Susan Warner.

The Old Helmet, Volume II online

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neck of her dress - flowing sleeves too, and ruffles round _them_. And a
buckle in her belt - a gold buckle, I do believe. And shoes?"

The shoes were unexceptionable, but they fitted well on a nice foot;
and the hands - were too small and white and delicate ever to have done
anything, or ever to be willing to do anything. That was the point. No
harm in small hands, Mrs. Balliol allowed, if they did not betray their
owner into daintiness of living. She pursued her lucubrations for some
time without interrupting those of Eleanor.

"Are you from England, sister?"

"From England - yes; but we made some stay in Australia by the way,"
said Eleanor turning from the window to take a more sociable position
nearer her hostess.

"A long voyage?"

"Not remarkably long. I had good companions."

"From what part of England?"

"The borders of Wales, last."

"Brother Rhys is from Wales - isn't he?"

"I do not know," said Eleanor, vexed to feel the flush of blood to her
cheeks.

"Ah? You have known brother Rhys before?" with a searching look.

"Yes."

"And how do you think you shall like it in Fiji?"

"You can hardly expect me to tell under such short trial," said Eleanor
smiling.

"There are trials enough. I suppose you expect those, do you not?"

"I do not mean to expect them till they come," said Eleanor, still
smiling.

"Do you think that is wise?" said the other gravely. "They will come, I
assure you, fast enough; do you not think it is well to prepare the
mind for what it has to go through, by looking at it beforehand?"

"You never know beforehand what is to be gone through," said Eleanor.

"But you know some things; and it is well, I think, to harden oneself
against what is coming. I have found that sort of discipline very
useful. Sister, may I ask you a searching questions?"

"Certainly! If you please," said Eleanor.

"You know, we should be ready to give every one a reason of the hope
that is in us. I want to ask you, sister, what moved you to go on a
mission?"

Astonishment almost kept Eleanor silent; then noticing the quick eyes
of Mrs. Balliol repeating the enquiry at her face, the difficulty of
answering met and joined with a small tide of indignation at its being
demanded of her. She did not want to be angry, and she was very near
being ready to cry. Her mind was in that state of overwrought fulness
when a little stir is more than the feelings can bear. Among
conflicting tides, the sense of the ludicrous at last got the
uppermost; and she laughed, as one laughs whose nerves are not just
under control; heartily and merrily. Mrs. Balliol was confounded.

"I should not have thought it was a laughing matter," - she remarked at
length. But the gravity of that threw Eleanor off again; and the little
hands and ruffled sleeves were reviewed under new circumstances. And
when Eleanor got command of herself, she still kept her hand over her
eyes, for she found that she was just trembling into tears. She held it
close pressed upon them.

"Perhaps you are fatigued, sister?" said Mrs. Balliol, in utter
incapacity to account for this demonstration.

"Not much. I beg your pardon!" said Eleanor. "I believe I am a little
unsettled at first getting here. If you please, I will try being quite
quiet for awhile - if you will let me be so discourteous?"

"Do so!" said Mrs. Balliol. "Anything to rest you." And Eleanor went
back to her window, and turning her face to the garden again rested her
head on her hand; and there was a hush. Mrs. Balliol worked and mused,
probably. Eleanor did as she had said; kept quiet. The quiet lasted a
long time, and the tropical day grew up into its meridian heats; yet it
was not oppressive; a fine breeze relieved it and made it no other than
pleasant. Home at last! This great stillness and quiet, after the ocean
tossings, and months of voyaging, and change, and heart-uncertainty.
The peace of heart now was as profound; but so profound, and so
thankfully recognized, that Eleanor's mood was a little unsteady. She
needed to be still and recollect herself, as she could looking out into
the leaves of a great banana tree there in the garden, and forgetting
the house and Mrs. Balliol.

The quiet lasted a long time, and was broken then by the entrance of
Mr. Balliol. His wife introduced him; and after learning that he could
now render no aid to Mr. Rhys, he immediately entered into a brisk
conversation with the new comer Mr. Rhys had brought. That went well,
and was also strengthening. Eleanor was greatly pleased with him. He
was evidently a man of learning and sense and spirit; a man of
excellent parts, in good cultivation, and filled with a most benign and
gentle temper of goodness. It was a pleasure to talk to him; and while
they were talking the party from the schooner arrived.

