Mr. Blake Breaks His Engagement

On Monday, Hugh, Poss, and Binjie had to go out to an outlying paddock to draft a lot of station-sheep from a mob of travelling-sheep. As this meant a long, hard job, the three breakfasted by candlelight⁠—a good old fashion, this, but rather forgotten lately⁠—and Blake also turned out for early breakfast, as he wanted to get his drive to Tarrong over while the weather was cool. Of the women-folk, Ellen alone was up, boiling eggs, and making tea on a spirit-lamp; laughing and chattering meanwhile, and keeping them all amused; while outside in the frosty dawn, the stable boy shivered as he tightened the girths round the ribs of three very touchy horses. Poss and Binjie were each riding a station horse to “take the flashness out of him,” and Binjie’s horse tried to buck him off, but might as well have tried to shed his own skin; so he bolted instead, and disappeared with a snort and a rattle of hoofs over the hill. The others followed, with their horses very much inclined to go through the same performance.

After they had gone, Ellen Harriott and Blake were left alone in the breakfast-room. Outside, the heedless horse-boy was harnessing Blake’s ponies; but inside no one but themselves was awake, and as he finished his breakfast, Ellen stepped up to the table and blew out the two candles, leaving the room in semidarkness. She caught his hand, and he drew her to him. It was what she had been waiting for all night. She had pictured a parting, which was to be such sweet sorrow. Blake had also pictured it to himself, but in quite a different way.

He was determined to make an end of his engagement (or entanglement, whichever it could be called), and yet when the chance came he almost put it off; but the thought of what exposure and disgrace would mean, if his affairs were investigated, drove him on.

He stroked her hair for a while in silence, and then, with a laugh, said, “We’ll have to give up this sort of thing, you know; it’ll be getting you talked about, and that’ll never do.”

She hardly knew what he meant. Having lived so long in a fool’s paradise, she could not realise that her world was coming down about her ears.

“We’ll have to be proper in future,” he said. “I’ve had the most fiendish run of bad luck lately, and it’s just as well there never was any engagement between us. It would have had to come to nothing.”

She drew back, and looked at him with frightened eyes. He had great power over her⁠—this big, masterful man, whom she had looked upon as her lover; and she could not believe that a little trouble about money could really make any difference to him. She believed him able to overcome any such difficulty as that of earning a living for her and himself.

“But, Gavan,” she said, “what have I done?”

“Done, little girl? you’ve done nothing. It’s all my fault. I’ve lost heart over things lately, and it will only harm you if we keep up this pretence of being engaged. Nothing can come of it.”

“Why not? Why can’t we wait?”

“Wait! To be stuck in Tarrong all my life among these people, and up to my neck in debt! No, little woman, as soon as ever I can get things squared up, I’m off out of this, and I dare say we’ll never see each other again. I’ve made a mess of things here, and I’m off somewhere else.”

It seemed almost incredible to her that a man could so throw up the fight; and then a thought flashed into her mind.

“It is not because Miss Grant has come that you do this?”

He laughed with a well-simulated indifference.

“Miss Grant!” he said, “I have only seen her twice⁠—that day on the coach and last night.”

She seemed to study the question, still holding his hands, and looking up into his face. The light in the room was stronger, and there were sounds as if some of the household were stirring.

“So we must say ‘Goodbye!’ ” she said, “just because you are short of money. Gavan, I would have thought more of you, had you told me you were tired of me and were going in for the other girl. I think I could have respected you at any rate; but to sneak out on the story of not being able to afford it⁠—”

His face darkened, and he began to speak, but she stopped him, and went on in a passionless sort of voice. “Someone is coming,” she said, “and we must say goodbye; and since you wish it, it is ‘Goodbye.’ But I’m not a child, to change my fancies in a day, so I won’t promise to forget. And I think you have treated me very badly, so neither will I promise to forgive. I had set my heart on you, Gavan. You seemed to me⁠—but there, it’s no use talking. I suppose I should be meek and mild, and⁠—”

“But, Ellen⁠—”

“No, don’t interrupt me. It is the last talk together we shall have. I suppose I can go governessing, or nursing, to the end of the chapter. It seems a dreary outlook, doesn’t it? Now go, and remember that I do not forgive easily. I had built such castles, Gavan, and now⁠—” She slipped quietly from the room, and was gone.

Gavan Blake drove home, feeling a trifle uneasy. He had expected some sort of outburst, but the curious way in which she had taken it rather nonplussed him.

“She won’t stick a knife in herself, I suppose,” he mused. “Just like her to do something unusual. Anyway, she has too much pride to talk about it⁠—and the affair had to come to an end sooner or later.”

And feeling that if not “on with the new love,” he was, at any rate, satisfactorily “off with the old,” Blake drove his spanking ponies off to Tarrong, while Ellen Harriott went about her household work with a face as inscrutable and calm as though no stone had ruffled the millpond of her existence.