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Grif: A Story of Colonial Life

Chapter II. Grif Declares That It's A Wery Rum Go

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Chapter II. Grif Declares That It's A Wery Rum Go.

The rain pattered down, faster and faster, as the night wore on, and still those two strange companions sat, silent and undisturbed, before the fire. At intervals, sounds of altercation from without were heard, and occasionally a woman's drunken shrick, or a ruffian's muttered curse, was borne upon the angry wind. A step upon the creaking stairs would cause the girl's face to assume an expression of watchfulness. For a moment only; the next, she would relapse into dreamy listlessness. Grif had thrown himself upon the floor, at her feet. He was not asleep, but dozing. For at every movement that Alice made, he would open his eyes, and watch. He was rough, and dirty, and ugly, and a thief; but he was faithful and true. And so the hours lagged on until midnight, when a change took place.

A sudden change—a change that transformed the hitherto quiet house into a den of riotous vice and drunkenness. It seemed as though the house had been forced into by a band of ruffianly bacchanals. They came up the stairs, laughing, and singing, and screaming. A motley throng; about a dozen in all; but strangely contrasted in appearance. Men upon whose faces rascality had set its seal; women in whose eyes there struggled the modesty of youth with the depravity of shame. The men were most of them in the middle age of life; the eldest of the women could scarcely have page 13 counted twenty winters from her birth. With the men, moleskin trousers, pea jackets, billycock hats, and dirty pipes, predominated. The women were expensively dressed; as if they sought to hide their shame by a costly harmony of colors. How strange, are the groupings we see, yet do not marvel at, in the kaleidescope of life!

The company were in the adjoining apartment, and, through the chinks in the wall, Alice could see them flitting about. She had started to her feet when she heard them enter the house, and her trembling frame bespoke her agitation.

“Get up, Grif,” she whispered, touching the boy gently with her foot. On the instant, he was standing, watchful, by her side. “Listen! Can you hear his voice?”

The boy listened attentively, and then shook his head. At this moment, a ribald jest called forth screams of laughter, and caused Alice to cover her crimsoned face, and sink tremblingly into her seat. But after a short struggle with herself, she rose again, and listened anxiously.

“He must be there,” she said, her hand twitching nervously at her dress. “Oh, what if I should not see him to-night! I should be powerless to save him. What if they have kept him away from me, fearing that I should turn him from them! Oh, Grif, Grif, what shall I do? what shall I do?”

“Hush!” Grif whispered. “You keep quiet. You pretend to be asleep, and don't let 'em 'ear yer. If any body cums in, you shut yer eyes, and breathe 'ard. I'll go in and see if he's there.”

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And he crept out of the room, closing the door softly behind him. Left alone, the girl sat down again by the fire, whispering to herself, “I must save him; I must save him;” as if the words were a charm. “Yes,” she whispered, “I must save him from this disgrace, and then I will make one more appeal;” and so communing, she passed the next half-hour. Then Grif came in, almost noiselessly, and to her questioning look replied,

“Yes, he's there, all right.”

“Is he”——she asked, and then stopped, hesitating.

“No,” Grif said, “he's 'ad wery little to drink. His arf asleep by 'isseif, at one end of the room. Jim Pizey and the rest of 'em, they're there. Wot are you going to do?” he inquired, quickly, as Alice walked towards the door.

“I must go in, and bring him away,” she replied, firmly.

“Look 'ere, Ally,” said Grif, hoarsely, griping her arm; “don't you do it. Pizey's got the devil in 'im to-night. I know it by 'is hi. It's jist as cool and wicked as anythin'. Wen he sets 'is mind upon a thing he'll do it, or be cut to pieces. If you go in, you can't do nothin', and somethin' bad '11 'appen. Pizey, ll think you know wot you oughtn't to know. Don't you go.”

“But I must save him, Grif,” she said, in deep distress. “I must save him, if I die.”

“Yes,” Grif said, in a thick undertone, and still keeping firm hold of her arm; “that's right and proper, I dersay. But s'pose you die and don't save 'im? They won't do nothin' to-night. You can't do no good in there, Ally. Jim Pizey 'll kill yer, or beat yer senseless, page 15 if yer go, and then what could yer do? I've seen 'im beat a woman lots of times. He's up to anythin' to-night, is Jim. I never sor 'im look like he does jist now.”

“Of what use can my husband be to them, Grif?” she cried, yet suppressing her voice, so that they should not hear. “What plot of their hatching can he serve them in?”