Eleanor felt her "shamefacedness" return upon her, while all the rest
were making acquaintance, welcoming and receiving welcome. She stood
aside. Did they know her position? While she was thinking, Mr. Rhys
came to her and put her again in her chair by the window. Mrs. Amos had
been carried off by Mrs. Balliol. The two other gentlemen were in
earnest converse. Mr. Rhys took a seat in front of Eleanor and asked in
a low voice if she wished for any delay?

"In what?" said Eleanor, though she knew the answer.

"Coming home."

He was almost sorry for her, to see the quick blood flash into her
face. But she caught her breath and said "No."

"You know," he said; how exactly like the Mr. Rhys of Plassy! - "I would
not hurry you beyond your pleasure. If you would like to remain here a
day or two, domiciled with Mrs. Balliol, and rest, and see the
land - you have only to say what you wish."

"I do not wish it," said Eleanor, finding it very difficult to answer
at all - "I wish it to be just as you please."

"You must know what my pleasure is. Does your heart not fail you, now
you are here?" he asked still lower and in a very gentle way.

"No."

"Eleanor, have you had any doubts or failings of heart at any time,
since you left England?"

"No. Yes! - I did, once - at Sydney."

"At Sydney?" - repeated Mr. Rhys in a perceptibly graver tone.

"Yes - at Sydney - when I did not get any letters from you."

"You got no letters from me?"

"No."

"At Sydney?"

"No," said Eleanor venturing to look up.

"Did you not see Mr. Armitage?"

"Mr. Armitage! O he was in the back country - I remember now Mr. Amos
said that; and he never returned to Sydney while we were there."

An inarticulate sound came from Mr. Rhys's lips, between indignation
and impatience; the strongest expression of either that Eleanor had
ever heard from him.

"Then Mr. Armitage had the letters?"

"Certainly! and I am in the utmost surprise at his carelessness. He
ought to have left them in somebody else's charge, if he was quitting
the place himself. When did you hear from me?"

The flush rose again, not so vividly, to Eleanor's face.

"I heard in England - those letters - you know."

"Those letters I trusted to Mrs. Caxton?"

"Yes."

"And not since! Well, you are excused for your heart failing that once.
Who is to do it, Eleanor? - Mr. Amos?"

"If you please - I should like - "

He left her for a moment to make his arrangements; and for that moment
Eleanor's thoughts leaped to those who should have been by her side at
such a time, with a little of a woman's heart-longing. Mrs. Caxton, or
her mother! If one of them might have stood by her then! Eleanor's head
bent with the moment's poor wish. But with the touch of Mr. Rhys's hand
when he returned to her, with the sound of his voice, there came as it
always did to Eleanor, healing and strength. The one little word
"Come," from his lips, drove away all mental hobgoblins. He said
nothing more, but there was a great tenderness in the manner of his
taking her upon his arm. His look Eleanor dared not meet. She felt very
strange yet; she could not get accustomed to the reality of things.
This man had never spoken one word of love to her, and now she was
standing up to be married to him.

The whole little party stood together, while the marriage service of
the English church was read. It was preceded however by a prayer that
was never read nor written. After the service was over, and after
Eleanor had been saluted by the two ladies who were all the
representatives of mother and sister and friends for her on the
occasion, Mr. Rhys whispered to her to get her bonnet. Eleanor gladly
obeyed. But as soon as it appeared, there was a general outcry and
protest. What were they going to do?"

"Take her to see how her house looks," said Mr. Rhys. "You forget I
have something to shew."

"But you will bring her back to dinner? do, brother Rhys. We shall have
dinner presently. You'll be back?"

"If the survey is over in time - but I do not think it will," he
answered gravely.

"Then tea - you will come then? Let us all be together at tea. Will you?"

"It is a happiness we have had no visitors before dinner! I will see
about it, sister Balliol, thank you; and take advice."

And glad was Eleanor when they got away; which was immediately, for Mr.
Rhys's motions were prompt. He led her now not to the wicket by which
she had come, but another way, through the garden wilderness still,
till another slight paling with a wicket in it was passed and the
wilderness took a somewhat different character. The same plants and
trees were to be seen, but order and pleasantness of arrangement were
in place of vegetable confusion; neat walks ran between the luxuriant
growing bananas, and led gradually nearer to the river; till another
house came in view; and passing round the gable end of it, Eleanor
could cast her eye along the building and take the effect. It was long
and low, with a high picturesque thatched roof, and the walls
fancifully wrought in a pattern, making a not unpretty appearance. The
door was in the middle; she had no time to see more, for Mr. Rhys
unlocked it and led her in.

