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A Rolling Stone Vol.III

Chapter XIII

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Chapter XIII.

‘Not in the evening's eyes,
When they red with weeping are
For the sun that dies,
Sits sorrow with a face so fair:
Nowhere but here doth meet
Sweetness so sad—sadness so sweet.’

In the morning the shadow of her grief had fallen on the whole house. She was the best beloved of all; she had been a friend as well as a mistress to her servants; a helper and a sharer in every joy or trouble of those around her, so now the measure she had meted was returned to her again; they made her sorrow theirs.

They went about noiselessly; they spoke softly to one another; even Harry's noisy play was hushed, as if it were an offence at such a time.

‘Why can't I make a noise?’ he cried; ‘it isn't Sunday; and why didn't Mr. Randall come last night?’

‘Hush, hush!’ said Mrs. Grigsby, looking fearfully at the open window. ‘Miss Maud will hear you.’

She had heard perhaps, for a message came that Harry was to make as much noise as he liked. Poor page 190 Murdoch, not knowing what else to do, cut more and more flowers, ruining the appearance of his garden, and sent them with his ‘respects’ to Miss Desmond. Mrs. Grigsby, who had lately been lightening her widow's mourning in anticipation of a wedding in the family, put it all on again, deeper and blacker than ever. ‘And never more will I take it off in this vale of tears,’ she cried. There was nothing much worth caring for in this life, the cook sententiously remarked, to prove which, she dished up one of the worst dinners that had ever been eaten in that house. ‘They'll not mind, poor things, at such a time as this,’ she made answer to Mrs. Grigsby's reproaches. ‘As if,’ scornfully returned the housekeeper, ‘people wanted the little appetite they had left to be taken away from them.’

Out of sympathy for his friends, though he had never been known to acknowledge that he sympathised with any one, the Doctor did not go away at once. Mr. Wishart was thankful for this, as he could manage Maud when all others failed. It was the Doctor who would not be said nay when he proposed a walk or a drive, who boldly ordered her out of the house, and himself led her round and round the garden, till the cold wind had brought some colour into her face. He would not allow her to be silent, for he went on pertinaciously repeating his words until she answered him. He rated Mrs. Grigsby for that very quietness which she had thought becoming under the circumstances.

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‘Quietness!’ he cried; ‘do you want to drive us mad, to make us fancy we're buried before our time? Let's have more noise; let the girls sing while they work, and bang about in the kitchen as usual. We want to have some life and spirit thrown amongst us. And whatever do you mean by coming out like that, as black as a crow? One would think you'd buried ten husbands. Take it off, that's a good woman, and dress yourself decently.’

‘Excuse me, sir,’ said Mrs. Grigsby with dignity. ‘I did dress to please my poor husband when he was alive, but since he's gone I please myself, and no man living shall order me to wear this or that.’

‘Oh, of course, just like a woman!’ said the Doctor.

Mr. Wishart was obliged to leave immediately for the place of the wreck. On account of his anxiety about his step-sister he would willingly have remained at home, had he not felt it his duty to go. She had shocked and distressed him by demanding rather than asking to be allowed to accompany him. Mrs. Randall, who had wished the same thing, supported her in this determination. The others reasoned with, and entreated them in vain; they had set their hearts on going.

‘Tell Maud I will not hear of it,’ Mr. Wishart said to his sister.

‘She will not listen to a word I say,’ said Mrs. Meade; ‘and yet I know she can never endure such a trial.’

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Mr. Wishart appealed to the Doctor, thinking to get the weight of his influence on his side.

‘Of course she can't have her own way,’ he said.

‘What's the use of saying that?’ replied the Doctor. ‘A woman always has her own way. She must have it, or she'll die.’

‘But answer me seriously; you don't think I ought to take her to that terrible place?’

