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A Rolling Stone Vol.III

Chapter VIII

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Chapter VIII.

‘I had a sister whom the blind waves and surges have devoured.’

How quickly the hours and days flew by after this! They seemed very short, those first days, to Mrs. Randall and her companion, with whom Time had ambled slowly and drowsily for so long,—too short to hear all that they wanted to hear, and to say all that must be said. But in the midst of this joyful excitement there was one disappointment. Their visitor was only a visitor; he had not come home to stay.

‘To Sydney again!’ Mrs. Randall cried in dismay.

‘I cannot stay in England long,’ said Randall. ‘Have I not heard you say that I never broke a promise? I ought to be in Sydney not later than the end of March, and in New Zealand within the next month, or my word will most certainly be broken.’

The two ladies instantly perceived that something had been kept back. Doubtless the pith of the story had yet to be communicated. He ought to have told it first; it was the most important thing page 117 of all, they thought, when it was made known to them. His mother was vexed with herself because she could not help feeling a slight chill of disappointment. It had been an old dream of hers that when her son returned it would be to live in England, in the house which had been his father's. He would (so the pleasing romance had it) have made his fortune in one of those mysterious colonies where fortunes are to be made easily and expeditiously; he would come back to the old home; he would marry some nice, amiable English girl; and she would have a little corner in their house, and live out the rest of her days with her children, amongst the scenes which were familiar and homely to her. But to leave her again so soon, and to marry, and perhaps live in a far country, was a very different ending. It consoled her that it was Maud whom he was going to marry after all. But she felt all at once that she was a feeble old woman, who might die before they were able to come to her; they would be thousands of miles away, and she should never see them again.

‘Then you will be leaving in a month or two?’ she said.

‘Yes; I shall have to take our passages by the February steamer.’

‘Our passages!’

‘Well,’—and he laughed,—‘do you want to stay behind? No; I came for you. There was nothing else that would have brought me to England. I page 118 should not care to live here now; it is all strange to me. I do not even feel English. I feel like a foreigner in this country, and people almost look upon me as one. And I don't love dull skies and cold gloomy days. I know you will say it is not always so; that you have June as well as November; but I have lived in countries where we may have your June weather on a winter's day, and where we may hope to see the sun oftener than once a week.’

‘Yes; that is the way with Australians and New Zealanders,’ said Miss Gibson; ‘they only come home to grumble at the English climate. As if we had no sunshine, and as if there was no bad weather in their country!’

‘It is so far away, and I am an old woman,’ said Mrs. Randall.

‘I deny both those assertions. No place is far away nowadays; and do you dare to look me in the face and call yourself an old woman, with hardly a gray hair or a wrinkle to show? No, I won't have it! I am not going to believe it.’

‘My hair won't turn, gray, I know,’ said the lady, ‘and I have been told that I do not look my age, but that does not alter it. All your reasoning won't bring back my sixtieth birthday.’

‘Is one so very old at sixty? Or perhaps it wasn't sixty you meant to say. For my part, I believe it was fifty; and fifty, you know, is quite young. So far! why, it is a pleasure-trip that is taken by people older than you every year. We shall steam page 119 out of this wintry atmosphere into fine weather. It will still be summer when we arrive in Australia, and when we come to New Zealand it will be what they call autumn, but what they ought to call a second summer. Don't I tempt you? don't you want to see the beautiful skies which are clearer and bluer than any you have known?—don't remind me of Italian skies—I won't have: them brought into comparison. We can travel together through scenery as grand and as romantic as that which is overdone by tourists in Switzerland. We have our lakes, our mountains and forests, as well as other people. Come! I am persuading you.’

‘Ah,’ she said, ‘I don't need much persuasion after all. You are the only one left to me. I must follow wherever you may go.’

And then they planned a little holiday for themselves before starting on their long voyage. There were two months to spare; why should they spend them in a dull little village, where surely winter was wintrier than anywhere else in England? They had memories of the Riviera, as they had known it long ago; of blue skies, of flowers blooming, a bright sunshine, a delightful air. How pleasant to revisit the places that had been familiar to them years before. Why, two months was an immensity of time; they might go almost anywhere; they might see nearly everything. In that period an American of enterprise could ‘do’ Europe.

Before leaving England Mrs. Randall wrote to page 120 Mr. Moresby, who was in Jersey for the benefit of his health. Although they had seen little of each other for the last few years, she had never been unfriendly with her son-in-law. He had always been kind to her, and she had understood him better, perhaps, than most people. She felt some regret that she could not see him before her departure; possibly they might never meet again. They were indeed never to see each other more. At that time, even while she was writing to him, Mr. Moresby was lying on his death-bed.

