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A Rolling Stone Vol. II

Chapter V

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Chapter V.

‘All dead—the joyous, bright, and free,
 To whom this life was dear.
The green leaves shivered from the tree,
 And dangling left the sere!
O dim wild world!—but from the sky
Down came the glad lark waveringly:
And, started by his liquid mirth,
I rose to walk in faith the darkling paths of earth.'


Those two bosom friends and chief gossips of the neighbourhood, Mrs. Sligo and Mrs. Hickson, held one of their longest conferences on the unlooked-for improvements which had been made in Mrs. Palmer's household. Although they did not live near enough to exercise the same unremitting surveillance with regard to her affairs as that with which they honoured Palmer, they collected, by one means or another, a mass of knowledge that was creditable to their industry and research. But, as Mrs. Sligo remarked, ‘A person with half an eye could see how things went on in that house.’

‘My word,’ she said, ‘there's been a strange turning-out there! I was told, 'Liza, and though I don't know it to be true, I repeat it to you in confidence, page 87 that the front room carpet had never been up for seven years.’

‘Sakes alive!’ cried Mrs. Hickson.

‘And many's the time that my heart has bled for those poor children as were like to burst out of their clothes, no provision being made for their growth.’

‘I've known them go to school a sight to be seen,’ said Mrs. Hickson, ‘and yet Mrs. Palmer sets herself up above people who were as good as her when she was a girl.’

‘You should have seen them at home,’ said Mrs. Sligo, with a mournful smile; ‘don't mention what they were going to school—that was nothing. And, oh, Mrs. Hickson, you should have seen her kitchen!’

‘I don't want to see it,’ said Mrs. Hickson, looking round her own with a glow of pride. It had just been cleaned.

‘In all my born days,’ said Mrs. Sligo, who loved to express herself forcibly, ‘never have I seen, and I hope I never shall see, such another kitchen. The pantry and dairy were a thought worse, if anything. Victoria Sarah Stokes, who was in service there, has told me things I shouldn't like to repeat.’

‘Really!’ said Mrs. Hickson, wondering what those things were, but knowing she should hear them presently.

‘Vickey's a girl that'll tell the truth whatever comes of it,’ said Mrs. Sligo, ‘though, to give every one her due, she's not so tidy herself as she might be. page 88 She said it used to make her afraid the family would come to want when she saw the awful waste in the house. Eating new bread for one thing, and making puddings of new milk with all the cream in, when skimmed would have done just as well. They never warmed up cold meat again, and she's seen, with her own eyes, Mrs. Palmer give to the dogs enough to feed a working man. And good strong tea thrown out of the pot as if it cost no more than pump-water. But what do you say to milk standing five days before it was creamed?’

‘Oh, my!’ said Mrs. Hickson, elevating her eyebrows and groaning.

‘Vickey says it was fit to bubble out of the pans, and the cream was spotted like a leopard. You may fancy what butter that would make.’

‘Why didn't Vickey cream it herself,’ inquired Mrs. Hickson.

‘Oh, she'd made an agreement from the first to do no dairy work; she never could bear to meddle with milk. However, being a delicate girl, and as she couldn't eat the butter Mrs. Palmer made up, she always churned a little fresh cream for herself when she could do it without being noticed.’

‘I've heard of that,’ said Mrs. Hickson. ‘Her butter was strong. But her bread was enough to spoil my appetite without putting the butter on it.’

‘Well it might,’ said Mrs. Sligo, ‘considering how it was made. I shouldn't say so much to any one else, 'Liza, as they might think me ill-natured, but page 89 really such women ought not to get married. I feel for poor Mr. Palmer. I hope he's more comfortable now; things are a sight better in the house.’

‘I should say the young woman they have now has had some hard work to get 'em put to rights’, said Mrs. Hickson.

