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A South-Sea Siren

Chapter VI

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Chapter VI

Mrs Wylde was a lady who made a great deal of her troubles and sufferings, but, although she may have drawn largely on her imagination concerning many of them, yet she had some that were real and tangible. One of her sorest trials weighed fifteen stone, and was very closely attached to her. This was a brother, Thomas Muster by name, and a rather fine looking fellow, with a dark, hairy, sensual face, and a very jovial temperament.

Dissipation had been the ruin of him, and dissipation was written on every lineament of his countenance. Endowed with a splendid physique; tall, strong and active; with natural shrewdness, and a considerable acquaintance with pastoral pursuits, he was well cut out for making his way in the pioneer days of the colony, nor had favourable opportunities been wanting to him. But from the start he had fallen a victim to the prevailing vice of those times, that insidious vice that affected all conditions of men, and that with many of them had become an incurable disease; the ruin of individuals, the despair of families, the curse of society—drink!

Tom Muster had begun life early, with the convivial ‘nobbler’, and had worked his way gradually up to an average allowance of two bottles of ardent spirits per day. This was the ordinary consumption, and although it had been the means of wrecking his constitution, and of extinguishing every former spark of honour and manliness in his soul, yet it did not produce upon him the outward appearance of intoxication, for he could generally manage to keep his wits about him; to talk with distinctness, and to walk with steadiness, even when going to bed.

Not unfrequently, however, the wretched man, as if racked and impelled by some demon within him, would launch out beyond all moderation and control, and indulge in the wildest intemperance. These terrible drinking bouts would often be prolonged for weeks, and would be followed by abject prostration, or result in a serious illness; while, latterly, on several occasions, he had reached the final stage—that awful condition called ‘the horrors’.

It would not be doing him justice, however, to imagine that Tom Muster had sunk to this pitiful state of mental and bodily degradation without having struggled against it. He had been—and indeed was page 67 still—a person of many ‘good resolutions’. Those who knew him best bore witness to his frequent outbursts of repentance. The tears of contrition he had shed, the vile names he had called himself, the prayers he had uttered aloud, the solemn promises of reform he had publicly made, had all been duly recorded in his favour. A few years previously he had, with much ostentation, gone through the ceremony of ‘taking the pledge’. The solemn vow had been duly signed, witnessed, and registered, with imposing formality, in the presence of his broken-hearted wife, and a numerous concourse of relations and well-wishers, but the relief thus occasioned to all concerned was not destined to be long-lived.

Tom Muster, who had considered himself ‘a reformed man’ on the spot, had, by superhuman efforts, succeeded in remaining so for a whole quarter, after which he had suffered a relapse—the reaction which followed, being all the more violent in consequence of previous self-denial, had nearly cost him his life. Since then he had been nearly as regular in re-taking the pledge as he had been in breaking it; but it came to pass that the periods of total abstinence grew shorter at every fresh backsliding, while the periods of excessive indulgence became correspondingly longer, until all hopeful proportion between the two was lost, and nobody believed in the reformation of Tom Muster—no, not even himself.

At the present time, judging from appearances, he had pretty well got ‘to the end of his tether’, for the doctor had declared that another attack of delirium tremens would certainly prove fatal to him; yet, notwithstanding this awful warning which had terrified him for the moment—for he was a great coward—the wretched man was slowly but surely working towards that result.

The person most to be pitied over this deplorable case was not the man himself, for he was unworthy of commiseration, but his unfortunate wife—a poor little woman, of fragile form and pallid face, who had been pretty once, and still retained an amiable look and engaging address. She had been a faithful companion—latterly a nurse and a drudge—to a brutal and dissolute husband, who had neglected her and ill-treated her, and now ‘led her a life’, which could be no better than a living death.

