A Rolling Stone Vol. II
—‘Underneath the turf
Soft thou sleepest, free from morrow;
Thou hast struggled through the surf
Of wild thoughts and want and sorrow.'
Mrs. Palmer was sitting by herself in her room sewing a little and crying a good deal. She was much addicted to crying, and just now it seemed as if everything and every one had combined to afflict her. That useful Rosa had gone home ill, so she had lost her mainstay and support. The children also were ill. Mr. Everard, to save himself from being deafened by perpetual crying, had retired within that little fortress of his, where he was strongly entrenched amongst his books, and for a fortnight had been invisible or nearly so. Violet had been excessively provoking; for it was her fault that the wedding which Mrs. Palmer longingly expected had not yet taken place. It had been postponed twice by her artful excuses, so that people were beginning to whisper it never would come to pass. And they whispered other things very displeasing to Mrs. Palmer, to whose ear they came in course of time. They said hard things of Violet, page 117 harder even than she deserved—for a flirt has no friends, and it must be confessed that this young lady was a most accomplished flirt. Some elderly chaperons, jealous of the attention she monopolised, wondered if Mr. Wishart, poor man, knew how naughty she was. They could have told him almost, they felt so sorry.
While Mrs. Palmer was thinking of these things the door opened, and Mr. Everard came in noiselessly. He passed most of his lifetime in slippers, and went about softly.
‘Oh, you are here, Alice,’ he said, ‘I was looking for you. Why was I not told that my brother was much worse?’
‘I supposed you knew; but really, Everard, you shut yourself up so, I believe I might die and you not hear of it.’
‘Don't be absurd,’ said Mr. Everard, with impatience. ‘You knew, then? Have you sent to inquire?’
‘Mrs. Sligo told me to-day he was the same.’
‘That is only hearsay. You should have sent to-day.’
‘Really, Everard, how cross you do get about trifles! I am so tired and flustered all day long I can never think of things, and I couldn't do anything to help him. Shall I send now?’
‘No, I am going directly.’
‘You, Everard, with that dreadful cough! Why, very likely your brother is no worse than you are, if one knew. You mustn't go.’page 118
Mr. Everard had gone before this speech was finished, hastily slipping on a stronger pair of shoes in the passage, and fortunately finding his hat as soon as he sought for it. He did not look fit for a long walk, but he had neither horse nor carriage, so he was obliged to go on foot. The wind was cold, and he shivered as it met him in the face, for the poor gentleman was thinly clad. His funds were at the lowest ebb just then, and as he had ever been too honourable to run into debt, he did without what he could not pay for. He did without overcoats, for instance, and hence, perhaps, the cough that troubled him.
When he came near the house he saw sings of unusual commotion therein. Except at night Palmer's windows were never veiled by blind or curtain, so that the interior of his front room was a familiar sight to passers-by. The doctor's carriage was at the gate, and Mr. Everard could see the doctor within, talking with the vigour and positiveness characteristic of the medical profession. There were several other persons in the room besides his brother, who was wrapped up with rugs and pillows in an easy-chair. There was an immense man, whom Mr. Everard recognised as Professor Crasher, and the Professor seemed to be much affected, for he alternately rubbed his eyes and wrung his large fat hands. There was Mr. Langridge, seated gingerly on a creaky chair, as if he expected it to give way at any moment—and truly this was no unlikely page 119 occurrence. Also Mrs. Sligo had just entered with a saffron-coloured jelly, and Smithers, the engine-driver, had chosen the same moment to bring in some four yards of a black and greasy rubber belt which had broken suddenly, in order that Palmer might, by examining the fracture, form some idea as to whether it had been caused by honest wear and tear or by the utter worthlessness of the article.
‘You'd better take that away, my good fellow,’ said the doctor.
‘I want you to look at this, Mr. Palmer,’ said the unabashed Smithers ‘This here's one of those American rubber belts. It's only a fortnight since we hitched it on for the first time, and look at it now. That's never been worn; that's rotten, sir, perfectly rotten.’
