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A Rolling Stone Vol. II

Chapter VIII

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Chapter VIII.

‘The stranger's shadow flits across
Our old familiar floors;
The stranger's footstep as of right
Seeks our old open doors.'

Randall had been requested by Mr. Gatherall, Palmer's lawyer, and by Mr. Langridge, who was an executor under the will, to remain in charge of the house and property for a short time after the funeral Mr. Everard had been written to; but it was impossible that he could return immediately, for he had fallen ill again at Adelaide and was not yet sufficiently recovered to travel. Under these circumstances, Randall waited until some one should appear who had authority to relieve him of his charge.

He had not to wait long. One morning, when he was breakfasting alone, a man of most unlovely countenance, whose appearance moreover suggested that he belonged to that great class who are nearly total abstainers from soap and water slouched into the room, and with an ease a bashful visitor might have envied, seated himself at once on a chair near the door.

‘Well, mister,’ he said, by way of opening the conversation. ‘Good morning.’

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‘Good morning,’ returned Randall, half inclined to turn the fellow out again. ‘Have you any business with me?’

‘I've come to look after the place,’ said the man, bringing himself and his chair farther into the room. ‘I reckon it's time some one of the family should see how things are. I'm to take charge of everything till the sale. They told me outside you'd locked up the machinery sheds, and all the house but two rooms. You can deliver up the keys to me, and shift your work on to my shoulders. That's enough, isn't it?’

‘Not quite’, said Randall. ‘I must see a written order, signed by some proper person, before I can oblige you in that way.’

‘Oh, well, look here.’ He held two letters between his unwashed finger and thumb, and jerked them towards Randall. ‘Them's my instructions. They've got word from Mr. Palmer, who's in Australia somewhere, to realise—sell up to the last stick.’

One of the letters was from Mr. Gatherall. ‘Yes, this is quite right,’ said Randall. ‘You are from Mrs. Palmer, then?’ he asked, reading the signature of the other letter with some surprise.

‘She's my sister’ said the singular visitor, now coming chair and all, up to the table, with a clatter and a scrape along the floor.

‘Indeed,’ said Randall, surveying him with amazement ‘I was not aware.’

‘Yes, most people don't know it. Family don't page 139 care for me. My name's Prosser. I knows yours already. Excuse me. I've ridden a good way, and had no chance to get my breakfast.’

And he helped himself liberally.

‘Oh, pray make yourself at home,’ said Randall, conscious that the invitation was quite unnecessary. He read Mrs. Palmer's letter while Mr. Prosser repaired the waste of his tissue, which, judging from the rapid diminution of the cold beef and the bread-loaf, must have been considerable.

The letter was remarkable.

Mr. Randall—You will alow the Bearer to take possession of the house, and give everything into his charge. Also will you please get Mrs. Sligo and Mrs. Hickson to clean it, and burn up all the old rubbitch that can't be sold. You will be paid for all your trouble up to this time. I hope you have been very carefull of all my brother-in-law's things.

Alice Palmer.

‘You're satisfied, I suppose, with them letters?’ said Mr. Prosser, diligently scraping out the mustard-pot.

‘Perfectly,’ replied Randall.

‘I should like to go over the place with you, and just see what order it's in. I like to see the state of a thing as soon as it comes into my hands; so that, if anything's found out afterwards, I know whether it was done in my time or not. Pass the salt, please.’

‘A very necessary precaution in some cases,’ said Randall, to which Mr. Prosser assented with a nod.

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‘I've finished now,’ he said, after a moment. ‘I feel something better. We'll go into the stables first and see the horses. I heard he'd a fine lot.’

They went to the stables, and afterwards to the engine and machinery sheds. Mr. Prosser was dumbfounded.

‘I say!’ he cried at length, all this is valuable. Have you any idea how much he was worth? you ought to; you were with him long enough to find out.’

‘None at all,’ said Randall, ‘It was not my business to find that out.’

‘You're rather huffy,’ said Mr. Prosser. ‘Perhaps you know more than you like to tell. He liked you they say. Has he left you anything?’

‘I do not know what he has left,’ answered Randall, more strongly inclined than ever to eject Mr. Prosser. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘Oh, nothing. I only wondered. No offence. Let's go into the house now.’

‘There is no need for me to show you over the house,’ said Randall. ‘There is very little in it, except in the two rooms I have been using.’

‘Oh, we'll look through,’ said Mr. Prosser; but he could not prevail on Randall to accompany him farther. He came to speak to him again half an hour afterwards, and informed him there was not fifty pounds’ worth in the whole house. ‘At least it wouldn't fetch that at auction,’ he added.