For the poor woman had been compelled to part with everything that could render existence cheerful or attractive. She had witnessed her home destroyed, her fortune squandered; she had seen herself turned adrift, a ruined and miserable being—an object of compassion—to be supported mostly on charity; she had buried her baby children that had, come into the world ailing and afflicted; she had page 68 been crushed as a wife and a mother, and she was now linked to a a drunkard, who terrified and disgusted her by turns, and who had never loved her.

Yet she bore her burden without murmuring, and, to outward appearances, with a sort of passive indifference. Although the ordinary concerns of life had no further interest for her, and even Hope had fled, yet she would busy herself in making the rough quarters where they lived look as clean and comfortable as possible, and she had a forced smile of welcome for visitors, who came kindly to inquire about her wants, and to offer assistance.

Towards her scamp of a husband she was uniformly patient and considerate, and at times, indeed, some gleams of her natural humour—for she had been a sprightly little woman once—would lighten up her wan features; she would then smile and chatter, join in a little fun, and address him as ‘Tom’, with a softened accent which would sound like a distant echo of former love and tenderness.

A few years previously Tom Muster had been a thriving squatter, living a fast life, and, in slang phraseology, ‘cutting a great dash’. In his prodigal way he had entertained the highest of the land, and dispensed lavishly to the lowest. Consequently, he had been a popular man, and to many an object of envy or admiration.

Now, there was not a common labourer in the district who did not affect to pity or despise him. He had no occupation, nor was he qualified for any position of trust, but he spent most of his time ‘loafing’ about the hotels in the neighbourhood, spunging on old acquaintances, and doing a little smart business in horse dealing.

For all his available property consisted, at present, in a small mob of horses, which, by defrauding his creditors, he had managed to retain possession of, and which was allowed to run free on his brother-in-law's station. By this means he would occasionally earn a few pounds, which would immediately be ‘knocked down’ in drinks and dissipation, while living in a boundary rider's hut, and being supported on the charity of his relations.

But Tom Muster, although reduced to such wretched straits, was not by any means broken in spirit or cowed in manner. He held his head high, talked very loud, and to hear him, one might have imagined him to be one of the wealthy proprietors of the country. He would frequently allude with modesty to his former greatness, when he was ‘somebody’, and with noble fortitude descant pleasantly on his fallen estate; but he was not proud, nor was he above drinking with the humblest tramp on the road. He appeared indeed to be well disposed to all men and to all drinks. He was not fastidious in anything, and page 69 would mix his company or his liquor with equal readiness. From the aristocratic squatter, with his four-in-hand, down to the rowdy cattle driver, ‘on the spree’, all were welcome to Tom Muster, over the glass. To him there were no paltry distinctions between man and man; he inquired of no one; ‘Who are you?’ ‘What have you?’ ‘Whence come you?’ ‘Whither go you?’ or ‘What do you want?’ but only ‘What do you drink?’

Yet, notwithstanding this impartiality, Tom had a decided preference for one particular class of people, whom he watched for with a keen eye, and fastened upon with more than ordinary alacrity. This was the genus new chum. Towards these poor innocents he was most kindly disposed, and ever ready with offers of assistance and advice, which, for the most part, were thankfully received, But from the old hand he did not fare nearly so well, and often some passing wag would respond to his cordial advances, with the popular refrain—

I'm a young man from the country,
But you don't get over me.

Mrs Wylde, with all her superficiality and callousness, had a soft corner in her heart for her reprobate brother. She loved him for the sake of old times, and possibly none the less for his being a reprobate; and she was even kind to his afflicted wife for his sake. She had done all she could to help her dear Tom through his many disreputable scrapes, and to check his downward career; she had borrowed and begged in all quarters, and extorted money from her admirers to assist him in his financial difficulties, but it was all to no purpose, for there is no redemption for a confirmed drunkard. At present, all she could do was to provide him and his wife with a roof over their heads, and some station rations for food, together with small presents of clothing and domestic comforts, which her very limited resources could afford.