‘When one of two evils has to be taken choose the lesser one. Perhaps it won't do her much good to go; but you may be sure that keeping her at home against her wish will make matters worse. I am perfectly astonished to hear you, Wishart, a man of some experience (of course you're not married though), talking about not letting her have her own way. I tell you she must have it. It's the sovereign remedy in most cases with which women are concerned; and, if I'm to be candid, perhaps I ought to say in a good many which have to do with men. Not one of all the sorry mixtures and messes compounded since we doctors began to practise on our fellow-creatures infirmities can compare with it.’

‘I won't take her with me,’ persisted Mr. Wishart. ‘I have another reason which I could not tell them. The place where we should have to stay is quite near the beach. I might not be able to prevent her seeing what she would never forget again as long as she lived.’

‘No; you are right; but very soon that danger will be over. Let her and Mrs. Randall join you page 193 there, and you can bring them back. You will find it best to yield so far as that.’

Solitude with all her charms had fled in haste from Stephen Langridge's station. Ever since the wreck his house had been an inn, and he had been as obliging and hospitable a landlord as if to the manner born. Those who know how many guests can be received into a colonist's house, and fed and lodged there, even when the case is not one of pressing emergency, will not be surprised to hear that Stephen found space and food for all comers. The house was full, the verandah was full, the shepherds' cottages, the cook's kitchen likewise, though he resented the intrusion, and every out-shed and building were full. The wool-shed might have been pressed into the service, as Mr. Bailey remarked, and would have sheltered a small army; but it was inconveniently situated, being some distance away.

Seldom could there have been such a strange and heterogeneous mixture of different people from different classes of society housed together and brought together by one event. Gentlefolk, and the roughest and plainest of working-men; people of every trade and calling, and every degree of education or shade of disposition: the quiet and refined whom sorrow had brought there; the noisy and vulgar whose grief was all on the surface, and would speedily effervesce; and with these many who had nothing to do with grief or sorrow, but had come out of mere curiosity, or page 194 because it was their business or their duty to be there.

Mr. Godfrey Palmer had come, and very becomingly he behaved. His grief was touching in its unobtrusiveness—it was a grief too deep for tears, he said. Evidently these were the words of truth; no one could doubt it who observed his sad countenance, and his quiet and subdued manner. He was so grave and decorous in his conduct that a good minister who was there thought him of all those present the best to hold profitable converse with, and was refreshed in spirit by the soundness of his doctrine. And he spoke so pathetically about the bereavement he had suffered in the loss of one who was no relative at all, but only a friend, that a softhearted journalist, who was collecting readable matter, set his affecting words, like gems which were too valuable to be lost, in the middle of an article on the wreck. Like the others, Mr. Godfrey Palmer went to the beach, and looked about there, and was eager in his inquiries concerning those who had been found, and was so anxious to see what was horrible to look upon, that all were amazed at the love he must have borne to his dead friend.

They all walked on the beach. How often was that bleak sandy shore paced from end to end, how vehemently they caught at some little relic—a ring, a handkerchief, a pocket-book—all that ever was found of many of the lost. Still, every day, one by one, as if unwilling to part with them, the sea gave page 195 up its dead, and each lifeless form it brought to land was now a thing which lover or friend could not desire nor see without loathing. Poor mangled ones! bruised and defaced beyond recognition, except by what they wore, they were reverently carried away and buried side by side. There was a graveyard now in this lonely place. Strong in frame though they were, and inured to every kind of hardship, the men who, for many days and through all weathers, worked at this terrible task of recovering and burying the bodies of the drowned, sickened of their duty, and for ever afterwards spoke of its horrors with awe.

No one who could be identified as his friend had been found when Mr. Wishart arrived at the station. On the following day, however, he was suddenly sent for from the beach. A body had been recovered which another gentleman had recognised as Randall's. The other gentleman was Mr. Godfrey Palmer, and Mr. Wishart met him on the beach.