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‘Probably not,’ said Randall. “Is everything to be sold, then?’

‘Yes, as soon as it can be done.’

‘But there are many things in the house which Mr. and Mrs. Palmer might wish to keep. There is this portrait, for instance, and a great many private papers and letters, as well as the books, which have belonged to the family for a long while.’

‘The painting seems a good one,’ said Mr. Prosser, posing as an art critic. ‘Fine-looking old lady that; old-fashioned style, though. But the books! I wouldn't give five shillings for the lot.’

‘I was not thinking of what they would sell for, but that the family might not like them to go to an auction. I think I shall make out a list of the things I have mentioned and send it to Mrs. Palmer.’

‘You can do as you like, but I believe she'll want to sell them.’

Randall wrote a list of the few things he thought Mr. Everard would value for his brother's sake, and then went across the road to summon Mrs. Sligo and Mrs. Hickson to what they would be sure to delight in—a thorough cleansing of the neglected house.

Mrs. Sligo had put on black, and was sorrowfully taking tea with Mrs. Hickson, for there had been a tender reconciliation, and they were now more enthusiastic in their friendship than ever. They were talking about Palmer, and Mrs. Sligo was alternately page 142 weeping and swallowing strong tea, which perhaps sustained her in this trying hour.

‘And to think that he should have been so cruelly set against me in his last days!’ she cried. ‘I was forbidden the house, and though I sat up at night making him herb tea he wouldn't taste it. He would never even look at what I made; his mind was poisoned against me.’

‘Bear up, Maria,’ said Mrs. Hickson soothingly. ‘I suspect that proud-looking man, Mr. Randall, of having interfered betwixt you. Now, what do you think I heard Mr. Palmer say to him about you?’

‘I don't want to hear it,’ said Mrs. Sligo, with a hysterical gulp. ‘What does it matter?’

‘But you must hear it,’ persisted Mrs. Hickson. ‘I was on the verandah, and accidentally like I stopped by the window, and I heard him say, “Randall, as sure as I'm here, that woman will make a dead set at you after I'm gone.” And Mr. Randall had actually the ill-manneredness to laugh.’

‘He said that?’ cried Mrs. Sligo, almost choking, and I at that very moment working myself to death for him! Well, well, men are poor things at the best; but I didn't expect that of him. As for his fine Mr. Randall, I wouldn't go a yard to look after him.’

‘He's here looking after you, anyway,’ giggled Mrs. Hickson ‘Maria, speaking as a friend, I feel it my duty to tell you I believe that man admires you. Just fancy if he should have heard us!’

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‘I don't care,’ sobbed Mrs. Sligo. ‘Let him; I care for nothing; what's admiration to me now? Now, ‘Liza, why don't you go to the door, do you want him to wait there all day?’

Mrs. Sligo dried her tears and smiled again when Randall delivered his message. She was greatly cheered by the prospect of being able to work her will on the room into which Palmer had never permitted her or any other woman to enter with duster or broom.

‘What a state it must be in!’ she cried. ‘The rest of the house, 'Liza, will make you hold up your hands; but I don't know what you mayn't find in that room. He used to say he put it right, and dusted it himself, and I believe Mr. Randall did a little occasionally, which maybe he thought was of some good; but we know how men clean—flapping about with a cloth, and fancying they're dusting.’

‘Yes; we've some work before us,’ said Mrs. Hickson, with solemnity. ‘We must be there early.’

Randall did not trust to Mr. Prosser forwarding the list to Mrs. Palmer, but posted it himself, and she received it the next day. If she had only had her own wishes to consult she would have taken no notice of it. Old papers and books were only useless lumber; she valued none of them. But she knew that her husband did, and that when he returned he would assuredly ask after their fate. Therefore she resolved to go to the house and sort out what ought to be saved. When she arrived Mr. page 144 Prosser had gone out, leaving the keys with Mrs. Hickson. From that person Mrs. Palmer obtained them, and declining her offers of companionship, went to look, through the house alone.

Her first action was to sit down and rest. She was tired with her walk, and her black dress and cloak felt hot and heavy upon her. She lay back in Palmer's old easy-chair, and listlessly looked at the worn-out furniture, the faded moth-eaten curtains, the torn and stained paper on the walls. Age and neglect had ruined and disfigured everything; the aspect of the gloomy comfortless room depressed and chilled her. Her heart was filled with a bitter disappointment. She was not altogether an unkind women. She had liked her brother-in-law with a lukewarm kind of affection, and had felt sorry when his long illness had ended in death. But all through that illness she had thought, almost unconsciously—for this was one of the thoughts which lurk in dark corners and back chambers of the mind, and are never admitted into the well-lighted apartments where our amiable reflections flourish — she had thought that if Palmer should not recover, her family and herself would have the sufficient consolation of a fortune: the end of their poverty was at hand.

