previous
next



  ― 243 ―

Chapter XXVI

ON the way to town Bill had little opportunity for letting his thoughts dwell on his personal problems. The task of keeping the car on the soft slippery road called for the full concentration of his faculties, and he pulled up in front of the doctor's residence feeling absolutely frazzled. The doctor was out, but might be back at any moment, so Bill took the opportunity to walk down to the pub for a much-needed drink.

The handful of men in the bar were avidly discussing the news that had put the little town in the headlines, and when someone recognized Bill, a hush fell on the group and all eyes turned on him. He signed to Percy and they finished their drinks and returned to the street with a feeling that if he read local sympathies correctly, no jury in this town would ever convict Williams. Bill was not worrying about Williams—now that the matter had been cleared up, he would have been just as pleased if Williams had been set free—but the looks that had been cast on him in the bar riled him. They seemed to regard him as a police pimp.

The doctor's car was drawn up behind their mud-spattered vehicle, and he met them in the hall, looking more weary and haggard than ever. He seemed to have shrunk to such an extent that his clothes looked as though they had been made for someone twice his


  ― 244 ―
weight. His bloodshot eyes glared at the plaster on his visitor's cheek.

“Are you a patient or have you come to waste more of my time?” he demanded, pushing Bill into the surgery. “Let's have a look at it!” Without further warning he flicked the plaster off, and before Bill had recovered from his surprise, was poking at the cut with a pudgy finger. “I'll put a stitch in that. … See that you keep it clean! How's Mr Atherton?”

“Pretty bad! Can you come?”

The doctor interrupted gruffly. “I can't come to see him so don't waste your breath asking me! Even if he lived across the street instead of half a day's journey away, I couldn't help him. As it is, practically the entire town and district has 'flu … the hospital is jammed full with only two tired-out probationers left to run the place. And now the other doctor has gone down with it and I'm left to carry the lot. I would give my entire hopes of the hereafter for a decent night's sleep! Keep your head still, will you!”

“But can't you do anything, man! He's suffering hell, and the morphine doesn't seem to act any longer!”

The doctor opened a little drawer in a cabinet, picked out a thin brown tube and examined it carefully before handing it over. “Use these, then! They're twice as strong as the others. One of these …” he threw him a significant glance, “… would be enough to kill the average man!”

Bill looked dumbly at the tube in his hand, then he looked at the doctor with a steely glint in his eye. “If I ever get what Atherton's suffering from and haven't the strength to put a bullet into myself where it'll do


  ― 245 ―
most good, I hope I'll find a mate to do it for me! Then I suppose you will call it murder and want to hang him! Why haven't you doctors the guts to put a man out of misery instead of trying one thing after another to keep him alive when life is only a burden to him!”

“I suppose you think you're the first man to get that wonderfully original idea! Damn it, man, that subject has been discussed by every quack since Aesculapius!”

“And you're just as far from a solution now as he ever was! We pride ourselves on our civilization—and let men doomed to certain death linger on till the pain wrecks them physically, then wrecks their intellect, and robs fine, decent men of a respectable death. If we ordinary bushwhackers find a horse or a bullock hopelessly crippled, we cut its throat or put a bullet into it, and know it's only a fair thing. Can't you come out and see Atherton and do something … anything?”

The doctor eyed him grimly. “If you're quite finished you can get into your car and drive home—it will save me backing my car out from behind you. And listen! This is final!” He spoke with slow, incisive deliberation, letting each word sink in with its intended significance. “There's only one more thing I can do for Mr Atherton—that is to sign his death certificate! And I'll do that as soon as you give me the hour and date. I've got the rest of it all filled in ready—cause of death … all complete! There will be no post-mortem! Now, get out of my surgery … and good-bye!”

Bill drove silently back to Camelot. Percy talked light-heartedly for a while, but getting no response, he


  ― 246 ―
closed down and felt glad when he had to get out and open a gate. Bill hardly saw the road. Only a special dispensation of providence and the fact that it had dried a lot since he went in, kept him on it. His faculties were numbed … distant … controlled not by himself but by a grisly spectre that hovered above and around him, suggesting nameless things that froze his brain.

