The Toll of The Bush
Chapter VIII The Priest and The Lover
Chapter VIII The Priest and The Lover
When the human mind suffers from a harassment of doubt it instinctively endeavours to relieve the pressure by thrusting its torment upon another. Geoffrey had no doubts as to the correctness of his position, and the argument in which he had just engaged seemed to him as elemental as might be the discussion of a flat earth. But with Eve it was otherwise, and consequently when she found Mr. Fletcher waiting for her on the verandah, she very shortly began to affect his serenity in a manner similar to that in which her own had been disturbed.
'Do you never have doubts?' she asked apropos of some dogmatic utterance of his.
'Doubts are of Satan,' replied Mr. Fletcher; 'put them behind you.'
Eve caught at something fresh. 'Is Satan a personage,' she asked, 'or merely an abstraction?'
'Can you ask that question with the Bible before you?'
'But does the Bible always mean what it says? Must we believe it all implicitly, no matter how incredible it may appear?'page 82
'Why harass yourself with these doubts?' Mr. Fletcher asked. 'Put your faith in God, and He will make the path easy for you.'
'But—but—forgive me if I pain you—if there be one falsehood in the Bible, then the whole of it must be open to suspicion. If God had desired to reveal Himself to man, he could have made certain of achieving His object by appealing to his reason.'
'It is not for us to question the ways the Almighty in His wisdom has seen fit to adopt,' replied the clergyman severely. 'Nor must you forget that what we regard now as incontrovertible truths would have been rejected with ridicule on all hands at the time the Word of God was given to mankind.'
'That is no doubt true. But with what veneration would every one of us regard the Bible if we found that every fresh discovery in science only made its truth more apparent?'
'And are we certain that it will not be so? Science has reached no finality in its discoveries. The truth of yesterday is the doubt of to-day and the lie of to-morrow. In the pursuit of knowledge do we get any nearer the solution of that vital question, the fate of the human soul? And,' he continued, starting to his feet with something of his outdoor fervour upon him, 'the day of science is wellnigh spent. Everywhere its votaries are returning with the same story of the impenetrable barriers God has set against the expansion of human knowledge. Turn then, my sister, to the blessed figure of the Saviour, in whose strength lies your salvation and that of the world. What has science to offer us in comparison with that divine light? page 83Put from you the consideration of the Old Testament, which is too hard for your understanding, and cling to the Saviour, in whose arms your doubts will pass like darkness before the sun.'
'Ah!' said Eve, her eyes shining, 'when you talk to me like that my faith soars upwards; but afterwards the strength goes from its wings and down I come to the ground.'
He stood still, arrested by her words, and the whole expression of his countenance underwent a slow change. 'Would you dwell for ever in that empyrean of belief?' he asked at last.
'How willingly!' Eve replied.
'Then link your life with mine, and it shall be my task and my delight to hold you there.'
The girl looked at him with puzzled eyes, then slowly the blood mantled in her cheeks and she drew involuntarily backwards.
'Yes,' he said, watching her; 'this is a declaration of love, no less. I have argued and wrestled with and half convinced you; but in the process I have become wholly convinced myself.'
If Eve had been rosy before, she was pale now. All the light of exaltation raised by his words had faded from her eyes, leaving her face cold and impassive. Her first emotions were those of reproach and disappointment.
'I do not know how to answer you, Mr. Fletcher,' she said at last. 'I suppose I ought to have seen what was in your mind, and perhaps you will hardly credit me when I say that I did not. I have never had the vaguest idea until a moment ago that you thought of me in that way.'
'If one of us is to blame for that,' said Mr. page 84Fletcher, 'I am that one. But I do not press you for a decision now. In a matter of such moment it is only right that you should take time to reflect.'
'No, no,' said Eve, startled. 'My hesitation does not arise from any doubt as to my decision. I was wondering whether I had to excuse myself for any action which, however unconsciously performed, may have led you to believe that such a proposal would be acceptable to me.'
'I can think of none,' said Mr. Fletcher, smiling. 'But there has been no action of yours since I have known you which has not had the effect of more firmly convincing me that no other woman would be so acceptable to me.'
His manner was sincere and respectful, with, for the moment, but little of the assurance that ordinarily characterised it. Eve found herself thinking that if as a clergyman he was dictatorial and inclined to crush opposition by a display of brute force, it was not so as a lover. Yet the influence he had begun to exert over her faded with the disappearance of the cleric, and was not replenished by the advent of the admirer. Had Mr. Fletcher been fully conscious of his power, he might have preferred to elaborate his opening sentence instead of covering and obscuring it in the ordinary asseverations of affection.
In these few moments of reflection the girl had regained her self-command. The first feeling of something incongruous in this abrupt change of their relationship, the sense of loss and disappointment, almost amounting to a betrayal, she now, with a clearer mind, recognised as unreasonable, page 85and, however evolved, she accepted the situation frankly.
'I am sorry,' she said gently, 'because it is impossible.'
'I have taken you very much by surprise, no doubt,' he said.
'I think that has no influence on my reply. I can only say that I do not regard you in the way that you would wish.'
