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  ― 199 ―

Nurse Olive.

From the period of the decay of its pristine glory the small, moribund mining town of Dee Gully for many years experienced nothing capable of stirring its sluggish pulse until one memorable day, when payable gold was again found within its precincts. This moving event suddenly vitalised the older inhabitant's dormant memories of the ancient times that had brought the place into being—which times, indeed, soon seemed to be living themselves over again in the hourly spectacle of newcomers, and the strange, harrying movement of the lately sleepy streets.

Among the first of the fresh arrivals had been Mrs. Ann Ironside and her son David, the latter a miner, and support of his widowed mother. The pair occupied a cottage just beyond the town, and at the point when this story commences were seated one evening in early winter in its plainly-furnished but strikingly clean and orderly little sitting-room; in truth, modest as the place was, it smiled and glittered from end to end with the almost aggressive look of its spotless cleanliness.

Mrs. Ironside, seen as she sat knitting at the table by the light of a lamp, was a small, thin, wizened woman, with white hair and furrowed skin—a certain antiquity in her appearance not lessened by her horn-rimmed spectacles, and the faded, much out-of-date but carefully preserved black satin dress which it was her custom to display when the work of the day was over.

David, her son, afforded a notable physical contrast. His working clothes discarded, he sprawled a full 6 feet of lithe, muscular manhood before a log fire, which burned red and gold in a dazzling white hearth, and his strong face bore the freshness of comparative youth. He did not, however, seem at his ease—he turned too many thoughtful looks at his mother, accompanied by restless shifting of his long limbs. In this his mood did not concur with the fixed attitude and calm placidity of Mrs. Ironside, who, keeping her work to the lamp, tended it with steady intentness, her mouth partly open, her eyes rarely lifted.

“Why don't you go into the kitchen and have your smoke?” she said quietly. “You usually want to after your tea.”

“I will presently, mother,” answered David a little hastily, as one glad at the ending of a silence. Then he said directly, “Er—what do you think of Olive's new move? Did anyone tell you?”

His mother raised her head, and stared at him with astonishment. “New move!—new move!” she testily repeated. “No; what has she done? Given you up, and taken another sweetheart—or what?”




  ― 200 ―

“No—oh, no,” answered David, smiling. “Nothing so serious as that. She's gone over to Meston's Hall, that's all.”

Mrs. Ironside hastily pushed her spectacles above her eyes. “Good gracious, Dave,” she said querulously. “I wish you'd be a little more explicit. What do you mean by ‘gone over to Meston's Hall?’ ”

“Just to sing, mother,” said Dave, more at his ease now that his subject was launched—“to sing every night. It was her mother's idea. Olive was willing, and Meston (who is a shrewd fellow) was satisfied. It will be a good thing for them, you know, now that the father is dead, because Meston will pay well, and Mrs. Wills is quite unprovided for.”

Mrs. Ironside had looked at her son with a rigidity of figure that stirred no more than the coal-black eyes under her knitted brows or the small, close mouth drawn down at the corners. Presently she sighed deeply, as one who has slowly comprehended a new and unexpected aspect of a once familiar matter.

“Then, if that's so,” she said with deliberate emphasis, an angry flush rising to her cheeks, “you can consider your engagement with Olive Wills at an end! For she shall be no daughter of mine.”

Dave laughed with dubious jocularity. “Oh, that's nonsense, mother,” he said, with good-humoured persuasiveness. “It won't make any difference to Olive—not the slightest. You know what a good girl she is. She'll be awfully popular too. She'll sing songs that will keep the men good and do them good; she'll touch their hearts. And why shouldn't she turn her voice to good account—you can't say it isn't honest?”

“It may be honest,” fired up his mother, “but it will be the girl's ruin. Aye! You may look as black at me as you please, if you dare to, but I say it will be her ruin! Won't she be mixing with them theatrical folk Meston has? Will ye deny me that?”