The commodore had no liking for his wife's brother, whom he denounced loudly as a worthless ‘lushington’, but, for all that, he would not see him starve, while for Tom's wife he entertained much kindness and compassion. ‘She was,’ he used to declare, ‘a poor, spiritless, silly little woman, who had forfeited sympathy and support by sticking to her disreputable husband, but he could not find it in his heart to discard her, nevertheless. The most charitable thing that could be done for Tom, would be to place a quarter cask of brandy by his bedside, and then within a week or so there would be a blessed riddance, but a foolish wife could not be induced to do this. It was no use helping a woman with such a mate. Let her throw Tom overboard, page 70 and then there would be a show of sailing a fair course again.’ So thundered the commodore, but he acted better than his words.

Tom, for his part, was fully aware of the nature of these sentiments, so he was careful to time his visits to Dovecot—mostly on begging expeditions—when he knew that the master of the house was not at home.

On the present occasion of this story, Tom Muster had left his hut, and ridden to the home station for the ostensible purpose of showing the way to a distinguished visitor from town.

The Honourable Mr Platter, the scion of a noble if degenerate stock, had come out to New Zealand to retrieve the fallen fortunes of his house, and was supposed to have brought some money with him. The latter consideration was the most important one, for the finances of the colony at that time were decidedly low. Tom had met Mr Platter at the bar of the Royal Mail Hotel, on the arrival of the coach, and he had lost no time in introducing himself to the worthy newcomer. Tom required no footman to announce him; he adopted the free-and-easy style of the bush, and possessed a happy knack of associating with his respected name many of those accomplishments with which he was not endowed. Thus the distinguished traveller became suddenly aware that a colonist of no ordinary rank and fame stood before him. He made the best response he could under the circumstances, and proposed a drink, to which his new acquaintance readily consented. Under this genial influence the first feeling of guarded restraint soon vanished, and within half an hour Tom had learnt sufficient about Mr Platter, his means, business, and intentions to warrant his being invited to Dovecot, where distinguished and wealthy new chums were ever in request.

It so happened that Mr Platter had previously met the Wyldes in town, but he had no intention of paying them a visit just then, being bound for the north, where he was looking out for ‘country’. Moreover, he had no horse, and was travelling by coach, but this was a difficulty which the affable Muster readily met with the offer of a suitable mount, and the information that being himself recognised as the best judge of horseflesh throughout the length and breadth of the land, his valuable assistance might be secured in the choice of a steed, should his new friend be disposed to invest in this indispensable requisite.

Mr Platter expressed himself much obliged for all these unexpected attentions from a perfect stranger, and promised to think the matter over; tmen, after some demur and a good many drinks, he gracefully page 71 yielded to the other's pressing invitation, and allowed himself to be conducted to the residence of the Wyldes.

The fascinating hostess of that renowned establishment was not in a very amiable mood as these two self-invited guests rode up to Dovecot, and without further ceremony dismounted and put up their horses in the stable. She had gone through that morning ‘a chapter of accidents’, and sustained a series of shocks to her nervous system which might well have ruffled a much more placid temperament than her own. The trouble had begun in the poultry yard, from whence it had rapidly spread to the kitchen, and had afterwards extended to the drawing-room, convulsing and disorganising the whole household. The first alarm had been occasioned by the report of firearms. Several detonations in the close proximity of the house, closely followed by a volley of heartrending shrieks and frantic cackling, had startled the peaceable inmates and brought them all out with a run to the farmyard adjoining. Here a scene of slaughter and desolation burst upon the view. It was evident that a murderous attempt had been made upon Mrs Wylde's highly-prized poultry; several valuable birds lay dead or wounded about the enclosure, while the remainder sped to and fro in the wildest terror, and rent the air with cries of distress. The cause of all the mischief was not far to seek, and was immediately identified with Master Tommy, that enfant terrible, who armed with a saloon gun—an incautious present from his fond father—and failing to find legitimate sport in the bush, had been practising at short range upon a very choice collection of fowls which were his mother's special delight. Upon a pair of sitting hens the young sportsman's unerring aim had done fatal execution.