Neither she nor Randall were likely to guess what had been his last act. The letters which might have told them never fell into their hands. After playing hide and seek with the news which was so important to them, and which in their little Italian tour had followed them from place to place, they fairly ran away from it at last. They left Naples by the Orient steamer, and for some time were beyond the reach of letter or message.

Well, it was but a pleasure-trip after all. They had glorious weather; the seas were calm; the winds held their peace while they rushed along in their track of foam on the ocean highway. They were in time to meet Mr. Philimore in Sydney, according to an appointment between him and Randall. The agent was preparing to hie to England again in search of fresh talent for the delectation of the Australians. A great undertaking was on foot, he told Randall. He must make a brilliant page 121 success this time; his reputation was imperilled. He had actually been deceived and imposed on—he, the man who had boasted that he had never brought out a failure. A lecturer introduced by him to the Australian public had shrunk into nothingness when confronted with the expectant colonists. His lectures had told on his agent, however, if they had affected no one else. Poor little Philimore looked worn and jaded; but, with his usual discretion, he said nothing about what he had suffered from the disappointed orator. Mrs. Philimore was not so reticent. She was inclined to be sarcastic, and her references to the person who had been a thorn in her husband's pillow for upwards of three months were not complimentary. Philimore's next importation was to be a journalist; a gentleman who had seen, known, and written about everything and every one. The agent might well look serious. ‘Pray for me, my friends,’ he said, as he took leave of Randall and his mother. ‘I am as much in need of the prayers of a congregation as any man who ever went to sea. I have not had such an anxious time since I brought out an author empowered to read his own writings to as many colonists as would listen to him. Alas! he read them to me all the way over.’

Randall was in Sydney for a few days only. Gatherall's emissaries in Australia were now endeavouring to find him; but perhaps the Sydney branch of the business was not conducted with much page 122 energy, for they did not discover him while there, nor was he made aware that they were anxious to meet with him.

Every one knows that there is many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip, and those who travel much, and pass with fiery haste from one steamer to another, and become acquainted with all the troubles of trans-shipping and hotel porterage, will know as well that there are many slips between the traveller and his luggage. Our travellers had gone on board their steamer in good time, and conceived themselves safely disposed of in the care of a company pledged to convey them to the shores of New Zealand without hurt or harm, when it was discovered that their luggage was only represented by a moiety on board. As the missing half was, as is usual in such cases, the most indispensable, Randall went ashore again to find it. By some blunder it had been left at the hotel. It took him some time to ascertain this, however, and to get it sent on board, while one or two warning blasts from the steamer reminded him that he had not many minutes to spare. Delay and hindrance schemed to follow on each other's steps. He thought he had never spent such a preposterous length of time over so small a piece of business in his life, and as a fitting termination to the whole, found himself abandoned by the steamer in the end.

He was an old traveller, so this was not such an alarming accident in his eyes as it would have page 123 been to an innocent abroad for the first time. He knew that if he left by train for Melbourne on the next day he would be in time for the New Zealand steamer from that port. Unfortunately his mother, having gone by the direct route, would be in New Zealand several days before he could join her. The Melbourne steamer would be fully a week coming up the New Zealand coast from south to north, visiting all her ports of call. This was vexatious; but his mother would know the reason of the misadventure, and: when she arrived at her journey's end would find a telegram waiting, telling her that he had gone round by Melbourne.

He walked back to his hotel. He had noticed once or twice that afternoon a lady, very handsomely dressed, and apparently very desirous of being observed, languidly walking to and fro on the pavement. She was pretty, and her toilet was not untasteful, though perhaps a little too elaborate for street wear; so she had her reward for her pains—many eyes were turned towards her. The first time Randall met this lady she seemed to wish to be looked at. The second time it was evident that she wished to look at him. He thought her conduct peculiar, especially as she paused in her walk while he passed, and stared at him with the utmost coolness. He went into a bookseller's shop; the lady followed, and, as it were, waited for him at the door.

‘I don't know what you'll think of me, Mr. Ran- page 124 dall,’ she said; ‘but I was determined to speak to you. I suppose you don't remember me.’

‘No, indeed,’ he said, looking at her, ‘and yet I can't help thinking I must have known you once.’

She laughed. ‘I shouldn't have known you, if I hadn't seen you in the street with your mother. How you have altered! I was Maria Chase when you knew me, and your sister's maid. I am Mrs. Forster now, and I live in Sidney.’

‘You were Maria Chase!’ he cried, in astonishment, as he shook the very plump hand, in a glove of exquisite fit, which was held out to him so frankly by the owner. ‘Oh, yes, I remember you very well now, and am very pleased to meet you. You left my sister, I suppose, when she married.’