‘Well, it's done for, I suppose,’ said Palmer. ‘Last year you nearly ruined me with your waste in oil, Smithers, and now you're trying to ruin me with belts. Take it away; be off!’
Smithers retreated, the long black belt wriggling after him like a snake. He stopped at the door, turned round, and after a mysterious pause said, ‘Never mind the belt, Mr. Palmer; what's a belt, after all? If this gentleman, who I take to be a doctor, could make you a new constitution as easy as we can get a new belt, right glad would we all be. I come from the rest of the men to—to—’
Smithers looked despairingly round him, and page 120 found a helper in Mrs. Sligo, who quickly prompted him with, ‘to express their sorrow!’
‘To express their sorrow,’ said Smithers, with alacrity, ‘on account of your being so ill. We've no pleasure in anything now, Mr. Palmer; we've no sperrit to get on with the work, and, as true as I'm here, the men have gone off so in their appetite, that one half of 'em brings next to no lunch with 'em now. This is the feelings of all, sir; and I was to say they all earnestly desire you'd improve’ (‘recover,’ corrected Mrs. Sligo); ‘thanks, recover,’ said Smithers, ‘and hope to see you about with them soon.’
The door closed as the last syllable fell from Smithers's lips, and he vanished, switching the belt after him.
‘It's most affecting, isn't it, doctor?’ whispered Mrs. Sligo. ‘You see how they all worship him.’
Palmer looked surprised at Smithers's declaration, and remarked that he was ‘coming out strong.’
‘Go after him, Randall,’ he said, ‘and give the poor fellow a kind word. I've been rough with him lately. You may as well give him a glass of something, too; perhaps he expected it. Mrs. Sligo, it's exceedingly kind of you to bring me that splendid jelly; but I'm afraid if I were to try at it every day for a week I should make but a slight difference in its appearance. Why, Everard! are you here?’
‘I have but just come in,’ said his brother. ‘You look very ill, John, and I go from home so seldom, I page 121 hear nothing. I did not know you had been worse before to-day.’
‘Well, there was no reason to fuss about it,’ said Palmer, ‘so I didn't send you word. I feel nearly all right again. I don't mean to say die yet, eh, doctor?’
‘Let us hope not,’ replied that personage. ‘But if you won't obey orders, I at least shan't be responsible. For a month or more have I been ordering your brother from home, and he has refused to go, Mr. Palmer.’
‘Ah, you should, my good friend,’ broke in the musical Crasher. ‘I wish only some one would say to me, “Crasher, you must have rest; you must try a sea voyage, or a change to some nice quiet place.” I would agree with delight. I would spread my pinions at once; but I'm bound here, bound to the wheel.’
‘Yes, a change does wonders,’ said the farmer, who was the very type of rubicund health. ‘I assure you, doctor, that I felt like another man after a run up the country to Steve's place; but, what with one crop going in or another coming out, I hardly ever can get away. I feel the want of a change now, but I'm fast; I haven't a man I could trust to leave in charge.’
‘It always surprises me, Langridge,’ said Palmer, ‘that, so long as we can do our own work, there never is any one to be found who can do it properly Yet, when we drop off, our places are filled at once; page 122 and who cares? the world's machinery goes on as well as ever.’
‘Ah, but I know better than to let any man get into my place while I can help it,’ returned the farmer. ‘However, you can be spared. Randall here can manage while you're away.’
‘I'm not going,’ said Palmer. ‘I'm not going to be consigned like a bale of goods to the most convenient port. I won't be bundled about from one hotel to another. The air here is good enough, as good as any you'll find south of the line. My house is my castle, and I'm not disposed to leave it.’
‘And as damp as damp can be,’ said Mrs. Sligo, mournfully, ‘and dingy enough to make you a hippocondor.’
‘I really think it would do you good,’ said Mr. Everard quietly.
‘I'd much rather hear of you going, Everard. You shall be my proxy, if you like. You enjoy travelling.’
Mr. Everard did. As his brother spoke, there came into his mind a vision of other days, when he and a friend, long since dead, but never to be forgotten, had made an Italian tour together. Ah, that by gone time.
