's explanation of their being in the room.

"Come upstairs, Myrtis," she called. "We must try them on to see that they fit."

"It is too bad that you are not going, Myrtis," said Mrs. Lethbridge for the fiftieth time since the refusal of Dr. Elliot to allow his daughter to make her appearance at the Queen's Birthday Ball, had given Myrtis her first glimpse into the sorrows of life. Having previously exhausted every form of reply which she could invent, to this cheap form of condolence, Myrtis Elliot sat silent, shielding her face from the gaslight with a palm-leaf fan. All that was visible of her person was a coil of rough, fair hair, a beautifully turned shoulder in a blue serge covering, and a brown hand holding the fan. "I dare say," Mrs. Lethbridge continued, "that you felt they ought to have waited until the spring, so that you could all have come out together; but you know Elsie's temper, and though Annie is quiet, she is just as much set upon her own way. Nothing would satisfy either of them but going to this ball with you or without you. I'm sure I didn't want them to go, though everybody tells me Elsie is certain to be the belle of the ball. Still, rather than have you feel yourself left out in the cold—you who have been with us so long, and are so much older than Elsie or Annie."

"Don't pity me, please," exclaimed Myrtis, rising suddenly from her chair and standing in the full gaslight. Her face showed not one regularly beautiful feature, yet the general effect was piquant and charming, with something of the same fascination in line and varying expression, as that presented by a soft, green hill side early on a spring morning, dewy and shadowy, yet bright and about as easy to describe. She was tall and not very slight, the pose of her head on her shoulders was fine, and her movements were graceful with the grace which comes of good proportion, perfect health, and entire unconsciousness,

"I don't wish Elsie and Annie to set aside their pleasure for me. I will go upstairs now to help them to dress."

"Tell them not to put on their gowns until after tea," said Mrs. Lethbridge.

"Myrtis glanced for an instant at her own reflection in a fantastically-shaped mirror let into the drawing-room wall as she went out. She was perhaps hardly aware that she had looked at herself; but Mrs. Lethbridge noticed the slight action, drawing her own conclusions, like many other persons, from very small premises.

"She thinks that Elsie might not have a good chance beside her, vain minx! as if any one would look at her besides my brilliant beauty, with her regular features. And yet Myrtis is taking; she lights up well at night—particularly when she gets excited, as she is now about something. But it would be ridiculous to compare her with Elsie. Even Annie is really better looking than Myrtis, but her ways are not so pretty."

In spite of her unspoken confidence in the superiority of her daughter's charms as compared

with those of Myrtis Elliot, Mrs. Lethbridge began to feel, for the first time that she was not so very sorry after all to leave her young friend at home on this momentous occasion. "A girl's first ball is an event in her life," thought Mrs. Lethbridge, as she

tidied the drawing-room. "She ought to have her chance." The good lady did not define precisely to herself what she meant by "chance," but she meant what any one else would mean under the same circumstances. Two or three wealthy men were to be at the ball. One a squatter from a neighbouring colony, fat, bald, and more than middle aged, but pleasant and popular. Another an Englishman, said to be looking for a good investment for his capital, haughty and reserved,

with, for a certain class of young woman, the indescribable fascination of appearing to look down from a lofty height upon "colonials." The third, a Broken Hill Silver King, of whom it was said by the uncharitable that he signed all documents with a + (his mark) on account of the incompleteness of his education. With such "chances" as these thrown by a kind Providence in the way of a portionless

girl, it was plain that the removal of all possible interference with the success of débutante ought to be regarded as the working of that same Providence, and not as a source of regret.

Five years before this May evening, Dr. and Mrs. Elliot, acting upon the advice of a mutual friend, had placed their eldest daughter with Mrs. Lethbridge as a boarder, in order that she might enjoy the best educational advantages which Adelaide could offer without going to a boarding-school. Here she had been happy enough in the Lethbridge's way, tolerably content with an endless round of foolish pleasures for Saturday afternoons and public holidays, dreading the return to a dull home in the country, but often longing for a life which was not possible under present circumstances —a life which should satisfy needs in her nature which now were starved. The last two years had been granted rather unwillingly by her parents, who thought that she ought to be at home and taking her share of the family burdens, but they were overruled by the representations of Mrs. Lethbridge and the teachers under whom Myrtis was studying. If, they argued, Myrtis was to act as governess to her little brothers and sisters, she must not be hurried away from school at eighteen, like an ordinary schoolgirl, but she must be properly qualified to teach. With that view she had for some months attended different classes for teachers besides going on with her own studies in favourite subjects. Hitherto she had been content to obey the edict of her parents that her mind

was not to be distracted from its serious occupations by social pleasures; but it was hard to be forbidden to appear at the ball with companions whom she had regarded almost as sisters. Her reason sided with her parents. They had made great sacrifices to enable her to enjoy every advantage of education, and it was only fair that she should be willing to make sacrifices on her side. Besides, balls were not to be forbidden pleasures in the future. All her parents exacted was a pledge that her school career should be completed before her entrance upon a season of gaieties, among which learning would be impossible. Her friends, Elsie and Annie, indignant at what they considered an exercise of tyranny, had avowed their determination to wait for Myrtis, but the temptation of the great Civil Service ball in May had proved too much for their

friendship.

