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Title: Dert And Do Author: Louisa Lawson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2001241h.html Language: English Date first posted: November 2020 Most recent update: November 2020 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore and Colin Choat Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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HARRY BRENTNELL sat at his desk in a suburban post and telegraph office. There was, just then, nothing to do, and he felt dull and companionless, but, being of a naturally social temperament, he sometimes carried on a conversation with himself—alone—not consciously, but by habit, part thought, part soliloquy.
"Umph!" said he, dejectedly. "A nice picnic I am to have this Christmas to all appearances, and no mistake—housekeeper shuffled off and my quarters up for repair—" and he stared blankly at the frosted window opposite.
"What the old lady wanted to go and die for," he continued, "is a mystery to me; it was an easy billet, had her own way mostly—fed me how she liked and dosed me when she pleased, and I never as much as asked her what for; and then she left me shabbily after all, without giving me even the usual week's notice. By gum! Poor old woman!" he continued, thoughtfully, "I do miss her, though; now, if she had only stayed long enough to hand me over to the tender mercies of someone like herself, for instance. Let me see now—how long has she been with me? Why, it must be close upon five years now; yes, ever since I got this soul-satisfying appointment. How time flies, to be sure. Fact is, I ought to have been married myself by this time, but, blow it, I can't make up my mind. Wish the old woman had looked out a wife for me before she went. Yes-um! I like women about me, and children, too, for that matter—but I detest making new acquaintances, blest if I don't."
A timid tap aroused him, and, turning, he saw a nice, intelligent-looking, little boy of about six. He was dressed in the usual way—blue serge sailor suit and wide-brimmed hat, with neat Russian leather boots, and dark, ribbed stockings. The child was decidedly pretty, and possessed a natural air of refinement, and carried the evidence of being well-kept.
"Please, sir, will this go all right?" said the boy, at the same time tendering a soiled and crumpled letter.
Brentnell leaned over the counter and took the missive from the boy's trembling hand; a smile passed over his features as he noticed that the stamp had been used, and that the envelope was directed upside down, but he continued to study the address with assumed gravity nevertheless.
"Missed her—Sent her clothes?" he interrogated.
"No," said the boy, blushing painfully and raising his voice. "Mr. Santa Claus!"
"Oh! I see, I see," said Harry, suavely, at the same time trying to keep his gravity; "just wait a moment, please—um! yes, yes, I think this will find him."
"When will I get an answer, please?" said the little fellow, apparently much relieved.
"To-morrow—to-morrow, about this time, I should think," said Harry, thoughtfully stroking his moustache, and pretending to calculate.
"Oh, thank you very much, sir," said the child, politely, as he picked his way carefully down the steps leading into the street.
"Poor little beggar," said Harry, at the same time walking round his desk to watch the little fellow going up the pathway. "I suppose, now, somebody's 'having' him—used to have me that way, once—gum! didn't they though—but he's a nicer kid than I was. What a jolly pity it is kids alter so," he said, with a sigh. "That's the best of having a big family, a man can always have a youngster to talk to and fool with. Hope he's got a square father; he's too pretty and trusting to make his way without one. He has a mother, that's plain to be seen by the way the knees of his stockings are mended."
But by this time the boy had turned a corner, and Harry ceased speculating about him to attend to a lady who approached the window and enquired for a letter.
He handed her one—a large, blue, apparently official document, bearing a country post-mark. This she hastily crammed into her bag, and departed, taking the same direction as the boy.
"I wonder, now, where I have seen that lady before," said Harry, reflectively. "Gets her own living I should think—um; Yes! You can always pick 'em out," he said, oracularly, "they are so self-contained; they step out, and never seem to have any time to waste; always know where they are going and what they are doing. Heigho! I think I'll just make up the city bag, and then go out and look up some tucker, How I do miss Mrs. Mylot, to be sure!"
"Hello," said Harry, after luncheon, as he paused in the act of applying the obliterating stamp to an already defaced image of His Majesty, "this is the letter to 'Mr. Santa Claus.' I suppose I must act as a substitute for that old myth. There is no law to prevent me that I know of, so here goes;" and, suiting the action to the word, he cut the letter open, and read:
Mother wants a nuther boarder, kan you kum to live here and pa her.
"The little donkey has forgotten to put in his name and address," muttered Harry, perplexedly. "How does he expect to get an answer, I wonder? I don't think it would do for me to write him one, either; it might land me in a fix with the Department." Here he scratched his head, and thought hard for a few seconds.
"The worst of it is," he continued, cautiously, "when a fellow once starts telling youngsters lies, he never knows when to stop. Anyway, I suppose I can trust to my usual luck to get me out of it if the kid does turn up again."
But here Harry reckoned without his host, and he was totally unprepared for the little fellow when he did put in an appearance at the appointed time.
After a moment's embarrassment, however, he went on glibly enough in answer to the boy's anxious enquiry:
"Ah! yes—yes, about that letter; well, Santa Claus says he cannot lodge anywhere except upon chimney tops until after New Year, but he left this bag of fruit and sweets for you, and I was to tell you that as I was in want of lodgings, that perhaps I might do as well as him and he would give me a reference if necessary."
Harry could not for a moment meet the child's blue eyes, that were searching his face the whole time he was speaking, but after a moment's pause the child said in a slightly disappointed tone:
"There is room for two, sir, and I am sure mother would be very glad to have you."
"Where do you live?"
"In Tower-street, sir."
"Very well, then," said Harry, "I will go and see the room to-day, and if it suits me I will take it at once."
The boy thanked him, and went away.
"The game has begun," said Harry, "and I have about told a dozen white ones already; now, I wonder where the deuce it will end!"
The future is a mystery
'Tis wise from us to keep,
We might there learn a history,
Would make us wail and weep.
Leaving an assistant in charge during luncheon hour Harry set out as directed by his little friend, in quest of Tower-street. On the way, his love for children and mischief placed him in a temporary dilemma. It happened thus: Immediately in front of him walked three specimens of Australia's coming men, all differently clad, but grimed alike with dirt and branded by neglect.
The one on the right, and nearest to the roadway, was a child of four years of age—barefooted, hatless, and garbed in an old, greasy, wine-coloured silk velvet paletot, elaborately faced with apricot silk in threadbare smocking. This had evidently been purchased at the nearest second hand shop, and for reasons of expediency no doubt, was worn back to front, leaving it short in the rear in consequence, and with more of the two little calves visible than the designer of the one-time modish garment had at first intended. The full and slightly longer back made a graceful droop in front towards the little feet which were moving quickly in and out as does the little cog to keep pace with the large fly. This child's features were totally obscured by dirt, but he pattered on with a "my troubles" kind of air denoting perfect satisfaction with himself and the world at large.
To the left walked a boy of about six years of age, dressed in a washed out suit of galatea, much too short and tight in the legs and sleeves, thus displaying a somewhat generous length of very lean and sun-tanned arms and shanks—the latter unadorned but by a pair of parti-coloured elastic garters, which hung loosely around the ankles, in readiness for future use. To his head clung an old straw hat, the rim (having partly dissolved partnership with the crown) lay upon his breast after the manner of a Freemason's collar, and through this visor-less helmet he viewed the world o'er which he stalked with the independent mien of an aboriginal king.
The third, who led the other two along by the hands, shambled along in all the bravery of an original costume. His pants, which were evidently made from a pair of his father's, were of thick tweed, clumsily cut across the legs to shorten them, and simply buttoned over in front—to curtail the larger waist girth—and ensure their keeping up. The boy's cranium was covered by an old grey felt hat, the line of demarcation between crown and rim having long since faded.
But what for the moment attracted Harry's attention was the fact that a piece of tweed, the size of a clay pipe bowl, had been burnt away from the seat of the pants, midway between the side and the back seam of the garment, plainly revealing to disc of healthy pink flesh. Unable to resist the temptation Harry obeyed a fatal impulse and placed the cold steel of his cane end exactly upon the naked spot. Hardly, however, had he done so than the enormity of his offence confronted him, for the startled look of inquiry which dashed from the eyes of the indignant boy, convinced him that he had taken an unpardonable liberty with the rights of a free and independent citizen. But Harry's usual luck saved him. Diving his hand into the depth of his trousers pocket he said, politely, "I beg your pardon, but I wanted to ask you whether you liked chocolates."
A sudden relaxation of the boy's portending anger ensued, and Harry was relieved to find that his generous offer was accepted in the spirit in which it was meant, so, politely dropping a penny into each grimy palm, he quickened his pace with a muttered: "Narrow squeak that, by jove!"
Arriving at Tower-street he surveyed No. 4 with a look of pleased surprise; and lingered a moment in satisfied contemplation of the house, his hand resting upon the gate.
"Well, I'm blest!" he muttered, to himself at last, "this is the cottage I thought I would like to live in. What is there about the blessed place that makes it so different to me to all the others. Lord, yes," he said, suddenly remembering. "I stood in front of this very house months ago and heard a woman singing. 'Nearer, My God, to Thee.' The voice seemed to suit the dwelling—pretty and sweet; yes, I recollect it was sung to poor Packer's setting. I wonder his music is not more used."
