Ernest Hornung.

Denis Dent: A Novel



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Mr. Merridew jumped up from the bedside. It was partly with temper that he was trembling now.

"Have you changed your mind already, Mr. Dent, or is all this so much affectation on your part? Did you mean what you said to me that night before we struck or did you not?"

"Every word of it," answered Denis, in a whisper that brought the other back to his former position on the bed, only now he was peering into eyes averted from his own.

"You do love her, don't you, Dent? I can see it – I can see it – whatever you may say!"

Denis could only nod. His weakness had come upon him very suddenly. But by an effort he was able to prevent it from rising to his eyes. And soon he was sufficient master of himself to attend to what Mr. Merridew was saying with so strange an eagerness of voice and manner.

"You must come back with us. That's what you must do. Melbourne's a perfect pandemonium: street upon street of tents, teeming with the very sweepings of the earth, and ship upon ship without a man on board. But there's a fine clipper, the Memnon by name, lying ready for sea at Geelong, and we'll all go home in her together. She's bound to be under-officered, and I suppose you would be happier so than as a passenger; but let this voyage be your last. You said you were as good a man ashore as at sea, if my memory serves me as well as yours. Well, now I can believe you, and in you, as I shall show you – as I shall very soon show you! I have no one to follow me in the firm, Denis – that's your name, isn't it? – and you don't mind my calling you by it, do you? But if you became my son, Denis … can't you see … can't you see?"

The man's tongue had run away with him, as the unlikeliest tongues will, under strong emotional strain: so we prattle of our newly dead, magnifying the good that we belittled in their lives. But here the strain was far greater; for she who had been dead was alive again; and this, this was her saviour, for whom nothing, not even the girl herself, was now too good.

"There is one thing you have forgotten," said Denis, without withdrawing his hand from the nervous grasp that now hurt considerably. "I had not got my answer – the other night. And how can I press her for it now? Don't answer yourself, sir, till you have thought it over, if I may ask that much of you, alone; and then I know you will agree with me. She ought not to be allowed to give me her answer now. And I – I ought to go away without seeing her again – until I have really shown myself – " He could not finish. His weakness and his sincerity were equally apparent: deeply moved, the elder man took his leave, with but one more syllable, and that to promise Denis, from the door, not to repeat a word of their conversation to Nan.

But Denis had not said all that it was in him to say, for in the first place he had not the heart, and in the next he was not too proud of his latest resolve; but it was a resolve no less, and already it might have been the resolve of his life.

"This is not the real man," he lay saying to himself.

"The real man had his say on the poop – and the sounder man of the two. I won't take advantage of either of them. Let me make that money. I can, and I will. Then she shall give me her answer – not before."

And yet he had an uneasy conscience about his new resolve, plausible as it became in words; but the qualm only hardened it within him; and he lay in the twilight with set teeth and dogged jaw, quite a different Denis from the one who had leaned forward to listen to Jimmy Doherty, but every inch a Dent.

Doherty came stealing back with the face of a conspirator; his worldly wisdom did not as yet include a recognition of the difficulty of picking up broken threads, even when they are threads of gold. Denis would not promise to speak to Mr. Kitto, would hear no more, indeed, of Ballarat; all he seemed to care to know now was what Captain Devenish was doing with himself.

"Him with the whiskers?" said Jimmy. "I can't sight that gent!"

"What do you mean?"

"Beg yer pardon, mister, but I don't like him. He speaks to you like as if you was a blessed dingo. That sort o' thing don't do out here; we ain't used to it." And young Australia shook a sage old head.

"But what's he doing with himself, Jimmy?"

"Oh, lookin' at the papers an' things, an' yawnin' an' smokin' about the place."

"And Mr. Merridew?"

"With the young lady. She ain't a-goin' to show up to-night, the young lady ain't; and you can take that as gospel – for I had it from the missus herself."

The boy's eyes were uncomfortably keen and penetrating. Denis got rid of him, and lay thinking until it was nearly dusk. Then they brought him his first solid meal; and presently Mrs. Kitto paid a visit to a giant so refreshed that nothing would persuade him to keep his bed without a break. He must have a breath of air: he was quite himself. So early evening brought him forth in a pair of Mr. Kitto's slippers.

The very first person he saw was Ralph Devenish, reading by lamplight in one of the many rude verandas which faced and flanked one another under the bright Australian stars. Denis went limping up to him with outstretched hand.

"I am glad to set eyes on you, Devenish," he said gravely.

"Really?" drawled the other, with light incredulity; but he could hardly refuse the bandaged hand.