How he had recognised the featureless form which was laid before them the others could not understand. No one could tell what the disfigured countenance of that dead man had been. His hair was dark, and he had been slightly above middle height. What else was there of which they could speak with certainty? But, fast as ever, on one of the fingers glittered a ring, and Godfrey Palmer pointed to it.

‘You know that?’ he said, significantly.

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‘Yes,’ said Mr. Wishart, feeling sick and faint at the sight, and quickly turning his eyes away.

They took the ring from the white swollen finger, and gave it to him; and that morning another grave was made, and they buried this one also out of sight, and wrote his name above him.

Not many more of the drowned were brought on shore after this. At the end of the week the visitors began to leave the station. Mr. Godfrey Palmer did not go away with the first, although, as his manners were by this time getting very much the worse for wear, Stephen wished that he would. At length he disappeared on some mysterious excursion he went out and did not return. No one was troubled about this; for the minister and journalist on whom he had worn off the first bloom of his best behaviour had both departed, and other persons had seen too much of him to mourn when they missed him. Mr. Wishart stayed because he expected Maud and Mrs. Randall. Stephen knew they were coming, and had so strictly charged his housekeeper, Mrs. Bailey, to reserve certain rooms, and to do all in her power for the comfort of the visitors who were to occupy them, that she was very curious to know who these might be. They came late one evening, two ladies in deep mourning, and closely veiled; but even through this disguise Mrs. Bailey knew the face of the younger one again, and understood why her master had been so anxious and exacting.

‘As lovely as ever,’ she said, ‘though she does page 197 look so pale and worn. The other lady is poor Mr. Randall's mother.’

‘Ay,’ said her husband; ‘she takes after her son uncommonly. I mean, he was her image. Poor things! Yes; one can see now why Mr. Langridge was in such a fidget.’

‘He hasn't got his old fancy out of his head yet,’ said Mrs. Bailey; ‘but he needn't bother himself; she takes little enough notice of him.’

‘Well, I thought she spoke very friendly to him,’ said Mr. Bailey, ‘and I shouldn't wonder, Mary Anne, at them making it up together yet.’

On the first morning Mr. Wishart showed Mrs. Randall and his sister all he had to show them—a ring and a grave. He took them to the beach, and because he was asked to accompany them, not because he wished it, Stephen went as well. There was nothing now to be afraid of on all that long stretch of sand, and the surf was less noisy in its rage than it had been for weeks. The heavy rollers from the ocean came slowly and majestically towards the shore, and receded again as if they were loath to leave the land. Surely this was the sorrow of the sea. So quiet, so solemn, who could bring against it the record of deeds done in its wrath, when it had lashed itself into milk-white foam, and broken great beams like splinters upon the rocks, and buried the helpless bodies of men in abysses dark as night? Or was not that another sea? not the one whose voice was now so soft and mild that it only breathed page 198 consolation to these poor women for the wrong it had done them.

And it was all clear green as an emerald near the beach, where it washed on the white sand, and all blue as heaven beyond the reefs, where it seemed smooth because the eye lost the distance between wave and wave. And beyond the blue, a broad band of light lay like a golden bar between sea and sky, because there the glory of the sun hid the horizon line. It reddened and reddened in the west, as the sun went down, till streaks of fire were on the crests of the waves, and the blue became purple, and the green flashed with colour like an opal. Ah, beautiful traitor! the same cruel heart throbbed beneath all this.

A chilly gray mist began to creep up from the sea, and they turned back again. It had done them good to see this place, though it had renewed their grief. Because he would not intrude upon this, Stephen had left them, under the pretence of talking with one of his men. But when they walked back to the house together he saw that tears stood in the eyes of one of them, and she either forgot his presence or was not ashamed that a friend should see them. Of the two reasons he had rather it were the last.

His guests ought to have set off on their homeward journey the next day but one, and it was Stephen's fault that they did not. He was tempted to prolong the visit by fair means or by foul, and he was scarcely honest in his exaggerations of a page 199 flood in the river, which, he persuaded them, would either prevent the coach which had to take them to meet the train from crossing, or would make the crossing an uncomfortable business. They stayed; and instead of matters being improved on the next day it was raining; no contemptible little drizzle, but a good, heavy, continuous downpour.

