Nina by Louis Becke

When Captain Henry Charlton—generally known as "Bully Charlton"—stepped on shore at Townsville in North Queensland with his newly-wedded wife, his acquaintances stared at them both in profound astonishment. They had heard that he had married in Sydney, and from their past knowledge of his character expected to see a loudly-attired Melbourne or Sydney barmaid with peroxided hair, and person profusely adorned with obtrusive jewelry. Instead of this they beheld a tall, ladylike girl with a cold, refined face, and an equally cold and distant manner.

"Well, I have seen some curious things in my time," said Fryer, the American master of a Torres Straits pearling schooner, to the other men, as they watched Charlton and his wife drive away from the hotel, "but to think that that fellow should marry a lady! I wonder if she has the faintest idea of what an anointed scoundrel he is?"

"He's been mighty smart over it, anyway," said a storekeeper named Lee. "Why, it isn't six months since Nina drowned herself. I suppose it's true, Fryer, that she did bolt with Jack Lester?"

The American struck his hand upon the table in hot anger. "That's a lie! I know Lester well, and Nina Charlton was as good a woman as ever breathed."

"Well, you see, Fryer, we don't know as much as you do about the matter. But when Nina cleared out from her husband and Lester disappeared a day or two later and went no one knows where, it did look pretty queer."

"And I tell you that Lester never saw Mrs. Charlton after the day he took it out of Charlton. He's a gentleman. And if you want to know where he is now I'll tell you. He's pearling at Thursday Island in Torres Straits. And Nina Charlton, thank God, is at rest. After the fight between Lester and her husband she ran away, and reached Port Denison almost dead from exposure in the bush. Shannon, of the Lynndale, who had known her in her childhood, gave her a passage to Sydney. Two days before the steamer reached there she disappeared—jumped overboard in the night, I suppose."

"Well, I'm sorry I repeated what is common gossip; but Charlton himself put the story about. And the papers said a lot about the elopement of the wife of a well-known plantation manager.'"

Fryer laughed contemptuously. "Just the thing Charlton would do. He's an infernal scoundrel. He told Lester that he'd make it warm for him—the beast. But I'm sorry for that sad-faced girl we saw just now. Fancy the existence she will lead with an unprincipled and drunken brute like Charlton! Good-bye; I'm off aboard. And look here, if ever any of you hear any more talk about Lester and Nina Charlton and repeats it in my hearing I'll do my best to make him sorry."

Lester was the manager of a mine and quartz-crushing battery near Charlton's plantation on the Lower Burdekin River when he "took it out" of its owner. He was a quiet, self-possessed man of about thirty, and occasionally visited Charlton and his wife and played a game of billiards—if Charlton was sober enough to stand. Sometimes in his rides along the lonely bush tracks he would meet Mrs. Charlton and go as far as the plantation gates with her. She was a small, slenderly built woman, or rather girl, with dark, passionate eyes, in whose liquid depths Lester could read the sorrows of her life with such a man as Henry Charlton. Once as he rode beside her through the grey monotone of the lofty, smooth-barked gum-trees she told him that her father was an Englishman and her mother a Portuguese.

"I married Captain Charlton in Macao. He was in the navy, you know; and although it is only four years since I left my father's house I feel so old; and sometimes when I awake in the night I think I can hear the sound of the beating surf and the rustle of the nipa-palms in the trade wind. And, oh! I so long to see——" Her eyes filled with tears, and she turned her face away.

Perhaps Lester's unconsciously pitying manner to her whenever they met, and the utter loneliness of her existence on the Belle Grace Plantation made Nina Charlton think too much of the young mine manager, and, without knowing it, to eagerly look forward to their chance meetings.

One day as Lester was walking through Charlton's estate, gun in hand, looking for wild turkeys, he met her. She was seated under the widespreading branches of a Leichhardt-tree, and was watching some of her husband's labourers felling a giant gum.

"I came out to see it fall," she said. "It is the largest tree on Belle Grace. And it is so dull in the house." She turned her face away quickly.

