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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v2 - 6/9 -
be of no avail in the end.
She saw that the beginning of the end had come as she looked at him staring at the ledger, yet exactly why she could not tell. She knew that he had been making a fight since he had been book-keeper, and that now he felt that he had lost. She guessed also that he had heard what O'Fallen said to her, and what she had replied.
"You ought not to have offended him," she tried to say severely.
"It had to come," he said with a dry, crackling laugh, and he fastened his eye-glass in his eye. "I wasn't made for this. I could only do one thing, and--" He laughed that peculiar laugh again, got down from the stool, and held out his hand to her.
"What do you intend?" she said. "I'm going, of course. Good-bye!" "But not at once?" she said very kindly.
"Perhaps not just at once," he answered with a strange smile.
She did not know what to say or do; there are puzzling moments even for a wise woman, and there is nothing wiser than that.
He turned at the door. "God bless you!" he said. Then, as if caught in an act to be atoned for, he hurried out into the street. From the door she watched him till the curtains of dust rose up about him and hid him from sight. When he came back to Wadgery months after he was a terrible wreck; so much so that Vic could hardly look at him at first; and she wished that she had left O'Fallen's as she threatened, and so have no need to furnish any man swizzles. She knew he would never pull himself together now. It was very weak of him, and horrible, but then . . . When that thirst gets into the blood, and there's something behind the man's life too--as Dicky Merritt said, "It's a case for the little black angels."
Vic would not give him liquor. He got it, however, from other sources. He was too far gone to feel any shame now. His sensibilities were all blunted. One day he babbled over the bar-counter to O'Fallen, desiring greatly that they should be reconciled. To that end he put down the last shilling he had for a swizzle, and was so outrageously offended when O'Fallen refused to take it, that the silver was immediately swept into the till; and very soon, with his eye-glass to his eye, Mr. Jones was drunk.
That was the occasion mentioned in the first sentence of this history, when Vic was very angry.
The bar-room was full. Men were wondering why it was that the Postmaster and the Little Milliner, who went to Magari ten days before, to get married by the parson there, had not returned. While they talked and speculated, the weekly coach from Magari came up slowly to the door, and, strange to say, without a blast from the driver's horn. Dicky Merritt and Company rushed out to ask news of the two truants, and were met with a warning wave of the driver's hand, and a "Sh-h! sh--!" as he motioned towards the inside of the coach. There they found the Postmaster and the Little Milliner mere skeletons, and just alive. They were being cared for by a bushman, who had found them in the plains, delirious and nearly naked. They had got lost, there being no regular road over the plains, and their horse, which they had not tethered properly, had gone large. They had been days without food and water when they were found near the coach-track.
They were carried into O'Fallen's big sitting-room. Dicky brought the doctor, who said that they both would die, and soon. Hours passed. The sufferers at last became sane and conscious, as though they could not go without something being done. The Postmaster lifted a hand to his pocket. Dicky Merritt took out of it a paper. It was the marriage licence. The Little Milliner's eyes were painful to see; she was not dying happy. The Postmaster, too, moved his head from side to side in trouble. He reached over and took her hand. She drew it back, shuddering a little. "The ring! The ring!" she whispered.
"It is lost," he said.
Vic, who was at the woman's head, understood. She stooped, said something in her ear, then in that of the Postmaster, and left the room. When she came back, two minutes later, Mr. Jones was with her. What she had done to him to sober him no one ever knew. But he had a book in his hand, and on the dingy black of his waistcoat there shone a little gold cross. He came to where the two lay. Vic drew from her finger a ring. What then occurred was never forgotten by any who saw it; and you could feel the stillness, it was so great, after a high, sing-song voice said: "Those whom God hath joined let no man put asunder."
The two lying cheek by cheek knew now that they could die in peace.
The sing-song voice rose again in the ceremony of blessing, but suddenly it quavered and broke, the man rose, dropping the prayer-book to the floor, and ran quickly out of the room and into the dust of the street, and on, on into the plains.
"In the name of God, who is he?" said Dicky Merritt to Victoria Lindley.
"He was the Reverend Jones Leverton, of Harfordon-Thames," was her reply.
"Once a priest, always a priest," added Dicky. "He'll never come back," said the girl, tears dropping from her eyes.
And she was right.