He rang the bell, and the door was instantly opened by his little friend, who seemed to be in the midst of some worrying engagement, the nature of which he proceeded to explain as soon as his visitor was seated.
"Mother had to go out," the boy said, "and we asked her what we were to do while she was away, and she said we were both to pray for rain, but 'that one'" indicating the object of his displeasure by an extended forefinger, "is so aggervating."
"That one' proved to be a little girl of about four, who was kneeling at a couch, and judging by the expression of her features she was anything but comfortable at her devotions.
"You see," continued the boy hopelessly, "she will flop, fix her up how you will; get her up on bof her knees, and then her hands fall; and then get bof her hands up and she goes flop again. I got her knees, and her hands, and her back, all right once, and then her eyes wouldn't come shut."
The last sentence was finished in tone of voice denoting exhausted patience. He looked earnestly a moment into his visitor's face for a token of the sympathy which he considered himself entitled to, and then surveyed his sister with a look of perplexity not unmingled with disgust.
Although the little actors in this domestic drama were in deadly earnest it struck their visitor as particularly comic, and he had a hard fight with himself to subdue all appearances of mirth before he could venture seriously to say, "that perhaps the little girl had been kneeling too long."
"Yes, I is," cried the tiny devotee, plaintively, but none the less promptly.
"Well then, come here and tell me what you asked God for?" said Harry, coaxingly.
"My brother will tell you," said the child, edging up sideways so as to get within short-distance communication with him. Both looked expectantly at the boy, who proceeded to explain.
"You see," began the child, hesitatingly, "I fanked Him for what He sent last time."
"Yes, well?" said Harry, encouragingly.
"And then—then—I told Him that the punkin leaves in the yard were all hanging down, and that the ducks were dirty, and that the pond was all dried up—with tins and bricks at the bottom—and that Nero's tongue was hanging over the side—"
"The side of the pond?" queried Harry.
"No," said the boy, hotly, "the side of his mouf."
"Oh, I understand?" said Harry, blandly; and then addressed the little girl:
"And what do you know about God, little one?" he said, drawing her close to him. But the child only tapped her front teeth with her little forefinger and looked the picture of helpless stupidity.
"Answer, will you?" said the boy, severely, scenting trouble in the air. "Answer, will you?"
But beyond elevating her right shoulder, and shifting her finger to the inside of her cheek, she made no reply.
"Look here!" exclaimed the boy, roughly, pulling her hand down. "I'll shake you, that I will! Haven't I told you over and over again that God—is—an—eternal—Spirit? Say that, will you?"
"A fernal spinnet," said the incorrigible, withdrawing her finger for the moment, and then poking it quickly back again into her mouth.
A moment of ominous silence ensued, during which she executed contortions calculated to give one the impression that she was endeavouring to wriggle herself out of her skin. At last the storm broke.
"Listen at her!" exclaimed the boy, contemptuously. "Only listen at her! Look here!" he continued, approaching her with threatening finger, while his voice sank to an awesome whisper, "look here, the black—devil—will—get—you, see if he don't."
"Wh-e-e," ejaculated Dert, in sudden alarm as she mentally calculated the opportunities of his Satanic Majesty, but the result must have been reassuring, for, with a gesture of relief, she exclaimed, resolutely: "No—he—won't."
"No—he—won't!" repeated the boy, scornfully. "How do you know that he won't?"
"Betause—betause," said the child, slowly, with tantalising assurance, "betause Dord won' et him."
"Listen at her!" again exclaimed the boy, somewhat at a loss for words. "Why don't you be good and learn your catechism?"
"What's the dood?" said the little one, with exasperating indifference.
Just then an unexpected clap of thunder came, and large drops of rain fell upon the house. With an awed look Herb gazed for a moment enquiringly at Harry, and then, sliding from his seat upon the arm of the sofa, he seized his sister by the shoulder and dragged the now only-too-willing child to the edge of the couch, where he solemnly cautioned her—on her life—not to "flop," which she did, by the way. He extemporised a thanksgiving prayer for the now fast-falling rain; then, tiptoeing over to Harry, he said in a solemn whisper:
"Look at that, we only prayed for rain to-day, and we've got it."
"Yes," his sister broke in, excitedly, "and we only wrote for a border man yesterday, an' we dot 'im—" Then, coming to a sudden pause, she looked coyly in Harry's face, and said eagerly, "You will tum to 'iv wif us, won't you?"
"I think I will, little one," said Harry, taking the bright little dumpling upon his knee, "But what is your name? You haven't told me."
"My name is Dert and his is Do," she said, nodding in the direction of her brother.
"Listen at her!" said Herb, testily. "She means Gert—Gertrude Dorothy Heath; and my name is Joseph Herbert Heath; but she always will persist in calling herself 'Dert' and me 'Do.' Ma had to change our names, then she calls mama 'Muddy.'"
"I bed your pardon," said Dert, loftily, with extended chin and pouting lips, "dat was when I was only a 'ittle dirl, and touldn't tort, but now I am a bid dirl and tan tort."
"Very well," said Harry, conciliatorily, as he lifted the little thing in his arms, "supposing we go up and see the room."
"Yes," shrieked Dert, "let us see the room."
Herb went first, and Harry followed, to a cheerful-looking apartment upon the first floor.
"Yes, this will do," said Harry, sinking into a cosy, chintz covered chair behind the door, and beginning to hope that nothing would occur to disarrange the children's plans.
"Yes, it is nice," acquiesced Herby. "Mummy made these mats and curtains out of all sorts of things; that muslin with all the lace and freckles on round the looking-glass was a part of Dert's baby basket, and that ribbon was on it for bows. The curtain round the table was the frock mother used to wear to parties when she was a girl."
"Where is your father?" asked Harry suddenly.
But Herb was locking intently at the ceiling, and Dert commenced in a hesitating way:
"I don't tink I'se dot a parder." Then, looking timidly at Herb, who had brought his eyes slowly down to her level; she stopped short and proceeded to chew her tongue.
Harry saw that the children were embarrassed, so to put them at their ease, he enquired how long their mother would be likely to be away.
At that moment a light step was heard upon the landing, and a lady entered enquiring in a gentle voice whether they had been "good," and if anyone had called. She advanced to the table, upon which she placed her bag, and hastily drew her gloves off.
"Ma, Ma," shouted Dert triumphantly, "this gentleum has tum to liv wit us."
"Pardon me," said Mrs. Heath, observing Harry for the first time. "Are you, indeed, in want of accommodation?"
"I am, madam," said Harry, rising, "and if this room is vacant, I would like to have it. The children tell me your terms are one pound five a week."
"Yes, and if you decide to come I will promise to do all I can to make you comfortable. I have only two other boarders, a lady and gentleman."
"Very good, madam," replied Harry; "we will consider it settled, and, with your permission, I will send in my luggage to-night."
"It shall be ready for you then," replied the lady, wearily—a tone which her visitor noticed and thought of many times upon his way home.
"Well, well," thought he, "that's the very lady to whom I gave the letter yesterday. No wonder I thought I knew her, she is so like the little fellow, or he is like her. There's trouble in that house, if I'm any judge. There's trouble everywhere, blest if there isn't! But that boy is a brick! By the way, I must help old Santa Claus out with the stockings. One good turn deserves another, so I'll see to it before I come back. How I do miss Mrs. Mylot."
Christmas Eve saw our hero in possession of the back gable room in Tower-street.
The children were in high glee when he arrived. They had been upon the balcony all the afternoon, anxiously watching for the cab that was to bring their new friend. Sanders and Horn's delivery van had just left the bulk of his luggage, and, as usual, Dert had been in disgrace for importuning the driver from the balcony heights for information regarding "Mr. Brentnell," as she called him. But here he was at last, and her cup of joy was full.
"I shall not be so lonely, now," thought Harry, as he caught a glimpse of two happy faces in passing from the vehicle to the house.
"Hey, Dert," he exclaimed, later, as that little individual rushed out upon the landing in her nightdress. "What is the matter?"
"Why, that Herb is so disagreeable. Stoop down and I'll show you what he done to me."
Harry did as he was bidden, when the little one, with a serious face, placed the tip of her second finger against the ball of her little thumb and bringing them to within an inch of Harry's nose, let one finger spring from the other, causing it to collide with that organ.
"Now, do dat hurt?" she inquired, scrutinising his face anxiously.
"Yes, dreadful," said Harry, shudderingly.
"Den dat's dest what he done to me—free—four times," said she, triumphantly.
"Terrible." said her companion, with a gesture of horror. "But what did he do that for?"
"Oh, betause I would not ast Dord for a bid stocking full."
"And why didn't you?"
"What's the dood?"
"Oh, no! you need not," said her friend, assuringly, "And besides, I have made that all right with Santa Claus myself."
"Did you," said Dert, with pleasure, "did you ast him to fill my stocking with sherbit?"
"Well, no," said Harry apologetically. "I did not know that you were so very partial to sherbit."
"Run and tell him now," suggested Dert.