‘But the wherewithal,’ he said, with a faint smile.
‘Is it that?’ said Palmer, in an undertone. ‘What is mine shall be yours for that purpose; so don't hesitate to go on that account.’
‘The best thing you could do, Mr. Palmer,’ said page 123 the doctor, whose ears caught most of the undertones about.
Mrs. Sligo had withdrawn during this colloquy. She had whispered to Randal that she would take the liberty of making tea for the company assembled, and without waiting to hear whether the purpose was approved of had gone to prepare it. In a few minutes she came in again, carrying the tray, and dispensed a refreshing cup of tea to each person present.
‘A very useful, amiable woman,’ said the doctor, when she had gone out.
‘A meddlesome, interfering woman,’ said Palmer.
‘She seems to take things into her own hands,’ said Mr. Everard.
‘The fact is, Everard,’ declared Palmer, ‘if anything could induce me to leave home it would be her conduct. All day long is she about now, and neither I nor Randall know how to get rid of her. Unfortunately we're both of us too subservient to womenkind; we're not able to hector, and swagger, and go on against them as some men do, and so they domineer over us. You may stare, Randall, but it's a fact that you can't keep her away.’
‘Why, I thought, as she had been your house-keeper for so long, she would know how to be of use to you better than any one else.’
‘That's a mere excuse. You are not able to prevent her doing as she likes—that's the truth. And there's one, thing you'd better take care of. I page 124 believe that, if I should be removed from the scene, you'll be the next object of her solicitude.’
Randall laughed, and Professor Crasher whispered to Mr. Langridge that he was afraid their old friend's head must be affected.
‘Head affected! Stuff!’ said Mr. Langridge unceremoniously: ‘nothing the matter with that. You try to drive a bargain with him, and see.’
The doctor looked at his watch, and seeing that his call had lasted half an hour, protested that he had not another minute to spare. All the day had he been sacrificing his own ease to a suffering but selfish public, and now it would be dark before he could reach home. ‘Mr. Everard followed him to the door, and tried to find out what he thought of his brother's condition. The doctor did not tell him: it was not his habit to give any other than vague or unsatisfactory answers when questioned about his patients. He almost resented such inquiries. Why could they not leave him alone; was he not doing his best? So, instead of telling Mr. Everard much about the patient, he told him how ill he, the hard-worked doctor, felt, and how it was next to an impossibility that he could ever be free of his ailments, for he had no time to cure them—both day and night was he running to and fro on his errands of mercy.
‘You should take a holiday’, said Mr. Everard sympathisingly.
‘Holiday!’ scoffed the doctor; ‘you good people won't let me have one.’page 125
He squeezed into an enormous greatcoat, stepped into his carriage, and, as Mr. Everard thought, was about to go, when second and perhaps better thoughts occurring to him, he came out again with a great plunge, and said, ‘Your brother ought to have left this damp unhealthy place long ago. Now I think it would be unwise to persuade him to go; he is hardly strong enough to take a journey. You could get him out of that damp cold room, though, into one on the sunny side of the house; and if you could smuggle some strong woman in, who would give the house a thorough cleaning, and burn up most of the old rubbish it's filled with, it would be all the better for him. He ought to be well nursed and attended to.’
‘But will he—will he get over it?’ said poor Mr. Everard rather huskily.
‘Well,’ said the doctor slowly, ‘well’—he got into his carriage again; and, if he finished the sentence, it was lost in the rumbling of the wheels.
Mr. Langridge went out next, Professor Crasher lumbering by his side. ‘He won't recover,’ said the farmer, ‘though he may last a long while yet. His brother looks nearly as bad. A sickly family; all consumptive.’
‘Ah, how distressing!’ said the Professor. ‘We are such old friends, Mr. Langridge, that I thought I must come and see him to-day, although I have hardly a minute to call my own. Oh, this work, this work! and with it all, one can hardly make page 126 both ends meet. I've two music lessons to give before I can get home.’
