Without Prejudice by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter I. Silly Sentiment
"It's time I set about making my own living," said Dot Burton.
She spoke resolutely, and her face was resolute also; its young lines were for the moment almost grim. She stood in the doorway of the stable, watching her brother rub down the animal he had just been riding. Behind her the rays of the Australian sun smote almost level, making of her fair hair a dazzling aureole of gold. The lashes of her blue eyes were tipped with gold also, but the brows above them were delicately dark. They were slightly drawn just then, as if she were considering a problem of considerable difficulty.
Jack Burton was frankly frowning over his task. It was quite evident that his sister's announcement was not a welcome one.
She continued after a moment, as he did not respond in words: "I am sure I could make a living, Jack. I'm not the 'new chum' I used to be, thanks to you. You've taught me a whole heap of things."
Jack glanced up for a second. "Aren't you happy here?" he said.
She eluded the question. "You've been awfully good to me, dear old boy. But really, you know, I think you've got burdens enough without me. In any case, it isn't fair that I should add to them."
Jack grunted. "It isn't fair that you should do more than half the work on the place and not be paid for it, you mean. You're quite right, it isn't."
"No, I don't mean that, Jack." Quite decidedly she contradicted him. "I don't mind work. I like to have my time filled. I love being useful. It isn't that at all. But all the same, you and Adela are quite complete without me. Before you were married it was different. I was necessary to you then. But I'm not now. And so--"
"Has Adela been saying that to you?"
Jack Burton straightened himself abruptly. His expression was almost fierce.
Dot laughed at sight of it. "No, Jack, no! Don't be so jumpy! Of course she hasn't. As if she would! She hasn't said a thing. But I know how she feels, and I should feel exactly the same in her place. Now do be sensible! You must see my point. I'm getting on, you know, Jack. I'm twenty-five. Just fancy! You've sheltered me quite long enough--too long, really. You must--you really must--let me go."
He was looking at her squarely. "I can't prevent your going," he said, gruffly. "But it won't be with my consent--ever--or my approval. You'll go against my will--dead against it."
"Jack--darling!" She went to him impulsively and took him by the shoulders. "Now that isn't reasonable of you. It really isn't. You've got to take that back."
He looked at her moodily. "I shan't take it back. I can't. I am dead against your going. I know this country. It's not a place for lone women. And you're not much more than a child, whatever you may say. It's rough, I tell you. And you"--he looked down upon her slender fairness--"you weren't made for rough things."
"Please don't be silly, Jack!" she broke in. "I'm quite as strong as the average woman and, I hope, as capable. I'm grown up, you silly man! I'm old--older than you are in some ways, even though you have been in the world ten years longer. Can't you see I want to stretch my wings?"
"Want to leave me?" he said, and put his arms suddenly about her. She nestled to him on the instant, lifting her face to kiss him.
"No, darling, no! Never in life! But--you must see--you must see"--her eyes filled with tears unexpectedly, and she laid her head upon his shoulder to hide them--"that I can't--live on you--for ever. It isn't fair--to you--or to Adela--or to--to--anyone else who might turn up."
"Ah!" he said. "Or to you either. We've no right to make a slave of you. I know that. Perhaps Adela hasn't altogether realized it."
"I've nothing--whatever--against Adela," Dot told him, rather shakily. "She has never been--other than kind. No, it is what I feel myself. I am not necessary to you or to Adela, and--in a way--I'm glad of it. I like to know you two are happy. I'm not a bit jealous, Jack, not a bit. It's just as it should be. But you'll have to let me go, dear. It's time I went. It's right that I should go. You mustn't try to hold me back."
But Jack's arms had tightened about her. "I hate the thought of it," he said. "Give it up! Give it up, old girl--for my sake!"
She shook her head silently in his embrace.
He went on with less assurance. "If you wanted to get married it would be a different thing. I would never stand in the way of your marrying a decent man. If you must go, why don't you do that?"
She laughed rather tremulously. "You think every good woman ought to marry, don't you, Jack?"
"When there's a good man waiting for her, why not?" said Jack.
She lifted her head and looked at him. "I'm not going to marry Fletcher Hill, Jack," she said, with firmness.
Jack made a slight movement of impatience. "I never could see your objection to the man," he said.
She laughed again, drawing herself back from him. "But, Jack darling, a woman doesn't marry a man just because he's not objectionable, does she? I always said I wouldn't marry him, didn't I?"
"You might do a lot worse," said Jack.
"Of course I might--heaps worse. But that isn't the point. I think he's quite a good sort--in his own sardonic way. And he is a great friend of yours, too, isn't he? That fact would count vastly in his favour if I thought of marrying at all. But, you see--I don't."