A cheerful Elaine in a bright-coloured frock awaited him on the veranda with good news of the patient, and during lunch, Bill's load of depression lightened appreciably. He told her briefly that it was impossible for the doctor to leave town on account of the 'flu epidemic, but that he had been given fresh instructions which, they hoped, would help the patient considerably. The girl listened with a preoccupied air and made no comment.

As they moved out to the veranda, Elaine mentioned casually, “Bob rang up this morning! His isolation period is nearly finished.”

Bill nipped the end off his cigarette preparatory to lighting it, and observed just as casually, “He must be breaking his neck to get back to work again. Good fellow, Mac!” Then he eyed her critically. “Why are you so keen on selling Camelot?”

She shrugged non-committally. “There's Daddy … and all our bad luck … and I suppose the responsibilities are getting me down. Isn't it quite natural that I should want to leave? You and Bob sold your place in Queensland!”

“That was different! We never had any intention of making a home of it. Mac only came to Queensland


  ― 247 ―
to make money and he sort of dragged me into it. That was bad enough, but I jibbed when he wanted me to pick a nice, fat comfortable wife and settle down. Settle down!” He gave a snort of disgust.

Elaine laughed softly. “Would it be quite impossible for you to settle down?” she asked.

He looked up quickly, then deliberately studied the end of his cigarette. “It depends! That's what I reckoned then, anyhow.” He raised his head slowly and surveyed her from under the drooping lid. “Do you remember that first night we met in Longreach?”

She smiled reminiscently. “Verily, Sir Lancelot!”

“Well, Mac had been worrying me that night.” His features wore the grim look that betokened a distasteful task that had to be faced. “It wasn't that I was a woman hater—not by a long chalk—but he didn't approve of my girl friends and we had a bit of an argument. Anyhow, I pulled out and told him I was going to get a few drinks into me, go over to the dance, and ask the first girl I met to marry me!”

“And was I the first?” she demanded with mock affront. “Oh, Lancelot … and you never asked me! Why didn't you?”

“Well … when I knocked the top off that car, it put it out of my mind for the moment. Then … when I got to know you better … the last thing I wanted to do was to insult you.”

“Lancelot! That isn't the way to insult us! We poor girls look on it as an honour! A very rare one, these hard times!” She rose with a laugh. “I must go and see how Daddy is.”

The man sat still, gazing dully out over the rank,


  ― 248 ―
grass-grown garden. He still had not accomplished the task he had set himself. Well, he would put it to the old man. It would be much easier.

But he had to admit it was Elaine's opinion that mattered, and much as he dreaded broaching the subject, he desperately wanted it settled. For he knew that until then, he would have no peace of mind. He was no longer in doubt—no longer afraid to acknowledge the fact that the future, his life, and his hopes of happiness, hinged on her reply. He wanted to laugh out loud at his futile imaginings—that he was no one woman's man … that he was a wanderer, a chronic lone-hander who could not settle down … did not want a home. He knew now that where Elaine was, there lay his happiness. Away from her, the world was a barren, empty place, an endless dry stage where one could only go on and on in a great weariness till the crows drew gradually nearer to mock, and tell that the end was near.

Damn it, why did his thoughts always end on a funereal note! He rose abruptly and walked round to the sick-room.

The invalid greeted him cheerfully and motioned him to a chair. His eyes were bright and alert, and everything about him suggested that he had obtained a new lease of life. Bill marvelled at the display of vitality after last night's collapse, and wondered if the doctor were really right—if there were absolutely no hope of recovery.

He managed to persuade Elaine to rest while the patient was so well. He himself intended to share the night nursing from now on, but he did not tell her so in the meantime. When she left the room, he drew his


  ― 249 ―
chair close to the bed where he could face the sick man, and commented on his changed appearance.

“I feel wonderful,” Atherton replied. “Tell me all about last night. I'm sorry you got hurt. Elaine told me all she knew, but I gathered there was quite a lot left unsaid.”

Bill repeated the story of the tracking and capture of Williams from the very beginning. When he had finished, the old man lay quiet for a time. “I'm sorry about Williams … I liked him, and found him a very capable man. But I must also thank you for all you have done for us. I cannot fail to realize how fortunate we are in having you here. In fact, my only regret is that we did not meet years before. Still, for your sake it was better to have your life shaped by men like MacAndrew and … what was his name … Dinny! I would like to have met that man! I'm afraid my influence would not have helped you.” He fixed his bright eyes intently on the younger man. “What made you leave your home in England and come out to Australia?”

