The Toll of The Bush
Chapter XIX 'I Have No Mother'
Chapter XIX 'I Have No Mother'
If the innumerable prayers offered up by a suffering and desiring humanity were of a sudden to receive fulfilment, it is probable that the recipients would be less full of thanksgiving than of surprise at the unforeseen consequences of their action, while, were the favour belated, it is inconceivable but that the surprise should be largely flavoured with annoyance.
Mrs. Andersen was past the stage when any reform in her husband's conduct was prayed for or even desired. So when Lena conveyed to her the subject of Mr. Wickener's message, and it seemed that her old prayers had at last received attention, there was far from being any corresponding feeling of gratification in her breast.
'Let him keep his money,' she said roughly. 'We can do all right as we are.'
But the money was not returned, nor were the sums that dropped in subsequently, all at the hands of the same courteous and agreeable messenger. And in consequence the appearance of the family improved greatly. In course of time the whole of page 201them became clothed, and it was thus possible to distinguish the males from the females, a matter which had for years presented an insoluble enigma to the settlement. Out of the enigma emerged, it may be said, a girl a few years younger than Lena, four sturdy boys, and another child, as yet nondescript, all dowered with their mother's clear skin and fine features, and their father's blue eyes. Mrs. Andersen herself had shared in the improvement. She no longer hung listlessly at the door, indifferent as to appearances both in her person and her surroundings. Her good looks returned, and a young woman in fact, she began shortly to suggest that fact by her appearance. The male settlers, who had been in the habit of nodding hurriedly and passing by on the other side, now drew closer and lifted their hats. The women showed a tendency to place her name on their Sunday afternoon visiting lists, and only Mrs. Gird shook her head and waited with misgiving for the denouement. It was not long in coming. The heart expands rapidly in the sunshine, and whereas in the shade of poverty growth is slow and subject to relapses, in the light of prosperity it comes rapidly to a head. So, while poor Lena, in the hope of her father's complete reformation, filled the house with singing, her mother was rapidly making up her mind to a course of action which must make his success or failure a matter immaterial to her.
'Mr. Andersen,' said Wickener one day in his lightest tones, 'I have been guilty of a little subterfuge with regard to yourself and your family, as to which it is due to you that I should offer an page 202explanation and an apology.' He paused, glanced at the other, reflected a moment, and went on. 'I have already pointed out to you that your case has a weak spot, and I will now tell you wherein that weak spot consists. You have left your family for some considerable time past without means of support. Pardon me, I beg of you; you shall have your say by and by. Now a woman, a good-looking woman—and Mrs. Andersen is certainly that—without means of support is, owing to the inherent vileness of human nature, subject to special temptations over and above those which are provided by her own disposition. For that excess of temptation you and you only are responsible. Understand me,'—Mr. Wickener's voice stiffened slightly—'you only. Now, to put the matter on a correct footing, I have ventured—impertinently perhaps you will consider—to present your family from time to time with sums of money; not very great amounts, but sufficient at any rate to keep the wolf from the door.' He paused, looked at Andersen, who was scowling darkly, smiled a little, and continued with increased gaiety of manner. 'These sums, Mr. Andersen, I have—very reprehensibly no doubt in the interests of truth—represented as coming from you, as emanating, in fact, from a fond husband and devoted father as the result of stern manual toil. As such and such only the offerings I speak of have been received.'
Andersen's frown turned slowly to a look of bewilderment. 'You haf done dis,' he said; 'for why?'
'My object I have already explained. I desired to put your little affair on a proper footing. I page 203desired that your wife should have no temptations other than those which are inseparable from her nature. She is now, through your good conduct, in that happy position; and henceforth, if she falls, her blood will be on her own head.'
Andersen stared at his companion, the muscles of his face twitching.
'I am a rich man, Andersen,' Wickener went on reflectively,—'rich beyond the dreams of avarice.' He stopped, plucked a fern frond from the ground, and crushed it with a sudden fierce ruthlessness between his fingers. 'And I can afford to gratify my little whims and make my little experiments. But in this case I have thought twice, and I have resolved to stay my hand. I will be frank with you, completely frank. You have a daughter; she is young, she is beautiful, she is charming; if it were possible for me to think so, I should say that she is also good.' He rose to his feet. 'But,' he continued quickly, 'however that may be, for her sake I abandon the experiment. Now, listen to me. Go back. Get up now from where you are sitting, don't stay to bid me good-bye, turn neither to the right nor the left, but go back—back into the house where your wife sits, and it may be—who knows?—that you will not be too late.'
But Andersen looked up at him shamefaced and sat still.
'Stay,' said Wickener, 'you shall not go back empty-handed, but as a man and a conqueror. Here. Now, lose no time.'
With the 'here' was extended a little roll of bank notes, and then at last Andersen rose trembling to his feet. He seemed moved to the utmost page 204of his nature, and with the simple action of a child dashed the tears from his eyes.