But now it was certain that her brother-in-law, instead of dying rich, as he surely ought to have done, after so many years of constant and plodding industry, had only left a few hundred pounds in cash. It was not expected that the estate, after all page 145 expenses were paid, would realise much more than two thousand pounds. A paltry little fortune.

True, it would set them right with the world: they had got a little behind it while Mr. Everard had not been at home to check unnecessary expenditure. They could pay their little debts with this legacy; they could have many comforts hitherto denied them; they could send the children to school; but she must give up her dreams of a large handsomely-furnished house, of social gaiety, of unrestrained indulgence in costly dress. Only two thousand!—a pitiful affair.

She arose with a sigh from the creaky old rocking-chair, and began to sort out letters and papers. There were some very old letters scattered about in the drawers of the bookcase. These were worthless, she decided; they had been written twenty years ago, and could not be of use or interest to any one now. Besides, they were not from any one of the family; they were signed by a name she had never heard. She turned them over carelessly and read a few lines. ‘Why, I believe,’ she said, with a smile stealing over her face, ‘these are love-letters! The idea of him ever having had anything of the kind!’ and she laughed aloud. She sat down with a pile of letters in her lap, and began to read.

Ah me! Why have we not a law of tapu? To an untaught Maori those letters would have been sacred because a dying breath had been drawn so near them. We read in history how a certain royal lady page 146 spent her last night on earth in reading and destroying her private papers and letters. The voice of death was whispering in her ear his mark was set on her pallid and haggard face, but she rallied all her strength to the painful task. She was a wise woman, who trusted nothing to the honour or fidelity of those who would weep at her deathbed and follow her to her grave.

He had only lain in his grave a few days—the man to whom these letters had been written—who had written many of them himself, for his answers were there. Could he have known who would read them at the last, when years ago he made these confessions of his thoughts and feelings, penning day by day his story of life's struggles and disappointments, it might have seemed to him one of time's bitterest revenges.

They were glanced over coldly enough now—these letters which had been written on the impulse of warm feeling. After reading several, tearing each crosswise when she had finished it, Mrs. Palmer began to think she had mistaken the nature of this feeling. Certainly there had been the closest in timacy between the two who had corresponded so regularly for years; they had hidden nothing from each other, and yet, had not one been a man and the other a woman, and had not their Christian names appeared at the head of each letter, the thought she had expressed would never have occurred to her. The letters might just as well have page 147 passed between two school friends, she thought; they contained none of the weak and washy sentiment she had expected to find.

She yawned over them, and finally threw them on the floor. They need not be preserved; better let Mrs. Sligo burn them with the other rubbish a foolish old man had allowed to accumulate in his rooms.

She saw Palmer's desk; if there were any papers of importance they would be in it. It was unlocked, or as she noticed afterwards, the lock had been broken long ago. She opened the desk, and at the top lay a letter to her husband. Well I came! was her ejaculation. Without pausing to consider whether the letter might be intended only for her husband's eye, she opened it—Mrs. Palmer had got into the way of opening letters. This promised to be more interesting than those stupid old ones, and again she sat down to read.

It had been written only three days before Palmer's death. It began with a statement that years previously he had made his eldest brother his heir, and this private letter only contained certain instructions which he did not wish to be known by others. He had two persons to commend to his care. One was their brother Godfrey, to whom he had made no bequest, because it would have been a very questionable benefit. But he charged Everard to help him whenever he should be in need; not to forget him, nor, if possible, to lose sight of him. Then page 148 he spoke of Randall's untiring care during his illness, and of the wrong which had been done to him by Godfrey Palmer. It was fully told, as a matter of which Mr. Everard had had no previous knowledge. Palmer entreated his brother, for his sake, to go to Randall's former employers, and tell them the whole truth, since it was not to be hoped that Godfrey would ever have the manliness to confess his fault.

Mrs. Palmer learnt all this for the first time. For the first time she heard of the existence of this brother, and something like a triumph thrilled her small mind. ‘They looked down on my family,’ she thought, ‘and see here! they've a vagabond brother they're ashamed to won. And really John must have been simple! Everard to go and tell everything—a nice disgrace!’