‘Just so,’ said Langridge; ‘I don't know why it is, but there is certainly less time and more work than there used to be. I ought to have been looking after sowing turnips. It'll be done, of course, in my absence, but in a way. Farming is slavery, and, to make the matter worse, it doesn't pay.’
‘Dear me! I thought all the farmers were well off,’ said the Professor, with astonishment. ‘To me, Mr. Langridge, a farmer's life seems enviable, delightful, quite Arcadian in its peaceful simplicity.’
‘I don't know what an Arcadian life is like,’ said Langridge; ‘but neither you nor the doctor, who has just been grumbling about his little bit of work, knows what farming is. You think, I suppose, our cattle grow up without attention and our crops plant themselves. As for being well off, we're one half of us beggars, Mr. Crasher.’
‘Good gracious!’ said the Professor.
Mr. Everard went back into the house, to sit a little longer with his brother before returning to his own home. He took more notice of the room, now that it was nearly emptied of people, and was dismayed by its untidiness, its cold gloom, and the dampness that might be felt. No one could get better, he thought, who had all the medicine bottles he had emptied arranged before him in an overawing phalanx. The table was piled higher than ever with things of all kinds, the cobwebs hung thicker than page 127 ever in the corners, and the windows soon promised to be windows no longer, if the admission of light gave them a right to the name.
‘Couldn't he be moved into a better room?’ he asked of Randall.
‘I wish he could. If you suggested it, perhaps he would not object.’
‘I shall insist that it ought to be done. And, really, you know, these things are positively shocking.’
‘I would have altered all that long ago, but any interference of the kind only seems to annoy Mr. Palmer.’
He must not be humoured in this,’ said Mr. Everard. ‘At least, let us get these horrid bottles away.’
They carried the offending bottles outside, and Mrs. Sligo, who had not yet left the house, vigorously pounded them to dust with a large stone.
‘I've never been able to bear the sight of them,’ she cried, ‘since my husband, the poor sergeant, died after nine months’ illness, and there was a wheelbarrow full of them to be put away.’
‘I don't wonder that the sergeant is no more,’ said Randall.
‘Well, I suppose if he could have been kept alive, he would have been. There were three doctors at him.’
‘That explains it, perhaps.’
‘Well, now, I've done this,’ said Mrs. Sligo, page 128 breaking the last bottle, ‘I'd like to have his old mouldy books down, Mr. Randall, and if you would help me, I think we could drag out the carpet and beat it. My there's some dust in it.’
Randall felt no desire for such a charming task. ‘We must get him out of the room altogether,’ he said, ‘and then it shall be handed over to you, Mrs. Sligo; but I beg to be excused from participating in the carpet-shaking.’
‘Ah, most men are afraid of it,’ said Mrs. Sligo. ‘I've shaken scores.’
But Palmer only consented to vacate his room on the condition that Mrs. Sligo was not to be allowed to meddle with anything therein. Consequently the room she had hoped to have the pleasure of emptying and purifying was locked up as it was. Palmer took up his abode in the large chamber upstairs which he had assigned to Randall little more than a year ago.
Here the sunshine came in upon him, and as there was a fireplace, the room could be as well warmed as lighted. He persisted in declaring there was nothing seriously amiss with him, and whenever it was fine during the weeks of an autumn and winter that were unusually cold and rainy, he would go out and walk up and down in the yard, sometimes looking into the machinery sheds, if any work was being done there. But by degrees these excursions to the workshop and the yard became less and less frequent. Still he was generally in good spirits, page 129 and made no complaint. His brother, who seemed nearly as ill, and had been ordered away by the doctor, went to Adelaide for the winter, confident of seeing Palmer in health when he returned. If the doctor, who professed to understand the constitutions of both gentlemen, thought otherwise, he did not say so. Perhaps he was silent out of kindness. For, though he was rough in manner, and could scold a silly or obstinate patient into submissiveness, he had a little heart left yet, after thirty years of practice. He did not believe in heralding an evil day, however clearly he might see it in the distance.