Mrs Wylde was horror struck and wept tears of sorrow and vexation at the pitiable sight, but soon all other feelings were silenced in the cry for vengeance. Armed with a horsewhip the enraged parent ‘made for’ her son. At the motherly summons the young gentleman dropped his arms, but it was only to take to his heels. ‘A stern chase is a long case,’ as the saying is, and in the present case Master Tommy fled on the wings of tingling fear for his very stern's sake. He managed to carry it out of harm's way for the moment, at least, and finally abandoned his breathless mother on the brow of a hill in the bright glow of the morning sun, and with an extensive view around her, while he sought for a cool retreat in a wooded gully close by. The distressed lady, fuming in soul and perspiring in body, returned to the house to bemoan her grievous losses and to have a violent altercation with the cook. The latter, being Irish and well disposed for a row, commenced an oration on the manifold evils of the improper bringing page 72 up of children, but was cut short by her mistress, who although of ready retort herself had an invincible objection to being ‘answered back’. Mrs Wylde, with the airs of a tragedy queen and a riding-whip for a sceptre, was more than a match for the scolding domestic, who had to beat a precipitate retreat and retire to her garret, there to howl at leisure; and thereupon the housemaid ‘struck’ out of sympathy. But if the victory was with the lady, and authority duly maintained, it was, alas! at the expense of the dinner; for Mrs Wylde, in one of her high and mighty moods and all her feathers ruffled, would not demean herself to inquire after the fate of a half-roasted leg of mutton. She flounced off in a pet to her boudoir to cool at leisure, and possibly to indulge in a good cry on her own account, when a still greater rebuff awaited her.

A stranger was announced, of surly manner and unprepossessing aspect, who had introduced himself through the open door without so much as a knock, and then demanded to see ‘the missus’ without even the civility of sending in his name.

Such insolence was not to be tolerated, and Mrs Wylde, now thoroughly exasperated, but with slow and dignified steps, made her way to the hall, intending to give the intruder a suitable reception.

At the sight of him, however, she suddenly lost both her colour and her assurance, and sank upon a chair which the stranger politely proffered to her, together with a stamped document of which she knew the import only too well.

She saw before her ‘the man in possession’.

Mrs Wylde was great at ‘scenes’. She not only understood the business thoroughly and practised it to perfection, but she delighted in the performance. A scene with her was the display of high art. All women make scenes, and generally turn them to good account, but in Mrs Wylde's chequered career ‘scenes’ had been the leading incidents of her life. They were the battlefields on which she had achieved her greatest triumphs. She even made them with her husband. On the present occasion she felt thoroughly roused to action; her heart beat fast, her hands were clenched, her eyes filled with tears, and she was just about yielding to an impassioned outburst when a chilling thought checked her overflowing emotion—there was no audience present! Mrs Wylde realised acutely, even in the height of her distress, that it would be as useless as unbecoming to waste her fine feelings on a common bailiff. So she merely conducted him to a back parlour, set a bottle of whiskey before him, and bade him make himself at home and hold his tongue. And she even smiled on the ruffian, who had the cool audacity to wink at her in return.

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It was just on top of all these trying events that the blustering Muster made his unwelcome appearance, accompanied by a stranger in a ‘jumper’ and knickerbockers and of no very distinguished aspect.

Mrs Wylde did not advance to receive the brotherly embrace which was cordially proffered to her, but standing aloof, with quivering lip and flashing eye, she sternly asked him what he wanted; and she was about to supplement the query with a few remarks appropriate to the occasion, when Tom silenced her with a look of intelligence, and then by whispering in her ear that his companion was a titled swell just out, with no end of money, on the look-out for suitable investments, and also one of her admirers, who was ‘struck on her’ and longing to renew acquaintance; this, with as many more lies as he could get in at one breath, without being overheard by his companion.