Lester muttered a curse under his breath. He knew what she meant. Charlton had returned from Townsville the day before in a state of frenzy, and after threatening to murder his servants had flung himself upon a couch to sleep the sleep of drunkenness.

As the men hewed at the bole of the mighty tree Lester and Nina Charlton talked. She had spent the first year of her married life in Sydney, which was Lester's native town, and in a few minutes she had quite forgotten the tree, and was listening eagerly to Lester's account of his wanderings through the world, for his had been an adventurous career—sailor, South Sea trader, pearl-sheller, and gold miner in New Guinea and the Malayan Archipelago.

"And now here I am, Mrs. Charlton, over thirty years of age, and not any the richer for all my roving. Of course," he added, with boyish candour, "I know when I'm well off, and I have a good billet here and mean to save money. And I intend to be back in Sydney in another fortnight."

"But you will return to Queensland, will you not?" she said quickly.

Lester laughed. "Oh yes, I suppose I shall settle down here finally. But I'm going to Sydney to be married. Would you care to see my future wife's photograph? You see, Mrs. Charlton, you're the only lady I've ever talked to about her, and I should like you to see what she is like."

She made no answer, and Lester in wondering ignorance saw that her face had paled to a deathly white and that her hands were trembling.

"You are ill, Mrs. Charlton. You must be getting a touch of fever. Let me take you home."

"No," she answered quickly; "let me stay here. I shall be better in a minute." And then she began to sob passionately.

Charlton, awakening from his drunken sleep, looked at them from the window of the sitting-room. He hated his wife because she feared him, and of late had almost shuddered when he touched her. Picking up his whip from the table, he walked out of the house to where she was sitting.

"So this is your little amusement, is it?" he said savagely to Nina; "and this fellow is the cause of all my trouble. I might have known what to expect from a woman like you. Your Portuguese nature is too much for you. Go back to the house, and leave me to settle with your lover."

The next instant Lester launched out and struck him on the mouth. He lay where he fell, breathing heavily, and when he rose to his feet he saw Lester carrying his wife, who had fainted, to the house.

Placing Mrs. Charlton in the care of a servant, Lester returned quickly to where Charlton, who was no coward, awaited him.

"You drunken scoundrel!" he burst out; "I've come back to settle up with you!"

And Lester did "settle up" to his heart's content, for he half-killed Charlton with his own whip.

A week later, however, Charlton had his first bit of revenge. Lester was dismissed, the directors of the mine being determined, as they said, to show their disapproval of his attack upon "a justice of the peace and one of their largest shareholders."

Lester sat down and wrote to the "girl of his heart," and told her that he could not see her for another year or so. "I have had to leave the mine, Nell, dear," he said. "I won't tell you why—it would anger you perhaps. But it was not all my fault. However, I have decided what to do. I am going back to my old vocation of pearler in Torres Straits. I can make more money there than I could here."

The following morning, as he was leaving Belle Grace, he heard that Mrs. Charlton had left her husband two days previously, and had made her way through the bush to Port Denison, from where she had gone to Sydney.

Soon after Lester had sailed for Torres Straits in Fryer's schooner, the owner of Belle Gr‚ce Plantation received a telegram from Sydney telling him that his wife was dead—she had jumped overboard on the passage down. And, later on, Lester heard it also.

Lester was doing well, but wondering why Nellie March did not write. He little knew that Charlton was in Sydney working out his revenge. This he soon accomplished.

From the local postmistress at Belle Grace Charlton had learned the address of the girl Lester was to marry; and the first thing he did when he arrived in Sydney was to call upon her parents, and tell them that Lester had run away with his wife. And they—and Nellie March as well—believed his story when he produced some Queensland newspapers which contained the accounts of the "elopement." He was a good-looking man, despite his forty years of hard drinking, and could lie with consummate grace, and Nellie, after her first feelings of shame and anger had subsided, pitied him, especially when he said that his poor wife was at rest now, and he had forgiven her. Before a month was out she married him.

Then Charlton, who simply revelled in his revenge, sent the papers containing the announcement of his marriage to Lester.