"It's too late now," said Harry. "He's gone too far; I can't catch him."
Dert was nonplussed, and stood with her hands locked behind her, evidently racking her fertile brain for a practical suggestion. At last an idea seemed to strike her, for she said with the air of a philosopher, "Teledram."
"Upon my word, Dert," said her companion, scratching his head, "I don't think I know his address."
Dert placed her small chin in her palm, and, rolling her eyes from side to side in search of inspiration, at last said, "Abertise, tan't you?"
But, before there was time for her companion to reply, she had planted her back against Harry's chest, and exclaimed, threateningly, "You, Herb, if you do dat adain I will make it a dear taution to you, dest see if I don t."
"Great Scott," said her friend, only too glad to get off the subject of the stocking, "you must not use threatening language, you know."
"Well, den," said Dert, indignantly, "what does he want to pull my hair round the corner for? I dest dot Muddy to put two in font, and pat it ahind for me!"
"What do you mean by 'two in font'?"
"Why, dis in font," she said, patting two little curl papers over her forehead.
"Oh, I understand. They will be two pretty curls in the morning?"
"Yes," she said, "if dey don't det out."
"And what do you mean by 'pat it ahind'?"
"Why, dis," said Dert, drawing a small plait forward, under the plump cheek, "this is a pat."
"Look at my kitten—I do love it! When I look in its eyes," she said, pulling a chubby palm each side of its head, "it makes me laugh," and then, cuddling it close with a nice air of proprietorship, she continued, confidingly: "It is the only jet black one in the lot, and it has dot two nice white spots on its bat. You hold it and see how nice it feels."
Harry took the mite, and, letting it drop into his big summer-sleeve, made pretence of chewing and swallowing it. The look of astonishment and dismay depicted upon Dert's features was ludicrous in the extreme. But just then Mrs. Heath appeared upon the scene, and, taking Dert and the kitten in her arms, carried them both away.
"Kit, kit, kit me," screamed Dert, with her little mouth held invitingly in Harry's direction, until a closing door shut in the sound.
"That little woman is working too hard," thought Harry.
"What pains she takes to make her boarders comfortable. But there is a look of suppressed misery on her face which belies her cheerful words. She has everything very nice here, but she evidently needs rest; how she can cook dinners and be dressed to take the head of the table puzzles me: and there's a lot of dignity about her, besides. How superior she seems to that Miss Spear, and how little womanly feeling that woman seems to have. She might at least have handed round the tea after dinner, but there she sat as though determined to have her 'pound of flesh' at any rate. Ah! well, I like one, but I'll he hanged if I like the other."
Soliloquising thus he prepared for his first night's sleep in a strange home. About 11 o'clock he awoke with a start, and, striking a light, began to wonder what woke him. As he lay considering his eyes fell upon a parcel lying upon a chair near the window.
"What the mischief is in that parcel?" he queried, blinking at it for a few seconds. "Oh, here's a picnic!" he exclaimed, sliding out of bed. "These are the things I got for the kids. Where the deuce are the stockings? I'll have to dress and go downstairs and see if they are in the dining-room."
Finding the stockings suspended from the mantel drape in the dining-room he proceeded to stuff in as many as they would hold, and then, seeing no better way, securely tied the remainder upon the outside.
Reaching the landing upon his return, a piercing shriek accosted him; "Oh, my poor Muddy is dead! Oh, Mr. Brentnell, tum to Muddy," the cries continued, and, like a flash, he remembered that Miss Spear and the other boarders would not return until nearly 1 o'clock, they having arranged for a supper after the theatre. Pushing open the door, a strange sight presented itself,—the limp form of Mrs. Heath hung over the corner of the bed, her head drooping downwards. She was dressed, and had evidently not been in bed. To all appearance she had been engaged in household work, for the dinner dress had been changed tor a dark cambric and large apron. But was she dead, or only unconscious? In a perfect frenzy of childish fear Dert made ineffectual efforts to pull her mother up by the hands. Herb, meanwhile, was taxing all his childish strength in a brave endeavour to raise his mother by the shoulders.
Harry sprang forward, and, taking the insensible woman in his strong arms, gently laid her fair head where Dert's had rested a few hours before.
"Get a glass of water, Herb, and some smelling salts if you have any," said he, in an agitated whisper, both were soon brought and applied, and the fainting woman showed signs of recovery.
Then Harry noticed, for the first time, that an open chest stood near him, a glance at whose contents plainly revealed a blood-stained suit of gentleman's clothing while upon a small table immediately under the gas lay the official letter given the day before.
"Nothing but trouble, nothing but trouble everywhere!" thought Harry, as he waited for the result of the restoratives.
When Mrs. Heath had partially recovered she sat up, and endeavoured, in a listless way, to arrange the long braids of soft brown hair which persisted in falling again as soon as put in place.
"'Et me, 'et me," cried Dert, stumbling across the bed, her long nightdress getting under her feet at every step.
"Don't speak, Mrs. Heath," said Harry, kindly, as he saw an attempt on her part to explain.
"I cannot now," she said, faintly, "but—" ;pointing to the open chest—"to-morrow I must."
"There is no necessity even then," replied her companion, earnestly.
"You are very considerate," she said slowly "and I cannot thank you sufficiently."
"There is no need for thanks," said Harry, "but do not hesitate to let me know if there's anything that I can do for you or the children."
"You are very kind," she said, wearily, "but there is really nothing, I assure you."
"Nothing but trouble everywhere," sighed Harry, as he sought his couch for the second time.
"What did that old stupid want to die for, I wonder?" But he could not sleep. That box troubled him. He did not like mysteries, and particularly in woman; but this hard-working, patient soul—what could she, of all people in the world, have to do with mystery? Where was her husband? What did Dert mean by "I don't tink I'se dot a parder?"
Just then Miss Spear was heard to enter the house, and shortly after commenced singing "Killarney." It was a habit of hers, for being a woman of uncertain age, she left no stone unturned to fascinate the sterner sex. Without her voice, she had been heard to say, she was powerless.
"I wish to the Lord she would shut up," grumbled Harry.
But, alas! the commotion was not to end here. The singing suddenly stopped, and someone was heard to cross the hall, then a sharp knock sounded upon a door, accompanied by Miss Spear's peculiar voice:
"Here is this little beast of a kitten on my door mat, again," she exclaimed.
Then Mrs. Heath's voice was heard in tones of apology—"I am very sorry, Miss Spear, but I meant to secure Dert's kitten before I went to bed."
"But you did not secure it," snapped the other.
"No, I did not. The truth is, I was not very well. Give me the kitten, please, and Dert will keep it with her. I promise you it shall not trouble you again."
"And that I promise you also," said Miss Spear, exultingly, as she raised the kitten above her head and threw it savagely down the stairs.
A piercing scream burst from Dert as she rushed out. "Oh! Dord won't uv you, you bad Miss Spear; Dord won't uv you for tillin' my tat."
Her tormentor laughed derisively as she closed her bedroom door and re-commenced singing.
Harry heard all.
"My word," he said, "I would like to serve her as she did the kitten. Heavens! there's trouble everywhere. Old Mrs. Mylot has the best of it, after all."
All attempts to sleep on our hero's part were futile, and so he lay awake, trying to solve the problem of Miss Spear's cruel behaviour towards her gentle landlady, and finally came to the conclusion that her motive was jealousy—jealousy, for she knew—none knew better—that Mrs. Heath's character was as far above hers as the sun above earth, and the consciousness of this superiority maddened and made her the unreasonable vixen that she was. Coming to this conclusion, be sank to sleep, and dreamt of wild cats and red-haired spinsters.
He was aroused at 5 o'clock next morning by a series of impatient raps upon his door and an eager voice saying:
"Mr. Brentnell, may I come in, please?"
"And tan I tum, too?"
"Oh! I don't know, Dert. I suppose so."
The door instantly burst open, and the two rushed in. Herb went round to the opposite side of the bed, while Dert breathlessly clambered up into a vacant space beside Harry.
"I'se dot a mice," spluttered she, holding up a strip of elastic from the end of which dandled a little brown composition mouse. "Oh, I know what I will do; I'll det Muddy to bury it wif Titty in the minemett bed, and it will drow up a lot of 'ittle mice."
"Oh, I know, that's all right!" said Harry, trying to divert his little friend's thoughts from the painful subject. "Show me what Santa Claus has sent you, Herb."
"Well, now, lie quite still," said Herb, in a business like tone, "we are going to fix you up."
"Fix me up?"
"Yes, look at this!" exclaimed the boy, triumphantly, drawing from a lucky bag an arrangement composed of white wool and wire, which, when shaken out, proved to be a set of side-locks, eyebrows, and flowing beard, arranged a la Santa Claus.
"Look at that?" said Herb, exultingly. "What do you think of that?"
"Spiffin'," said Harry, "but ease up a bit, Dert, and let me get my arm out. The end of it is tickling my nose."
"Oh, no!" said Dert, excitedly, pressing him down. "You mustn't tate your arm out. Be still, and teep de quilt up—'ike this," and, suiting the action to the word, she pulled the bed-cover up around his neck, while Herb fixed on the white wig and beard.
