A Rolling Stone Vol.III
‘Sorrow breaks seasons and reposing hours,
Makes the night morning, and the noontide night.’
The news that came tardily to Mr. Gatherall in his city office came as with the wings of a dove to that house on the wooded hills where Mr. Wishart and his sisters lived. They knew now that Randall had succeeded in his profession, and was returning at the end of the four years. The letters which told them this had been written while he and his mother were in Sydney. The next steamer would bring them to New Zealand.
The house was astir with joyful excitement. Even Mrs. Meade, who had disapproved of her sister's engagement chiefly because she had believed it would never ‘come to anything,’ made up her mind to rejoice with the others. After the family, the servants also, by those mysterious means which especially provide for the instruction of servants, got to know what was to happen. Mrs. Grigsby, by virtue of her position, took the liberty of offering her congratulations. The coachman, being a gifted man, wrote some verses on the forthcoming event, page 178 which were much admired by his fellow-servants. Murdoch, in particular, was so softened by them that he cut flowers recklessly every morning for Maud, and remembered his former grudging parsimony with shame. On that day which was to bring the travellers with its eventide, he made such havoc amongst his roses that all thought he had gone distracted. But he felt he had his reward when he brought his overladen basket to Maud.
‘Eh, but she's a nice way of thanking one!’ he said to himself, as he went away with the feeling of having been generous and self-sacrificing. ‘I thought she would want to deckyrate. If he's a gentleman who has any understanding about horticooltural matters, he'll see we're not behind the rest of the world in these pairts.’
Mr. Wishart went to meet the expected guests. ‘Of course,’ he had said, ‘they can't be allowed to stay anywhere but with us—unless Randall shouldn't want to come, Maud, or unless you intend to forbid him to show his face before the very last day of his time of probation. You may expect us at nine to-night; but I need not tell you; you have the time-table by heart.’
But at nine that evening no one arrived or was near, as was evident from the profound silence. Within the house they heard the rush of waterfalls far away, and the night-birds answering one another from side to side of the creek. It was unusually close and sultry, and they sat with open page 179 doors and windows, and the scent of the flowers in the garden was almost too oppressive in the warm stagnant air. The sphinx moth was buzzing from one verbena plant to another, as strong on its pinions as a little bird; and lighter-winged moths, silvery gray or dusky brown, came in every moment from the outer darkness to wheel round and round the lamp. Mrs. Meade was overpowered by the quietness and warmth, and went to sleep over a thrillingly sensational story which she was reading for the fourth time. Harry, also, after a brave struggle against drowsiness, was obliged to resign his prospect of sitting up late that night. Then Maud sat by herself against the window, or walked on the verandah, and listened to the indistinct murmuring sounds of the night.
In the servants' room it was as quiet as elsewhere. For some reason they conversed in whispers, and looked sadly at one another when they heard Maud's footstep on the verandah. Murdoch read aloud from the newspaper which had just come, for in this country place the morning paper arrived in the evening. He had always a lugubrious voice; it was sepulchral now.
‘An awfu' Providence!’ he ejaculated.
‘Who'll tell her, I wonder?’ said the cook, with a half-suppressed noise that would have been a groan if it had had fair play.
‘I wouldn't—not for worlds!’ said Mrs. Grigsby, whose false hair was in such conspicuous disarrange- page 180 ment that it testified to uncommon agitation of mind.
Murdoch said that as it had quite upset him, they might imagine how she would feel it. And Julia, the parlour-maid, cried until Mrs. Grigsby sharply reproved her, and told her she ought to be thankful she had only the troubles of other people to cry for.
‘I'd bu-r-r-n the newspaper, if I were you,’ said Murdoch.
‘What good will that do?’ groaned the cook; ‘will it bring him to life again?’
‘You don't want her to come upon it suddenlike, I suppose,’ said Mrs. Grigsby. ‘I've known persons go off in such cases, and never speak more. Suppose she should ask for it, how are you fixed then? But if it's burnt, we can say it was done by accident.’
Whereupon the cook rose, and with tragic mien thrust the newspaper between the bars of the grate.
‘She can't get it now,’ she said, and immediately began to cry, and was sympathetically accompanied by the housemaid, Mrs. Grigsby, and Julia.
‘Really, ladies,’ said Murdoch, ‘it does you credit, but it would be better not to give way.’
‘It's very foolish, Julia, you silly girl, give over at once,’ said Mrs. Grigsby, fiercely rubbing her eyes with an immense pocket-handkerchief. ‘I believe there's some one come, and not one of us fit to go to the door, unless it's myself.’page 181
Mrs. Grigsby went half way, and then rushed back again.