'Perhaps at a later date,' Mr. Fletcher suggested, 'you will give me leave to address you on this subject again. It is probably unfortunate that my manner has not led you to anticipate such a disclosure. Forgive me if I press the point—I would not willingly abandon hope in a matter which so vitally affects my life's happiness.'
'I do not think it would be of any use,' Eve replied. 'If I were to yield to that you would have just grounds for believing that your wishes might ultimately be realised.'
'I am prepared to take the risk of a fresh disappointment.'
Eve shook her head. 'It would not be right for me to allow you,' she said; 'for I do not see any possibility of a change in my feelings.'
Mr. Fletcher moved a few steps from where he had been standing. 'Is there—may I ask—any objection which I should be forced to regard as insuperable?'
Eve looked at him steadily, her face showing a faint surprise. 'Do you not regard my disinclination as insuperable?' she asked.
'Not altogether,' Mr. Fletcher confessed.
The quietness of his manner had betrayed the page 86girl into a serenity which now held her at a disadvantage, dimly felt, but not consciously realised. She met his reply with a smile, but also with a little catch of the breath. She was seated on the music-stool, her back to the piano, in the drawing-room to which she had led him on his arrival. Mr. Fletcher drew forward a chair and sat down in front of her. There was something in his strong face which held her gaze despite her desire to look elsewhere.
'Eve Milward,' he said, 'it is borne in upon me that I shall prevail against your disinclination, and that the day is not far distant when you will be glad that I had the resolution to try. Is there in your heart nothing to correspond with that prescient?'
Eve's blue eyes dilated in a sort of speechless fascination, and for a moment it seemed to her that she must yield not only the point he pressed for but the whole argument. Then with a little start she was back in the world of realities.
'I can only argue from my present feelings,' she said; 'and they are such that I must hope for your sake that you will at once forget this conversation and dismiss the idea from your thoughts.'
'The latter is an impossibility,' Mr. Fletcher declared. He was silent awhile, but his manner by no means showed a disposition to relinquish the struggle. Eve began again to feel that some concession he must exact from her, and filled with the desire for immediate escape, she debated inwardly what might be the consequences of allowing the renewal of his proposal at some—preferably distant—date. page 87'If,' said Mr. Fletcher, 'your only reason for denying me a continuance of hope is the desire to spare me the pain of an ultimate refusal, then I trust that you will reconsider it. I am not of such poor material that I cannot submit myself to the inevitable, but first let me be assured that it is the inevitable to which I am submitting.'
'If my replies do not now give you that assurance, Mr. Fletcher, it is possible they may be no more effectual later on.'
'At least you will be possessed of the knowledge of my feelings towards you,' Mr. Fletcher said, disregarding this suggestion; 'and your final resolve, if no more favourable, will at any rate be the result of mature consideration.'
Eve moved uneasily. It seemed that she was being asked so little that it was mere obstinacy to refuse. But also it seemed that she was being asked so much that there was very little more to be conceded. She had not reached her twenty-first year without receiving an offer of marriage, but she had never had a lover who pursued the matter with such pertinacity as Mr. Fletcher. That gentleman, indeed, seemed possessed of a fecundity of argument and a resolution to exploit it which must be allowed to be somewhat unusual in the circumstances.
'It is, of course, impossible for me to prevent you renewing the subject should you desire to do so,' she said at last.
'May I take that for a permission to address you again?' Mr. Fletcher asked at once.
It seemed that there was no escape on that road, and Eve became slightly exasperated. 'No,' she said, with more firmness than she had yet shown, page 88'I will not go as far as that. I could not in honesty take any responsibility for the infliction of a fresh disappointment, for I am convinced that nothing but disappointment for you could attend any renewal of the subject.'
'If you could bring yourself to dismiss that aspect of the matter from consideration,' Mr. Fletcher urged. 'No doubt I was inadvised to broach the question at this juncture, but do not let me suffer irretrievable harm as the result of an uncontrollable impulse of affection towards you.'
Eve felt that there was something extraordinary about this speech, but she was too agitated at the moment to inquire what. Surely it was impossible for her to refuse so gentle a plea, and yet——
She heard a step that she recognised enter the dining-room, then return along the verandah. A shadow passed the window going and coming, then the wanderer entered the house and advanced along the hall. Eve's heart beat more rapidly in the hope of relief, but she did not move. Mr. Fletcher's attention was divided between the downcast face of the beautiful girl and the annoying movements without.
The step came along the hall and paused outside the partly closed door; there was a perfunctory tap and Geoffrey put his head into the room.
'Were you looking for me, Mr. Hernshaw?' Eve asked lightly as she rose.
Geoffrey glanced with an impassive countenance from one to the other.
'Good-morning, Mr. Fletcher,' he said. 'I am looking for Major Milward. There is a native outside thirsting for his blood. He charges him page 89that he did on or about the 18th of October last feloniously and of malice aforethought supply him with one tin golden syrup in place of one ditto preserved meat, and he demands apologies and damages, or in the alternative—war.'
Eve laughed gaily, and Mr. Fletcher, as in duty bound, produced a dour smile, which did not by any means express his actual sentiments at that moment.