‘No, indeed!’ cried the former ladies' maid. ‘I'd have been indignant then if such a thing had been proposed to me. I don't know how I brought myself to leaving her at all. I should dearly like to see her again. Would she think I was taking a liberty, I wonder, if I wrote? Is she well now, Mr. Randall, and at home again?’

‘I wish you could write to her,’ he said, with a change in his face. ‘Have you never heard? She was lost with her child in that terrible disaster when the Cairngorm was burnt at sea.’

‘Never!’ Mrs. Forster clapped her tightly-gloved hands together with dangerous violence. ‘Mr. Randall, are you dreaming? Your sister never set foot on the Cairngorm We did intend to come by that page 125 ship; but Mrs. Moresby was frightened of the long voyage in a sailing vessel, and so we came by steamer to Melbourne. But there was another Mrs. Moresby and her child on the Cairngorm. I remember reading their names in the passenger list, and thinking how strange it was to see them there. We came to Melbourne because, you know, Mr. Randall, it was to find you that your sister had left home, and she expected to hear of you there. I left her there— well, I didn't behave very handsomely, I suppose’— and the pretty Mrs. Forster hung her head;—‘but Mr. Forster had been on the steamer with us, and we were engaged before we got to Melbourne, and I daresay you know that when people are promised to each other in that way they're inclined to be selfish. I'm sure I was horribly selfish; so Mrs. Moresby went on to New Zealand by herself.’

‘But my sister never was in New Zealand,’ said Randall.

‘Well, I say she never was on the Cairngorm, and she was landed safe enough in New Zealand.’

‘Is this all you know?’ said Randall. ‘I assure you it is a truth that her family have never heard of her since she left England more than five years ago. What part of New Zealand did she go to?’

‘Oh, dear! she was going everywhere or anywhere to get news of you. If she hasn't been heard of since, then indeed she must have lost herself somewhere, or have died. You may well look grieved, Mr. Randall; you are the cause of it. It was for page 126 you she left her home, and it was because of you there was never any peace or happiness between Mr. Moresby and her. I beg your pardon, though. I've no right to talk in this way.’

‘Yes; you are right,’ he said gloomily. ‘I have myself to blame for that; but what a fearful mistake it has been! I do not know what I ought to do. Surely there is more you can tell me; yet we cannot talk in the street about these things.’

‘Come, then, to my house,’ said Mrs. Forster. ‘You must know’—and, she smiled archly—‘I don't pretend to be anything better than I am, and I've not married above myself, though my husband is a rich man. But as we've money enough to last our day, and can afford to live in good style, we don't see any harm in doing so. I daresay, though, people call us upstarts and purse-proud.’

Randall went with Mrs. Forster to her house, a large and handsome one, which bore witness to the truth of her words that she lived in good style. Mr. Forster was invisible, being at that hour engaged in concocting an address to his constituents which was to prove that he had done great things for them in the last session of Parliament His constituents were obstinate and ungrateful, so he had to be careful in what he wrote, and as he knew from experience that a train of thought once broken is not easily reunited, he begged to be excused when Mrs. Forster wished to introduce him to Randall. She could only exhibit her two children therefore. Her pride in these was page 127 very pardonable; as much so as the intention she had formed of educating them for a class greatly above that from which their parents had come was worthy of praise.

She could tell Randall but little more of his sister.

‘You will have to seek for news of her in New Zealand,’ she said; ‘but I am afraid’—and here she began to cry very unaffectedly —‘that she won't be found any more in this world For she was ill most of the time we were in Melbourne.’

‘Ill, and travelling alone!’

‘Yes; she was strong enough to travel though, and very few would have thought there was anything amiss. She didn't suspect it herself, though she had been very unwell just before leaving England; but in Melbourne she was worse, and I persuaded her to see a doctor. He said it was disease of the heart, and that she ought to be very careful. He gave her advice, and she looked much better before she left. But do you not think of another thing, Mr. Randall? What has become of her little boy? Oh, how I wish I hadn't been so selfish! I was young and strong, and your sister had been a kind mistress to me. Why did I let her go into a strange country by herself? If I had only known!’

‘But you could not have known, Mrs. Forster,’ said Randall, pitying her distress. ‘It is well that I met with you. But for an accident I should have been on my way to New Zealand before this. Now page 128 I have all the more reason to be there as soon as possible. I only wish I had a better clue to follow.’

‘I have just thought of something!’ cried Mrs. Forster. “Jim (I mean my husband), who had been in New Zealand, gave Mrs. Moresby: the name of some one he knew who kept a boarding-house in one of the towns. She had asked him a good many questions about the places she expected to visit. It's only a chance; but he may remember the name; and, if she got so far, she would be sure to lodge there. I'll run and ask him.’

Mrs. Forster actually did run, and disturbed her husband in the middle of a long sentence.