David laughed aloud. “Why, of course she will, mother. But what of it. They're decent people. And, believe me, Olive can take care of herself. She has a way, too, of bringing people she associates with to respect her, no matter who thy are.”

“Nonsense!” exclaimed his mother sharply, “a girl can't do it. What next will you be telling me! I say that any young woman with good looks will meet her ruin at a place like Meston's—a low singing-hall tacked on to a public-house! Are you a fool that you can't see it?”

David shook his head and smiled assuredly as he crossed his legs and looked into the fire. “No, mother,” he said firmly. “You're wrong—wrong as far as Olive is concerned, at any rate. And I shall marry her when the time comes, depend upon it—although I won't hurry matters, for Olive wants to save a little money for her mother.”

Mrs. Ironside now dropped her work on the table and rose impatiently. “And will you sit there,” she said vehemently, her eyes flashing, “and defy me—your mother? Will you be a disobedient son and bring a curse on you? Is all my teaching—aye! and your dead father's—to go for nought? Will you bring shame and disgrace on our ancient ways—the beliefs in which I have lived, and—please God—will die?”




  ― 201 ―

“Look here, mother,” coaxingly expostulated Dave, eyeing her kindly, “this is a matter of which I am a better judge than you. You are prejudiced and——”

“Do you dare to say so?” she cried, bridling before him. “Prejudiced! Will you tell me I have lived so long in the world to know at last less than my own son? Who can see where your happiness lies better than I? Is it nothing that I have tended you all these years, and raised you to the man you are? Do——”

“That's all right, mother,” interrupted Dave a little irritably. “I'm not arguing——”

“But you are!” exclaimed his mother, her form trembling and face flaming with wrath. “You are defying me—your mother! Is it because I am old, and dependent on you? Then I will go out and work—aye, I will! I do not fear work, for there is still strength——”

Dave could stay no longer. A frown and troubled look on his face, he rose hastily from his chair, took his pipe from the mantelpiece, and unceremoniously left the room.

About a month later Dave, according to his nightly went, was hanging about outside Meston's hall waiting for Olive Wills. The place looked invitingly warm and bright, the light from its low windows falling in regular splashes on the dark ground outside, while intermittent peals of applause brought envious looks to the faces of a few penniless nomads who, congregated together, formed a small but unselect exterior audience of their own.

Dave had not long to wait, and Olive and her escort were soon walking leisurely in the direction of her home. The night was cold and calm, and the moon was bathing in soft silver a rigid sea of yellow gravel heaps, flecked by the darker touches of huts, sheds, and poppet-legs—for Dee Gully had not belied its new promise, and was once more largely on good gold.

“Dave,” said Olive, giving his arm a warning squeeze, “do you know I'm going to be very angry with you? No? Well, I am. You've been having trouble with your mother about me for weeks, and haven't told me. Now, why not—why haven't you?”

“Who told you?” blurted Dave.

“Ah! Who, indeed,” said Olive, collectedly. “Well, Dr. Bardsley, who has been attending your mother, has been lately called in by mine—I am thankful to say for nothing serious, Now, your mother—I suppose because she can't open her heart to you—has done so to him; and he, poor man, thinking, perhaps, to do you and me a service, has repeated her story to your future mother-in-law. Now, David, why ever didn't you tell me yourself? The idea of you and your mother living on estranged terms on my account—you bad boy!”

“What would have been the good?” answered Dave, promptly. “I have always given in to the old lady as much as I could, but in this instance it was impossible; her ideas were beyond all reason. I didn't see what good I could do by telling you; I should merely have upset you.”




  ― 202 ―

“Then let me tell you, sir,” said Olive in her best manner, “that nothing is so bad for a woman that it won't be worse by being withheld from her. Will you remember that?”

Could David have seen her face, he would have perceived that she was struggling with suppressed laughter, and she said, “Your worthy mother thought that Meston's would bring me to perdition, I understand?”

“Olive,” said David hotly, “don't think anything of it. You know she comes of a race of Puritans, and has the most extraordinary ideas. One of them is implicit obedience of children to parents—which, I believe (laughing), is never to cease this side of the grave.”