She read on. Palmer proceeded to say, with a feebler and tired hand evidently, for the writing grew more and more indistinct, that according to an arrangement between them there was still a sum of money owing to Randall remaining in his hands. It was about sixty pounds, and he had intended to invest it for Randall, but on account of his illness the matter had been neglected. He wished his brother to pay this, adding to it a present of a hundred and fifty pounds. He would have given him much more in a legacy, but had not thought it right to leave money away from his own family when they were in need of it.

‘More than two hundred pounds!’ cried Mrs. page 149 Palmer, ‘and here he is again—Randall is to have the riding horse and saddle he always used. Why, that is a splendid horse! I was on him once, and he went better than any horse I've ever ridden. He would have suited me—but no—it's Randall this, and Randall that—it's a wonder we've anything at all. And of course Everard will do it; he would give everything away if the letter said so, without caring a bit for me and the children.

Tears of vexation came into her eyes. She put together the few things she meant to have sent to her house mechanically, her thoughts running all the while on the letter. She had expected to be made rich—it was bad enough to be disappointed in that without having to give presents out of the little they would have to a person who was nothing to them. She was disposed just then to hate the idea of poverty with tenfold vigour. The old letters she had been reading had breathed of its sufferings and sacrifices throughout. Not complainingly, however, but with a feeling that was too subtle to be comprehended by her uneducated nature. If she had understood them they would have given her clearer views as to what really does constitute poverty or riches. As she thought to be poor and miserable was synonymous with not having money sufficient for the gratification of every desire. To have to do without the pleasurable and luxurious things of this life—that meant unhappiness to Mrs. Palmer.

She walked to the window. The sky was growing page 150 pink in the west—the sounds of evening broke the stillness of that quiet place. Men were coming home from their work, in rumbling waggons, or riding on plough-horses; the cows were being driven to the milking sheds; the smoke of the fires was curling upward from the cottage chimneys; it was time she was at home. She put all that she thought her husband would wish to keep, including the broken desk and the oil painting, which she managed to take down from the wall, into one of the empty rooms, and locked it up. Then she stood, silently thinking, with the unfortunate letter in her hand. Why did her hand close so tightly upon it as to crush it into a hard round ball? There was the sound of a heavy foot crunching the gravel on the path. Mr. Prosser had returned from an exciting rabbit hunt. He thought his sister's face looked flushed and agitated when he suddenly entered the room, and he asked her jocosely whether she had been crying over the old things. She answered shortly, ‘No,’ and wrapping her cloak tightly round her, passed out.

The second day after that was the day on which the house was to be given into the hands of Mrs. Sligo and her friend. At an early hour they proceeded to the post of duty. They were welcomed by Mr. Prosser, who was calmly sitting on one corner of the table, asking a hearty breakfast of cold beef and bread, and something that was not water, though it looked like it. He rose, set chairs for page 151 them in the middle of the room, and, returning to his elevated seat, asked what on earth they wanted.

‘We were told to come to clean the house,’ said Mrs. Hickson, meekly. ‘Where's Mr. Randall? he knows about it.’

‘Oh, he cleared out as soon as he could after I came. He didn't seem to like my company, I don't know why. If you want to clean, go ahead. I shan't stay here, though, if that's it.

‘And we don't want you, my good sir,’ said Mrs. Sligo, when Mr. Prosser had gone out, slamming three doors in succession. ‘Now, 'Liza, let's begin with Mr. Palmer's room’ it's the worst. My word!’ she cried, as she opened the door, ‘did you ever see such a sight for a woman who's been accustomed to clean ways? Look at that bookcase! If Mr. Randall had been anything of a man he'd have taken a duster to it. Why, the books are white with mould, and the table's piled up with things like a scavenger's basket.’

‘I don't know where to begin,’ said Mrs. Hickson. ‘Mercy! Maria, there's a spider three inches across. Kill the nasty thing.’

‘This is what I shall do,’ said Mrs. Sligo, sweeping everything off the table into the table-cloth, and tying it up in a bundle. There! we can sort them afterwards. I'll get some water on to boil.’

The fire she made in pursuance of this resolve roared up the chimney with a fury that was alarming. She fed the flames with those old letters which Mrs. page 152 Palmer had examined, and with others which they found scattered in almost every drawer or box they opened; that is, every one which was not locked.

‘What stuff he kept about him, really!’ said Mrs. Hickson, igniting a pyramid of newspapers.

‘There are these old clothes, too,’ said her coadjutor, ‘we'll have to make a bonfire outside. And here's his old slippers, poor dear man! I think I'll keep them in memory of him.’