"Ralph Devenish," pursued Denis, chilled but undeterred, "I make no apology for the sudden familiarity, partly because we've both been so near our death, and partly because we're cousins. My mother was a Devenish; you may open your eyes, but I would drop them if I came of the stock that treated her as her own people did! I never meant to tell you, for there can be no love to lose between your name and mine, but I blurted it out in a rage just before we struck. I want to say that I'm heartily ashamed of the expressions I made use of then; that I apologize for them, and take them back."

"My good fellow," replied Devenish, with engaging candour, "I don't recollect one of them; the fact is, I was a little drunk. As to our relationship, that's very interesting, I'm sure; but it's odd how one does run up against relations, in the last places you'd expect, too. I can't say I remember your name, though; never heard it before, to my knowledge. If there's been anything painful between your people and mine, don't tell me any more about it, like a good feller."

"I won't," said Denis, secretly boiling over, though for no good reason that he could have given. It certainly was not because Devenish continued occupying the only chair, leaving the lame man to stand. Denis was glad to have so whole a view of him as the lamplight and the easy chair afforded. Save for the patent fact that his clothes had not been made for him, the whiskered captain looked as he had looked on board, a subtle cross between the jauntily debonair and the nobly bored. As Denis watched he produced the same meerschaum that he had smoked all the voyage, a Turk's head beautifully coloured, with a curved amber mouthpiece, and proceeded to fill it from the same silken pouch.

"Another soul saved, you see!" said Ralph Devenish, as he tapped his Turk affectionately; it was the acme of sly callousness, even if intended so to appear. Denis turned away in disgust, but turned back for a moment in his stride.

"Are you going home with the Merridews?" he asked.

"I don't know," said Devenish. "Are you?"

"I don't know," echoed Denis. "But I think – not."

"Really?" drawled Devenish. "Well, as a year's leave don't last forever, I'm not so sure."

And as Denis saw the last of him under the lamp, he had not yet resumed the filling of the Turk's head.

CHAPTER VII
DENIS AND NAN

Miss Merridew continued prostrate, yet so exempt from bodily mischief that her case began to baffle all except the other woman, who had charge of it.

Mr. Merridew allowed himself to be dissuaded from obtaining indifferent medical advice at exorbitant cost, but his anxiety increased with his perplexity, and was only allayed by his instinctive confidence in Mrs. Kitto. That lady proved as practical and understanding as she was good and kind. Yet even Mrs. Kitto was puzzled just at first. They had to deal with one singularly reserved – who could lie for hours without closing an eye or uttering a word – and the father's way was to force her to say something, at the pain of his own passionate distress. But Mrs. Kitto would bring in her sewing, of which she seemed to have a great deal, and sit over it, also by the hour, in a quietude as grateful as her sparing speech. She was very observant, however, and the one thing that puzzled her only did so in the beginning. This was the anomaly presented by a patient whose face was often in a burning fever while her head and hand kept perfectly cool.

The wreck was never mentioned in the sick-room, nor did Nan guess that an inquest on the bodies was held within a few yards of where she lay. Yet it was she who eventually broke the ice.

"Is Mr. Dent still here?" she asked, but in a tone so magnificently offhand that a less astute person than Mrs. Kitto would have detected its anxiety as soon.

"He was this morning," replied Mrs. Kitto, smiling.

"Do you mean that he isn't now?" the girl demanded, half-rising on an elbow.

"No. I think I should have heard of it if he had thought of leaving us to-day."

Nan Merridew fell back upon her pillow.

"I wish he would go on board," she said petulantly, "if he is going."

"On board?" queried Mrs. Kitto; and she set down her work.

"Isn't he to be one of the officers on the ship we are all going home by?"

"I didn't know of it," said Mrs. Kitto, with equal embarrassment and surprise.

"But he is," declared the girl, with all an invalid's impatience. "I understood that from papa the day he came; he had spoken to the agents, or he was going to speak to them, and Denis – I mean Mr. Dent – was to have the best berth they could give him. I do wish he would go on board. I – I almost wish he hadn't saved my life!"

And she tossed her face to the wall, for it was burning as it had burned so often since her deliverance.

"It's meeting him again," said Mrs. Kitto to herself; "and she does care for him, or she would mind less." It made it all the harder to ask aloud, "Did your father say he had succeeded, dear?"

"We have never mentioned Mr. Dent again," said Nan to that, quite haughtily.

"Because I don't think he's sailing in the Memnon at all," continued Mrs. Kitto, gently. "I think he's going to the diggings instead."