Now of all the diversity of climate which blesses the islands of New Zealand, this part had very nearly the rainiest. There is only one other place—the western coast of the same island—where it rains heavier or rains oftener. In that favoured clime, so inhabitants of other parts declare, it has been known to rain for fourteen consecutive days, and this could have been nothing out of the way, for the people neither expected a second Deluge nor set about preparing arks. On this occasion it rained for a week at Stephen's station, and whether the roads were passable or not before the, rain they certainly were not when it ended.

This meant further delay. The foolish Stephen was not sorry. That he had returned to his old delusion would have been plain to more than Mr. and Mrs. Bailey, had not the others been absorbed in their own affairs. He was no nearer perfection than the most of us. Who can guard himself against foolish hopes and fancies, or mean little thoughts which worm and wriggle into the mind by forgotten clefts and crevices, while it is trying to bar them out? The one who had stood in his way was page 200 removed. He was not glad that he had gone—oh, no, he thought with a shocked surprise at such an idea. But now he might hope that sometime she would forget one to remember the other, sometime she would give a different answer to that which she had given him twice or thrice already, without offending him, or discouraging his patience. Yet, as he would have hated that she should have suspected him of such a thought, which to himself he reproached as the quintessence of meanness, because it had gained admittance to his, mind too easily and too soon, he kept out of her sight, as if it were not the very thing he desired.

It was unfortunate for his own good that this made her better pleased with him than she might otherwise have been. In reality he had chosen a demeanour as agreeable as any he could have shown to her. She thought it delicate consideration and kindness on his part that she could be as much to herself as if the house were her own. If he had tried to be in her company he would have wearied or offended her before long. But only seeing him when it was absolutely necessary, and only hearing of him when he had done something to oblige her, she began to think what a pleasure it was to have found a friend in this place to which she had come in such trouble, and how different it might have been with only curious strangers around her. So, being grateful to him for a hundred little kindnesses, she herself was dangerously kind, and he knew with page 201 a sort of exultation, or thought he knew, that she liked him better than ever.

He was aware that she and Mrs. Randall intended to stay in Dunedin for some time before going home, and he deceived himself into thinking that it was necessary he should go there also. It was true that he had business in the town, and that Mr. Wishart, knowing this, had suggested that he should bear them company; but he knew that the business was not of a pressing kind, and that it would be better for him to decline the invitation. He vacillated over it in his thoughts, not liking his own idea sometimes, but always returning to it again, and knowing perfectly well that it would conquer him at last.

The day of departure was fixed, not to be altered this time; for Stephen being of a mind to accompany the travellers, said nothing of floods, and, wonderful to relate, there was no appearance of rain. It occurred to Stephen, however, that before he went station affairs must be put in order, and he spent a whole day in looking into matters which, for a fortnight since the wreck had been neglected,—for the first week because he had had no time to spare; and for the second, because the station, and all his flocks, and most other sublunary things had been far below his notice.

His inquisitorial visits brought him the knowledge of a thing which he did not remember having heard of, that one of his shepherds was occupying himself with nursing a sick man, a tramp, Mr. Bailey said, page 202 who had come to his hut no one knew how, and was like to die there.

‘Why didn't you tell me before?’ said Stephen.

‘Why, bless you sir, I told you all about it. I came for some medicine.’

‘You're right. I remember now. Those other things have driven it out of my head. Is the man very bad?’

‘The Doctor hasn't much hope for him,’ said Bailey. ‘You know what a strange fellow he is, Mr. Langridge; well, having this poor creature to wait on seems to make him quite happy. I don't know whether it wouldn't be a mercy to leave him alone and let him die in peace; but he goes on trying to keep the life in him.’

‘I'll go and see him,’ said Stephen.

