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Title: Unbidden Guests
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100821h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
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Unbidden Guests

by

Fred M. White

Published in The Australian Town and Country Journal, N.S.W., 15 Feb 1905
This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014



I

Heaven and earth seemed blended together in a great whirling wheel. Nurse Clare was conscious of a faint smell of burning wood; in a dreamy kind of way she sat up, and asked what was the matter. Then it came back to her that there had been an accident, and that she was not in the least hurt. The carriage had run off the rails, had pitched sideways down a sloping bank, the feeble oil lamp was out, one frosty star indicated the angled window and the serene silence beyond.

Nurse Clare's first thought was for her patient. A dim black bundle loomed opposite her. The resolute-looking, clear-eyed nurse was herself again. She fumbled for the silver match-box at the end of her chatelaine, and struck a vesta. The carriage had fallen over at an angle of forty-five, the dark bundle opposite with a smaller bundle in its arms was fast asleep.

"There has been an accident," Nurse Clare said. "Our slip coach has run off the line. I haven't the remotest idea where we are, but I fancy that we have the coach to ourselves."

"And I slept through it," the other woman said. "I was utterly worn out. I was up all the night with my boy."

She hugged the bundle in her arms closer.

A few hours before these women had been strangers. They had drifted together half-way through a long railway journey, and gradually the story had been told. It was a tale of struggle and misfortune, a runaway match, and a stern, unforgiving father. Then, when things had been getting better, the young husband had been stricken down with smallpox, and the young wife's last desperate resource was a distant relative in the West of England.

The slip coach had fallen clear of the line. Clearly there was nobody else in it. And there was comfort behind that distant red gleam. Nurse Clare sped rapidly along the sleepers till she could see the great crimson star directly overhead, and the outline of a signal box beneath it.

"There has been an accident," she said. "The slip coach to Longford has gone off the rails. Nobody has been hurt, only I thought—"

A big bearded man came rattling down the stairway.

"I was getting anxious, Miss," he said. "My mate, who has just gone off duty, is telegraphing for assistance. Can I do anything?"

"We must make use of your box for the present," the nurse said. "Anything is better than the railway carriage. Is not Grinstead Priory close by?"

"It's no use you going over to Grinstead Priory," the big man said. "If you crawled up the drive at the last gasp it 'ud just please Squire to set his dogs on you and drive you away."

"That poor little body isn't going to have a case of pneumonia on her hands if I can help it," said Nurse Clare. "And as to his dogs, why I just love them."

Nurse Clare pushed her way along until she came at length to a deserted lodge, a pair of moss-clad gates leading into the throat of an avenue. By the light of a crescent moon Nurse Clare could make out a big sign, "Beware of the Dogs." There was a deep-mouthed baying not far off.

But Clare had little time to picture what might have been. She was suddenly transformed into a female Daniel in a den of lions. The frosty air boomed with the deep baying of hounds. Clare caught herself thinking of Topsy and Eva and Uncle Tom.

The great brutes raced towards her, howling as they came. Clare's heart gave one great bound, and then seemed to stop still. She was honestly and sincerely afraid now; she had fully expected to hear the huge hall door fly open at the first note of danger. But though lights blazed in every window, the house was ominously still and silent.

The little nurse stood rigidly there as the great hounds bounded towards here.

"Come here," Clare commanded. "Come here, sir."

The dog came with a shamed gliding movement. The others followed. Clare could see the lights gleaming on rows of polished tooth. She moved very slowly towards the hall door, she laid her fingers resolutely on the handle. Then she staggered into the hall and closed the door swiftly behind her.

Clare marched resolutely into one of the rooms—a noble dining-room with the table laid for dinner. There were covers for at least a score of guests. There were wines of the finest quality, an elegant repast, but everything, to the dishes on the sideboard, cold.

A fire of ripe acacia logs roared up the wide chimney. Before it there sat a man in a deep beehive chair, one foot resting on a stool. He was a grey man, grey as to his hair and eyes, and hard, clean cut features.

"Good evening!" he said in a deep sarcastic note. "I heard you outside. My hearing is good. You don't lack courage."

"If I had," Clare said; "those dogs of yours would have torn me to pieces. You heard me; and yet you took no steps—oh! shameless!"

"I cannot take steps of any kind at present," the man said grimly. "I have sprained my ankle badly. As to servants, there are none in the house. To-morrow a fresh set will arrive. What do you want here?"

Clare explained briefly. She would bring her charge there, whether Grinstead liked it or not.