‘That she has! Well, she may be a clever young woman, but she's too close to suit me. I tried to engage her in a little friendly talk, but I could have got nearly as much out of a gate-post. I don't like to see persons so lifted up. I wonder what she gets for helping there.’

‘I suppose it isn't our business,’ feebly observed Mrs. Hickson.

‘Anything that concerns our neighbours is our business, 'Liza. Some people would be like the Samaritan; they would go past on the other side and never trouble themselves if their neighbour was lying in the mire. I'm not one of that sort. I can feel for my neighbours, and I like to know all about 'em.’

‘So do I,’ said Mrs. Hickson. ‘I don't see why we shouldn't. I've no secrets; I'm not afraid of everything being known that goes on in this house, and I don't see why other people should be more particular.’

‘Yes; and how people can turn the key on themselves, and go about like locked chests or sealed-up parcels among their fellow-creatures I never could understand. I allude to Mr. Randall, page 90 Mrs. Hickson, and you may believe me or not, but some day there'll be a come-out about that young man.’

‘Why! I thought you knew all about him long ago. You've told me a strange lot, anyway.’

‘I've told you? I've never given an ear to the ridiculous reports some one—I'll not say who—sends flying about. I never believed he was a nobleman's son.’

‘Whoever said he was?’ asked Mrs. Hickson. ‘You, yourself, Maria, I believe. Hickson and I have always been of one mind about him, that he's no better than he should be. I shan't wonder if he turns out to be a common fellow enough.’

‘Well; he's turned Mr. Palmer's heart from his old friends,’ said Mrs. Sligo, with a deep-drawn sigh. ‘Twice this last week has he gone past me as if I'd been a stone image.’

‘Well, what does it matter?’ said Mrs. Hickson, who was getting tired of her friend's company, and had been irritated once or twice by her manner. ‘Why should he speak to you?’

‘We've known each other these two years, and I've kept his house for fifteen months, and kept it well, I'll make bold to say.’

‘And to speak plainly, Maria, you want to keep it all along; and I'm surprised, I really am astonished at you, a woman of over forty, who has buried one husband, wanting to have the chance of burying another, for that's what it amounts to; every one knows the poor man won't live long.’

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‘Woman of over forty!’ repeated Mrs. Sligo, dwelling on the assertion which had been most exasperating to her. ‘Buried one husband! As if I'd put him out of the way! Well, what else?’

‘Well, it's shameful!’ said Mrs. Hickson, ‘and I can tell you I'm not the only one as thinks so.’

‘Let them!’ contemptuously answered the amiable widow. ‘I expect no one to say a good word for me, though I've had a heart to feel for them all in their afflictions. I don't see any harm in a woman of thirty-nine, if you please, Mrs. Hickson, marrying again, after she's worn widow's mourning for these eight years, and conducted herself like a Dorcas, if ever woman did.’

‘I don't see how you've to manage it, anyway,’ said Mrs. Hickson, with the sourest of smiles, ‘if he won't look at you or speak to you. I suppose yoaren't going to drag him into church and marry him right off.’

‘There's nothing I abominate more than vulgarity, 'Liza, and that's downright vulgar. I don't look for the delicacy of a lady in you, but you might spare my feelings. Perhaps, after all, the reason Mr. Palmer has not been for speaking to me lately—in public’—Mrs. Sligo simpered mysteriously—‘is, that he wants to put a stop to all the gossip that's been got up about me and him. Time will show whether there's anything in it or not, and then perhaps you'll be more friendly and polite in your expressions, Mrs. Hickson.’

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‘I guess time will show,’ said her friend incredulously. ‘A confirmed old bachelor's hard to catch, Maria. There's Smithers, his engine-driver, a good-looking young fellow, only ten years younger than you are, and a much more likely match.’