That day might be slow in coming. The autumn went, and his patient was no better. Gradually he had ceased his walks outside, and was only seen on the verandah on sunny days. Then that also must be given up, and he never left his room. He had called it a prison during the first days of his illness, and had chafed and fretted against the restraint his doctor had thought fit to put upon him. But now it was as if he had lost the desire to look upon the world outside; the things which had once occupied his mind failed to interest him. In other ways, too, he had changed: his little irritabilities and his roughness of speech had vanished; he had grown quieter and more considerate. And this, as Mrs. Sligo sorrowfully observed, was a very bad sign.
Now, when it was evident that his days on earth were to be few, it was surprising how many discovered that they had been very fond of this odd page 130 man without knowing it. So many remembered old stories about him which once they had laughed at, but which now seemed to do him credit—kind things which he had done, though, to be sure, they had been done in a peculiar manner. They found out that his charities had been large, though he had never been a rich man. There were people, principally among the poor and lowly, who could tell how he had befriended them. These deeds all came to light now, though they had been done in secrecy.
It bewildered him, people coming every day to ask after him, to thank him for benefits and favours he had forgotten long ago, and to talk wistfully of that recovery which now could only be hoped for. Why, often in his loneliness he, a man without wife or children, had dreaded these latter days: he had known so surely that he must pass through them alone. But no one could be kindlier tended, and there were so many anxious to do him good that one might have thought the whole country-side were of kin to him.
Randall never left him now. They read together, they talked when Palmer was not too much exhausted for conversation. He never tired of music, and as Randall never tired of playing, they had it often—too often, the doctor thought; but he was decidedly unmusical. He might grumble at it, but the first sound of the full deep chords was sufficient to tempt the workmen to loiter near the house, and passers-by would often wonderingly stop page 131 to listen to a fragment of some grand oratorio or sonata, and ask afterwards who lived in the dingy old house.
‘I wonder you never made some use of that talent,’ said Palmer one day when his friend had been brilliant in his improvisations. ‘But I needn't wonder; most of our gifts are neglected ones. Do you know, when, as a boy, I read the Gospels with my poor mother, the parable that used to impress and awe me most was that of the man who wrapped his talent in a napkin, and hid his Lord's money.’
‘But how many do that!’ said Randall.
‘I was beginning to wonder, as I lay here, whether I had. Really it seems that I've had very little time to think before now. You know how a certain essay-writer says that half the ills of life might be prevented if men could sit still in a room long enough to think out their problems. We're always hurrying; rashness and impatience ruin all our plans; we rush on decisions that may make or mar our lives. And I've had a busy life. You know my hobby has been work, and I have always held it up as a universal panacea. I've practised my own doctrines; my life has been one of hard work and—it's only truth if I add—self-denial. After all, I begin to doubt whether it was the best kind of life; whether a man can't be something better than a drudge. What have I gained, and what has it all been worth to me?’page 132
‘That would depend on what aim you had in view,’ said Randall.
‘Ah, I started with so many aims! I wished to do so much—more than was possible. But I bound myself to a hard bondage at the very beginning. Do you know what it is to work to pay off old debts, debts incurred by another, to give your strength to them day after day, to think of them with shame night after night? How I hated debt, how I hate it now! our family was disgraced and dragged down by it, and I worked to raise it again to honour. I did it, too!’—and there was a faint glow on his face, and a sparkle in his eyes as of triumph—‘Yes! but there was no one to be glad with me when the work was done. Those who would have cared were in their graves, and I had given my life for it. Three years ago only I paid the last of those debts, and for that hour of triumph I had worked—slaved, I'll call it—since I was a boy of eleven.
‘It was a hard life,’ said his companion; ‘but it cannot have been all in vain.’
‘Who can tell? Sometimes a feeling of desperation comes over me, as I think how many lives are offered up to Moloch in the same fashion. How many are pinched and pined in education and culture, in all that makes our happiness, that they may give every moment to the work that brings in a little dross. Is it right, even if you may want the dross for a good purpose? It may be very praise- page 133 worthy for children to work to pay their parents’ debts; but somehow I should rather mourn over the poor creatures who bound about their necks such a millstone as I laid on mine. I should be tempted to dissuade them from selling their life's work for so low a price. I'd say, “Yes, work as hard as you please, but don't let it be for sordid ends, or to gratify family pride only. Never mind the old debts, the broken obligations; they're another's, not yours. They'll crush you, they'll grind the freshness and spirit out of your youth. No creditor has a right to hold you in such a cruel bondage.”’