Bill stared out through the window with narrowed eyes before he turned with apparent reluctance. “I have never mentioned this to anyone, but I would like to tell you. I was expelled from school for giving an awful hiding to another boy—I nearly killed him, in fact—for spreading a rumour that I was … a bastard. When I arrived home I found my mother very ill … heart trouble … and she died shortly afterwards. When I went through her papers with the lawyer, I found that what they had said was true. My mother had been deserted by … by my father, and she had brought me


  ― 250 ―
up in a district where she was unknown. After the funeral I booked a passage to Australia. I wanted to get clean away from everyone I knew … to start afresh.”

The head on the pillow nodded sympathetically. “And it still hurts to be reminded of the … birth-stain—even by accident!”

Bill nodded.

“Very foolish, Bill! What does it matter, anyhow, and who is to know how we are born unless we advertise the fact ourselves? You'll excuse my bluntness, but really, you have magnified a trifle far beyond its true significance, and the aspect you take is based entirely on snobbishness.”

“That's all very well!” Bill's tone was bitter. “But if you had suffered …”

“Wait a minute! Supposing I had … would I be entitled to speak?”

Bill stared at the enigmatic smile. “What do you mean?”

“Only that I too am … a bastard!”

You!

The old man smiled on. “I came out to Australia under a similar set of circumstances, except that perhaps my case was even more involved than yours, but our feelings were the same. Hate toward the parent responsible for our misfortune, and a desire to escape the eyes of all our acquaintances goaded me. We were both guilty of snobbishness. We had acquired the habit partly through our super-sensitiveness, and our inability to rise mentally above our social environment. We praised or damned a man for circumstances over which he had no control. A man should be judged by what


  ― 251 ―
he makes of his life—the hand is dealt him but he must play it. He may be born in the slums and attain to wealth and honour, or he may be born to the purple and end in the gutter. These are the things that count! We made the mistake of accepting a false sense of superiority—we allowed ourselves to be placed on a pedestal, and when cold truth knocked that pedestal from under us, well … the higher the pedestal, the greater the crash! We were very foolish, Bill.”

Bill could only sit and stare and listen dazedly, letting the waves of the old man's philosophy lap soothingly among his thoughts. After a short pause, Atherton began to speak again in slow reminiscent tones. “Since you have given me your confidence, Bill, I'm going to tell you something I have never mentioned to anyone … not even to Elaine or to my wife. It goes a long way back … long before your time … but it has all come to me very clearly, as I lie here. …

“It happened just after my regiment returned from the East and we were experiencing the joys of civilization, and making the most of all that the old Scottish town where our headquarters were, could give us. I was young and I rather fancied myself … a uniform in those days was a uniform! None of your drab khaki, but red and blue and gold and tartan … enough to turn the head of any girl, no matter who was inside it. However, there was one girl who remained obdurate. A fellow in the local Yeomanry, a lawyer by profession, had been making the running till I arrived on the scene. I had great hopes of the Garrison Ball turning the tide in my favour. The Yeomanry would look well in their blue and gold, but a Scots Fusilier in full dress


  ― 252 ―
was irresistible. At least, we all thought so, and there was evidence in plenty to prove our contention. We had tartan trews, a scarlet doublet with blue facings and gold lace, wide crimson silk sash, and white buff sword-belt across the chest with a frosted gilt breast-plate—and a grand, silver, basket-hilted claymore by our side. The girl who was proof against being seen in that company was hard indeed. And McCansh, the Yeomanry man, was thinking that too.

“It was a great night! The scene in the ballroom was wonderful … magnificent! Gorgeous uniforms … beautiful women, beautifully dressed. … I like to think I'm broad-minded, Bill, but when I compare a modern ball-room packed with languid couples clinging closely to one another as they drift aimlessly about, to the spectacle of a ball of forty to fifty years ago … I must confess to a preference for the old days!