The sudden change that came over the lady's countenance was marvellous to behold; in a moment it was wreathed in smiles; she shook her finger with playful admonition at her scamp of a brother, patted his shaggy head and kissed him affectionately, then advanced with outstretched hand, in her most engaging manner to welcome her guest. She expressed, with an arch look and heightened colour, her delight at meeting him again; she had been wondering what had become of him, why he had not made his appearance before—in fact, she had been waiting for him.

Then she apologised for everybody and everything but with such charming grace that she might make sure of being amply forgiven for all shortcomings; she recounted with exquisite humour and dramatic effect the misadventures of the day, the slaughter in the poultry yard, the pursuit and escape of the culprit, the rebellion in the kitchen, the convulsion of the household—everything, but the advent of the bailiff, whose presence could not in any respect be considered as conducive to mirth, and which was, therefore, advisably suppressed.

The only difficulty which she experienced in conversing with her aristocratic visitor arose from the deplorable circumstance that she had entirely forgotten his name, nor could she find an opportunity of being prompted in this particular by her muddle-headed brother; so she addressed him as ‘sir’, but with so sweet and delicate an inflection on the term, combining gracious affability with respectful deference, that the object of all this attention must have felt highly flattered.

Although the situation was far from being a pleasant one, yet she rosa superior to all outward circumstances, and appeared to relish it immensely. Indeed, she laughed so heartily over her multitude of troubles that the merriment became infectious, and the gentleman page 74 entered fully into the spirit of the joke. Tom Muster seized upon an embroidered apron from off his sister's work-table, tied a handkerchief around his head, and offered to officiate as cook, while the Honourable Mr Platter proffered his services to chop wood, carry water, or to undertake the parlourmaid's work.

But amidst all this airy good humour ominous signs reached the distracted woman that must have made her quake at heart. From the adjoining room fumes of strong tobacco emanated, and the creaking of a rocking-chair with the sound of shuffling of feet, of hawking and spitting seemed to indicate that ‘the man in possession’ had succeeded in making himself tolerably comfortable on the premises. From the garret above there resounded from time to time a dismal wail, such as may be heard at an Irish wake, while from the kitchen below, the unsavoury smell of burnt meat had invaded the house.

Mrs Wylde grew desperate. She managed at last to shake off Mr Platter, with instructions to her brother to ‘shepherd’ him carefully till evening, and to refrain from over-indulgence in strong liquor, and then she rushed downstairs in a frantic effort to save that leg of mutton—but alas! it was too late.

What added further to her consternation was the sight of a fresh influx of visitors, and it really seemed as if all her neighbours had given themselves a rendezvous at her house upon this most unfortunate occasion.

On the garden walk she heard the dreaded footsteps of Mr Percival Prowler, who, by some unknown instinct, must have been attracted there by the presence of alluring prey, and who always had the knack of ‘turning up’ when least wanted.

On the track leading to the house two horsemen could be perceived in the distance, and were easily recognised as the ponderous Major Dearie, and the sedate Mr Raleigh, both of them clearly de trop under existing circumstances.

All these people were highly displeased at meeting with one another. Prowler was in search of Platter, with a view to bringing under the new chum's notice a valuable ‘back block’, upon which all his own sheep had died, and he had trusted to find the young man unguarded and alone; Raleigh had, after much solicitation, obtained for this very evening the promise of an intimate tête-à-tête with the lady of the house, to whom he had many things to communicate which could best be said in delightful privacy. For ever since that memorable night when Mrs Wylde had induced him to stay against his will, the difficulty had been to get him to go away. He had been a very frequent visitor at Dovecot, from causes which in all probability he had neither been page 75 able to analyse or properly to apprehend, but which had exercised a remarkable influence on his conduct. If he had entertained any hopes of some kind of repetition of that thrilling experience then such fond anticipations had been doomed to disappointment. Mrs Wylde had been sympathetic, confiding, affectionate even, only always at arms' length. But still she had not relaxed her hold upon him, and she encouraged his attentions; hinting at a warmer response, a closer union of congenial souls, and all that sort of thing. And it was under the spell of such a mysterious ‘affinity’ that the disconsolate philosopher fluttered around the flame.