It was a barren country, and Wadgery was generally shrivelled with heat, but he always had roses in his garden, on his window-sill, or in his button-hole. Growing flowers under difficulties was his recreation. That was why he was called Old Roses. It was not otherwise inapt, for there was something antique about him, though he wasn't old; a flavour, an old-fashioned repose and self-possession. He was Inspector of Tanks for this God-forsaken country. Apart from his duties he kept mostly to himself, though when not travelling he always went down to O'Fallen's Hotel once a day for a glass of whisky and water--whisky kept especially for him; and as he drank this slowly he talked to Victoria Lindley the barmaid, or to any chance visitors whom he knew. He never drank with any one, nor asked any one to drink; and, strange to say, no one resented this. As Vic said: "He was different." Dicky Merritt, the solicitor, who was hail-fellow with squatter, homestead lessee, cockatoo-farmer, and shearer, called him "a lively old buffer." It was he, indeed, who gave him the name of Old Roses. Dicky sometimes went over to Long Neck Billabong, where Old Roses lived, for a reel, as he put it, and he always carried away a deep impression of the Inspector's qualities.
"Had his day," said Dicky in O'Fallen's sitting-room one night, "in marble halls, or I'm a Jack. Run neck and neck with almighty swells once. Might live here for a thousand years and he'd still be the nonesuch of the back-blocks. I'd patent him--file my caveat for him to-morrow, if I could, bully Old Roses!"
Victoria Lindley, the barmaid, lifted her chin slightly from her hands, as she leaned through the opening between the bar and the sitting-room, and said: "Mr. Merritt, Old Roses is a gentleman; and a gentleman is a gentleman till he--"
"Till he humps his bluey into the Never Never Land, Vic? But what do you know about gentlemen, anyway? You were born only five miles from the jumping-off place, my dear."
"Oh," was the quiet reply, "a woman--the commonest woman--knows a gentleman by instinct. It isn't what they do, it's what they don't do; and Old Roses doesn't do lots of things."
"Right you are, Victoria, right you are again! You do Tibbooburra credit. Old Roses has the root of the matter in him--and there you have it."
Dicky had a profound admiration for Vic. She had brains, was perfectly fearless, no man had ever taken a liberty with her, and every one in the Wadgery country who visited O'Fallen's had a wholesome respect for her opinion.
About this time news came that the Governor, Lord Malice, would pass through Wadgery on his tour up the back-blocks. A great function was necessary. It was arranged. Then came the question of the address of welcome to be delivered at the banquet. Dicky Merritt and the local doctor were named for the task, but they both declared they'd only "make rot of it," and suggested Old Roses.
They went to lay the thing before him. They found him in his garden. He greeted them, smiling in his quiet, enigmatical way, and listened. While Dicky spoke, a flush slowly passed over him, and then immediately left him pale; but he stood perfectly still, his hand leaning against a sandal tree, and the coldness of his face warmed up again slowly. His head having been bent attentively as he listened, they did not see anything unusual.
After a moment of inscrutable deliberation, he answered that he would do as they wished. Dicky hinted that he would require some information about Lord Malice's past career and his family's history, but he assured them that he did not need it; and his eyes idled ironically with Dicky's face.
When the two had gone, Old Roses sat in his room, a handful of letters, a photograph, and a couple of decorations spread out before him, his fingers resting on them, his look engaged with a far horizon.
The Governor came. He was met outside the township by the citizens and escorted in--a dusty and numerous cavalcade. They passed the Inspector's house. The garden was blooming, and on the roof a flag was flying. Struck by the singular character of the place Lord Malice asked who lived there, and proposed stopping for a moment to make the acquaintance of its owner; adding, with some slight sarcasm, that if the officers of the Government were too busy to pay their respects to their Governor, their Governor must pay his respects to them. But Old Roses was not in the garden nor in the house, and they left without seeing him. He was sitting under a willow at the billabong, reading over and over to himself the address to be delivered before the Governor in the evening. As he read his face had a wintry and inhospitable look.
The night came. Old Roses entered the dining-room quietly with the crowd, far in the Governor's wake. According to his request, he was given a seat in a distant corner, where he was quite inconspicuous. Most of the men present were in evening dress. He wore a plain tweed suit, but carried a handsome rose in his button-hole. It was impossible to put him at a disadvantage. He looked distinguished as he was. He appeared to be much interested in Lord Malice. The early proceedings were cordial, for the Governor and his suite made themselves agreeable, and
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