“Elaine looked charming that night. She was slim and fair, and the fashion of that day showed off her beautiful arms and shoulders. We were slipping out through an ante-room at the end of a dance when we were surrounded by a crowd of our own and some Yeomanry officers—McCansh was one of them, and they were all fairly merry. One of them addressed us, ‘We have here Captain Kirk, Mr Bell, Mr Sexton, Mr Parsons … all the essentials of a church and a wedding—except the bride and bridegroom. Will you oblige us?’ I looked at Elaine and she, entering into the spirit of it, smiled back, so we allowed them to lead us to one end of the room. Then they took some old pikes from the walls and Elaine and I advanced under an arch of steel to the other end where Captain Kirk waited. He


  ― 253 ―
conducted the mock ceremony and Elaine and I pledged one another. I placed my ring on her finger, then everyone insisted on kissing the bride. That rather annoyed me—especially as McCansh was among them. However, they brought in more punch and toasted us, then someone brought an old woman in from the street—a gipsy—to tell our fortunes.

“I was not at all keen. In fact I was longing to slip away with Elaine, but they insisted. Elaine held out her palm first and the gipsy looked at it and shook her head gravely. All she would say was, ‘Ye're a braw, braw lassie!’ Then she added a couple of lines from Burns:

Ye'll hae misfortunes great an' sma'
But aye a heart abune them a'.

Elaine was a little frightened, and I wanted to end the thing but Murray, one of our youngest subalterns, went next. The gipsy peered at his palm. ‘You will lead your regiment in battle, and see your son slain before you,’ she said.

“McCansh pushed forward but she hardly looked at him. ‘Ye'll live and prosper by the misfortunes o’ others,’ was all she would tell him. I saw that if I wanted to get away I would have to go through with it, so I went next. She mumbled a while before raising her voice. ‘It's the high pride I see, and low will it bring the wearer before he reaches peace. Ye'll go to a far country an’ ne'er come back… Aye, and ye'll die at the hand of your son … an' be glad of it!’

“I laughed at her. It seemed the most fantastic and improbable prediction anyone could imagine, but I felt


  ― 254 ―
Elaine shiver as she clung to my arm. Anyhow, we escaped from the crowd and soon forgot all about the gipsy and the rest of the world too!”

The reminiscent smile faded, the eyes closed, and the thin hands tightened their grip on the sheets as the pain began to reassert itself. He did not see the man crouched tensely forward in his chair as though he had seen a ghost, his hands gripping the sides till the knuckles showed white under the tightened skin.

The spasm passed, but the man lay for a long time with eyes closed, till the watcher imagined he must have fallen asleep. At length the lips moved, inaudibly at first, then an apologetic … “You must excuse me. Rather long-winded, wasn't I!” He lay musing for a little longer, then took up the tale again. “A few weeks after the ball the crash came. McCansh had ferreted out the evidence and the news reached me in a roundabout way. It was being noised about that I, the dashing young subaltern of a crack regiment, proud of my birth and social prestige … was a fake … an illegitimate son!

“I searched for McCansh till I met him in the High Street. He repeated the charge, sneeringly. I challenged him … and he refused. I was mad at the moment … raving mad … and I nearly killed him before they separated us. There was a tremendous row. … I went home and demanded the truth … and got it! I sent in my papers immediately, dropped the surname I felt I had no right to use, and took a passage on the first ship leaving England. It happened to be bound for Australia. I didn't care where it might take me.




  ― 255 ―

“I cut myself clean adrift from everything connected with the old world and the old life—family, friends … even Elaine! That is something I have never ceased to regret. I wonder what became of her!” He fell silent for a space. “I was so selfish, so thoroughly knocked out by the pricking of the bubble that was myself at that time that I had no thoughts, no room for pity for the suffering I was inflicting on others. When that came later, I was far away, and drink drowned my remorse.

“I had plenty of money of my own and would probably have stayed in Melbourne and drunk myself to death if a friend I had made on board ship had not taken charge of me. He induced me to stay with him in the country, and when I began to take an interest in life again, advised me to buy this property. Land was cheap then. It was after the smash, and the banks owned most of it. I renamed it Camelot. Sentiment, I suppose. I married … and when my daughter was born, I named her Elaine. Her mother could not understand. I told her it was a family name … and that seemed to satisfy her … Elaine the Fair … Elaine the Lovable …” The voice tailed off as another spasm of pain contorted the features.

The man in the chair relaxed slowly. As the tenseness ebbed, he leaned dazedly back. Then with a returning sense of responsibility he rose heavily and began to fit together the shining hypodermic syringe.

previous
next