“I don't know,” Grif replied; “he can talk and look like a swell, and that's wot none of 'em can do. But I'll find out if I can, if you keep quiet. 'Ark! they're a clearin' out the gals;” and as he spoke were heard female voices and laughter, and the noise of the speakers trooping down the stairs into the miserable night. “They won't be wery long together. They won't be together at all,” he cried, as the door of the adjoining apartment opened, and heavy steps went down the stairs.

“But suppose my husband goes with them?” Alice cried, and tried to reach the door; but Grif restrained her.

“There's Jim Pizeys foot,” he said, listening; “jist as if he wos tramplin' some one down with every step. And there's Black Sam—I could tell 'im from a mob of people, for he walks as if he wos goin' to tumble down every minit. And there's Ned Rutt—he's got the largest feet I ever sor. And there's the Tenderhearted Oysterman, he treads like a cat. I'll be even with 'im one day for pizinin' Rough! And there's—there's no more.”

The street door was heavily slammed, and the next moment Alice's husband entered the apartment. He page 16 was a handsome, indolent-looking man, with a reckless manner which did not become him. There were traces of dissipation upon his countenance, and his clothes were a singular mixture of rough coarseness and faded refinement. He did not notice Grif, who had stepped aside, but going to the seat which Alice had occupied, he sank into it, and plunging his fingers in his hair, gazed vacantly at the ashes in the grate. He made no sign of recognition to Alice, who had gone up to him, and encircled his neck with her white arms. As she leant over him, with her face bending to his, caressingly, it appeared, although he did not repulse her, as if there was within him some wish to avoid her, and not be conscious of her presence.

“Richard,” she whispered.

But he doggedly turned his head from her, and did not reply.

“Richard,” she whispered again, softly and sweetly.

“I hear you,” he said, pettishly.

“Do not speak to me harshly to-night, dear,” she said; “this day six months we were married.”

He shivered as he heard this, and said—

“Better for you, better for me, that we had never seen each other.”

“Yes,” the girl said, sadly; “perhaps it would have been. But there is no misery to me in the remembrance. I can still bless the day when we first met. Oh, Richard, do not give me cause to curse it!”

“You have cause enough for that every day, every hour,” he replied, “to curse the day, and to curse me. What had you done, that I should force this misery upon you? And I am even too small-hearted to page 17 render you the only reparation in my power-to die, and loose you from a tie which has embittered your existence.”

“Hush, Richard!” she said. “Hush! my dear! All may yet be well, if you have but the courage”——

“But I have not the courage,” he interrupted. “I am beaten down, crushed, nerveless. I was brought up with no teaching that existence was a thing to struggle for, and I am too old and too idle to learn the lesson now. What do such men as I in the world? Why, it has been thrown in my teeth this very night that I haven't even soul enough for revenge.”

“Revenge, Richard!” she cried. “Not”——

“No, not that,” he said; “nor anything that concerns you or yours. But it has been thrown in my teeth, nevertheless. And it is true. For I am a coward and a craven, if there ever lived one. I shiver when I look upon your pale face;” and turning to her suddenly, and meeting the look of patient uncomplaining love in her weary eyes, he cried, “Oh, Alice! Alice! what misery I have brought upon you!”

“Not more than I can bear, dear love,” she said, “if you will be true to yourself and me. Have patience”——

“Patience!” he exclaimed. “When I think of the past, I lash myself into a torment. Will patience feed us? Will it give us a roof or a bed? Look here!” and he turned out his pockets. “Not a shilling. Fill my pockets first. Give me the means to fight with my fellow-cormorants, and I will have patience; till then, I muat page 18 fret, and fret, and drink. Have you any brandy?”

“No,” she said, with a bitter sigh.

“Perhaps it is better so,” he said; “I should make myself unfit to say what I have to say. I have, with difficulty I confess, kept myself sober to-night for the purpose. For this must come to an end. Coward as I am, I am not too great a coward to say, Alice, you and I must part.”

“Part!” she echoed.

“Look around,” he said; “this is a nice home I have provided for you; I have surrounded you with fit associates, have I not? How nobly I have performed my part of husband! How you should bless my name, revere, and love me, for the true manliness I have displayed towards you! You, by your patience and your love, have shown me the depth of my degradation.”

“Not degradation, Richard!”

“Yes, degradation in its coarsest aspect. Is not this degradation?” and he pointed to Grif, who was crouching, observant, in a corner. “Come here,” he said to the lad, who slouched towards him reluctantly.

“What are you?” asked Richard.

“Wot am I?” replied Grif, with a puzzled look; “I'm a pore boy-Grif.”