Annie Johnson, Mrs. Lethbridge's niece, was sitting by the window sewing white roses on her satin shoes when Elsie entered their

mutual bedroom.

"Oh, the frocks have come at last!" she cried, throwing down the shoe she had just

finished.

She was a shorter, thinner, plainer edition of the handsome Elsie, but the face gave evidence of more sense and feeling.

By the time Myrtis was in the room the strings and wrappings had been torn from the boxes, and the tissue paper inside was being wrenched away. In the box which Elsie explored the folds of a gold-coloured silk were

revealed.

“Bother!" cried the young lady, overturning the box on the floor. "That is mother's. Take care, Annie, that you get your own. I don't want mine pulled about by any one."

"What a shame of you, Elsie!" Annie exclaimed. "You need not throw aunt's dress on the floor. Because it is not yours it has no value in your eyes."

But she did not pause in her search among the papers of the box she was handling to pick up her aunt's gown. Myrtis stooped and lifted the box, replacing the glittering silk which had fallen out, at the moment of her aunt's entrance.

"Look here, Myrtis," cried Elsie, flinging her white trained silk over the back of a chair; "have you ever seen anything so

lovely in your life?"

"Just sew that other rosette on my

shoe, Myrtis," Annie interrupted, hastily throwing off her afternoon gown that she might try on the wonderful arrangement of silk and tulle which she had taken gently from its resting-place.

"She can't play lady's maid to you, cried Elsie, rudely. " I want her to lace my dress."

"I will sew your rosette on your shoe," said Mrs. Lethbridge. " Let Myrtis help Annie."

For the next ten minutes Annie and Elsie wrangled over every detail of their toilets, each anxious to claim the whole attention of the spectators. Myrtis secretly marvelled why for the first time this customary display of character on the part of her friends should fill her with a sense of cold disgust. Friends! The idea of friendship was profaned by its

association with such girls.

"May I look at your gown, Mrs. Lethbridge?" said she, resolved not to allow her kind hostess to be ignored."

"Yes, my dear. I should like to have a peep at it myself: but these selfish girls seem to require the whole room for their preparations."

"Let us go into the spare bedroom, then,"

said Myrtis. "I can help you to dress in peace." "What! before I am dressed?" cried Elsie.

"Indeed you shan't."

At last they were out of the house, their cloudy, shimmering, flower-wreathed splendours shrouded in shawls; the cab had opened its doors and swallowed them. Still wrangling, they were driven across North-terrace to Government House.

"What a shame!" exclaimed Annie. "I never said good night to Myrtis. I am sorry, poor girl. I wish she could have come with us. I would not for anything have her think we had forgotten her."

"She is very good-natured, said Mrs. Lethbridge. "She will forgive you. I was not so much excited that I could not wish her good night. I told her to have some supper and to go to bed early."

Elsie took no part in this conversation. Her eyes were straining into the lamp-lighted darkness to see how long the string of carriages already before the doors of Government House had grown, and whether her party was likely to be kept waiting for any length of time to effect an entrance at the enchanted doors.

Meanwhile Myrtis, feeling lonely and out of sympathy with her departed friends, crossed the upstairs passage, passed through a small but pleasant sitting-room, and went out upon the balcony, on which the French windows of the room opened. Here in the darkness—

which seemed the more intense from the contrasting glare of the street lamps and the peaceful stars shining far away—she need assume no mask of unconcern. She was bitterly disappointed. With the extravagant hopefulness of youth, the readiness of twenty years of inexperience to believe that miracles will be allowed to bring about desired results, she had confidently expected that her parents would, under the circumstances, relax their rule for this one evening. To realize that the authors of her being could be flinty-hearted was grief enough, but to discover that her

almost sisters were shallow-hearted and self- seeking under all their pretence of affection was a trouble which loomed so large as almost to blot out the cruel disappointment of the frantically desired pleasure. A further development of the misery of the present hour opened as she began to admit a sense of self- disgust to her mind.

"How can I have called either of them my friend?" she asked herself over and over again. No other definite words framed themselves in her thought; but all that she could have expressed was summed up in that question, and she arraigned the unconscious girls before the severe tribunal of her youthful judgment on more charges than the one which had opened her eyes to the thinness of their natures. The process of having her eyes opened was painful; tears forced themselves down her cheeks faster than she could wipe them away. A grievous sense of loss and disaster made her feel life in this lively house to be strangely desolate. She was almost inclined to write home to say that she was weary of town, and to ask to be allowed to return at once. But for the certainty that Mrs. Lethbridge and the girls would attribute her action to mortification at their going to the ball without her, she would have written home to make her request, there and then. Home might be dull—her experience during past holidays had proved that no duller existence could be imagined than that led by her parents at Bea Bay—but it was wholesome, earnest, and sincere, a contrast in every particular to the life led by the Lethbridges. Having made heroic efforts to imagine her home in more attractive aspects—efforts which failed—she concluded that she was too tired to think any more. Bed was obviously the best place for her. She rose to her feet resolved to go to her own room, when the footsteps of a man in the adjoining room, followed by the sound of a man's voice speaking her own name, made her pause. The voice was familiar, yet she could not match it with a name.