The interior was high, wide, and cool and pleasant after the hot sun
without; but again she had no time to make observations. Mr. Rhys led
her immediately on to an inner room. Eleanor's eyes were dazed and her
heart was beating; she could hardly see anything, except, as one takes
impressions without seeing, that this answered to the inner room at
Mrs. Balliol's, and had far more the air of being furnished and
pleasantly habitable. What gave it the air she could not tell; for Mr.
Rhys was unfastening her bonnet and throwing it off, and then taking
her sea-cloak from his arm and casting that somewhat carelessly away;
and then his arms enfolded her. It was the first time they had been
really alone since her coming; and now he was silent, so silent that
Eleanor could scarcely bear it. She was aware his eyes were studying
her fixedly, and she felt as if they could see nothing beside the
conscious mounting of the blood from cheek to brow, which reached what
to her was a painful flush. Probably he saw it, for the answer came in
a little closer pressure of the arms that were about her. She ventured
to look up at last; she was unable to endure this silent inspection;
and then she saw that his face was full of emotion that wrought too
deep for words, too deep even for caresses, beyond the one or two grave
kisses with which he had welcomed her. It overcame Eleanor completely.
She could not meet the look. It was much more than mere joy or
affection; there was an expression of the sort of tenderness with which
a mother would clasp a lost child; a full keen sympathy for all she had
done and gone through and ventured for him, for all her loneliness and
forlornness that had been, and that was still with respect to all the
guardians of her childhood or womanhood up to that hour. Eleanor's head
sank down. She felt none of that now for which his looks expressed such
keen regard; she had got to her resting-place, not the less for all the
awe and strangeness of it, which were upon her yet. She could have
cried for a very different feeling; but she would not; it did not suit
her. Mr. Rhys let her be still for a few minutes. When he did speak,
his voice was gravely tender indeed, as it had been to her all day, but
there was no sentimentality about it. He spoke clear and abrupt, as he
often did.

"Do you want to go back to the other house to dinner?"

"Do you wish it?" said Eleanor looking up to find out.

"I wish to see nothing earthly, this afternoon, but your face."

"Then do let it be so!" said Eleanor.

He laughed and kissed her, more gaily this time, without seeming able
to let her out of his arms; and left her at last with the injunction to
keep still a minute till he should return, and on no account to begin
an examination of the house by herself. Very little danger there was!
Eleanor had not the free use of her eyes yet for anything. Presently he
came back, put her hand on his arm, and led her out into the middle
apartment.

"Do you know," he said as he passed through this, keeping her hand in
his own, and looking down at her face, - "what is the first lesson you
have to learn?"

"No," said Eleanor, most unaffectedly frightened; she did not know why.

"The first thing we have to do, on taking possession here to-day is, to
give our thanks and offer our prayers in company. Do not you think so?"

"Yes - " said Eleanor breathlessly. "But what then?"

"I mean together, - not that it should be all on one side. You with me,
as well as I with you."

"Oh no, Mr. Rhys!"

"Why not? - Mrs. Rhys?"

"Do not ask me! That would be dreadful!"

"I do not think you will find it so."

Eleanor stopped short, near the other end of the great apartment. "I
cannot do it!" she exclaimed with tears in her eyes, but spoke gravely.

"One can always do what is right."

"Not to-day - " whispered Eleanor.

"One can always do right to-day," he answered smiling. "And it is best
to begin as we are going on. Come!"

He took her hand and led her forward into the room at the other end of
the house; his study, Eleanor saw with half a glance by the books and
papers and tables that were there. Still keeping her hand fast in his,
they knelt together; and certainly the prayer that followed was good
for nervousness, and like the sunshine to dispel all manner of clouds.
Eleanor was quieted and subdued; she could not help it; all sorts of
memories and associations of Plassy and Wiglands gathered in her mind,
back of the thoughts that immediately filled it. Hallowed, precious,
soothing and joyful, those minutes of prayer were while Mr. Rhys spoke;
in spite of the minutes to follow that Eleanor dreaded. And though her
own words were few, and stammering, they were different from what she
would have thought possible a quarter of an hour before; and not
unhappy to look back upon.

