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Everything is Possible to Will

Chapter XVIII. His Goods and Chattels

page 200

Chapter XVIII. His Goods and Chattels.

Zee knew that her boy was by no means deficient in intellect, even if he should fail to carry off all the apples from the tree of knowledge; and having passed his term of years at school with honor, as a “thoroughly conscientious, biddable youth” (sweet words from stranger lips to the anxious mother), Rex sighed for his Auckland home with so intense a longing, that Zee with much trepidation consented to his return. She trembled lest the father should insensibly lead the son astray, by insinuating doubts calculated to undermine all virtue, and the strongest faith in the honor and probity of other men. Corrupt in himself, Wrax was likely to become an element of corruption to others; hence it would be hard for Rex to steer clear of rocks and quicksands in choosing between father and mother as to whose principles of action he should adopt, especially as Zee had from his earliest years instilled in him a child-like reverence for his father, that would preclude the possibility of his seeing him as he really was.

Never, however, did school-girl count the hours to the “break up” more joyously than Zee counted Rex's allotted sea-days, when once she knew him to have started on his homeward track. And soon a friend, at some personal inconvenience, sounded the joy-tocsin: “She's come!” alluding to the vessel, as she sailed grandly up the harbor, on a Sunday, according to custom. And Sunday though it was, Zee knew that He who justified the plucking of an ear of corn on that day would give the hungry mother-love its ear of corn too. For on Zee devolved the happy task of welcoming the boy home, Wrax being prostrate, recovering page 201from one of his attacks of gout, to which epilepsy had long since added its horrors, and the fits having seized him more than once in a public-house, his death had been reported again and again; but he possessed the fabled nine lives of a cat.92

Zee flew to the wharf, took a boat, and was quickly alongside the vessel; and there stood the stripling in excellent health, and oh so glad to have reached home, sweet home! Wrax must go forth to meet his boy, and with great effort the poor gouty toes carried him a few paces from his own door, when the sight of mother and son gladdened his vision. How pleased he was to see the tall fellow, the picture of health, fast running to manhood! And what a charming picture they made round the tea-table that night! Zee had had her boy in her eye so long that her modest larder was equal to the occasion. A change of food, even the simplest, is sweet after a long voyage.

Subdued by suffering and gratitude, Wrax was seen to the best advantage; indeed, Rex's return appeared most opportune; he touched the tenderest chord in the father's heart, and all the father asserted itself as Wrax, with tears of intense pain, traced his downward course without daring to offer the slightest excuse for himself. Yes, hot were the tears he shed, bitter his self-reproach as, in reviewing his worse than wasted life, he pointed to breakers ahead with a pathos, admired, never imitated, unless by one who has drunk to the dregs of the same cup of misery. Laying down rules many and wise for his future guidance, good and good only were the counsels he gave his boy, vowing solemnly he should never again have cause to blush for his father, that he would help him up the ladder of life, not drag him to ruin, and so forth.

How kind, too, and gentle he was to Zee; positively asked her to read the Bible aloud when they retired for the night. She fell on her knees beside him and they wept together. The turning-point had come at last. Wrax was a young man still, he would redeem his character and position. Their sky was full of gimlet-holes that let the glory through, as the trio rejoiced in the prospect of a good time. Sincere, whilst the fit page 202lasted, he was virtuous only so long as vice was impossible to him; no sooner had he bidden adieu to the sick couch and gained strength to walk so far than he hastened to meet his mortal foe at the public-house. Having cleared his conscience and brain by tears and good resolutions, his baser self held possession of the house newly swept and garnished. No thought of his boy restrained the guilty man; and the sensitive Rex shrank with loathing from being known as his father's son. As for Zee, sky-scraping Zee, she had much better have nursed Wrax for the grave than for the public-house. Depend upon it that the man who is strong to do wrong, to defy all the laws of God and man, is strong to do the right if he will.

Having everything to fear and nothing to hope from his father, the brave Rex, with indomitable perseverance, seized fortune by the forelock, and in cutting his way to manhood, he inch by inch bearded lions by the way which would have been less formidable to a less finely-strung nature. The kind Father, however, never fails to shut the mouths of the lions to incorruptible Daniels.

Rex had left the fat of veal and sheep a long way behind him; his mother and he kept Lent beyond all reasonable bounds. They scraped, Wrax spent. Their dinner was of potatoes and salt often, and not a bad one either, with hunger for sauce. What cared they though they went to bed supperless to a thorny bed? being together they could and did laugh and make light of it, living in an ideal paradise the while. But they never pretended to see the justice of one man having it in his power thus to blast their prospects. The mention of one feast must not be omitted. A fine large apple having been given to Zee she made a pudding of it for six o'clock dinner, and she was eating that pudding for Rex all day long in anticipation; it was such a treat! Pies and puddings have become common enough long since then, but Zee will never forget that apple-pudding while she has being; it was so delicious.