‘’Liza Hickson! your vulgarity is unbearable,’ cried Mrs. Sligo, burying her face in a pink-edged handkerchief. She took it out again very quickly, however, for she heard some one on horseback passing by, and thought it might be the obdurate Palmer. So she hastened to sit by the open window, in a graceful and pensive attitude, with a book (upside down) in her hand. Palmer, unfortunately, was not to be seen; but there came along at a fast trot a stranger whom Mrs. Hickson and Mrs. Sligo, as with o one voice, designated as a ‘gallant-looking gentleman.’

Whether he were gallant or not, he had excited much curious attention while riding through that quiet rural neighbourhood. Some had admired the fine horse he rode; others, with less reason, had admired the man himself. Certainly he had bold well-shaped features; he rode with an indolent ease and grace that would have become a Mexican caballero; he was well attired—perhaps the style was a little flashy—but, if flashiness looks well anywhere, it is on a dull country road. From afar might be seen the scarlet flower in his buttonhole, the brilliancy of his horse-shoe breastpin, and the gleamings of polished stirrups and spurs. His very page 93 presence in that hedge-bordered lane seemed a perpetual swagger from one end of it to the other.

At his near approach Palmer knew him for his brother Godfrey, and stood silently surveying him, coldly taking note of all his bravery of apparel. ‘What have you rigged yourself out like that for?’ he asked. ‘You come one day in rags and tatters, and the next riding on horseback, and got up in the latest horsey style, I suppose one may call it. I admire the fit of your clothes. One would think you had been poured into them like liquid plaster of Paris.’

‘Don't try to be sarcastic. Yes, they do fit, I think. I'll tell you how I've been promoted; how from being a tramp, if not a beggar I've been set on horseback.’

‘There are many ways of doing the thing; but, no doubt, yours was like that of no other man.’

‘I can't say that. Sweepstakes were not invented this season. Nor even in this country.’

‘Sweepstakes? There really must be something lucky about you if you've profited by them. I thought they swept one's pocket clean rather than replenished it.’

‘My excellent but simple brother, I do not put into sweeps, I am too old for that—too experienced, in fact. Have you never considered the difference there is between those who support sweeps and those who get them up? Has it never struck you that a large part of the public really do not know what to do page 94 with their money? No one need ask a man nowadays to stand and deliver, as the gentlemen of the road did in olden times. People force their savings upon you; they fling them at you. The public delights in lotteries and co-operative swindles. The public is easily deceived, very willing to be persuaded; in short, the public mostly consists of fools.’

‘And even if we grant that,’ said Palmer, ‘it seems a very noble thing indeed to occupy oneself with relieving fools of the riches that embarrass them.’

‘My dear John, what else have such fellows as myself to depend on? If the public were wise, how hard our struggle for existence would be! Sweeps couldn't exist in such a state of things, we should hear no more of the betting ring, and very likely the glorious institution of the turf would be knocked on the head also. As it is, however, the kind public is always ready to encourage swindling by passively allowing itself to be swindled.’

‘This all means, I suppose, that you have been managing a swindle.’

‘Why so severe? I and a friend of mine have just happily arranged a £2000 sweep on the Melbourne Cup. It has succeeded so well that we are sorry we did not make it £6000 while we were doing. You know the sort of people who support these things. Miners and gum-diggers; book-keepers and bank-clerks, who always seem possessed with an insane desire to make their little salaries less; barmaids and public-house keepers; young men page 95 about town, who think they know so much of the world, because they have the slang of the pavement and can lounge in and out of hotels—they are the most ignorant and gullible of all.’

‘Do you want to say much more about this precious piece of business?’

‘Not if it displeases you. I can make allowance for xour prejudices.’

‘It may be a prejudice to be jealous of one's good name; but I hop it's one that will cling to me as long as I live.’

‘Name!’ said Godfrey Palmer with one of the most disagreeable of his many smiles. ‘Don't be afraid; the name of Palmer has not appeared in the business.’

‘So much the better. Who are the principal prize-takers?’