Detaining her when they arose, Mr. Rhys asked with something of his old
comical look, whether she thought she could eat a dinner of his
ordering? Eleanor had no doubt of it.

"You think you could eat anything by this time!" said he. "Poor child!
But my credit is at stake - suppose you wait here a few minutes, until I
see whether all is right."

He went off, and Eleanor sat still, feeling too happy to want to look
about her. He came again presently, to lead Eleanor to the dining-room.

In the lofty, spacious, and by no means inelegant middle apartment of
the house, a little table stood spread, looking exceeding diminutive in
contrast with the wide area and high ceiling of the room. Here Mr. Rhys
with a very bright look established Eleanor, and proceeded to make
amends for keeping her so long from Mrs. Balliol's table. Much to her
astonishment there was a piece of broiled chicken and a dish of eggs
nicely cooked, and Mr. Rhys was pouring out for her some tea in
delicate little cups of china.

"You see aunt Caxton, do you not?" he said.

"O aunt Caxton! in these cups. I thought so. But I had no idea you had
such cooks in Fiji?"

"They will learn - in time," said he shortly. "You perceive this is an
unorganized establishment. I have not indulged in tablecloths yet; but
you will put things to rights."

"Tablecloths?" said Eleanor.

"Yes - you have such things lying in wait for you. You have a great deal
to do. And in the first place, you are to find out the good qualities
of these fruits of the land," he said, giving her portions of several
vegetable preparations with which and with fruits the table was filled.

"What is this?" said Eleanor.

"Taro; one of the valuable things with which nature has blessed Fiji.
The natives cultivate it well and carefully. That is yam; and came from
a root five and a half feet long. Eleanor - I do not at all comprehend
how you come to be sitting there!"

It was so strange and new to Eleanor, and Mr. Rhys was such a compound
of things new and things old to her, that a little chance word like
this was enough to make her flutter and change colour. He perceived it,
and bent his attention to amuse her with the matters of the table; and
told her wonders of the natural productions of Fiji. But in the midst
of this Mr. Rhys's hand would come abstracting her tea-cup to fill it
again; and then Eleanor watched while he did it; and he made himself a
little private amusement about getting it sugared right and finding how
she liked it; and Eleanor wondered at him and her tea-cup together, and
stirred her tea in a subdued state of mind.

"One hardly expects to see such a nice little teaspoon in Fiji," she
remarked.

"Aunt Caxton, again," said Mr. Rhys.

"But Mr. Rhys, your Fijians must be remarkable cooks! Or have you
taught them?"

"I have taught nobody in that line."

"Then are they not remarkable for their skill in cookery?"

"As a nation, I think they are; and it is one evidence of their mental
development. They have a great variety of native dishes, some of which,
I believe, are not despicable."

"But these are English dishes."

"Do justice to them, then, like a good Englishwoman."

Eleanor's praise was not undeserved; for the chicken and yam were
excellent, and the sweet potatoe which Mr. Rhys put upon her plate was
roasted very like one that had been in some hot ashes at home. But
everything except the dishes was strange, Mr. Rhys's hand included.
Through the whole length of the house, and of course through the middle
apartment, ran a double row of columns, upholding the roof. If
Eleanor's eye followed them up, there was no ceiling, but the lofty
roof of thatch over her head. Under her foot was a mat, of native
workmanship; substantial and neat, and very foreign looking. And here
were aunt Caxton's cups; and if she lifted her eyes - Eleanor felt most
strange then, although most at home.

The taro and yam and sweet potatoe were only an introduction to the
fruit, which was beautiful as a shew. A native servant came in and
removed the dishes, and then set on the table a large basket, in which
the whole dessert was very simply served. Cocoanuts and bananas,
oranges and wild plums, bread-fruit and Malay apples, came piled
together in beautiful mingling. Mr. Rhys went himself to a sort of
beaufet in the room and brought plates.

"Servants cannot be said to be in complete training," he said with a
humourous look as he seated himself. "It would be strange if they were,
when there has been no one to train them. And in Fiji."

"I do not understand," said Eleanor. "Have you been keeping house he
all by yourself? I thought not, from what Mrs. Balliol said."

"You may trust sister Balliol for being always correct. No, for the
last few months, until lately, I have been building this house. Since
it was finished I have lived in it, partly; but I have taken my
principal meals at the other house."