‘Now, Jim,’ she cried, ‘collect your thoughts.’

‘Just what I want to do,’ replied the gentleman, ‘and you've driven them all away. Don't bother. I'm polishing this off beautifully.’

‘Oh, I don't care for your speech,’ said his wife. ‘What boarding-house, somewhere in New Zealand, did you recommend Mrs. Moresby to stay at?’

‘Bless me!’ said Mr. Forster, clasping his forehead with his hands, ‘what kind of a memory do you think I've got? How can I remember such a thing after all this time? I don't know that I recommended one to her at all. I'm sure I shouldn't, unless she asked me.’

‘Of course she asked you! I remember it, if you don't. Put away your speech; you can think of nothing while it's before you. It was a place where you had stayed sometimes, and you knew the people.’

page 129

‘Oh——’ said Mr. Forster, beginning to feel the dawnings of memory, ‘I know—that is—I used to know; but the name has just slipped my memory If you wait while I write this last bit——’

‘No; come into the drawing-room,’ said the inexorable Mrs. Forster, tugging at his sleeve. Mr. Forster made but feeble resistance, being very much under the control of the lady. She brought him into the room and introduced him to Randall, and then jogged his memory to such purpose that he succeeded in writing out the address which was required. Randall read it with surprise.

‘Was this it?’ he said. ‘Why, I know the house very well. I have often stayed at Mrs. Sherlock's,’

‘Mrs. Sherlock is a cousin of my mother's,’ said Mr. Forster. ‘That was the reason I had been at her house, and I daresay I should mention it to Mrs. Moresby if she asked me about lodging-houses, as my wife is positive she did, though I declare I haven't the least recollection of it.’

Mrs. Forster and her husband had no other information to give Randall that was likely to be of use, and he had no heart for further conversation on the subject. But when he would have taken his leave, they made so many objections, and were so vehement in their desire that he should spend the one night which was at his disposal in Sydney at their house, that he was fain to yield himself to their hospitable entreaties. He found his host to be an page 130 intelligent though hot an educated man, and he had opportunities of perceiving that Mrs. Forster knew how to rule her household. The next day they kindly saw him off by the train, speeding him on his way with good wishes, and oft-repeated assurances that he would always be a welcome guest in their house.

It was a relief in his unsettled state, to be on the road once more. A strange feeling had come over him; his mind was confused, and even, he thought, wandered at times. He could not rest anywhere, wearied though he was with the entanglement of thought which seemed to be ceaselessly sweeping through his brain. Did it ever stop—that whirligig? It might lull for a time, so that he could snatch an hour or two of restless, unrefreshing slumber, but it was at work again as soon as he awoke. He had been shocked and disturbed by hearing of his sister so suddenly; but it ought not to have unhinged his mind in this way. ‘Am I going to be ill?’ he wondered; and then he resolved that he would not give way to it. Yet it would have its way in spite of him.

In Melbourne he had hardly a moment to spare: it was not likely that Mr. Gatherall's inquiring agent would catch him “there. A feverish impatience possessed him—a desire to get on quicker and still quicker. ‘At least I shall not have to wait here,’ he congratulated himself when he found that the steamer was in harbour. He was thankful again when she steamed, out to sea that same day But oh, that page 131 slow steamer!—those exasperating delays I He grudged the stoppage at Hobart, he hated that little place at the Bluff where they must spend a day. They were detained there some hours longer than usual, and it was late in the evening when they left the little village on the Land's End of New Zealand to its dreary quietness. A black.” moonless night and a treacherous coast were before ‘them. That night they must thread their way between rocks and islets so closely set together that to be over fearful of one was to rush upon another. It was a Scylla and Charybdis whose dangers were trifled with because mariners had happily escaped from them so often. Because, time after time, those dangers had been defied with impunity, their existence was forgotten or disbelieved by those whose business was not to go down to the sea in ships. So no light burned upon the rocks; no beacon warned the helmsman from the low and mist-wrapped shore. But when, in the darkness, a ship rushes on the jagged reefs and the sea takes its spoil of human life and treasure, it is always the seaman at the helm who steered a wrong course, the look-out who slumbered, or the captain who was rash or ignorant. For some one must be found in fault, and it would be ungrateful to blame the patriots who have saved their country the cost of the oil which might have burned to waste upon those rocks for night after night. Many wrecks are needed to build a lighthouse. It is soon forgotten, this one item in the long list of sea sorrows, and ships go page 132 merrily by again. Yet it is true that the sirens sing here, and often have their songs dulled the ears of men; so that they, knew not it was the sound of the breakers they heard, and dreamt not until it was too late,

‘That here is none but the wild wind's haven,
With death for the harbour bar.’