"Going where?" the girl asked after a pause. The first sentence was all that she had heard.

"To Ballarat or Bendigo – to make his fortune."

"I hope he'll succeed," said Nan, after a pause; but her voice was a sweet bell jangled, and an hour went before she turned her face from the wall. It was still red, but there was a subtle difference in the shade. And in the hazel eyes, which were the most obvious of Miss Merridew's natural attractions, there was a crude, new light.

"I am going to get up," said she.

Mrs. Kitto proved not unprepared for the announcement; it appeared that all her needlework had been for Nan, and now it was as though the last stitch had just been put into everything. It was all a surprise to the girl, who had not given the matter a thought. She was to get a fresh outfit at Geelong, before the ship sailed, but Mrs. Kitto insisted on sending her so far equipped by herself. And the dress which the kind soul had been so busy altering was almost the last remnant of her own trousseau, and some years behind the fashion.

In point of fact it was what used to be called a "double robe" of lavender cashmere; and it was trimmed with braid of the same colour, but the braid was a shade darker than the rest, and its criss-cross pattern as unlovely in its way as the voluminous skirts it was intended to adorn. But the fabric was soft and fine, and the delicate tint happened to suit Nan Merridew, who had a singularly clear and pale skin, and dark gold ringlets almost the colour of her eyes. For she was of the type dear to the pre-Raphaelites, with rather more flesh and blood, and a much more conspicuous spirit of her own, perhaps a little too conspicuous when Nan reappeared in the sunlight, with quite another light in her eyes, on the fourth day after the wreck.

It was near the close of a radiant afternoon, and Mr. Merridew was absent for the day; but Captain Devenish had been seen strolling toward the cliffs, and Nan thought that she would stroll after him in spite of the direction. No one must think of accompanying her; she would so enjoy finding the way for herself. To this Mrs. Kitto pretended to make no objection, but expressed a belief that Mr. Dent was with Captain Devenish, thinking she had named the last deterrent. On the contrary, it only decided Nan to go quickly; and go she did with that peculiar light stronger than ever in her eyes.

Now the way led through a belt of young pines, by which the station was almost surrounded, and in the middle of them Nan met a man in moleskins and a red shirt. Him she was approaching with downcast eyes, as one who must regard her curiously, when his voice thrilled her at close quarters.

"Nan! And you'd have passed me without a word!"

Denis was standing in her path, a common wide-awake drooping from one hand, the other reaching out for hers.

"I didn't recognize you," she said, scarcely touching his hand. "And I was looking for Captain Devenish – can you tell me where he is?"

"He has gone down to bathe," replied Denis with some reluctance. To bathe where a ship's company had been drowned that week! No wonder Nan winced. "Can't you spare me a few minutes instead?" he added as she was about to turn.

"Oh, yes, if you wish it."

"Of course I wish it!" exclaimed Denis. His shoulders looked very square under the coarse red flannel; but they were heaving, too.

Nan was her own mistress on the spot. "I couldn't know," said she. "You see, you never sent me any message – not one word."

"I shall tell you why."

"And then I understood you were going to the diggings."

"So I am," said Denis. His voice was preternaturally deep and vibrant. She looked up at him with the odd light in her eyes.

"And why haven't you gone yet?"

"I wanted to see you first."

"That was very kind."

"To tell you why I was going at all – to tell you everything, Nan, if you will let me – if you aren't determined to misunderstand me before I open my mouth!"

Their eyes were together now, his dark with passion, in hers a certain softening of the unlovely light that hurt him more than her tone: and her eyes were the first to fall, to wander, to espy a stump among the pines.

"I must sit down," she faltered. "It's my first appearance, and I tire directly. But I'm not too tired to listen to you – I want to."

Yet already a change had come over her, and either she was physically weaker or else softer at heart than she had been but a minute before. At all events she took his arm to the stump, which was one of several in a little clearing lit and checkered by the slanting sun. And she sat there almost meekly in his sight, while Denis planted a foot upon one of the other stumps and said what he had to say with bare arms folded across a moleskinned knee.

"In the first place," he began, "I saved your life."

Nan's smouldering spirit was in flames upon the word, and her face caught its fire.

"And you remind me of it!" she cried in red scorn. "Is it the sort of thing one forgets? Is it a thing to thank you for like any common service, and are you the one to put the words in my mouth?"

Denis did not wince.

"I am wrong," he said, quietly. "In the first place, I asked you to marry me; it was only in the second place, and before you had time to give me an answer, that I was so unfortunate as to save your life."

"Unfortunate!"