'Gott for effer bless you, Mr. Wickener,' he said hoarsely; 'but no, dat I cannot do. I am a villains, a beast, a dronk, but also I am a man. I vill not take your money, Gott forbid! I vill not go back to mine vife with the false in mine hand, dat is lies. But I vill go from here now as you say, and I vill waark; waark is plenty for me, and soon then I vill go back as you told me, but dis ting I cannot.'
'Fool!' said Wickener savagely. 'Take it—what is the trash to me? It will buy nothing, it will keep nothing. Do you think Fate will wait your convenience? Pay me back if you will, but take it now and go.'
'I cannot,' said Andersen. 'Shall I buy her faith with anudder man's money? No, by Gott!'
Slowly Wickener, his eyes fixed on the other's face, drew back his hand and restored the notes to his pocket.
'Have your way, then,' he said. 'You are a fool, and you lose the game. Perhaps it was not worth winning. Console yourself with that reflection when your time comes if you can. Shake hands, Andersen. God knows the human race is a set of damned fools, especially the men; but it can't be helped, and it is of no great consequence anyhow. Nothing matters—after all, it is a happy thought that nothing does matter. Make a note of that. We may shake up the box of tricks till the details rattle like the devil, but the game plays itself out to the predestined end and Death cries "Domino!" every time. Rattle it as you will, the game is in page 205the box. That's fatalism. You have chosen to go against the pieces. It has been tried, millions have tried it; but go on. Good luck to you, and goodbye.'
Within twenty-four hours Mrs. Andersen had taken the irrevocable step, and Wickener's wisdom was justified.
Lena had been sent on some trivial pretext to a distant part of the settlement, and she returned home to find the house cleaned, and swept, but empty of its inhabitants. At first the girl glanced round with no suspicion of the truth. The absence of the children was unusual but not inexplicable. Going into the room which she shared with her younger sister, she was struck by a sense of difference, of a bareness in her surroundings. She returned quickly to the living room, then to her mother's bedroom. Her heart sank like lead in her bosom. A blindness came to her eyes; she felt sick and faint, and groped through the gathering darkness to a seat, sitting huddled and trembling, sick with shame and horror. Even the presence of death might not so have wrought on her susceptibilities. All the wearing apparel in the house save her own had disappeared. The nails in the walls and doors were empty. That no word or act of hers should interfere with her mother's intention she had been sent out of the road, cozened with a lying message. Her mother's last word had been a lie.
'God forgive her, God forgive her; I never can.'
She got unsteadily to her feet and went blindly, her hands before her, to her own room. There she page 206threw herself on her bed, face downwards, recklessly, but in a moment she was up again.
No, no; she was mad; she was dreaming; it could not be; God was not so cruel. The bare walls stared at her in mockery. Every empty nail struck sharply to her heart. Suddenly something white on the dressing-table attracted her—a letter, a sheet of paper, hurriedly folded and bearing her name. Clutching it, the girl returned to the bed, and endeavoured to steady her trembling nerves. For awhile the black characters writhed like centipedes across the sheet, then slowly they settled themselves and began to convey a meaning.
'I have done my best (wrote her mother), and I can bear it no longer. Forgive me if you can. It was for your sake and the children's I listened to him first, but afterwards—well, I have told you that. He has a room for you, Lena, if you will come, and you shall have everything you want. He is a good man. But if you are going to desert us there is money in the cracked teapot in the cupboard. You need not be afraid to take it, 'tis your father's. What will you do? Oh, dear, do not be hard on me!'
The end was blotted and smudged, and the whole composition showed evidences of hurry and agitation. But to Lena these facts made no appeal. To her the note was bald, brutal in the overwhelming confirmation it offered of the shameful and terrible fact. The 'Do not be hard on me' might as well have been addressed to a stone for all effect it had on the girl's outraged feelings. Gentler thoughts might come with time, but there was no room for page 207them now. Again she threw herself on the bed, her face on the pillow, her hands clutched in the counterpane. Everything was over; the worst had happened; welcome death, death the healer, the consoler. Darkness settled rapidly on the house. One by one the stars came out and shot their slender rays through the uncurtained window. Hour after hour she lay almost motionless, her eyes wide open. When she moved at all it was to bury her face in the pillow in an agony of shame.
'God forgive her, God forgive her; I never can.'
Her feet and hands grew cold, the blood raced in her temples. Every aspect of the dreadful business whirled and struck through her brain. Her father, Robert, her friends, her acquaintances—the effect of the news on each of them. Robert was lost. She had lost him. That was all over—all done with. But if love were lost, what was left? The question shot away unanswered into the blackness.
'Why did I let him love me? I knew, I knew. But it was so sweet, and now I have hurt him. Oh, poor Robert! God forgive her for that; I never can. And it can't be undone. Nothing can undo it. God Himself could not undo it even if He would. If I live I shall have to face it.' Suddenly she sat up in the darkness, dashing the hair from her eyes. Her breath came and went in hurried, fearful gasps. 'Soon—to-morrow—in a few hours. Oh, I can't, I can't! It is too much!'