"Oh, how drand!" cried Dert, shrieking with baby laughter as the ensemble became perfect.
"Where will I put the holly," queried Herb, anxiously scanning Harry.
"On his bres'! On his bres'!" screamed his sister, hoarse with excitement.
"Yes, I know." said Harry, "but get off my 'bres',' as you call it, Dert; you're knocking the breath out of me and, see here, I can't do justice to a tin whistle with a mouth full of chocolate creams. Sit up, Dert, do, there's a good girl. And, Herb, is that your mother calling?"
"Oh!" exclaimed Herb, slipping off the bed as he spoke. "I must go and get dressed, but you keep still and don't move until I come back."
"Yes, yes." admonished Dert, "I don't move for the bery 'ife od yer."
Herb went out and Dert waited patiently for his return; at last she said, wearily:
"Fro out your muddy arm, Mr. Bentimell, 'ike Muddy does."
So, when Harry extended his arm along the vacant pillow, Dert went round twice like a little woolly dog, and lay down with it under her soft white neck. Then there was a big pause, for something else had caught her attention, and she looked attentively at the flickering sunlight upon the ceiling.
Harry watched her with interest, wondering what was passing in her baby mind. To him there was a new world there, fresh and innocent, and he likened it to the gurgle of cool water, the twitter of spring birds, and the sight of peaceful scenery. It was a coming-in-contact with nature in all its purity, and his heart responded to it, making him happy for the time. And yet he sighed; for he could not forget the world, and all its soul-crushing antagonisms.
"Dat is a wim wom and a doose's bidle," said Dert, at last, contemplatively.
"What is?" asked her companion.
"Why, dat on the ceiling 'ike de bottom ob a tin when de sun shines on it," she exclaimed, pointing to the flickering light. "Would I det to Heben if I tould walk on dat sunlight?" she said.
"You might if you were an angel," said Harry.
"Yes." said Dert; and then, after reflection, "Did you ever see an angel?"
"Do you know what Herb says?"
"No, I do not."
"Well, Herb says dat baby angels has only a head wif wings and no body. When dey det up to de sky Dord pulls dem frew, and puts a ring on the bats of their nets to hang them up on the wall wif."
"Rather uncomfortable for the baby angels, I should say," remarked Harry.
"But on'y in de day time. When night tums Dord sends 'em down here to whisper to the children's, and dey only tink od nice tings. And den when de morning tums de baby angels flies away up to de mountains where de sky touches, and Dord pulls dem all frew."
Harry lay very still, and Dert lay with eyes fixed on the flickering light upon the ceiling, and did not look at him or she would have seen that he had fallen asleep.
"De drown-ups when dey die go to Heben and Dord pulls dem frew and makes dem sit in rows on chairs in a town hall, and Dord sits on a frone, and dey play on jews' harps all de time, and dey is so happy. I would ask Dord for a drum, but Herb says dere is no drums, only jews' harps, and de drown-ups don't tum down any more, for it is too much trouble for Dord to pull dem frew."
And then, taking her eyes suddenly from the ceiling, she asked, anxiously,
"Do yer berblieve him?"
But there was no reply. The figure of the man with the mask and the counterpane tucked under his chin lay silent and still.
Dert repeated her query:
"Do you berblieve him?"
Still there was no reply. Then she sat up, and looked enquiringly at him. Quietly slipping from the bed, she ran out and, meeting Herb on his way back, whispered, fearfully:
"I think Mr. Bentimell is asleep."
"How do you know?" said Herb, shortly. "Is he snoring?"
"No—I—ber—lieve he's dead."
Miss Spear was at this moment coming down the passage. The bedroom door stood open, and happening to look in, she saw the strange figure upon the bed and, with a severe frown, walked boldly in to inspect it.
Just at this moment Mrs. Heath, in quest of Dert, reached the door and Miss Spear, turning to her, pointed to the effigy, as she thought, and asked in a sneering tone:
"What is that thing doing here."
But at that moment Harry awoke and, through the holes in his mask, their glances met. Miss Spear shrieked, and rushed from the room right into the convenient arras of her lover, where she promptly fainted. Mrs. Heath had the presence of mind to close the door and take the children away.
"Where in Heaven's name am I?" muttered Harry, sleepily. Then, catching sight of himself in a mirror, exclaimed, "Who on earth is that?"
"Will you come to breakfast, please," said Herb, from the door. Then, all in a flash he remembered.
Miss Spear had gone off early with her lover to meet some business friends. The breakfast table, covered in snowy damask, the polished glass and fresh flowers, presented such a bright and wholesome appearance that Harry felt at home and at ease at once. Mrs. Heath seemed a quiet, natural kind of a woman, and her freedom from all affectation helped to make the meal quite a family affair.
When the church bells began to ring, Herb's tendencies to devotion prompted him to ask Harry if he would like to go to church. He consented to go and to take Herb and Dert with him. Mrs. Heath said she would be very pleased it he would, as she would be very busy all the morning.
The children were dressed and Harry set out for the place of worship which they usually attended. During the service, Herb was most observant of all the divine ceremonials, imitating the actions of his elders with reverential mien, and no lack in religious fervour. But Dert looked stiff and uncomfortable. She fidgeted on her seat and dropped her book and sunshade alternately; and coughed, sniffed, and yawned several times.
When the churchwarden came round with the plate for contributions, Herb put his penny in with ostentatious clatter. Dert was about to follow suit when she found one of the painted windows so very interesting that she kept on looking steadily up at it until the plate was passed on in another direction.
Just then, her dog Nero appeared at the pew door, with such a look of agonised entreaty upon his floppy features, that Dert quietly let herself down to the floor and walked out of the church with him.
Harry and Herb hurried after her as soon as the benediction was pronounced, but for the moment she was not visible. Presently Harry felt a soft hand slide into his and, looking down, saw the lost one. They walked on together now, but Herb seemed uneasy, and watched Dert out of the corner of his eye. Dert's face was unusually red, and one little gloved hand was thrust deep down into that treasure of treasures—a miniature pocket.
At last Herb, still holding Harry's hand, walked out a step in advance, and once or twice came very near tripping his friend up in his unaccountable effort to study his sister's countenance.
At last, suddenly passing in front of his companion, he came to a dead stop. Harry stood wondering what was going to happen next. Herb's look plainly said "Bail up!" and Dert's as plainly showed that the game was up, and she was at bay. Neither spoke for some seconds, and Herb continued looking intently at Dert's little mouth.
Dert was uneasy, and put her tongue out to wet her lips. Presently the mesmerism began to work. Dert nervously elevated one shoulder to the light, while endeavouring to corkscrew the rest of her body to the left. But Herb had her fixed and partly mesmerised for, obeying an unaccountable impulse, she suddenly drew her hand from her pocket, displaying boldly to view, between the tip of her first finger and thumb, a large, luscious, brown and white chocolate cream.
The temptation was cruelly overwhelming, and the tempted one fell. Herb reached out quickly and adroitly, nipped the dainty from between his sister's fingers and, without taking his eyes from her guilty little face, bit the soft morsel in two, which, with a turn of his tongue, slid speedily down his throat.
"Keep it in your mouf," shouted Dert; "keep it in your mouf a long time."
Herby finished the remainder with a gulp.
"That's what I wanted to do," he said, with poor scorn, "but it wouldn't wait, would it?"
The three then fell into line and continued the walk.
Harry, thinking to fulfil the duty incumbent upon him as a temporary guardian, said severely:
"Dert, where did you get the sweets."
"Shop." said Dert, tersely, pointing a sticky finger in the direction. "Two a penny." she added, smacking her lips nervously.
"Is that where you were when you left the church?"
"You suppose so! Don't you think it is wrong to steal God's money and spend it that way? Eh!"
"Tain't Dord's money." said Dert, evasively.
"Yes, it is," said Harry, "your mama gave it to you to put in the plate."
"Oh." said Dert, trying to look master of the situation, "I tan pay him back when I get to Heben—tan't I?"
Harry smiled at Dert's way of wriggling out of a difficulty, and fell into a reverie.
"Now," thought he, by way of excusing such heinous conduct, "Dert evidently thought that the penny was better spent upon herself than upon a wealthy church and fat parson. As for Herb, he does not mind sharing the ill-gotten spoil so long as his penny was given to the church. It is Adam and Eve over again. Herb was right to give his penny, no doubt; but was Dert so very wrong? The line of demarcation between right and wrong seems so unstable. All my life I have been hating as wrong what I have since found to be right. The hardest judges of right and wrong are those who have never been tempted, and have, therefore, never fallen.
"To them, Dert would appear to have a very bad future before her, but I have half an idea that she is the more lovable for a little sin. It is not the little sins of the world that work so much mischief, but the lies that are told to hide them."
* * *
"Will you be home for tea." Mrs. Heath asked Miss Spear as Harry entered the dining-room for dinner.
"Don't you want us?" said that lady.
"My reason for asking was that I would like to take the children to Bondi this afternoon."
"To bury the cat." suggested Miss Spear.