"_You_ have been building it?"

"Or else you would not be in it at this moment. There is no carpenter
to be depended on in Fiji but yourself. You have got to go over the
house presently and see how you like it. Are you ready for a banana? or
an orange? I think you must try one of these cocoanuts."

"But you had people to help you?"

"Yes. At the rate of two boards a day."

"But, Mr. Rhys, if you cannot get carpenters, where can you get
cooks? - or do the people have _this_ by nature?"

"When you ask me properly, I will tell you," he said, with a little
pucker in the corners of his mouth that made Eleanor take warning and
draw off. She gave her attention to the cocoanut, which she found she
must learn how to eat. Mr. Rhys played with an orange in the mean time,
but she knew was really busy with nothing but her and her cocoanut.
When she would be tempted by no more fruit, he went off and brought a
little wooden bowl of water and a napkin, which he presented for her
fingers, standing before her to hold it. Eleanor dipped in her fingers,
and then looked up.

"You should not do this for me, Mr. Rhys!" she said half earnestly.

But he stooped down and took his own payment; and on the whole Eleanor
did not feel that she had greatly the advantage of him. Indeed Mr. Rhys
had payment of more sorts than one; for cheeks were rosy as the fingers
were white which she was drying, as she had risen and stood before him.
She looked on then with great edification, to see his fingers
deliberately dipped in the same bowl and dried on the same napkin; for
very well Eleanor knew they would have done it for no mortal beside
her. And then she was carried off to look at the walls of her house.




CHAPTER XIX.

IN THE HOUSE.


"Thou hast found ....
Thy cocoas and bananas, palms and yams,
And homestall thatched with leaves."


The walls of the house were, to an Englishwoman, a curiosity. They were
made of reeds; three layers or thicknesses of them being placed
different ways, and bound and laced together with sinnet; the strong
braid made of the fibre of the cocoanut-husk. It was this braid, woven
in and out, which produced the pretty mosaic effect Eleanor had
observed upon the outside. Mr. Rhys took her to a doorway, where she
could examine from within and from without this novel construction; and
explained minutely how it was managed.

"This looks like a foreign land," said Eleanor. "You had described it,
and I thought I had imagined it; but sight and feeling are quite a
different matter."

"I did not describe it to you?"

"No - O no; you described it to aunt Caxton."

He drew her back a step or two and laid her hand upon the post of the
door.

"What is this?" said Eleanor.

"That is a piece of the stem of the palm-fern."

"And these are its natural mouldings and markings! It is like elegant
carved work! It is natural, is it not?" she said suddenly.

"Certainly. The natives do execute very marvellous carving in wood,
with tools that would drive a workman at home to despair; but I have
not learned the art. Come here - the pillars that hold up the roof of
your house are of the same wood."

A double row of pillars through the whole length of the house gave it
stability; they were stems of the same palm fern, and as they had been
chosen and placed with a careful eye to size and position, the effect
of them was not at all inelegant. The building itself was of generous
length and width; and with a room cut off at each end, as the fashion
was, the centre apartment was left of really noble proportions; broad,
roomy, and lofty; with its palm columns springing up to its high roof
of thatch. Standing beside one of them, Eleanor looked up and declared
it a beautiful room.

"Do not look at the doors and windows," said Mr. Rhys. "I did not make
those - they were sent out framed. I had only the pleasure of putting
them in."

"And how did that agree with all your other work?"

"Well," he said decidedly. "That was my recreation."

"There is the prettiest mixture of wild and tame in this house," said
Eleanor, speaking a little timidly; for she was conscious all the while
how little Mr. Rhys was thinking of anything but herself. "Are these
mats made here?"

"Pure Fijian!"

The one at which Eleanor was looking, her eyes having fallen to the
floor, was both large and elegant. It was very substantially and neatly
made, and had a border fancifully wrought all round it, a few inches in
width. The pattern of the border was made with bits of worsted and
little white feathers. This mat covered all the centre of the room;
under it the whole floor was spread with other and coarser ones; and
others of a still different manufacture lined the walls of the room.

"One need not want a prettier carpet," said Eleanor, keeping her eyes
on the mat. Mr. Rhys put his arm round her and drew her off to one side
of the room, where he made her pause before a large square space which


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Online LibrarySusan WarnerThe Old Helmet, Volume II → online text (page 21 of 25)