He had felt intensely disgusted at overtaking Major Dearie on the road. That very convivial personage could not by any means be diverted from his destination, or induced to go home, which, as Raleigh fully explained, would be the best place for him.

The gallant soldier—long since retired from active service—was once more, as he said, ‘on duty’, being engaged in taking the census—an innocent pastime to which a small remuneration was attached. But it was evident that in going his rounds he had obtained something more from the numerous houses at which he had called than a dry list of names, ages, and religions, for he spoke in muffled tones which would hardly be accounted for even by the business of an enormous beard and heavy moustaches, which enveloped one half of his face, and he rocked to and fro in his saddle in a manner of which he appeared happily unconscious, but which caused lively apprehensions to his travelling companion. In short, Dearie deserved that day the sobriquet by which he was generally known—he was decidedly ‘beery’.

On the other side Tom Muster was very much put out at the sight of these new arrivals, whose presence interfered with his little scheme, and might be the means of marring an otherwise favourable opportunity for doing some business on his own account. He therefore sympathised very warmly with ‘his poor sister’, and communicated his sentiments to Mr Platter, who fully responded and expressed himself strongly, that it was ‘a d——d shame that a lot of idle fellows, whom a fellow don't know, and don't want to know, should drop down on a fellow, and upset a fellow, and destroy all the charm and privacy of a fellow's visit’. He accordingly stood aloof, and stared at the newcomers through his eyeglass with haughty reserve.

While discord and disappointment thus reigned amongst the various guests, and the household was in a state of pandemonium the unfortunate mistress was left alone and unaided to battle against all difficulties. But it is at such times that true genius asserts itself. Mrs Wylde did not despair—she knew better.

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Before many hours had elapsed a marvellous change had come over the scene of action. All mishaps had been retrieved, and even turned to good account. The slaughtered fowls had been plucked, stuffed, and put in the oven; Master Tommy had been captured, whipped, and put to bed; the cook had been pacified, had ceased to howl, and returned to her duties, invoking blessing on her ‘mistress darlint’; the housemaid had dried her tears and put on a clean cap and apron to wait at table; the bailiff, under the softening influence of whisky toddy, had relaxed his hold on the premises, and been induced to take up his abode in an outhouse. The lady herself was arrayed in a low-necked dress, which showed her white shoulders to perfection, and she was the cynosure of all eyes, as she sat radiant and vivacious at the head of the hospitable board, dispensing smiles and courtesies in all directions.

Under her genial influence all previous moodiness and contention vanished, and the dinner-party—improvised under so many adverse circumstances—went off in the most lively style. The aristocratic Platter dropped his airs and eyeglass, related fashionable news, and laughed heartily at his own jokes. The wary Prowler ceased his catlike glare, purred in his way, and even became communicative; the reserved Raleigh unbent his thoughtful brow and condescended to be facetious; the convivial Muster kept sober, and the heavy major kept awake.

Dinner over, Mrs Wylde continued to throne it with right good will over her circle of admirers, and managed to confer her favours with such exquisite tact as to please all alike without rousing the smouldering flame of jealousy in any. She was sentimental and satirical by turns, and had a great deal to say about everything. She sang to one, sighed with another, and laughed outright at a third, while dispensing bon mots and good liquor all round. In fact, she was the soul of animation, and seemed to combine in her own versatile person the charm of a well-bred lady with many of the louder attractions of a clever barmaid.

Thus the evening wore on, and good humour was at its height, when suddenly another unexpected advent threw a momentary ‘damper’ on the exuberance of the party. All eyes were immediately turned upon the intruder, with no very friendly greeting, and although he had certainly full right to be there, he must have felt that the atmosphere was not altogether congenial to him. Even Mrs Wylde dropped her company smile, and seemed bored at the intrusion, for it was only—her husband!