It goes against the grain to have to owe everything to relatives, whilst belonging to a man who ought to page 203 have enough and to spare, let who would perish from hunger. Not one penny had Wrax contributed towards the expenses incurred on Rex's account, nor had it been expected; but it would have made mother and son the happier had he done so. And relatives still supplied their wants in money's worth, seldom in money, for they knew it always found its way into Wrax's pocket. With a meanness quite in keeping with his every act, Wrax always opened his wife's letters if they fell first into his hands. And opening a letter from Merlee to Zee, enclosing a P.O. for £5, Wrax was of course aware of her possession of that sum; and whether or not he was on his best behavior in consequence, it is hard to tell; but he was good for several successive days, when he exclaimed involuntarily, as it appeared, after Rex had left home for business: “What a pity! I see a fine chance of doing a good stroke of business if I had but a little ready money.” Nothing could, of course, be farther from his thoughts than the “little ready money” in his wife's possession.

The stupid Zee at any rate never suspected he had a design upon it, an old trick though it was. She knew no personal wants so long as no debts pressed upon her; they were out of debt by this time, or the money would have been handed over to a creditor. Inwardly weighing the pros and cons of the question, Zee thought, what are £5 to me? I'll give him another chance, to trust him may do him good. So she said: “Here is the money Merlee sent, if it will be of any use.”

“Of the greatest possible use!” returned Wrax, as he pocketed the money with glad alacrity, and made off with all speed for the “good stroke of business.” And happy Zee was on stilts all day. Experience belied her trust, yet believing he would make a good use of the money, she never whispered one word to the contrary, she was only glad to have had it to give him; and knowing how grateful she was herself for the smallest kindness, she judged he could not be otherwise than grateful. If he came at all he was more punctual at meal times than of old, and not a page 204 single misgiving clouded Zee's brow till six o'clock came and no Wrax, when a slightly perceptible tremor began to creep round about that foolishly-trusting heart of hers. Rex could be depended upon, and when he appeared his mother, half ashamed, told him what she had done, and shyly her fears found utterance in the dreadful words: “He won't go and get drunk with it, will he?” The boy's whole soul kindled with generous enthusiasm as he replied: “Ah no, I'm sure he won't. He'll be here directly.”

Seven o'clock, eight o'clock came and went, but no Wrax, and mother and son began to look at each other with sickening apprehension. A lumbering is presently heard on the doorsteps, then a knock at the door. A policeman, if you please, with Wrax dead drunk! Much good Zee's money had done him! It was by no means the first time he had been brought home in a similar plight. By way of apology for bringing him to the door, the policeman said: “He fell down twice after I put him in at the gate, so I thought I had better bring him along.”

The £5 enabled Wrax to involve himself in fresh difficulties, that was all, and he drinking hard the while. Being drunk at the time, he one day put £5 into his wife's hand, saying: “I've been robbed. Take care of this, it is for so and so on such a date. Mind that.” Believing his vile habits were the only “robbers,” Zee resolved he should never touch that money again, and forthwith gave it into the safe custody of a friend. She is growing wiser, you see, and has now taken her first bold and unquestionably right step, prepared to suffer the consequences, even should her life pay the forfeit. Early in the morning of the given date, Wrax asked, unsuspectingly, for the money, and the reader can perhaps imagine better than words can convey Wrax's amazement when Zee told him she would herself put the money to the use for which he intended it, as she did later in the day.

Wrax defied at last! Defied by his wife, too! His rage was frightful to witness on finding that Zee would neither give him the money nor tell him where it was; he swore, ground his teeth savagely, and tore about page 205 like the madman he was, and uttered appalling threats against Zee, who knew she had acted rightly for once. Still, to defy a parson and a swarm of deacons, with their milk-and-water piety, was child's play to defying the tyrant Wrax. Zee was very quiet, not cowed, resolved to stand firm to the death; and Wrax's roar gathered intensity day by day, till at last he shouted: “I have given instructions to”—naming an auctioneer—“to sell every stick and stone belonging to me, and your clothing too, madam. Not a blessed thing will I leave you, beyond what you stand upright in. And if you don't mind what you're about, I'll sell the gown off your back and the shoes off your feet.” Oh, infamous law that gives the husband such power; the husband who will give, yield nothing! and, oh, infamous lie! that fiction of the imagination: “with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” His threats were well larded, as usual, with imprecations too exquisite for repetition; but as he was lavish of such attentions, Zee took no notice whatever of his threats till she discovered incidentally that he had blazoned abroad both his fancied grievance and his purposed revenge.