"That was done last night," quietly answered her companion.
"I would like to serve all troublesome children the same, wouldn't you, Mr. Brentnell?" said Miss Spear, blandly, turning to that gentleman.
"You cannot be in earnest, madam," was his quiet reply.
Miss Spear: studied the new boarder for a few seconds, in silence.
* * *
"I shall not be home until late," said Harry, addressing Mrs. Heath, "and if you will pardon my saying so, I would advise you to carry out your intention of spending the afternoon with the children, upon the sands."
It was decided that the children should go to the beech and they were accordingly in high glee.
Harry was wishing them a pleasant day in the hall, preparatory to their leaving, when Dert, in obedience to a childish impulse, suddenly took his hands in hers and said, with characteristic impressiveness:
"Dest you tum wif us."
Harry, although taken by surprise, looked as though he would like to have gone, but was framing an excuse, when Mrs. Heath said quietly, in a constrained voice:
"Yes, come, Mr. Brentnell, if you have nothing particular to do. I owe you an explanation, and I shall have more courage to make it, out upon the beach."
Protesting that she should not, he yielded to the temptation, and the little party started.
On reaching their destination, the children ran on to the water and Mrs. Heath took a seat and, without preface, began her story:
"You must let me talk right on, please," she said, in a firm tone, "don't interrupt me. Believe me, it is all the bitter truth."
"Pardon me, Mrs. Heath; but you owe me no explanation, I assure you."
"Seven years ago," she said, ignoring his earnest assurance, "I married Fred Heath. By marrying him, I lost everything. My father strongly opposed my marriage and poor mother followed him in everything.
"The reason for my family's bitter opposition was that intemperance was the failing of Fred's family; one brother had died from the effects of drink, and there is another, as fine and as good a man as you would meet, now in the asylum for the insane from the same cause. How happy we could have been, but for this terrible family failing! The first sign Fred showed of yielding to the terrible fascination was some six months after we were married. Despite all that I could do to prevent it, the habit grew stronger, and you can imagine my state of mind, knowing that he was sometimes making up prescriptions while almost too intoxicated to know what he was doing.
"The suspense I endured! The fear that everyone who entered the shop might have come to report a fatal mistake! I sometimes made up prescriptions, the same dreadful fear haunting me all the time—that I would make a mistake and cause the death of someone. At last the true state of things leaked out, and there was a general break-up. My father sent to know whether I would consent to leave my husband for good.
"This I refused to do. We look a small house and Fred seemed to be trying to do better, and after a while gave up drinking altogether. Oh! how my heart yearned for him as I noted the dreadful ravages alcohol had made in him. Poor, poor Fred! He had not an enemy in the world but himself.
"I did not mention that Fred had been in the habit of taking drugs. The knowledge of this caused me intense anguish, and I had a presentiment that he would kill himself by an overdose if ever he fell again. In the meantime we were getting poorer every day. All we had now was our household furniture. At last, through a friend, an old doctor, who gave me every hour he could spire during that dreadful drinking spell, Fred got an appointment in the country. The salary was good and, for a time I received a regular remittance. It fell off, however, and I began to be a prey to the most agonising fear, when I received a letter from him telling me to come to him.
"I sold the furniture, packed my trunks and prepared for a journey up-country. In fact, I was at the gate, and with Herb, Dert, and the luggage, was waiting for a cab, when I saw a telegraph boy coming towards me. With a mighty effort of will I controlled myself to take the message from him. I knew just what it was. I was not mistaken—my unfortunate husband was dead; had died suddenly just before going to business in the morning.
"It was then a quarter to five. I considered whether I should go. The weather was intensely hot, and no doubt he was buried even then. There was the cottage next door, the one I am now in, to let. I sent Herby for the key, came in, and we slept upon our wraps and rugs that night. Next morning I went out, paid a deposit upon the furniture I have, and advertised for boarders. I happened to have a respectable stock of bed linen, curtains, etc. which proved of great assistance to me.
"Tell my friends," she said, bitterly, in answer to a suggestion from her companion. "Oh! You don't know them."
Harry was looking abstractedly at a tuft of buffalo grass.
"The letter you gave me was an account of the inquest and particulars of the burial number of the grave, and an intimation that the box had been forwarded. The box came in just before you did and I had not time lo look at it until a few moments before you found me last night. When I opened it the shock was dreadful. They were cruel to send me his clothes all stained with blood, just thrown in as they were cut off in the post mortem."
"Don't," said Harry, unconsciously putting a hand upon her quivering shoulder. "My dear girl, I pity you—I pity you from the bottom of my heart!"
Just then a malicious laugh was heard and, looking up, they saw Miss Spear and her shadow, Mr. Marrow, standing before them.
"You can expect no better from Colonials, considering what they sprung from." remarked Miss Spear.
With this remark she lowered her sunshade between them and, picking up her skirts, walked majestically on. Both sat dumb for a space. Then Harry gently said:
"Are you a native of Australia, Mrs. Heath?"
"Yes, Mr. Brentnell." she said, promptly. "Are you?"
"Well—yes," he said diffidently, "I am."
She looked quickly at him and a faint glow coloured her otherwise pale cheek.
He raised his eyes and for an instant stars met stars in a warm flash.
"I don't know how it is but I feel so very human when I hear a slur thrown at Australians. All the fighting blood rises in me when anything disparaging to my native land is said."
"Can it be that we are patriots?" asked her companion earnestly.
Mrs. Heath bit her rosy lips and nodded pleasantly, with a little happy air of conviction. Again their eyes met and Harry instinctively checked an impulse to lake her hand, but from that time a subtle and indefinable bond of unity held them.
"I was going to ask you why you allow Miss Spear to remain in your house," remarked Harry.
"Is that question necessary?" said Mrs. Heath.
A pause, and then so gently—oh, so tenderly! he said, while his voice sank to a husky whisper, with emotion:
"Can I do anything to help you?"
"Thank you, no." replied his companion with a flushed face.
"But your health. Will it last?"
"It will be time enough to meet the trouble when it comes," was the cheerful reply.
She paused and gazed thoughtfully out over the water. While she was speaking, Harry was struck with the beautiful colour which had come to her cheeks and the thought had come to him that he could love this brave woman, but when she looked away to sea he seemed to fathom the depths and longings of the soul in her, and then shot through him that strange thing that comes from the spirit and he wondered if he did love her even now.
"Just look at Nero!" she observed, with a faint smile.
The fact that Herb wanted the breakers to tumble over him was apparent, and as he ran to meet them Nero would follow at his heels and, just when the lovely cool green wave commenced to climb over his slight form, Nero would seize hold of him and drag him to high water mark. This indignity Herb resented by trying to kick him. Not an easy accomplishment, however.
Dert, in the meantime, with an arm round the leg of a tall, thin gentleman, was walking round and round, while the owner of the limb, a minister apparently, was engaged in an earnest discussion with another upon some subject which he had evidently much at heart, for he unconsciously raised one of his feet a little every time Dert's little red sunshade passed between them. This comedy was amusing a number of people until Herb, evidently despairing of getting a bath, disappeared with dot, round a bank.
Harry had had his dreams. As he sat looking into the face beside him, he thought of the laughing girl of his vision who was to have been his wife.
"How perversely," thought he, "the heart smashes up the idols the years have built."
The imaginary girl had been vague physically, but in certain respects she stood out boldly. First of all she was a sweet girl, shy, ready to blush when looked at Then came her love for him, her first love, her mind fresh as the early flower, to bloom under his care. Perhaps she was too visionary.
He had not let her go without a struggle—the men who cling to her usually don't marry. When Harry found his love growing in an unexpected quarter he was a little alarmed, but it suddenly began to appear to him that love's instinct may know best. The imaginary girl might come and prove disappointing. Being so perfect herself, she might expect too much of him and, after the first glow of affection cooled, have become indifferent.
A man always runs a risk in marrying a girl—but not so much with a woman.
Harry and his new acquaintance sat quietly beneath the shade of a native honeysuckle. Mrs. Heath remained still, gazing over the water with a brooding light in her eyes that he could not understand. His thoughts were of the past; and as he thought, he dug his stick into the ground rather viciously.
"Are we born to suffer!" he wondered.
There sat the woman he loved. He knew it now. She had come years too late, and his dreams were at an end. He had wanted first love—but she had loved; he had wanted freshness and happiness, and in their place was a sorrowing woman. For she was sorrowing, and his heart swelled towards her. Something told him that the love born of sorrow is the happier and more lasting.
Then the regret for those dead dreams died, and the manly, protecting instinct rose within him, making him long to have her in his arms to shield and protect her. He felt that she was no ordinary woman—that she was a woman who could love most fondly and unselfishly; and in her was the meekness of a good woman who could bear much uncomplainingly-as witness her courtesy to Miss Spear, who used the social advantage of their relative positions to insult tier.
He had no doubt that she, who now had his love, would fail to see his small imperfections and would fully appreciate the extent of his passion for her—besides, there would always be the mistake in the past to compare with the lover of to-day.