‘The principal one is before you. You might have seen in the papers, however, that two or three nice little prizes have been drawn persons resident in this part of the country. That has a very good effect; it gives the thing such an honest look. We are supposed to know all about the other prize-takers, and so we do. It is said that the £800 prize was drawn by a butcher in Napier. Happy butcher! worthy man! we are much indebted to him.’

‘The public is long-suffering,’ said Palmer; ‘but you and your friend may do it once too often.’

‘After all,’ resumed his brother, ‘I don't care for this kind of thing, though I can't lay claim to page 96 your exquisite sensibilities. Why wasn't I born rich? I should have been a very decent kind of man if I'd had plenty of money. Then, instead of interesting myself in sweeps and hanging about race-courses, doing a little business on the shady side of the betting ring, I should have had horses of my own, and it would have been very proper in my position,—keeping up the fine old English sport, and so on. What a popular fellow I should have been! heading subscription lists like a prince, supporting churches and schools, keeping open house for the whole county, and finishing up at a good old age by remembering every one in my will!’

‘If you'd anything left to remember them with. Strange! I never hear you wonder what you might have been if you'd not thrown up your profession.’

‘My profession would have thrown me up sooner or later. The wisdom of my parents was never more clearly revealed than when they destined me for a clergyman. Can you imagine me in a pulpit?’

‘Not at present certainly; but there was a time—’

‘Yes, there is a time for all things. It's hateful, though, to think of what might have been; and weak, too, in a man, to go on maundering about such things. But there was something I wanted to tell you. I may come in for a fortune after all.’

‘Oh, indeed,’ said Palmer, with an incredulous smile.

‘We have an uncle, as you know.’

‘I do, and I know also that he is likely to page 97 outlive us both, besides being gifted with a wife and son.’

‘He had a wife and son.’

‘What do you mean? What has happened to them?’

‘He has lost both. Who was Mrs. Moresby?’

The last words were uttered in a higher key. Palmer happened at that moment to be looking into the next room, where Randall was writing. The doors were wide open, and he must have heard most of the conversation. It had not seemed to interest him; he had gone on with his work, his head slightly bent over the table, and his pen moving rapidly across the paper. But at the question, ‘Who was Mrs. Moresby?’ Palmer saw him start violently. His pen stopped in its career, and he turned his face towards the two who were talking in the other room.

‘Did you never see her?’ continued Godfrey Palmer to his brother.

‘My uncle married after I came here,’ said Palmer. ‘I never knew who the lady was, or I've forgotten if I did.’

‘I only know he married a very young lady. Her family must have made the poor child marry old Moresby, a sour, reserved man, getting on towards the wrong side of fifty, for his money: there could be no other reason. She was a beauty, and he was foolishly proud of her, and indulged her in everything; but there wasn't much happiness in their house, so page 98 at last they sensibly resolved to live in two houses. There was no quarrel—our uncle was too fond of her for that. He gave her a place of her own, and made her a handsome allowance, and she took her little boy with her and left him. The thing was done quietly, and neither of the two condescended to give a reason or explanation to their friends; but it was intended to be a separation for life. I think in some sort the husband deserved it, for making such a ridiculous marriage. The next thing he heard of his wife was that she had left England, without consulting any one. Her letters to himself and her mother had been written on the day of her departure, and besides these, she had not taken leave of relative or friend. Perhaps she had no intimate friends. My opinion is that young Mrs. Moresby was one of those strong-minded women who don't encourage friendship. However, she had gone with her child, leaving her husband to wring his hands in helplessness.’

‘Run away!’ said Palmer, in astonishment. Randall's attitude had not changed; he was still listening.

‘What she meant to do will never be known, although scandalmongers, of course, knew all about it. It's only certain that she took her passage for New Zealand. Her husband was prepared to follow her, when news came that the Cairngorm—the ship she had sailed in—had been burnt to the water's edge; burnt on the high seas, three thousand miles from land. A few men—of the crew mostly—had page 99 escaped in the boats; but out of these only two sailors were picked up by a passing ship—the others had died of thirst. That's the tragic end of the story.’