‘Now, here's a blessing!’ she cried. ‘It's that dear old Doctor, and we can get him to break the news to her, or persuade her to come in, instead of pacing up and down outside when it's nigh midnight. Mrs. Meade's right enough; she's getting a good sleep in her arm-chair. The Doctor's talking to Miss Maud on the verandah.’
The Doctor was telling Maud how he had lost the last train to town, and knowing his friends would shelter him for a night had walked to Mr. Wishart's from the station.
‘I ought to have been here earlier,’ he said, ‘but I have been losing my way for more than two hours. I have been up hill and down dale, and into holes, and on to stumps and fallen trees, till I felt like a hobgoblin of the night. Then I saw your friendly light, and made for it across country, and by luck, not by knowledge, got into the road. But where are your brother and Mrs. Meade?’
Maud pointed to the arm-chair with a smile. ‘Mrs. Meade is there; my brother has gone to meet them: he ought to have been at home now.’
‘Them? Oh, I remember; he told me the other day. Aha! this is why a young lady keeps so good a watch on the verandah at midnight. I think I shall make you go in; this flimsy dress of yours is damp with dew.’
‘Oh, one cannot catch cold on a night like this,’ she page 182 answered, ‘and it is so close indoors. But did you see or hear nothing of them on the road?’
‘My eyes and ears are not so finely strained as yours are to-night, Miss Maud. No, I saw nothing, and I was selfish enough only to think of myself as I blundered on in the dark—ah-h, how my legs ache! Now, if you won't go in, I will.’
‘Oh, I am so forgetful,’ said Maud; ‘and you must be tired.’
She ran in, and called Mrs. Grigsby, who promptly appeared, settling her hair and cap by the way, and rubbing her eyes till they were redder than ever. Mrs. Grigsby waited for an opportunity, and then, in a deep, solemn-toned whisper, said, ‘Doctor, do oblige me.’
‘With what?’ said the Doctor. ‘Not with professional advice, I hope; you look well, Mrs. Grigsby.’
‘Oh, no, sir, though I feel like to melt,’ said the housekeeper. ‘Have you read the paper?’
‘Not to-day; had no time,’ said the Doctor.
‘Ah, we get it in the evening here; so Mr. Wishart hadn't seen it before he went, and the ladies haven't asked for it fortunately,’ said Mrs. Grigsby; and then by a few whispered words she shocked the good Doctor very much. ‘And what's to be done?’ she asked.
‘Why, nothing at present. You can't do good; let well alone.’
‘Oh, but consider, Doctor, how she's walking page 183 there, and straining her eyes out into the darkness. She's making herself ill. Both Julia and I tried to get her to come in or to take a little of something before you came, but she wouldn't She's eaten next to nothing all day; she's been too excited.’
‘Well, people live on excitement sometimes,’ said the Doctor; ‘but I must remind you, Mrs. Grigsby, that I can't; I've eaten nothing all day; have you no pity for me?—and I've been working hard all day as well.’
‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ said Mrs. Grigsby. ‘I'll see that you have something at once. Selfish old gormandiser!’ she said to Julia, as they met in the passage, ‘much he cares—he wants his dinner, that's all.’
The maligned Doctor went on to the verandah.
‘Sister Anne,’ he said, ‘do you see nothing yet?’
‘Nothing,’ said Maud, and though she smiled, he noticed a weariness in the tone of her voice. ‘It does not bring them any quicker watching here; but I am always fancying I hear wheels.’
‘I can't,’ said the Doctor, ‘although they say the senses are sharpened by fasting.’
‘Oh, have they brought you nothing yet?’ said Maud; ‘I am so sorry. I told Mrs. Grigsby. I will go myself.’
‘Stay,’ said the Doctor, taking her hand. ‘Mrs. Grigsby has arranged a repast which is only too dangerous in its temptations. But I have one peculiarity. I can't dine alone, not if I were starv- page 184 ing. I might swallow food, of course; but it would be as chips and ashes in my mouth. But if you, my dear young lady, were to sit down with me and take something yourself, I might enjoy my dinner. As it is, I require company and conversation to give me an appetite when I am as tired as I am to-night.’
Then he put her hand into his arm, and laughing, she went with him into the dining-room.
‘But we ought to wake Mrs. Meade,’ she said.
‘I hold it criminal to break a refreshing sleep,’ said the Doctor.
He made a very good dinner, but he took care also that his companion should not merely sit and talk with him, and he kept up such a noisy and hilarious conversation, considering that one man was accountable for it all, that Mrs. Grigsby was scandalised.
‘Just you hearken how that old Doctor is going on!’ she said. ‘His head's as hollow as a gallipot, to say nothing of his heart.’
‘Bah! you old women wouldn't have got her to take a decent dinner with all your contrivances,’ the Doctor said.