All these thoughts, however, were eclipsed by the bigger feeling in his heart—the longing to gather the sweet, patient woman to his breast and treasure her. How he pitied her for all the terrible trouble she had passed through. How sweet and patient and gentle it had left her.
He was pushing his stick into a grass tuft when he became aware of the presence of two dirty bare feet, in close proximity to his own. Following them up he found they were the personal properly of a boy of, perhaps, ten years of age, but who might have been thirteen. The face of the owner of the feet was certainly not one to dream about. It had the novelty of being egg-shaped, with the narrow end uppermost; in it were set two light-blue eyes, the size of shirt buttons—they were set high in his forehead, and were arched by a pair of thin eyebrows, which had a trick of rising right up to the roots of Ins short, stubby hair when he spoke. The nose was small and bridgeless. His mouth resembled that of a rabbit, with two large yellow teeth in front.
The boy gasped as if about to speak but, on account of an impediment, seemed unable to do so. Eventually, with a mighty effort, he blurted out:
"Mister, a bloke has got your eldest son down there a-making of—a show out of him."
"Down where?" exclaimed Harry, rising to his feet, and completely ignoring the imputed parentage.
"Why—why—why, down there just where th-the corner turns round!"
"Goodness knows where that is," said Harry, perplexedly looking in the direction indicated.
"I'll show yer," gasped the hoy.
Mrs. Heath protested that he should not trouble, and said she would go herself.
"Sit still until I come back." said her friend, as he started off.
Reaching the turn, they came in sight of an old tent erected upon a portion of an abandoned aquarium, now made public by the total collapse of a high galvanised iron fence. Outside this tent stood a blackboard, placed so as to catch the eye of the passers-by, and a man with a piece of chalk, was just giving the finishing touches to a startling notice. As they reached him he sprang up and, in a voice hoarse with shouting, blazed out the following declamation:
"Oh, I say! Ladies and gentlemen—Roll up! Roll up! and see the notorious man-eater! And the boy, Herb, with his dog, Nero! Roll up! Roll up! I say! Only threepence."
Harry paid the sum demanded and, ducking his head, entered the door of the tent. Across the top of a large basin formed of cement were placed some boards, and upon these lay the carcase of a dead shark, some twelve feet long. A strip of deal kept its mouth open while, upon the summit of the nostrils, lay a small heart, the size of a sheep's kidney. The tail of the monster was kept spread by a string attached to a point of the fin and carried up to the ridge pole of the dirty tent. Along each side of the monster was placed its liver, in two 3-feet sections.
Close beside the tank stood a duplicate of the man outside. Both, it was easily seen, were low-class fishermen. They were evidently partners in the venture—the one outside haranguing the crowd and taking the thruppences, while the other acted as showman to the exhibit.
To the right, in striking contrast with his surroundings, stood Herb, raised to the desired height upon a box, and to him the showman was pointing proudly—as if for authentication of his blood-curdling story, which ran thus:
"Now, ladies and gentlemen, you see before you one of the greatest wonders of the day, the notorious shark, Big Ben, and his intended victim! How was he caught?" he said to an imaginary interlocutor, "Well, I'll tell you. You see.—" (drawing a deep breath and pointing to the fish) "they prefer to kill their own meat and won't take no bait as is laid for them. But in this case, this young gentleman—" (pointing to Herb in all the glory of a red twill scarf around his waist, with a gigantic bow at the right hip) "—this yer young gentleman with his two dogs, this one and another—" (pointing to Nero, who stood whining with impatience beside his master) "—another with interlacts like himself went in for a swim.
"All of a sudden Big Hen spotted 'em and goes for 'em, when the other dog comes up between them. The shark snaps him clean in two, and makes off with the half of him in his mouth. This dog catches the boy and carries him ashore. We was handy, and we whips the other half of the dog on to the hook, chucks it out and waits. Bye-and-bye up comes Big Ben, and s'help me if he doesn't lake his own bait beautifully. Phew! didn't we travel up the Parramatta River! Phew! Didn't we go! Our troubles where we went—up the river or down to Nobby's, seein' as we didn't have to pull. But his 'art failed him, yer see. If his 'art was his liver, and his liver was his 'art, he would have held out longer. But it failed 'im, it was too small, and he cum up to the surface and turned over and drowned. We towed 'im back, and 'ere yer har! and 'ere's the 'riginal dog Nero, who can do 'most anything 'cept chew tacks and eat soap. Now, then, Nero! To the rescue!!"
And, at a sign to Herb, the latter took a flying leap from the box to the tank, where he was cleverly seized by Nero and landed upon the grass amidst loud applause from the spectators.
All this time dot sat contentedly upon an old woman's knee, with a large sugar-coated sponge cake in one hand and a bottle of cheap ginger beer in the other, from which she took alternate bites and sips.
It is needless to say that Harry's arrival, to use the proprietor's words, "bust up the show." He offered the gentleman first a fourth of the takings; then a third and, seeing him obdurate, plunged wildly and flung the magnanimous offer of half the gross proceeds, but this sporting offer was also rejected by Harry, who insisted upon taking the children, much to the man's chagrin.
Herb seemed miserably disappointed too, for it had been the dream of his young life to be an actor, and now his hopes were dashed to the ground—just when his ambition seemed about to be gratified. True, he had once been the proud possessor of an "Aunt Sally," but it was only a semi-private affair in a Tower-st. yard, and only patronised by the children of the adjoining houses; and strictly on invitation at that, no money changing hands. He had also entertained wild ideas of a circus, but the gigantic scheme was never realised.
To-day he found himself magnificent in red twill trimmings—the centre of attraction, the observed of all observers, the leading light, in fact, of a public entertainment. Surely it was disheartening, and his disgust was intensified by the flippant remarks to the boy, in sotto voce, intimations to the effect that he would "cop out," to all of which Herb disdained a reply. A dead silence ensued. Dert, as usual, rose to the occasion, and remarked:
"Tan't he tell trams?" meaning the showman.
"You should not say 'crams,'" said Harry, "who ever taught you to say such things?"
"You ast too many queskias," retorted Dert.
Unheeding the snub, Harry continued: "However could you sit upon that drunken old woman's knee, Dert?"
"Why—couldn't you smell her breath?"
"Only had a tupple od nobblers in her." replied the child, with careless conviction.
"How did you know that?" said Harry, in amazement.
"Betause—betause—she—told me," said the child emphatically.
Harry's face assumed a mixed expression, as the three made their way towards the seat upon which the children's mother still sat. They were followed by Nero and the strange boy, the latter keeping with the little party upon the off-chance of seeing Herb 'cop out,' as he called it; but, after throwing himself on the grass, and fixing his chin in his hand, in an attitude of expectancy, he was naturally disappointed to find that Harry forbore to disclose particulars of what had actually taken place.
Mrs. Heath was too concerned with Dert's soiled and crumpled condition to notice the omission, but with the dexterity of an expert, proceeded to re-adjust her daughter's clothing. To this end she released a small forefinger and a much-chewed muslin bonnet string from the inside of Dert's left cheek and, taking her bonnet off, re-tied the bow of rose ribbon in her soft baby hair and straightened her crumpled pinafore.
Just then Dert suddenly exclaimed:
"Hebenly Dord, loot at me boots!"
Mrs. Heath, now quite shocked, shook her.
"Wh-e-e." exclaimed Dert, in surprise.
Then Harry suddenly took her up in his arms and, pressing her pretty head against his cheek, said consolingly:
"Poor little girl! What a shame to blame her for what she does not understand."
"That's what the girl said to her bloke down on the rocks," volunteered the strange boy, unexpectedly.
Harry looked critically at the lad for the first time.
"What is your name." he said.
"Name's 'Bob,' but they calls me 'Features.'"
"How did you knock the skin off your nose?"
"Where did you fight?"
"Who did you fight at Churchill?"
"What made you fight?"
"Sed he could do me."
"And could he?" said Harry, with masculine curiosity.
A satisfied blink was the only reply.
"How would it be if you were to stay at home at night and read a good book, instead of running about the streets fighting? Eh?" suggested Harry.
"That takes doin'," said the boy, in a tone which showed that the subject was not worth considering.
Mrs. Heath ordered tea from a refreshment room near, and when the tray came she daintily presided over it.
Harry watched her and sighed. His naturally cheerful spirits seemed to be under a weight of gloom, but he was conscious of a condition underlying all, which compensated for the depression. No, he was not unhappy—far from it; he felt that near at hand, very near, was a power capable of dispelling all troubles that would ever come to him.
After tea Mrs. Heath said:
"Well, children, shall we go home."
"Home," thought Harry, "what a home. If Mrs. Mylot was alive I should know better what to do."
"What about Miss Spear? he asked dubiously.
"It is easier to hear her accusations than to explain." she replied.
"There's trouble everywhere," thought Harry, "everywhere!"
"Muddy, I'se so tired," exclaimed Dert, suddenly throwing her arms upon her mother's lap.
"Come here," said Harry, "you look so feverish. Come here and I'll nurse you."
"No, no!" cried Dert, decisively. "I want my own Muddy."