“And why,” asked Olve, demurely, looking at the ground, “didn't you give me up when she told you to?”

“Don't chaff,” said David.

“Shall I tell you something funny your mother told Dr. Bardsley?” asked Olive, bubbling with mirth. “I can't help laughing,” she said, warningly. “You mustn't be angry with me!”

“That's all right,” said David, smiling. “Go on.”

“Well,” resumed Olive, seething with suppressed merriment, “it appears that your mother throughout her life has earnestly prayed for the downfall of that venerable institution, the Popedom of Rome, to which she has made no secret of her hostility; and her fixed belief now is that this, having at last come to ears of high authority, the rheumatism from which she suffers is, by occult means, a malign rejoinder!”

With one accord, the two broke into peals of laughter, which reverberated among the mullock heaps and sand dunes across which they were now picking their way.

“Well,” said David, presently, when he had regained composure, “now that we have opened the subject, I don't mind telling you, Olive, that for the past month things between the old lady and me haven't been pleasant—a sort of armed truce. Of course, at heart, she's as good as gold—when she can have her own way. But she won't give in, although she's thoroughly unhappy. Sometimes I hear her crying to herself in her room, and that gives me a bad turn—but I can't help it. I'm going to be as firm as she is. I would give way if it were a case for giving way.”

“Dear,” said Olive gently, “there is a way out of the difficulty. You ought to have told me how matters were before, as I said, and I could have arranged so that no trouble between you and your mother would arise. However, I have settled everything. Dr. Bardsley has helped me, and my mother agrees. I am going to leave Meston's—”

An impatient exclamation was uttered by David.

“And going as nurse to the hospital at Eagle Range. It's only a few miles from here—we can meet often—and although the pay won't be equal to Meston's, still it will be good, because—”

“But, Olive!” broke in Dave, in remonstrance.

“Because,” went on Olive with quiet resolution, “what with the old diggings there, and the revival here, the girls are all getting homes of their own, and nurses are not easily got. Now, David,” she concluded persuasively, “you


  ― 203 ―
can't possibly have any objection to this. I really can't see where any objection can arise. How nice for you and your mother to be on pleasant terms once more!”

But David was not pleased. It is true the compromise so adroitly effected solved the difficulty with the mother, while preserving to reach their standpoint; still, he would have preferred continuance of the problem rather than solution at any sacrifice on the part of Olive.

“I don't like the idea, Olive,” he said, demurringly. “It will be a hard life for you. You will be separated a good deal from your home, and you and your mother will suffer on my account. I would rather you had left things as they were, for I shall feel far more uncomfortable now than I did.”

“Nonsense, Dave,” said Olive cheerily. “It won't last very long; I only want to leave mother a small sum when you and I—you know. And you can't possibly feel as uncomfortable as I should if I were prolonging unhappiness in your home.”

Dave perceived that argument was useless—a resourceful brain and willing heart had cast the die. There was only one thing that a man could do under the circumstances, and Dave did it—they were quite alone. He took Olive in his arms and kissed her, and vowed there wasn't a hospital in the country that should keep her long. For answer, she made him distractingly jealous by saying she believed the place was really very comfortable, and that there were several young, good-looking, and unmarried doctors, who were—so it was said, but, of course, she didn't know—particularly nice, and most considerate in their dealings with the nurses!