"I call that uncommon hard on Fletcher," observed Jack.
She opened her blue eyes very wide. "My dear man, why?"
"After waiting for you all this time," he explained, suffering his arms to fall away from her.
She still gazed at him in astonishment. "Jack! But I never asked him to wait!"
He turned from her with a shrug of the shoulders. "No, but I did."
"You did? Jack, what can you mean?"
Jack stooped to feel one of his animal's hocks. He spoke without looking at her. "It's been my great wish--all this time. I've been deuced anxious about you often. Australia isn't the place for unprotected girls--at least, not out in the wilds. I've seen--more than enough of that. And you're no wiser than the rest. You lost your head once--over a rotter. You might again. Who knows?"
"Oh, really, Jack!" The girl's face flushed very deeply. She turned it aside instinctively, though he was not looking at her. But the colour died as quickly as it came, leaving her white and quivering.
She stood mutely struggling for self-control while Jack continued. "I know Fletcher. I know he's sound. He's a man who always gets what he wants. He wouldn't be a magistrate now if he didn't. And when I saw he wanted you, I made up my mind he should have you if I could possibly work it. I gave him my word I'd help him, and I begged him to wait a bit, to give you time to get over that other affair. He's been waiting--ever since."
Dot's hands clenched slowly. She spoke with a great effort. "Then he'd better stop waiting--at once, Jack, and marry someone else."
"He won't do that," said Jack. He stood up again abruptly and faced round upon her. "Look here, dear! Why can't you give in and marry him? He's such a good sort if you only get to know him well. You've always kept him at arm's length, haven't you? Well, let him come a bit nearer! You'll soon like him well enough to marry him. He'd make you happy, Dot. Take my word for it!"
She met his look bravely, though the distress still lingered in her eyes. "But, dear old Jack," she said, "no woman can possibly love at will."
"It would come afterwards," Jack said, with conviction. "I know it would. He's such a good chap. You've never done him justice. See, Dot girl! You're not happy. I know that. You want to stretch your wings, you say. Well, there's only one way of doing it, for you can't go out into the world--this world--alone. At least, you'll break my heart if you do. He's the only fellow anywhere near worthy of you. And he's been so awfully patient. Do give him his chance!"
He put his arm round her shoulders again, holding her very tenderly.
She yielded herself to him with a suppressed sob. "I'm sure it would be wrong, Jack," she said.
"Not a bit wrong!" Jack maintained, stoutly. "What have you been waiting for all this time? A myth, an illusion, that can never come true! You've no right to spoil your own life and someone else's as well for such a reason as that. I call that wrong--if you like."
She hid her face against him with a piteous gesture. "He--said he would come back, Jack."
Jack frowned over her bowed head even while he softly stroked it. "And if he had--do you think I would ever have let you go to him? A cattle thief, Dot! An outlaw!"
She clung to him trembling. "He saved my life--at the risk of his own," she whispered, almost inarticulately.
"Oh, I know--I know. He was that sort--brave enough, but a hopeless rotter." Jack's voice held a curious mixture of tenderness and contempt. "Women always fall in love with that sort of fellow," he said. "Heaven knows why. But you'd no right to lose your heart to him, little 'un. You knew--you always knew--he wasn't the man for you."
She clung to him in silence for a space, then lifted her face. "All right, Jack," she said.
He looked at her closely for a moment. "Come! It's only silly sentiment," he urged. "You can't feel bad about it after all this time. Why, child, it's five years!"
She laughed rather shakily. "I am a big fool, aren't I, Jack? Yet--somehow--do you know--I thought he meant to come back."
"Not he!" declared Jack. "Catch Buckskin Bill putting his head back into the noose when once he had got away! He's not quite so simple as that, my dear. He probably cleared out of Australia for good as soon as he got the chance. And a good thing, too!" he added, with emphasis. "He'd done mischief enough."
She raised her lips to his. "Thank you for not laughing at me, Jack," she said. "Don't--ever--tell Adela, will you? I'm sure she would."
He smiled a little. "Yes, I think she would. She'd say you were old enough to know better."
Dot nodded. "And very sensible, too. I am."
He patted her shoulder. "Good girl! Then that chapter is closed. And--you're going to give poor Fletcher his chance?"
She drew a sharp breath. "Oh, I don't know. I can't promise that. Don't--don't hustle me, Jack!"
He gave her a hard squeeze and let her go. "There, she shan't be teased by her horrid bully of a brother! She's going to play the game off her own bat, and I wish her luck with all my heart."
He turned to the job of feeding his horse, and Dot, after a few inconsequent remarks, sauntered away in the direction of the barn, "to be alone with herself," as she put it.