“You're a poor boy-Grif?” the man repeated. “How do you live?”

“By eatin' and drinkin'.”

“But how do you get your living?”

“I makes it as I can,” answered Grif, gloomily.

“And when you can't make it?”

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“Wy, then I takes it.”

“That is, you are a thief?”

“Yes, I s'pose so.”

“And a vagabond?”

“Yes, I s'pose so.”

“And you have been in prison?”

“Yes, I've been in quod, I 'ave,” said Grif, feeling, for the first time in his life, slightly ashamed of the fact.

“And you say,” Richard said, bitterly, as the boy slunk back to his corner, “that this is not degradation!”

She hid her face in her hands, but did not reply.

“I was once a good arithmetician,” he continued. “Let us see what figures there are in the sum of our acquaintance, and what they amount to.”

“Of what use is it to recal the past, Richard?”

“It may show us how to act in the future. Besides, I have a strange feeling on me to-night, having met with an adventure which I will presently relate. Listen. When I first saw you, you know what I was—a careless ne'er-do-well, with no thought of the morrow. You did not know this then, but you know it now. It is the curse of my life that I was brought up with expectations. How many possibly useful, if not good, men have been wrecked on that same rock of expectations! Upon the strength of “expectations,” I was reared into an idle incapable. And this I was when you first knew me. I had an income then—small, it is true, but sufficient; or if it was not, I got into debt, upon the strength of my expectations, which were soon to yield to me a life's resting-place. You know what happened. One day page 20 there came a letter, and I learned that, in a commercial crash at home, my income and my expectations had gone to limbo. The news did not hurt me much, Alice, for I was in love—nay, keep your place, and do not look at me while I am speaking, for I am not worthy of the love 1 sought and gained. For I said, this girl will be rich, and her wealth will compensate for what I have lost. Yet I was not entirely calculating, for your pure nature won upon me. The thought that your father was wealthy, and that you would make a good match for me, was soon lost in the love I felt for you. Well, Alice, I won your love, and could not bear to part with you. I had to do something to live; and so that I might be near you, I accepted the post of tutor offered me by your father. I accepted this to be near you—it was happiness enough for the time, and I thought but little of the future. Happy, then, in the present, I had no thought of the passing time, until the day arrived when your father wished to force you into a marriage with a man, ignorant, brutal, mean, and vulgar—but rich. You came to me in your distress—Good God!” he exclaimed, passionately, “shall I ever forget the night on which you came to me, and asked for help and for advice? The broad plains, bathed in silver light, stretched out for miles before us. The branches of the old gum trees glistened with white smiles in the face of the moon—we were encompassed with a peaceful glory. You stood before me, sad and trembling, and the love that had made my heart a garden rushed to my lips”—he stopped suddenly, looked round, and smiled bitterly. Then he continued—“The next day we fled, and at the first town page 21 we reached we were married. We appealed to your father—you know how he met our appeals. The last time I went, at your request, to his house, he set his dogs upon me”——

“Richard! Richard!” she cried, entreatingly, “Do not recal that time. Be silent for awhile, and calm yourself.”

“I will go on to the end. We came to Melbourne. Brought up to no trade or profession, and naturally idle, I could get nothing to do. Day by day we have sank lower and lower. People look on me with suspicion. I am fit for nothing in this colony. I was born a gentleman, and I live the life of a dog; and I have dragged you, who never before knew want, down with me. With no friends, no influence to back me, we might starve and rot. What wonder that I took to drink! The disgust with which I used to contemplate the victims of that curse recoils now upon myself, and I despise and abhor myself for what I am! How I came into acquaintanceship with those who are my present associates I cannot recal. By what fatality 1 brought you here, I know not. I suppose it was because we were poor, and I could not afford to buy you better lodging. Now attend to me—but stay, that boy is listening.”

“He is a friend, Richard,” said Alice.

“Yes,” said Grif, “l am a friend—that's wot I am. Never you mind me—I aint agoin' to peach. I'd do anythin' to 'elp 'er, I would—sooner than 'urt 'er, I'd be chopped up first. Lord! You talk better than the preacher cove!”

“Very well. Now attend. These men want me to page 22 join them in their devilish plots. I will not do so, if I can help it. But if I stop here much longer, they will drive me to it. And so I shall go away from you and from them. I will go to the diggings, and try my luck there”——

“Leaving me here?”

“Leaving you here, but not in this house. You Have two or three articles of jewellery left. I will sell them —the watch I gave you will fetch ten pounds—and you will be able to live in a more respectable house than this for a few weeks until you hear from me.”