She then consulted with friends as to what had best be done in the event of his putting his threats into execution. The house properties she had twice saved would have to go, of course; but it was arranged that her clothing and the furniture should be bought in; and since she was that degraded thing, a wife, and could hold nothing, absolutely nothing in her own name, her clothing and furniture should be held for her benefit by the gentleman who bought them.93

Thus prepared for the worst, Zee hoped Wrax would sell, that she might secure her household goods, which she feared, not without reason, would vanish one by one. Driven to such an extremity, Zee would have left Wrax for ever; what she had borne and done had been to no purpose. His threats proved, after all, just bluster, nothing more. The storm blew over, of course; but it serves to show the man he was. Wrax, in common with his kind, whose every word is an implied insult to woman, really believed that he had complimented Zee in electing her to be his slave, and page 206 that she ought to be deeply sensible of the honor put upon her! And the notion that he must be a bear in his own house to keep up his dignity, together with his ever-increasing irrascibility, made his naturally imperious temper almost unbearable in ordinary circumstances; so that to stretch a point proved the one straw too much, and when Zee had to take him down, she did it effectually; but he rose to the surface again. It was a thorny road he made for himself at every turn, and he loved it merely because it was of his own making; but in venting his ill-humor on his wife, he made it appear as if he resented the affection existing between mother and son; or it may be that in having some one to fall back upon, Zee was more conscious alike of her own weakness and of Wrax's unkindness than when she had no prop.

Rex is now, and ever has been, his mother's joy and pride, and she has much reason to rejoice in his home-coming. With his decided preference for colonial life it would have been a mistake to have opposed his return to it, despite the perils to which, possessed of less strength of mind and of purpose, he might have been exposed. His best friend having passed away, the boy had not room to breathe in England. His mother's boy to the centre of his soul, happy and industrious, he possesses, not unnaturally, the strongest possible antipathy to drink in all its forms, as also a dislike, scarcely less pronounced, to the sordid love of money. Simple pleasures, fireside pastimes, are all the recreation healthy tastes need; and mother and son were such home-birds they almost grudged an hour spent beyond its precincts until Rex, a bachelor still, choosing for himself the discipline of a rough untried path, launched his own lifeboat on time's glad sea.

Dignity! who can maintain the dignity of the man who cannot maintain his own dignity? Wrax gradually sunk so low that Zee dared not trust him with money. He would cheat in every conceivable way to obtain money for drink. Giving him various sums of money for the disbursement of certain bills, and accepting his word as to the receipts, she found, to her consternation, on the bills being sent in a second time, page 207 that he had appropriated the moneys; hence, for his credit's sake, no less than for her own, she was compelled to tell their tradespeople that they must not trust him on any pretext whatever.

Then, too, he had sold or raffled so many articles of value, that Zee was urged to put her silver away for safety. But she could not bear to show distrust; besides, some of it was in daily use, and no substitute would have escaped the watchful jealousy of the artful Wrax. No, she trusted him through it all, and he never, to her knowledge, made away with anything that was not strictly speaking his own. Little, indeed, is the time he spends in his home; he just occupies a bedroom, little more, and ludicrous in the extreme is his manner of whisking out of sight; he has jumped out of window not infrequently, and slipped through the key-hole, Zee declares, so mysteriously has he spirited himself away. And he skulked; not because he was afraid of his wife, no, he would have smashed every door and window in the house rather than have submitted to coercion, nor would she attempt to coerce; he skulked because he was ashamed of himself; he knew Zee was better than he was, which is not saying much, and it is hard to sin against goodness.

In justice to Wrax it ought, perhaps, to be mentioned that he was not wholly insensible to her worth, however doubtful appeared his appreciation. In speaking of her when she was in England, without the slightest expectation of its reaching her ears—such a chance would have silenced his lips—he said to the wife of one of his boon companions: “A better woman never breathed;” and sparse of praise as was Wrax, those few words prove that she still occupies the topmost height of whatever reverence he may cherish for her sex. That he could treat her as he has done, even while she commanded his sometimes undisguised respect, proves at once how entirely drink unmans a man, and how helplessly hopeless with him would have been the life of a woman less daring than was Zee.