‘Tragic indeed. Poor Mrs. Moresby! Where did you hear this?’

‘The account of the burning of the Cairngorm is in all the papers. The rest I've learnt by a letter from the only English correspondent who has not forsaken me. Our unfortunate uncle is hardly expected to get over it. He will not be persuaded that his wife is dead; he is possessed with the belief that she may yet be drifting about on some raft or boat, or may have found her way to some ocean island. So he clings to that poor fragment of a hope, and, they say, is even coming out in his steam yacht to look for her.’

‘Poor old man!’ said Palmer. ‘And so you see a fortune in the distance, Godfrey? I wouldn't have you be too certain. Waiting for dead men's shoes is weary work. There are a hundred different ways in which Mr. Moresby may leave his money without favouring us.’

‘We are his only relatives. There is his mother-in-law, of course; but I've never heard of a man leaving much to his mother-in-law. He is sure to make a peculiar will, however; give it all to some hospital or charitable institution. People think it much more Christian to do that than to enrich their poor relations.’

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‘I'm sure I don't want him to enrich me,’ said Palmer.

‘Very likely, my dear fellow; but there's me—the irrepressible me—and there's poor Everard, with his nine, ten, or twelve children—how many he has I don't know. He wouldn't refuse a nice ten or twenty thousand, perhaps. Now, why does your bookkeeper stare across at us in that disagreeable way? I have always found people with those very keen black eyes uncomfortable to be with; they shoot their glances at you.’

‘I don't believe he's looking at you,’ said Palmer, ‘He is only in a brown study. I'll ask him to play something.’

‘Do so; it will help me into a better frame of mind, I'm comparatively innocent when listening to music.’

‘We want you to play something, Randall,’ cried Palmer. ‘One of your best.’

Play something! Was there not a mockery in that request? They asked him to make amusement for them, to entertain them with sweet sounds, when the only music he could hear was a dirge, the wailing song of mourners, and the heavy funeral march. All this, and much more, was in the piece he played; for he forgot his listeners as soon as his fingers touched the keys. What a relief to be able to pour forth all that was unutterable by the lips in the full tide of music, which surged through the dimly-lighted rooms and through the open windows out into the dark and sultry night.

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‘Is that what is called playing with expression?’ said Godfrey Palmer. ‘It makes me melancholy, and I'd rather not be that.’

‘He plays strangely to-night,’ said Palmer. ‘I could listen to him for hours though play as he will. There is some sort of language in his music, if only one could understand it. I've fancied sometimes that I could read his thoughts by it. But what's that? He has stopped very abruptly.’

‘He's too much of a genius to behave like common people,’ said Godfrey Palmer. ‘You didn't tell me when I was here before who he was, or why you had taken him in. I found out, though. I have a pleasure in finding things out.

‘You ought to be ashamed to mention him. Are you going?’

‘Yes. I have lodgings now, and fare sumptously, so I need not trouble you.’

He took his leave. Palmer, who was tired with a long day's riding, fell into a doze, and did not wake until Randall had come into the room. He thought him strange and altered somehow in his manner. A day or two after he saw that he wore mourning, but he did not ask him what loss he had suffered, of relative or friend. He wondered what Mrs. Moresby and Randall had been to each other, but he asked no questions. What he knew of Randall's history had been told him unasked. One thing which he knew was significant: all that Randall received from him, except the little he was page 102 obliged to use in necessary expenses, was remitted to England. It was in payment of an old debt, he said. But though he sent money he sent no letters. It surprised Palmer therefore that he should write about this time to his mother, as he told him. Months later the letter came back to him; it had found no owner. Palmer was sorry; but his companion, whatever he might feel, expressed no disappointment in words. He quietly burnt his own letter, and from that time seemed to abandon the idea of communicating with his family.