She slipped her feet silently to the floor and stood listening guiltily in the darkness. Presently she began a cautious move forward towards the page 208living-room. A few steps brought her to the door. She could see dimly now, but the floor was heavily shadowed, and her foot striking some obstacle it moved noisily. As the sound died away, another arose outside the house: a quick footstep, followed by a rap on the wall.
The girl stood rigid, listening.
'Lena!' said a man's voice eagerly.
'Lena, is that you? Speak to me; it's Robert.'
'Dear! Are you there? I know everything. Beckwith has been to me.'
Still no movement within.
'Lena, Lena! Listen to me. Let me see you. Let me speak to you. Oh, my darling, what are you doing in there alone? I heard you move. Answer me.'
A faint rustle; a sound as of small objects being shifted hurriedly but with an attempt at noiselessness from place to place.
'Lena (with increased anxiety), let me hear your voice. Just one word. Are you angry with me? I have come at once, as soon as I knew. I have not deserted you—like the rest. I love you, Lena. You are mine now—only mine. Nothing could make any difference in that. Only say one word.'
'Then if you will not come to me, I must come to you. Answer me, dear. I am determined. Will you force me to break in the door?'
'Yes, Lena.'page 209
'Go away. I do not love you.'
'That is the first lie you have ever told me, Lena. Come out and say it with my arms round you if you dare.'
'Leave me alone. I want to be left alone. I do not want ever to see you again.'
'I shall never leave you alone. What are you doing there without a light?'
'I do not want a light. I want nothing but to be left alone.'
'You shall never be alone again. Come out to me or I shall come and take you.'
'You shall never take me. I will kill myself first.'
Then in a flash there came on Robert the meaning of the silent house, the darkness, the faint noises as of searching hands. On all strong natures the imminence of danger acts like a tonic. The nerves steady themselves for resistance, the muscles brace themselves for action, the intelligence becomes acute. So, in less time than it takes to state, Robert's plan was made. He ran his hands lightly over the door and drew back.
'Lena,' he said from the increased distance, 'if I go away now, will you promise to go straight to bed?'
What her answer was he never knew, for in the next instant he had thrown himself with all his weight on the door. The wooden latch snapped like a carrot; there was a crash as the door swinging back struck the window frame, splintering the glass in the sashes. A chair, galvanised into activity, hurled itself against the opposite wall, and the girl was in his arms.page 210
'Lena, you are mine. I have a right to take my own.'
'I never will be yours. I do not love you. I have another lover.'
He kissed the rebellious lips fiercely into silence. 'So much the worse for the other then,' he said; 'for when I lay hold I never let go.'
'No, no; it's a lie. I love you. You are splendid. You are my hero, my master. But I will never marry you.'
'We shall see,' said Robert, and bore her from the dark house into the dim starlight.
'I will take you to Mrs. Gird's now. If you will not walk I shall carry you.' Suddenly he began trembling, and the girl slipped through his arms to her feet. Still he held her, his hands shaking as with palsy.
'Robert, Robert, what is it?'
'Nothing, Lena,' he said in a shaken whisper; 'I was thinking. It's the slip-rail—I forgot to put it up. I was thinking of going back to do it, but I didn't go; I came straight on.'
There was a silence.
Gradually Robert's strength returned and with it the fixity of his purpose.
'Lena, will you do as I tell you?'
'Yes, Robert; in everything but the one thing.'
He took her hand and led her out of the paddock down the road on to the bush track. Three times during the journey he stopped, put his arms round her and kissed her passionately. She offered no resistance.
'You are mine. I will go to the Registrar's Office to-morrow.'page 211
'I will never marry you, Robert.'
'Do you love me, Lena?'
'Yes, with my whole soul.'
'You cannot live without me.'
'I will try.'
And for the last time—
'You are mine, doubly mine. I won you tonight. You cannot go back to that other lover.'
'No. Robert, were there any bullocks near the slip-rail?'
'Never mind that. You are going to be a good girl. You will do as I tell you.'
'In everything except the one thing.'
He set her down on a log and went away to acquaint Mrs. Gird. It was some minutes before he returned. He lifted her and kissed her again.
'Are you a good girl now?'
'I will never be good.'
He led her to the house, passed her to Mrs. Gird and went silently away. Lena tried to speak but words refused to come. She wanted to apologise, but how to do it she could not remember. Mrs. Gird led her without speaking to her own room, put her in a chair and began to unlace her boots.
Lena complained querulously. She did not want to go to bed. She wanted to lie down anywhere.
Her hostess continued disrobing her in silence and soon the task was complete. Frozen, motionless, she lay in the elder woman's arms.
'Sleep, darling, and you will be better.'page 212
'I can't sleep. I do not want to sleep; I want to think.'
'Then let it be of the sweet days that are coming. Let it be of forgiveness and compassion. Child, do you guess what your mother suffered all these years?'
'Mrs. Gird, I have no mother.'
'Little one, can you pray?'
'No, no; let me be.'
'That will I not. Come closer to me. Do I not know what suffering is?'