‘But is it not worth something to redeem the family honour, to remove the stain from an old name? You would do the same again. I should have done the same.’
‘Yes; a great deal, but not everything. Isn't there more of pride than anything else in the desire that prompts such an endeavour? A stupid pride! to ruin one life because another has been ruined. When there are so many ways through the world, to have to choose this dreary one is a hard fate. And I've thought—I can't help thinking I could have done something had my hands been free.’
A memory of thoughts like this, dreams that had had no fulfilment, came to the listener. ‘I too have thought so,’ he said, speaking rather to himself than any one else, ‘and I have done nothing. I had better have worked for a mistaken purpose even.’page 134
It was the first time Palmer had spoken to Randall of the work on which he had spent his life. They never talked again on the same subject. A week afterwards, however, Palmer had one of his good days. He appeared to be much better and stronger, and was in high spirits. Several friends called to see him, and went away feeling sure that he was recovering fast. One or two had the boldness to tell the doctor so. He listened to their opinion grimly, without giving his own, and went the very next morning to Palmer's, on the strength of this information. It was as he had feared. His patient was dying, and he told Randall so, adding that it had been a hopeless case for some time.
‘Are you a relative?’ he asked abruptly.
‘No, not in the slightest degree. Only he is my best friend.’
‘I don't often meet with such friendship,’ said the doctor. ‘I'm sorry for you, Mr. Randall; I know what it is to lose a friend; there are not many of us who find more than one in a lifetime. I shall be here again to-morrow, but I hardly hope to find him alive.’
But the flickering spark of life lasted longer than he had thought. It was not the next day, nor the day after even. Palmer, guessing that something had been said, insisted on being told the doctor's opinion.
‘I knew it,’ he murmured faintly. ‘I felt it must be so; though the doctor isn't infallible,’ he page 135 could not resist adding, with a slight smile. ‘And you are tired; it won't be long now.’
‘You are very good to me. You've been kinder than them all. I can't tell you now; but I've done what I could for you in return. And, Randall,’ he whispered, after a pause, during which there was silence, for the other could not speak, ‘you will promise me one thing?’
‘My poor brother did you an injury. Strange things happen—you may have the chance of repaying him; but don't let it be evil for evil. I want you to forget it for my sake.’
‘Is that all? I could do much more than that for you. Yes, I promise.’
‘I have not done what I ought,’ said Palmer, rousing himself to speak with all his old energy and decision. ‘I ought to have cleared you. I couldn't, Randall. I couldn't tell them my own brother was a thief.’
‘Never mind; it is over now,’ said the other, only anxious to soothe him.
‘No, it was wrong—cowardly. But I have written to Everard. I have told him—he will see you righted. You will remember? Poor Godfrey, what will become of him now?’
He never spoke again, except in broken words and fragments of sentences. From these Randall knew he was trying to repeat the lines:—page 136
‘What if some little pain the passage have
That makes frail flesh to fear the bitter wave;
Is not short pain well borne that brings long ease,
And lays the soul to sleep in quiet grave?
Sleep after, toil, port after stormy seas,
Ease after war, death after life doth greatly please.'
Two days later they followed him to his grave. There had been another funeral in the same neighbourhood not long before, an ostentatious funeral of a rich man; an influential man also, who had held a high position. The carriages of the rich came from far and near to do him honour. But to this funeral, besides a few friends, came only the poor, walking two and two in a long line. Hardworking men and women, some of whom had walked miles to pay this last token of respect; plain country people from distant settlements; strangers even from the town, were there. People wondered at the large following, and asked one another who all these were, and whence they had come. For most of them were unknown one to another, and yet each had been drawn thither by a grateful remembrance. He had done good by stealth, and now it enriched his memory.