‘What's in this box;’ said Mrs. Hickson, tapping authoritatively on the article referred to, as if it ought to have answered for itself.

‘Oh, that's Mr. Randall's; it's left for a day while he can send for it. I don't think there's much in it; he wasn't blessed with much property.’

‘No, and some say Mr. Palmer hasn't left much behind him. That seems mysterious-like, Maria; he was always making money. What has he done with it?’

‘You needn't ask that, if you consider that his relatives never made any,’ answered Mrs. Sligo. ‘I wish you'd leave ferreting among his letters, and let's get on. I can tell you there's a lot of work before us.’

‘Most of these are in a lady's hand,’ said Mrs. Hickson meaningly, ‘and he's kept them a long while for 'em to be ordinary letters. I always did hear there'd been a bit of romance in his life. I think he must have been cruelly disappointed in some one.’

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‘Ah, you may lay your life on that,’ agreed Mrs. Sligo. ‘He was the sort of man you know, to take a thing of that kind to heart. That fire's out again, 'Liza—you don't put half enough on. Give me the bellows; I'll make it go.’

‘Some people now would have read these letters, observed Mrs. Hickson, throwing the last on the fire. ‘I never could understand the curiosity of some.’

‘We haven't time to read them, if we wanted,’ cried Mrs. Sligo. ‘You'll have it dark before we've done one room, if you don't mind.’

Mrs. Sligo vigorously bundled together some old newspapers and magazines, and went to revivify her bonfire in the yard, which, the last time she looked at it, had died down to a heap of white ashes. She opened the door, gave one hurried glance, and screamed loudly. Then she threw down her apronful of papers, and darted like an arrow across the yard to assist Mr. Prosser, who was threshing with all his might at a line of fire which was rapidly spreading from one end of the shrubbery to the other.

‘Yes; you'd better come to help!’ he shouted, as he dealt about him with the branch of a tree in tremendous blows, that caused sparks and blackened stalks and leaves to fly in every direction. ‘What d'ye mean by setting fire to the whole place with your rubbish heaps? There! don't let it catch that shed.’

Mrs. Sligo worked with her whole strength, and Mr. Prosser performed feats which would have page 154 distinguished him had they been done on the field of battle instead of in an obscure backyard. Mrs. Hickson also came to their assistance, first throwing about a quart of water on the fire. After half an hour of exhausting toil they were conquerors—the fire was completely extinguished, and the shrubbery was annihilated. Mr. Prosser asked if there was anything in the house which would allay thirst. Mrs. Sligo thought there was some bottled beer, and it was unanimously resolved that, in that moment of supreme exhaustion, the bottled beer should be produced. The two ladies went to search for it, entering the house by the front door, which they had purposely left open, as well as every other door and window, so that there might be a fine draught through all the rooms. Mr. Prosser sat on the gate and waited for the beer.

In less than five seconds he heard two screams, and immediately afterwards Mrs. Sligo came out of the front door with the utmost swiftness of which she was capable, and Mrs. Hickson propelled some small articles from the window, and jumped out after them, apparently forgetting there was an open door not far off.

‘The women are mad!’ politely exclaimed Mr. Prosser, running into the house. He was met by a body of flame and smoke which drove him back again immediately. Mrs. Sligo's fire, which had been so obstinate, had burned up at last.

They ran hither and thither and looked for water, page 155 but found very little. The tanks were nearly empty, after a long continuance of dry weather. Mr. Prosser saved some of the furniture, and when he could no longer enter the house, folded his arms, and watched the flames doing their work. Mrs. Sligo cried and wrung her hands. They were aroused from their inactivity by Mrs. Hickson, who suddenly began to make signs and wildly wave her hands in the direction of the sheds, being speechless, it seemed, with fear and horror. One of the sheds was on fire. Again did Mr. Prosser put forth all his strength. As he very truly said, he worked harder than he had ever done in his life. He had no help from Mrs. Sligo this time, for that lady thought fit to go into hysterics, and Mrs. Hickson, with wails that would have excited admiration at a Maori funeral, threw the last bucket of water over her.

Mr. Prosser's exertions were all in vain. The fire spread with such rapidity that he had barely time to lead the frightened horses out of the stable, and to drag some of the lighter pieces of machinery into a place of safety. In a short time all was over. The roofs of the buildings crashed in with a shower of sparks like a splendid display of fireworks, and only some heaps of cinders and broken bricks remained. Mrs. Sligo and her friend had done their work of clearing out the old house most effectually.