"Mind you it is contraband of war," he said. "If I were not helpless, I tell you frankly I would have none of this. It is my mood at this time of the year to deck my table out as if I had a house full of people. The last happy time I had before I lost all faith in humanity was a Christmas. You see I have been decorating the walls with holly and the like. That is how I slipped and hurt my ankle. In doing so I displaced those pictures that lie on the floor. I shall be greatly obliged if you will replace them on their hooks. No, no, not that way—the face of the portraits to the wall."

Clare propped the portraits against the table. As her eyes fell upon them she gave a gasp of astonishment. They were beautifully painted, and must have been excellent portraits. Evidently, too, they were mother and daughter.

II

Clare hurried her companion up the avenue, and into the house, lest some misfortune should baulk her plans. Grinstead looked up grimly; then the black cloud shut down upon his face again. He would have risen only the pain in his foot brought him down again with a groan. Clare's companion stood there, as if dazed by the light.

"My daughter," Grinstead cried. "If you think to fool me like this—"

"Marmion knows me," Mrs. Lestrange said unsteadily. "See how he fawns upon me, and lick's my hand. Father don't send me away to-night. Let me stay here till the morning. Then I will go, and you shall see my face no more. My child—"

"Your child is safe," Nurse Clare said. "We shall stay here to-night. Give the boy to me."

Clare took a pillow from a chair, and laid the boy on it before the fire. His cheeks were rosy and flushed, the streaming firelight glistened upon the shining curls. With a sudden curiosity, Grinstead bent down to look. The big hound growled ominously.

"When I was in South Africa, I met a nurse. Head of a special mission, and called Ursula," said Clare, apropos of nothing apparently. "She was the head of a band of nurses equipped and sent out at her own expense. We all knew there was a sad story somewhere, and we all felt that she was not to blame. But we had to work too hard in those dark days to think of anything but our duty. Still, if ever there was an angel, Sister Ursula was one. Then enteric broke out, and she was one of the first to fall.

"I nursed her for a week, but it was obvious what the end would be, and just before she died she told me something of her history. She had married a man that she respected rather than loved, but he proved a good husband so far that she grew very fond of him in time. Then, some time after her little girl came, she made a discovery. By means of a deliberate lie her husband had separated her from the first love of her heart—"

"Ah," Grinstead said, hoarsely, "so she found that out?"

"Yes, she found it out. And that was why she left her husband and child without a word to go into a kind of convent. It was a dreadful shock to a proud nature like hers, and for years she nursed her sorrow alive. She might have forgiven that man had he sought her out, but he did not do so. And just before she died, before she had time to tell me who she was, she gave me this to give to her husband as a token of forgiveness. I am glad that I can hand it over to him at Christmas time."

From her purse Clare drew a simple wedding ring. "Now what do you think of this man?" Clare went on. "Because his wife leaves him he loses all faith in human nature. He looks upon himself as betrayed. And yet all those years he never thinks of the cruel lie by which he parted a woman from the man of her heart. He had only one point of view, for his own sin he can feel nothing. Why when his daughter gives him a lesson that love is better than all the world besides, he sees nothing in it but another personal grievance."

Grinstead had nothing to say: his sharp tongue was silenced, for all that Clare had said was positively true. He had forgotten that dishonourable lie, he had deliberately ignored everything but his own wrongs. Even after the lapse of years his face flushed as he thought of his wife's feelings when the truth came home to her. It was amazing now to realise that he had never for a moment dreamt that the fault might have been his.

"I should have looked till I found you," Clare said. "As it is I have found you quite by accident. Sir, the play is played out. It is for you to say what situation the curtain shall rise upon."

It was some time before Grinstead spoke. He was cast down and humiliated, a prey to bitter feelings, and yet his heart was lighter than it had been for years. He pointed to the blank pictures on the walls.

"Will you do me a little favour?" he asked. "You were so good as to hang up those portraits for me just now. I shall be very glad if you will please put them in—in a more favourable position."

The words cost Grinstead an effort as Clare could see. Without a word she turned the pictures round and dusted them.

"And now," she said. "We had better see what bedroom accommodation there is for us. I presume there are fires laid upstairs. And when that is all over I will look to your injured ankle. Come along."

She swept Eleanor Lestrange out of the room, leaving Grinstead to his own troubled thoughts. At his feet the boy lay looking up with dreamy eyes. They looked up at him from the floor; they seemed to smile down at him from the walls.

"Ain't you afraid of me?" he said clumsily. The boy rose and climbed on to Grinstead's knees.

"I'm not afraid of anybody," he said, "because everybody loves me."

Clare laid a hand upon Eleanor Lestrange's shoulder and drew her into the shadow. The firelight danced and flickered, and in the centre of it was Grinstead with the boy on his knees and his slim hands in the little fellow's curls.

"Your troubles are over," Clare whispered, "and I fancy I shall be here long enough to see your husband and your father shake hands yet."

And she did.


THE END