He tried to hold her, but she said:
"Let me go, or I'll say somefing woode to der."
Harry smilingly relinquished her.
They took the first 'bus for home, and Mrs. Heath sat in silence with Dert upon her lap asleep. Herb knelt upon a seat with his head thrust out of the window, shouting and waving his hat in boyish glee to passers-by. At last he grew tired and, as it was now twilight, he said, from sheer force of habit:
"Mummy, sing a song."
"You sing one, dear," said his mother.
He drew a long breath and started, putting emphasis upon the first word of each line:
"So I once knew a nigger,
So his name was Uncle Ned—"
Suddenly stopping, he said, in an indignant tone: "What is that fellow laughing for?"
"Who is laughing?" said Harry.
"Why, that—that boy with the whiskers growing out of his face," pointing at the same time to a very young gentleman who was giving his best girl an outing.
Some one giggled.
Dert was still fretful, and would not walk when the party alighted from the 'bus, a block from home, so Harry carried her. She seemed ill. He took her upstairs and left her with her mother, upon the landing. Tea was a solitary meal that evening. Miss Spear and her shadow had not returned, and Mrs. Heath was preoccupied.
Next morning, when handing Harry his luncheon, Mrs. Heath gave him two telegraphic messages to send, asking him at the same time to expedite their delivery, as they were urgent. This he promised to do, and hurried away.
On returning in the evening he was somewhat surprised to see a stranger arranging the table. Shortly after, a medical man descended the stairs and was driven away.
Harry asked the new lady help whether anyone was ill. She replied that both children were very ill—a piece of information which filled him with anxiety.
That day and the next passed, and the house maintained its monotonous quiet.
The few glimpses he had of Mrs. Heath showed that sorrow and unrest were telling dreadfully upon her. To his repeated offers of help she invariably returned the same answer:
"I will watch them myself."
Upon one occasion she added, as if in pity for her friend's anxiety:
"You know, I am a certified nurse. I have had three year's experience in the largest hospitals in the country; I have no hope, but I will not leave them."
Then, warmly thanking him fur his many thoughtful gifts to the children, she turned back to her charge.
The thought of poor Dert and her brother in danger was simply torture to this large-hearted, loving man.
"There's trouble everywhere," he groaned, "and men are so completely helpless in cases of this kind. Would to God I could do something!"
He haunted the hall; he waylaid the Doctor; and made ceaseless inquiries of the lady help, who admired him in secret for his kindliness of heart and sympathy.
"Mr. Brentnell," she said with conviction, "I am sure now that the dear little fellow will die. I am as sure of it as that I stand here."
"Tell me why you think so." said her companion.
"Well, it is this. You know the morning is their best lime, and this morning while Mrs. Heath was lying down with the little girl I was watching Herb, and the dear little fellow said suddenly to me: 'Nurse, I want to tell you something.' He thinks I am a nurse. I said, 'Yes, dear; but you must not talk too much.' He said. 'You know, Nurse, I lay awake a great deal when Mama thinks I am sleeping; well, last night I saw her coming and I closed my eyes. She shaded the lamp and went away again to Dert. Well, soon after, I opened my eyes again and there was a tall lady in white standing close beside my cot. At first I thought it was Dert standing upon a chair, dressed in Mama's long white wrapper, but it was not her; the lady who bent over me had long fair hair and blue eyes. I lay a long time with my eyes closed and then I looked again and she smiled and nodded her head a little; her hands were put together and she was saying her prayers. I looked again afterwards and she—she was gone.' I was sorry that I said it was a dream, for he seemed so hurt. 'I thought you would say that Nurse,' he said, indignantly, 'that is why I did not tell Mama. But I know—I know—Good-bye, Nurse. Do not tell anyone because they will laugh at me.' I promised him that no one should laugh at his story, and he seemed more contented."
Just as Harry was preparing to go to his office upon the third morning, Mrs. Heath's door quietly opened and, pale and wasted, she stood before him.
"Would you like to look at Herb?" she said. "He will be buried before you return."
"Poor little fellow!" said Harry, brokenly. "Did he suffer much, Mrs. Heath."
"Yes, he suffered dreadfully, but he seemed so sensible and old-fashioned. He kept worrying about me from first to last, but just at the end he seemed more cheerful and said with a smile: 'Mummy, God will send someone to take care of you. I am sure He will, because I asked Him.' A change came over him shortly afterwards and he whispered, 'Teach me "Our Father", Mummy.' I commenced the Lord's Prayer, and he repeated it with me in a voice so low that I had great difficulty in hearing him at all. When we came to 'On earth as it is in Heaven', his voice stopped, and the death-rattle came."
Speechless with sorrow, Harry walked up to the bed whereon all that remained of his little friend lay.
"Dead! Dead!" he said, in a voice shaken by emotion. Turning to friend, with a world of pity in his voice, he said, "I am lost for words. What can I say to you, Mrs. Heath?"
"Nothing—nothing at all." she replied, with forced calmness. "It is God's will; he is better off."
"I don't know where you get your great strength from." said Harry. "It is enough to kill you, after all you have suffered."
"That is just it." she answered. "I have suffered so much sorrow that I seem to have lost the power of feeling. Kind nature steps in sometimes and helps us by some restful apathy; but in any case, I cannot afford to be demonstrative, and I must bear up for my dear little girl's sake. She said she would like to see you so much. She is in the next room at present."
"How are you, girlie?" said Harry, approaching the bed whereon Dert lay. She received him with a quaint, shy, smile. "Where do you feel the pain, little one?" he asked, taking her small, hot hand in his.
"In me—in—me—waist," she stammered, hesitatingly, wriggling her shoulders in the old way. Then feeling, in her infantile modesty, that she had said something not quite right, she suddenly hid her face in the pillow, and cried, pettishly, "Do away! Do away!"
Harry again asked anxiously if there was anything he could do; and upon being assured there was not, he reluctantly took his leave.
Upon his return in the evening, he did not wait for an invitation, but went at once to Dert's room and approached her cot. The change in his little friend gave him a painful shock. The sight of her heavy eyes, pinched face, and parched lips, made his heart sink.
"How is she?" he whispered hurriedly.
Mrs. Heath shook her head, but made no reply.
Dert seemed weak and dreamy, and Harry stooped low to catch her faint, jerky words.
"Who is doodest?" she said huskily.
"What is it, dear."
"Who is doodest? Santa Claus or Dord?"
"Whom do you think, dearie?" Said Hurry, tenderly.
"Why, Santa Claus, Mr. Bentimell! because—he sent you to loot after Muddy."
A dead silence ensued, during which Harry cast a quick, searching glance at Mrs. Heath's face, but it told him nothing. She did not raise her eyes, and his heart's question remained unanswered. Suddenly both sprang to their feet; a sudden convulsion had seized the child. Mrs. Heath applied the remedies with remarkable self control.
"Oh! this is terrible!" groaned Harry.
Then, with a voice shaken by emotion, he said:
"Have you had the very best advice available?"
"Rest content upon that point," the stricken mother said. "My old friend, the Doctor, of whom I spoke, has been unremitting in his care; he is most skilled in the treatment of children. I lost not a moment in sending for him when I saw the first symptoms of this terrible disease. I have not taken my clothes off since they took ill."
"I did not mean that," he said, "but can we do nothing to save her? Oh, Lord? this is dreadful!" and he covered his eyes.
"She is better now," said Mrs. Heath, in a strange tone, which puzzled her companion.
"Better!" he said eagerly.
"Yes, better! She is dead."
Harry's hands fell at his sides in despair, but his breast heaved, and great sobs choked his utterance.
"Ha! ha! ha! You and me,
Little brown jug—don't I love thee."
sang two voices in chorus below.
Harry sprang to the door.
"I will kill that woman!" he said desperately.
"Don't mind," said Mrs. Heath, laying a detaining hand upon his arm. "It cannot hurt HER," pointing to the well-loved little form upon the bed. "Go and rest now, and I will manage everything. Mrs. Hope will see that all is right downstairs."
Harry went down to dinner later on, but could not force himself to take a morsel of food.
He felt that he must be alone; he was unstrung, and trifling things, unnoticed before, irritated him. He would shut himself up in his room, where he could indulge his grief unobserved.
To this end, he turned towards the stairs. His first impulse was to return to the stricken mother, alone in her grief; but his acquaintance with her was so very slight that he did not know whether he would be doing right. The sight of a letter directed to his friend decided him. He had now an excuse to speak to her again. So, tapping gently at the door, and receiving permission to 'come in', he entered. She was standing almost as he had left her.
"Oh, if I could only cry." she said, pathetically, in answer to a look of mute inquiry in her friend's eyes. "If—only—just one tear."
"I wish you could," he said sympathetically, "I know what that dreadful feeling is. I felt it when my father died."
He handed her the letter.
"How kind of them to write so soon." she said. "It brings help for me. I'm sure—" a gleam of hope lighting up her pale features.