“How will you go?”

“I shall walk—I cannot afford to ride. But I have not concluded yet. I have something to tell you, which may alter our plans, so far as you are concerned. I have a message for you, which I must deliver word for word.”

“A message! for me!”

“I saw your father this evening”——

“In town!” she exclaimed.

“In town. I do not know for what purpose he is here, nor do I care.”

“Oh, Richard,” cried the girl; “you did not quarrel with him?”

“No,” he replied; “I spoke to him respectfully. I told him we were here, in want. I begged him to assist us. I told him I was willing to do anything—that I would take any situation. This was his answer. ‘You married my daughter for my money. You are a worthless, idle, scoundrel, and I will not help you. If you so much regret the condition to which you have brought my daughter, divorce yourself from her’”——

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“Those were his words. ‘Divorce yourself from her, and I will take her back. When yon come to me to consent to this, I will give yon money. Till then, you may starve. I am a hard man, as you know, obstinate and self-willed. Rather than you should have one shilling of the money you traded for when you married my daughter, I would fling it all in the sea. Tell my daughter this. She knows me “well enough to be sure I shall not alter when once I resolve.’ These are his words, word for word. What is your answer?”

“What do you think it is?” she asked, sadly.

“I don't know,” he said, doggedly, turning his face from her; “I know what mine would be.”

“What would it be?”

“I should say this” (he did not look at her while he spoke)—“You, Richard Handfield, scapegrace, fortune-hunter, vagabond (any of these surnames would be sufficiently truthful), came to me, a young simple girl, and played the lover to me, without the knowledge of my father, for the sake of my father's money. You knew that I, a young simple girl, bred upon the plains, and amidst rough men, would be certain to be well affected towards you—would almost be certain to fall in love with you, for the false gloss you parade to the world, and for the refinement of manner which those employed about my father's station did not possess. You played for my heart, and you won it. But you won me without my money, for you were disappointed in your calculations. And now that I know you for what you are, and now that I have been sufficiently punished for my folly, in page 24 the misery you have brought, upon me, I shall go back to the home from which I fed, and endeavor to forget the shame with which you have surrounded me.”

“Do you think that should be my answer, Richard?”

He had not once looked at her while he spoke, and now as she addressed him, with an indescribable sadness in her voice, he did not reply. For full five minutes, there was silence in the room. Then the grief which, filled her heart could no longer be suppressed, and short broken gasps escaped her.

“Richard!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, Alice.”

“Have you not more faith in me than this? As I would die to keep you good, so I should die without your love! What matters poverty? We are not the only ones in the world whose lot is hard to bear! Be true to me, Richard, so that I may be true to myself and to you. You do not believe that this would be my answer!”

He turned and clasped her in his arms, and pressed her pure heart to his. Her fervent love had triumphed; and as he kissed away her tears, he felt, indeed, that wifely purity is man's best shield from evil.

“You shall do what you have said, Richard. But not to-morrow. Wait but one day longer; and if I then say to you—‘Go,’ you shall go. I have a reason for this, but I must not tell you what it is. Do you consent?”

” Yes, love.”

“Brighter days will dawn upon us. I am happier now than I have been for a long, long time. And oh, my dear—bend your head closer, Richard—there may come a little child to need our care”——

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The light had gone out, and the room was in darkness. But mean and disreputable as it was, a good woman's unselfish love sanctified it, and made it holy!

“It's a wery rum go,” muttered Grif to himself, as he groped his way down the dark stairs; “a wery rum go. If I wos 'er, I should do as he told 'er. But lord! she don't care for 'erself, she don't. She's too good for 'im by ever so many chalks, that's wot she is.”

Grif was making his way to the cellar. It was his chronic condition never to know, when he rose in the morning, where he was going to sleep at night. It all depended upon, where he found himself when he made up his mind to retire to rest. Arrived at the cellar, he groped about for awhile.

“1 wish I 'ad a match,” he muttered; “there wos a empty packing-case somewhere about 'ere. O, 'ere it is; its 'ardly long enough, but I can double myself up;” thus soliloquizing, he crept into it. “Now then,” he said, as he lifted the cover of the packing-case on to the top, popping his head down quickly to avoid a bump, “that's warm and comfortable, that is. It'd be warmer, though, if I'd Rough 'ere. If ever I can cry quits with the Tenderhearted Oysterman for pizinin' 'im, I'll do it, I will, so 'elp me ”——

This time there was no one by to check the oath, so he uttered it emphatically, and fell asleep.