For even she, driven to desperation by his jeers and derisive sneers, as he twitted her with his absolute power over her, saying: “Go where you will, you cannot page 208 escape me,” has implored him on her knees to kill her at one blow rather than subject her to the living death she endured. But such generosity was impossible to him. Loving death better than life (his “life” is death to all that makes life worth living for), he is free to pursue it, but his right to do wrong begins and ends with himself; he ought not to be at liberty to deal death to others. To his feverish dreams of bliss—his heaven while they last—he is, however welcome as far as Zee is concerned, they are little enough for the penalty involved, for a man more hopelessly degraded can scarcely be found. Hope of his reformation there is none (except that he has given up the pipe to which he was once a slave), and the separation between man and wife is as complete as sin can make it. He drinks and drinks till he loathes the sight and smell of intoxicants; then he abstains and friend gout comes to his relief, and his system, recovering its tone, enables him to cast himself afresh with manifest enjoyment at the feet of the only god he worships—Bacchus.94

Open to flattery, his mad infatuation disposes him to trust those only of like tastes to himself; hence, inheriting at his mother's death a sufficient sum to have secured a life-long competency, the snakish colonel this and captain that relieved him of almost all of it, borrowing it on the “honor of a gentleman”—“honor” evaporating the instant the money was clutched; neither the promised exorbitant interest (the bait swallowed), the “honor,” nor the money, has since been heard of. And as to how much money Wrax quaffs in his cups with Cleopatra-like prodigality, it were vain to surmise; his bank, therefore, may break all too soon, for friend gout may keep him in the body for many a year.

Every limb of the poor, ill-used body is more or less deformed by rheumatic gout, and his periodic sufferings are frightful. Now, as the years roll on, he has reached the lowest phase of vice—the more he drinks the less brusque and churlish is his manner; left to himself he is very quiet, indeed he is pitifully abject in his moral negation. So hideous, too, is the impress vice has stamped upon him, as the passions indulged page 209 have used up the fire of his nature, that he looks demented; the wreck left cannot in any sense be called a man, and Zee carefully avoids looking him in the face, the sight is too dreadful. And yet, if she were legally free to-morrow (she asks not freedom for herself) she would not cast him off; his very desolation (“happiness” he calls it) draws on her compassion, and she longs to catch the death-note of repentant gladness he will assuredly utter, if a moment's warning be given to him. Still, it is a small matter how a man goes out of the world; if he repent, when he can do no less, the less said about it the better.

It is well that nothing is required of him, for he is utterly incapable of business. A few nights since he returned home much disfigured by the “gravel-rash!” purchased, he presumed to say with bombast, “In defence of my Queen and my country.” But the kerbstone was his Fenian antagonist. His attempted jokes and smiles are the saddest part of his very sad case; and yet he makes himself quite agreeable at home now occasionally. All hope of his reformation having quite died out of her heart, Zee has long ceased to remonstrate with him; hence, in reference to his habits, Rex with some youthful indignation has said to Zee: “You are as sweet to him in the morning as if he went to bed all right.” Exactly so; she has learnt that it is not ours to punish, but to reform, where reform is possible.

With more of pain than of reproach she has told Wrax how unkind appeared his unwillingness to do anything for her, even in sickness, and it has done him good. Once or twice, of late, if she has ailed sufficiently to claim a slight indulgence, Wrax has risen at a word to make her a cup of tea, toasted bread to perfection, or cut wafers of bread-and-butter, and has gone to the nest for the freshest of eggs, serving it on the neatly laid breakfast-tray in approved style. So proud has he been of the opportunity of waiting on his wife, that if she has not been quite up to the mark he has actually tried to persuade her to have her breakfast in bed that he might have the pleasure of supplying her wants. The Wrax of other days has, indeed, passed page 210 away. In such moments Zee felt every inch a queen; such kindness made the past sorrow seem lightsome; delightful even. It was well to draw upon it, to exhibit his better-self to his famished vision—“My poor old boy,” as she calls him.

92 Gout is a painful form of arthritis characterized by inflammation of the smaller joints, which often spreads to larger joints and then to internal organs. Vera Colebrook noted of Oliver Ellis’ illness: “The gout from which he had suffered all his life had increased in frequency of attack and severity of pain so that he was more and more confined to his room and to his bed. Even when he could get about, a heart condition caused such severe fainting attacks, that more than once someone came running to the house to tell Ellen that her husband had died in the streets” (159). Oliver’s obituary on the 26 March 1883 stated: “For some years past he had been a sufferer from gout, but the immediate cause of death was erysipelas,” a painful skin inflammation (26 March 1883: 3)

93 Married women could not own property or hold an account in New Zealand until 1884, when the “Married Women’s Property Act” was put in place. Previous to the Act, any money or property a wife acquired was owned by her husband.

94 The Roman god of wine, the Roman equivalent of Dionysus.