"Most unfortunate to be the one to save you, Nan, because if it had been any one else it would have made no difference between us; as it is it makes all the difference in the world."

"I don't understand," she said, trembling because she was beginning to understand so well. "I only know how brave you were – how brave!"

And she raised her sweet face without restraint, for now she was thinking of nothing but his bravery.

"Most men are that at a pinch," said Denis, with a twitch of his red shirt: "but I was luckier than most. I won't make too light of it. I can swim. But you don't suppose I was the only strong swimmer on board. And which of the rest, I should like to know, wouldn't have made as good use of my chance?"

"But it wasn't only the swimming!" the girl cried without thinking, to break off with her bent face in its besetting fever.

"If you mean the climbing," he continued equably, "there was still less merit in that, for it was absurdly unnecessary, as you probably know, besides which I was full of Spanish brandy at the time. Not that I'm ashamed of that," added Denis with the absolute candour of the dales. "I believe that brandy was the saving of us both; but it was another piece of pure luck."

Nan said nothing for a minute. She was trying to see his hands, and he showed her with a shrug the only finger that was still in rags. His wounds had not been serious; he was scarcely walking lame; the scratches had skinned over on his face. She could look in it again, steadfastly, simply; she was even beginning to like it better between a wide-awake and an open throat than in the spruce cap and collar of the voyage. Her own scarlet she had conquered in a tithe of the time it had often taken her in secret: it was not so dreadful to be with him after all. And if he loved her nothing mattered: not even her long agony in the ti-tree thicket. Yet he had hurt her by belittling himself, and by something else of which his last words reminded Nan.

"But you don't look on it as luck. You aren't a bit glad you saved my life!" And her eyes fell once more, if this time not involuntarily.

"Glad!" he cried out. "Gladness is no word for my feeling about that – for what I feel every moment of every hour."

"Yet you wish it had been some one else."

"I don't!"

"But you said you did, Denis."

"Well, and I have felt it, too, when I couldn't send you a single message – couldn't make a single sign – for fear you should think – for fear you should misunderstand!"

Nan had not raised her eyes again; his tone made it difficult now. He was leaning toward her, almost bending over her, and yet his foot clung to the pine-stump as though by conscious effort of the will, and his face was a fight between set jaw and yearning eyes. But Nan could not see his face; she could only see the sunlight and the shadows in the lavender skirts that spread about her as she sat, and a few inches of hard yellow ground beyond. She was beginning to believe in his love, to understand his position before he explained it to her, to see the end of her own doubts. His halting voice was more eloquent than many words.

And yet for words she was constrained to probe.

"So you determined to go up to the diggings?"

"I did."

"And to leave me?"

"Nan, I must."

His voice reconciled her more and more.

"Must you, Denis?"

"To make some money, Nan dear! And I will make it – I will – I will!"

She felt that he would. His voice only stirred her now.

"And then?" she asked.

"And then," he cried, "and then I sha'n't mind pressing you for an answer to what I dared to ask you on the North Foreland."

There was a silence in the little clearing among the young pines. Only near at hand the hum of insects, and in the distance a cloud of cockatoos shrieking the sun into the sea, and the sea itself faintly booming upon the base of the sandstone cliffs. Before either spoke there was indeed one other sound, but it fell on ears doubly deaf; for Nan had flung back her dark-gold ringlets in a way of hers, and from the bold pose of her head none could have imagined the warm bloom upon her cheeks, or the tender film that dimmed the hazel eyes.

"Suppose I prefer to give you your answer first?"

"Nan! Nan! I would have you think it over, and over, and over again!"

"But suppose I refused you after all?"

"I would sooner that than be accepted in haste and – and repented of – you know!"

It was as though he was maintaining his balance for a bet, and near the end of his endurance even so. Nan watched him with a smile touched by the last beams of the setting sun, but as she rose the red glory beat full upon her.

"Very well!" said she. "Then if you won't come to me for your answer, I must bring it to you."

Night falls like an assassin in that country, but the purple tints were only beginning when in his very ear she implored him not to leave her any more, and he held her closer, but said he must. It would not be for long. Others were growing rich in a day; he would make one more. He knew it; something told him; and again, something else told her.

Yet she was vexed with herself for her impulsive appeal against a decision to which she had felt reconciled but the moment before; and vexed with him for scarcely listening to her appeal, unpremeditated as it was, unreasonable as it might be. He might have wavered; she would not have had him yield. His resolution was fine, heroic; she only wondered whether it was quite human, and wondering, lost the thread of his defense.



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