He rode there that afternoon. The Doctor heard his horse's footsteps, and came out before he dismounted.

‘You have some one sick here, Bailey tells me,’ said Stephen.

‘Yes; he found his way here,’ said the shepherd, ‘and I could do no less than take him in.’

‘It was good of you,’ Stephen said, ‘and it was fortunate for him he was found by a person who knew how to attend to him.’

His eyes had just recovered their power after coming into the dark hut out of a brilliant sunlight. He saw clearly now, and he saw enough to make him give a gasp and a great start, which was not page 203 observed by the Doctor, who was looking at his patient.

Altered as the face was, wan and thin, with pinched sunken features, and with what looked like the fixedness of death upon them, he knew it again. They had buried this man more than a week ago—how came he here? And how came that mark of a ring upon a finger of his left hand, just as he had seen a mark on the finger of that horrible thing they had drawn from the sea a few days ago. But this was he; for he knew the face as well as he knew his own.

‘When did he come here?’ he asked in a thick voice.

‘A fortnight on Monday,’ said the Doctor; ‘the day the steamer was lost.’

‘Was there nothing upon him to show who he is?’

‘Nothing at all.’

‘If you want anything, send to the station,’ said Stephen. ‘Take care of him.’ Then, with a searching look at the shepherd, he added, ‘There has been a ring on that finger. Have you taken it off?’

‘Sir!’ said the man, with a flush of indignation on his face, ‘there was no ring on his hand when he came here. If there had been I should not have touched it. I could as soon rob the dead.’

‘I did not mean to offend you,’ said Stephen. He went out, the Doctor following him. ‘Will he recover?’ he asked, as he got on his horse.

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‘I do not think so,’ was the reply.

‘Do the best you can for him,’ said Stephen, as he turned his horse's head towards the open plain and rode away, with enough to think of for some days to come.

He had found out his own guilt, and was shocked at it; but all the while he called himself hard names, and persuaded himself that he was mourning over his own depravity, he was playing with temptation, and listening to it. A thought crept into his mind by some obscure back way, as all vile mean things do, and in the faintest whisper suggested to him that he need not tell what he had seen. Oh, base thought! but it came nevertheless, and he hearkened to it. If we could think what is good at pleasure; if evil thoughts could be driven away, and men could govern the workings of their own minds, the mystery of wickedness would soon be ended.

He might call himself a wicked wretch, because he had felt something which was not gladness in his heart when he had recognised the sick man. What difference did that make when he went on thinking such thoughts as these? He could not recover; no one would doubt it who saw him. Where then was the good of telling them, only to plunge them into grief again after a few days? Could they bear to lose him twice over, as it were? He would not suffer more because they did not know; he was as well and kindly attended to as he could be anywhere. If it had been his own case he would rather have page 205 died there unknown to them than have caused them to shed another tear for his sake. Doubtless if Randall knew how things were he would say so himself.

Now if he had reasoned a little closer, and gone down into his own heart a little deeper, he would have known that the real motive which guided him was none of all these. It was not a wish to save others from pain but a selfish desire of advantage for himself. But he had resolved to deceive them, and for the sake of his own peace he must justify his conduct to himself.

He said nothing when he saw them again, though even so soon as that he had terrible twinges of remorse. Not all his casuistry could quite free him from those. He said nothing as they travelled to Dunedin, and the one whose good opinion was so precious to him was friendlier, kinder than ever, and talked with him as freely as with her own brother, little suspecting what deception he was practising. And as, day after day, on one pretext or another, he was still in her company, and could not make up his mind to leave it, he kept his secret. Once, when some expression of sympathy pleased her very much, she took his hand in a natural, almost childlike manner, and said, ‘I shall never forget how good you have been, Mr. Langridge, never!’ And with a sudden remembrance of how ‘good’ he had been, he actually rushed from her presence. ‘Oh,’ he cried, ‘if she should ever know!’