As she read, however, her face changed, hardened, and then flushed—a strange light gleamed in her eyes. What could that letter contain to so change a gentle, patient, suffering woman, into the indignant creature she seemed, as, with one hand resting upon the low post of her dead child's cot, and the other raised high above, she laughed a low laugh of derision. Harry remained speechless, as he watched her. What could this last piece of fiendishness mean. This dire act which had broken her power of endurance.
"Tell me—do tell me." he entreated.
"Tell you!" she repeated, in a harder tone than he had yet heard her use. "Yes,—I—will—tell you! There is no place on earth for an honourable woman—none. If she be in trouble, she has no right to firmness, patience, endurance and, least of all, to pride. The pride which should have been my crown has been my curse; for my children's sake I put it aside, humbled myself to my people, and sought help from the only source from which a woman of pride could accept it. And then," handing him the letter across Dert's lifeless body, "I received this answer."
Harry's face flushed and his lips closed tightly over his teeth as he perused the thoughtless and cruel contents of the letter given him to read, but apart from this he made no sign. It seemed almost sacrilege to him to know that his heart was again thrilling with that warm and sustaining love which prompted him again to throw protecting arms around this persecuted and lonely woman, but again he was master of himself and refrained. The lefter ran thus:
So you are coming to your senses, are you. I thought you would. As I have the misfortune to be your father, I suppose I must help you, but before I do so, you will please carry out the subjoined instructions. Firstly, put that drunken imbecile's offspring into an asylum—they are bound to inherit his vices; I won't support them. Sell what rubbish you possess, and apply to the Q.S.S Co., where you will find a first class passage paid for you to Brisbane. One of the station hands will meet you there. You need not affect mourning for him, as you have not seen him for over a year; and above all, never mention here that you have children—let them be as dead to you as he is.
"They're safe! They're safe! My darlings are safe!" the bereaved mother moaned. "I can now defy them to separate us, or torture them as they have tortured me! Oh! you wondered at my calmness. My people are rich, poor Fred's are well off; but not one of them, Christian though they profess to be, will touch my burden with the tips of their fingers. I say again, there is no place in this dreadful world for me!"
Then, lifting her hands and eyes heavenward, she offered up a prayer, that was half a command to the Deity, to lake her—to be merciful and take her, too, where her darlings had gone.
She was fast losing all the splendid control which had hitherto characterised her, when a glass was put to her lips, and the resolute voice of the old Doctor said:
"Drink this. And go and lie down."
Mrs. Heath obeyed; and the Doctor, addressing Harry, said:
"Sit down, please; I want to have a few moment's conversation with you. I intend to take my patient up to my home upon the mountains. She is on the verge of a very serious illness, and I must get her away as soon as she has had a little rest. As I intend her to stay there for at least six months, I want you and Mrs. Hope to dispose of the furniture here, and pay up any accounts that may be owing. In the meantime she will be under the direct care of my son's wife, who, I feel assured will he untiring in her efforts to restore our friend to her usual health."
"It will give me the greatest satisfaction to carry out your wishes," answered his companion.
"Thank you." said the Doctor, rising and shaking Harry's hand. "You have taken a load off my mind, and I am rather hard pressed just now. I have great confidence in you," he said, with a smile, "you are no stranger to me."
"Indeed!" said Harry.
"Mrs. Mylot was a patient of mine for years, and she often talked of you." said the Doctor, over his shoulder, as he ran down the stairs.
Early next morning the doctor arrived.
"You are early, sir," remarked Harry.
"Early or late, I hardly know which, for I have not been to bed since I saw you. But here are the men to put poor little Dert into her coffin. Her mother still sleeps, and perhaps it is best, after her long days of watching. At any rate, it is an ordeal saved her. Just stay one moment," he said, and ran down the stairs.
The following dialogue was then distinctly audible:—
"No, we will not; we don't choose to, that's why."
"But, my dear madam, you gave Mrs. Heath notice a week ago, and I regret to say it was accompanied by insinuations which one lady should never make towards another."
"Don't I pray you, compare me with her! Although she has had, what you please to call, an affliction, she has consoled herself in her own way. Where is her husband—that is, if she ever really had one—that he does not interfere to stop these disgraceful proceedings? At all events, I don't mean to go until it suits me, and you cannot compel me. Are you her husband?"
All of this Harry heard while the men were lifting poor little Dert's stiffened body into its coffin, and his blood boiled as he listened.
"It is a sin to bury such a fine child as this," said the undertaker to his man.
"Yes," answered his companion. "She did not fall away much. This complaint don't leave 'em much time to get thin."
"Must she be buried so soon." said Harry, sadly.
"Lor', bless yer, yes," said the man. "Can't keep a day, such weather as this. Ain't known such a Christmas for years, and most of 'em are pretty hot. You see," pointing to the still form with a screw-driver, "She had no chance, she was too fat."
"Let me take her down," said Harry, "I was the last to carry her up."
And taking his burden, which he elevated to avoid contact with the balustrade, he carried it tenderly down the stairs and placed it in the white-plumed hearse; and, with bare head and reverential mien, watched it turn the corner on the way to Waverley.
On ascending the stairs, Harry was surprised to find Mrs. Heath sitting in the chair he had so recently left. A world of pity swelled his heart for this lone, trouble-haunted woman and, seating himself beside her, he gave vent to his grief in tears—such tears as never yet disgraced manhood.
"Don't, don't!" moaned Mrs. Heath. "You distress me; you unnerve me and make me worse, indeed you do. The dear ones are better off. I would sooner see them dead than grow up to endure what I have done!"
"Yes," said Harry, "but everyone has not had your life. There are plenty of men who would have been proud to have made you happy. There would not be a happier man in existence than I, if I only had a wife and children to love and support."
Then, gently taking her hand, Harry pleaded with an eloquence and an earnestness hitherto a stranger to him.
"This house," he said, "and these wretched boarders, will kill you. You are not strong enough to take an appointment and, alas! too proud to accept pecuniary assistance. Accept me as your husband, and none of these things will be necessary. Say 'yes,' oh do say 'yes,'" he pleaded, pressing her cold hand to his lips.
* * *
The sun, that has shone hotly throughout another Christmas Day, now sinks, leaving the reeking earth to cool beneath the grateful breeze of twilight.
Harry is sitting beneath the thick boughs of a kurrajong tree, growing near his homestead door. He is no longer postmaster of a suburban office near the great city, but his thoughts revert, as often they do at eventide, to the many bitter-sweet recollections of the latter part of his stay in the metropolis. He is looking towards the glorious Australian sunset, and he drifts into peaceful reverie—And, beside him, sits his constant attendant and faithful friend, Nero.
Presently, from behind an inky cloud-bank, a bright spear of golden sunlight reaches out towards him, and he blinks and smiles as he thinks of the pretty child who thought that she could walk upon it into Heaven, where "Dord 'would pull her froo'."
"It is a strange mystery, this coming and going," he thought, "but the wisdom of a little child might, after all, be the wisdom of God. And, perhaps, even now, Dert, with higher power to see the workings of the heart, is doing what she said the angels did—whispering pleasant things into the ears of those still bound to earth."
As he ponders, a peace which passeth all understanding descends upon him. Deeper and closer falls the pleasant spell; and Nero, whose nose rests upon his knees, whines faintly and moves his feet uneasily, as he reads his master's face. Can it be that the dog also knows that a sweet presence holds his master spell-bound—a presence that mounts the seat beside him, while little white arms reach round the big man's neck, and a soft invisible cheek presses nearer and nearer until the two are one, and the sitter absorbs the soul and reads the mind of an angel as he does his own and, with the deep solemnity attendant upon all great occasions, mentally communes with, and answers, the saintly presence.
"Yes, yes, Dert dear; for all time!" he murmurs.
Then a sigh escapes him as he realises that he is dispossessed and the spirit gone.
Still then he sits with wide eyes wet with virtuous tears—the after-glow of the control remaining, sweet as the croon of a joybell's chime—clings the echo of a soul's memory.
Presently he looks towards the porch, where stands his wife, clasping with one hand the strong wisteria stem above her head, and holding the other behind her—a favourite attitude when in thought. She, too, is looking sadly towards the west—but she is thinking of Herb.
Harry beckons her as he would Dert, and she moves towards him. He extends both hands, and pulls her down upon the seat beside him, and presses her cheek gently against his shoulder.
"Little Wifie," he says, and his voice grew tremulous with emotion, "sometimes a dreadful fear takes possession of me!"
"What ever do you mean?" said she, quickly sitting up.
"A fear that you might die."
"Ah, no!" she said, nestling down again. "You would not let me go when I wanted to, and now I won't."
"When was that, child."
"When the children went." she said.
"Ah, yes! But it you were to die now, I should he all alone."
"I am not going to die," she answered sweetly; "and even if I did, you would not he all alone."
"Why; how do you make that out, wifie?"
But she only smiled.
And the big yellow moon rose behind and threw a golden disc upon the shadowed walk—and over this the carrier of fancy passed the slides of Harry's life, one after another, in quick succession—Past, Present, and Future—and the last was good: Wife and Babies, Love and Home.
And here we leave him, nor grudge him one iota of the happiness he so well deserves.
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