The close of the following summer saw Eagle Range emerge from a three-months' ravening grip of scarlet fever, that had been scourage-like in its widespread results. The place was an old-time camp that had developed into permanence, but did not afford prospects of sudden acquisition of wealth equal to those held out by its richer rival, Dee Gully, which had, too, robbed it of a goodly proportion of its population, in which had been numbered, by the way, David Ironside and his redoubtable mother. Through the epidemic—now happily overcome—Nurse Wills had come unscathed. The girl—for she was but barely out of her teens—had worked with a will and a cheery, indomitable patience and self-abnegation that had lifted her to a sort of heroineshp in the institution. Only a few months before her winning personality, combined with faculty she had of infusing her natural insight and keen human sympathy into her songs, had so found its way to the hearts of the male element of Dee Gully that it was threatened with reform of even its worst characters; indeed, there was something like a revolution at Meston's when her bright, fresh young face was no more seen on its somewhat tawdry platform. But Dee Gully's loss had proved a very solid gain to Eagle Range, where Olive's following, if less heroic, was born of emotions set deep down in the hearts of scores of both men and women whom she had helped back to health and to their cottage homes dotted on its hillsides.

And then, after a month's entire immunity from the fever, it was left to


  ― 204 ―
Mrs. Ironside—while on a visit to old friends in Eagle Range—to become infected with its last vagrant breath, and be brought to the ministering hands of Nurse Wills—to receive from her, through many anxious watches at dawn, day, and dark, ceaseless—in truth, affectionate—care until convalescence. It was a case that once closely touched peril, and that authority frankly accredited a victory mainly won by the strong-hearted, enthusiastic young personality that had had it in unwearied keeping.

The air was close and sultry, and the windows of the hospital ward were wide open. A blood-red sun was perceptibly sliding down the back of the purpling ranges, and broad, level shafts of light were lying in serrated rows down the long room. Olive, snatching a few minutes' rest, was seated by the bed of Mrs. Lronside, a scrap of sewing in her fingers. She had been listening with perfectly assumed docility and genuine enjoyment to her patient's talk.

“But you must leave the place now, my dear,” went on the old lady. “You've done enough for it; for your own mother, and for those you've nursed; besides, you're looking ill, or run-down, yourself. … Ah! I wish David was more like you! A good son—a good son—but so obstinate and anxious to have his own way in everything! I've always been too yielding with him; but you must assert yourself a little with him, my dear—he wants it, and it'll do him good.

“As to this illness of mine,” she added, shaking her head darkly—well. I know who's sent that!”

And Nurse Olive, having with a sense of humour but little command over her risible faculties, suddenly hurried away.

The day had closed at last—a Sunday, three weeks later, destined to remain long in memory of Eagle Range and Dee Gully. The air had been as still as if Nature were holding her breath, while the sun had laid soft mantles of gold, and blue, and now grey upon the wooded ranges. All the day people had come from afar, on foot and horse, to join in a long band that had crept silently from the hospital to a broad, level, white-dotted gully, high-banked by whispering trees; and as they had silently come, had silently gone, melted in long distances and in the indigo haze of the evening. A marvellous opal sky had crowned the falling sun, and faded, too; and now, out of a deep orange west, a star, set like a lamp, blinked at the slender are of a new moon. It has been one of those days of gentle beauty which, at another time, the folk of the country-side would have lingered, in cottage garden and verandah, to see the last of; but it had passed unregarded and unregretted.

In Mrs. Ironside's cot. Dave sat in the darkening sitting-room by the empty fireplace, his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. By his side knelt his mother. Her old eyes were red with past tears, whose ducts were all spent and dry, and tragic in the intensity of their appealing, unavailing look at him.

“Dave,” she said, in quivering tones, “what am I to say to ye—won't ye speak? Do ye think I don't know I've done it all—even to giving her her death-stroke? Ah! They told me I had, and she knew it; and she took it


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with a smile—always a smile—till she could smile no more….. Will ye hate the very sight of me, Dave, now?”

A trembling hand, ready to caress, hanging indecisively over his head, dropped to her side, and she moved a little farther off from him.

“If ye want me to go away, Dave,” she said piteously, “I—I'll go; ye can do with me as—ye will.”

Her white head fell in abject dejection….. Dave remained still for a moment; then he loosened an arm, and placed it round her…..

And away in the gloom of the quiet, white-specked gully, the cool evening breeze was singing a vesper hymn that stirred the petals of a big mound of flowers that rested above the sleeping form of Nurse Olive.

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