‘Well, that's a blessing anyhow!’ said Mrs. Grigsby, with a mournful sniff. ‘Are you going to break it to her?’
‘Mrs. Grigsby, go to bed; your brain wants rest,’ said the Doctor.
‘My brain, thank heaven, Doctor, is as clear as yours, and need be since I take nothing to muddle it,’ answered Mrs. Grigsby, who had noticed the page 185 Doctor's patronage of the wine decanter. ‘A pint of wine, as sure as I'm a poor widow,’ she had said to Julia; ‘and that wine's no weak stuff either.’
‘If any of you simpletons break it to her, as you call it,’ said the Doctor, ‘look out for something from my direction. We don't want to run to meet bad news, it comes soon enough,’
He went to the verandah again. Maud was not there, but he saw a ghostly white figure in the garden.
‘Come in!’ he called. ‘This is the time when evil things have power; ghosts walk, kelpies screech, and vampires fly. That's one—yah, you nasty thing! a big beetle's come booming into my eyes. Come, I shall bring you in.’
‘Oh, Doctor, don't make me go in,’ cried the young lady piteously.
‘Yes, I will,’ he said, seizing her hand, ‘and I think you're selfish. Look at me; I know I've a bad cold coming on, and here I have to expose myself to this damp air on your account Consider my bald head—I've mislaid my hat somewhere. There! you may know by that sneeze what night air does for me.’
‘Listen for a moment, please, and I will come in. I think I hear them now.’
They listened, and heard the carriage plainly.
‘That's it,’ said the Doctor, ‘and you shall go in now.’
She lingered, however, till the carriage was nearly page 186 in sight, and then she suddenly became very much afraid of being seen, and ran up to the house, the Doctor toiling after her.
‘I've a good mind to tell of you,’ he said.
‘I shall not forgive you if you do,’ said the lady, ‘and you must promise now, before they come, not to say a word about it.’
‘I suppose it would be too flattering to the vanity of some one. No one looks out at the gate for me when I'm late, not even my wife. I wouldn't let her if she wanted; she'd have a fine stock of colds, neuralgia or rheumatism, always ready to my hand. I can tell you, keeping you company has done me no good. I feel a disagreeable tickling in my throat.’
‘Mrs. Grigsby mentioned that she had a recipe for colds, which had never been known to fail, a posset which had been invented by her grandmother.’
‘No old wives' possets for me,’ said the Doctor contemptuously. ‘I don't know who first made them; but I wish the secret of their manufacture had died with the inventor. Now, here they are, and Mrs. Meade is going to wake just at the right moment.’
‘Why, really, Doctor,’ said Mrs. Meade, looking up brightly, ‘so you have just come in? I have not been asleep, I think — have I, Maud? only half dozing. I have heard what you've been saying.’
‘Would that I had been asleep!’ said the Doctor, page 187 ‘but, for the benefit of others, I have to turn night into day, and yet people think me selfish.’
They went to the door. The Doctor pressed forward, and whispered something to Mr. Wishart.
‘We stayed to the last moment to hear the latest news,’ he replied. ‘There is no hope; he is among the missing. Lost, poor fellow, just two days after his mother arrived here and found his telegram waiting to say he would join her in a week's time.’
‘They know nothing,’ said the Doctor, waving his hand towards Maud and Mrs. Meade, who were standing in the doorway.
‘We came by the last train,’ was all the explanation Mr. Wishart gave to them.
‘You have not brought Mr. Randall,’ Mrs. Meade said, wondering at the strange expression of her brother's face, and the silence of Mrs. Randall, who only pressed her hand without speaking.
‘He could not come,’ said Mr. Wishart, with a quick glance round him. ‘Where is Maud? I thought I saw her.’
‘I am here,’ his sister answered faintly from her place in the shadow of the doorway. A fear which she could not reason away was creeping over her. She came forward to meet Mrs. Randall, and tried to smile a welcome to her. No answering smile was on the visitor's face.
‘I have come alone,’ she said, taking Maud's cold hand in her own; ‘but it could not be helped. You look tired, you have waited for us so long——’page 188
She could not control herself; the next words were sobbed rather than spoken. ‘Oh! I did not mean to tell you like this. It was your face that brought the tears to my eyes. I did not know I had another tear left to give him.’
They went into the house. There were no tears in the eyes of the younger woman, and there was a look on her white face which repelled all effort at consolation.
‘I know what you would tell me,’ she said, as the others faltered word after word, choking down their own tears lest the sight of them should add to her grief. ‘He will never come again—he is dead.’
She left them, and walked steadily to her own room, but Mrs. Randall followed her there, and sat with her until the morning.