Lester took it very badly at first. But his was a strong nature, and he was too proud a man to write to the woman he loved and ask for an explanation. It was Charlton's money, of course, he thought. And as the months went by he began to forget. He heard of Charlton sometimes from the captains of passing vessels. He was drinking heavily they said, and whenever he came to town boasted of having "got even" with the man who had thrashed him. Lester set his teeth but said nothing, and in time even such gossip as this failed to disturb him. But he swore to give Charlton another thrashing when the opportunity came.

A year had come and gone, and Lester found himself in Sydney. He liked the free, open life among the pearlers, and intended to go back after a month or so of idleness in the southern city. One evening he strolled into the bar of Pfahlerts Hotel and ordered a whisky-and-soda. The girl he spoke to looked into his face for a moment and then nearly fainted—it was Nina Charlton!

"Give me your address," she said quickly, as she put out her hand. "I will come and see you in an hour from now."

She came, and in a few minutes told him her history since he had seen her last. The captain of the Lynniale pitying her terror at the prospect of her husband following her, had concealed her when the steamer was near Sydney, and it was he who telegraphed to Charlton that his wife had disappeared on the passage and was supposed to have jumped or fallen overboard. And she told Lester that she knew of her husband's second marriage and knew who it was whom he had married.

What was she going to do? Lester asked.

Nothing, she said. She would rather die than let Charlton know she was alive. When she had saved money enough she would go back to her own people.

Lester walked home with her. At the door of the hotel she bade him good-night.

"We shall meet sometimes, shall we not?" she asked wistfully. "I have not a friend in all Sydney."

"Neither have I," he said, "and I shall only be too happy to come and see you." She was silent a moment, then as she placed her hand in his she asked softly—

"Have you forgotten her altogether?"

"Yes," he answered, "I have. I did cut up a bit at first. But I'm over it now."

Her fingers pressed his again, and then with an almost whispered "Good-night" she was gone.

Before a month was over Lester was honestly in love with her. And she knew it, though he was too honourable a man to tell her so. Then one day he came to her hurriedly.

"I'm going back to Torres Straits to-morrow," he said. "I may be away for two years.... You will not forget me."

"No," she answered, with a sob, "I shall never forget you; you are all the world to me. And go now, dear, quickly; for I love you—and I am only a woman."

But there is a kindly Providence in these things, for when Lester reached Thursday Island in Torres Straits he heard that Charlton was dead. He had been thrown from his horse and died shortly after. His widow, Lester also heard, had returned to Sydney.

So Lester made quick work. Within twenty-four hours he had sold his business and was on his way back to Sydney.

He dashed up in a cab to his old lodgings. In another hour he would see Nina. He had sent her a telegram from Brisbane, telling her when the steamer would arrive, and was in a fever of excitement. And he was late. As he tumbled his things about, his landlady came to the door with a letter.

"There was a lady called here, sir, a week ago, and asked for your address. I had just got your telegram saying you were coming back to-day, and she said she would write, and this letter came just now."

Lester knew the handwriting. It was from Nellie. He opened it.

     "I know now how I have wronged you. My husband, before he
     died, told me that he had deceived me. My life has been a
     very unhappy one, and I want to see you and ask for your
     forgiveness. Will you send me an answer to-night?—Nellie!"

Lester held the letter in his hand and pondered. What should he do? Answer it or not? Poor Nellie!

He sat down to think—and then Nina Charlton opened the door and flung her arms around his neck.

"I could not wait," she whispered, "and I am not afraid now to say I love you."

That night Lester wrote a letter to the woman he had once loved. "I am glad to know that Charlton told you the truth before he died," he said. "But let the past be forgotten."

He never told Nina of this. But one day as they were walking along the "Block" in George Street, she saw her husband raise his hat to a tall, fair-haired woman with big blue eyes.

"Is that she, Jack?" murmured Nina.

Lester nodded.

"She's very lovely. And yet I felt once that I could have killed her—when you and I sat together watching the big tree fall. But I couldn't hate any one now."