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Chapter VII What Happened at the Birthday Ball

AS they descended in the carriage, over the quiver and shriek of the heavy break, with now a splash of sleety rain and once a boom of thunder, a tragic idea came to Matilda, that if she could manage it, she would speak with sympathetic Lady Franklin about Sir William Heans, and see if some organising secretaryship or honorary post could not be obtained for him by which he would be bound among a better set, and the suffrages of “one side” of Hobarton society be gradually opened to him. She put it to herself as “one side.” There was another side of Hobarton society over which she was aware the Governor's wife had less power, and with whom a prisoner had less chance: that of the old families, led by Mr. Montague, the Colonial Secretary, whose famous quarrel with Sir John Franklin was already simmering above the surface.note Matilda, though she disliked her pretty ladyship's stern and masculine attitude, her ill advised and too forcible championing of her husband, yet believed her at bottom a kind-hearted, sensible personage, and like many another distracted woman, determined to penetrate the attitude and besiege the good for her purpose.

At the wharf they descended, into the Erebus, the high pent-house awnings of the Arctic ship glowing and tugging in the lowering night. The moon shone for an instant on Kangaroo Point. It was all half-wild. Flying, gauzy clouds sped across the light blue satin of the sky. The sea was green-black, flecked with foam about the shores, and crying free. There were a few—a few silver stars.

The quarter-deck was hung with bunting, giving a fine floor broken only by the companion-way; while astern, a beflagged opening gave to two small rest-rooms, where among the decorations stood the embowered wheel. The grim, clean smell of hemp and tar exuded from the walls, upon which were sewn

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great laurel wreaths of silver paper, with the motto: Animo et Fide (misread by the jealous landsmen for “Ann and Fido”), while across from screen to screen great ropes of monthly roses, hung by the young ladies of Hobarton, met a fine wreath hanging from the centre.

Perhaps no decoration could have been discovered so moving to the hearts of the men and women gathered there as this mingling of bunting and roses—the scent of flowers and stern hemp and tar. Franklin himself must have thought of it when, years after, he walked the deck caught in the ice of William's Land. Everywhere were immaculate white breeches and waistcoats; the plain beside the epauletted coat. The whiskered sailors jested merrily in their high cravats. Little ladies looked up out of chignons and swinging curls. The ship suddenly shook with thunder, under which the wave of cheerful voices clattered shrill and unmoved. A band began bumping in a corner.

In the ballroom things happened very differently from what she expected. Her ladyship was unwell, and Miss Sophia Crackcroft, who had taken her place beside Captain Ross, was, at their entrance, somewhat flurried by the congratulations of another party. Swarthy, round-faced Sir John Franklin himself, with Mr. Bedford, the Colonial Chaplain, and old Mr. Duterreau, the artist of the natives, came forward to receive them. On the very edge of distraction as she was, Sir John took her wild and pretty face for a picture of enthusiasm, and gallantly jested with her as “the presumptive belle of this occasion.” “You make me,” he said, “regret my young days, madam.” She curtsied and laughed, and from her mourning heart returned some witty answer, which, echoing among the men, and in her husband's chuckles, made a little triumph for her, at the feet of which his gallant Excellency begged a dance, and put that still unsilenced name upon her programme for a quadrille.

Sir John strode up the deck with round, bare, cheery face. Behind him, among a little group of uniforms, went a thin, active man, clad in black, and leaning on a Neapolitan cane. His brow was dark, and now and then he gave a low, most courteous bow. It was Mr. Montague, the Colonial Secretary.

Matilda Shaxton, as she danced with this or that sailor, or discoursed on the wildness of the night with some old police-magistrate or bronzed young settler, watched the Governor's face as he slowly talked his way through the room, and suddenly, in the midst of a discharge of sleet which nearly drowned the music, made up her mind to lay Sir William's case before the tragic kindness of it. Her ears were used to ridicule among her associates on the “softness” of Sir John's prison legislation, and although her instinct warned her that this was the exaggeration of harsh, experienced men, and that he was a ruler with plenty of sternness where his just-heartedness or anger called for it, yet she was certain if she could chance upon

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a subject that would help her in bringing up a prisoner's name, she would be met with kindness. As she looked or laughed into this or that stern or beseeching face—for wild-eyed Matilda had a belle's triumph to-night—she quivered inwardly at each thunder-clap and gust of wind, and saw the prison-cutter plunge out upon it with the fallen, gale-deafened Megson and Relph—out upon a yellow sea towards the bare, wind-blown ditch of Macquarie Harbour. How could these kind-eyed sailors, these fine old magistrates, witty Mr. Montague, satirical Mr. Daunt, gallant Colonel Snodgrass, honest Sir John himself—these feeling gentlemen—jig and jest, while a fellow, a man more gently reared than themselves, tottered and struggled, so bravely and so much alone, upon the brink of terror and ruin? She would tell that man there if she could, the one with the round ugly face and tragic eyes (eyes which seemed yet to harbour the glory and smoke of Trafalgar and Copenhagen)—she would tell him what temptations and dangers were at the proud feet of this gentleman, and how no hand troubled to stay them. In her bosom she had a letter of Miss Gairdener's. The old woman wrote how her nephew, Sir William Heans, had been loved and honoured by his tenants. The letter was full of loving admiration, chattering hope, and brave proud humour, and though it never so much as hinted at his fast life or his disgrace, was palpably the wail of his own people for a loved and trusted figure brought low by a sin which for some reason—some woman's reason—they found not unforgivable. This letter, with its garrulous, well-bred recommending of a favourite and petted nephew, its purposeful ignoring or innocent misunderstanding of his hideous disgrace or danger, so increased by its innocence the horror of possible catastrophe as to constitute an argument for his succour—and such protection as a woman might need who stood forward with his name on her lips.

Matilda, so determined and loving-hearted, was perhaps too confident in her woman's armour of precocious experience. Her friend, the Superintendent, Mr. Daunt, in speaking of women, has said of her wittily that “she hardly resorted to the evasive with the accustomed roguishness.” She seemed, in a word, to have an unnatural distaste for “practising,” even where the interests of those she loved were concerned. This is, I suspect, as much as should be expected of any good woman, just as we may well expect something more, in like difficulty, than the lying, stab-in-the-back methods, the treacherous use of youth's belief in her saintship, of the ordinary wicked one. Surely life holds few contrasting facts so confusing as its vulgar-minded woman—than which no man can be so little or so base—and its angel, rich or poor.

Daunt arrived very late, but Matilda, though her programme was full, gave him a little walk between two dances. He was very kind and amusing, until quite suddenly he began to talk

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about Sir William Heans: “We are somewhat bothered about Heans,” he said, with his eyes on his excellent white breeches as he walked. “I am afraid you will not thank me for dragging in a business matter to-night, but may I ask you a question—about him?”

Matilda, who supposed, in a breath of fear, he referred to the affray her husband had mentioned, said: “Oh, certainly. But my husband heard all he has told me from you. What do you want?”

“Nothing more than I can almost prove, Mrs. Shaxton, I am glad to say. I think he was up at your house, was he not, on the 27th?”

“Yes—on the 27th,” she said, with a sort of shivering gladness. “I am sorry I wasn't in. But what is the reason for proving that?”

“I have no reason yet. It is just the curse of my work that I have to go round poking in my nose where I have no business. It was a wet afternoon, and he arrived at your house—say—at three o'clock.”

Matilda caught him looking at her with a pale, sharp deference. “No, it was later than that—half-past four. He has usually been early.” She caught her breath and pondered a moment. Then rapidly, with precision, “I wonder whether I am right. He has been up so often. It was possibly half-past three—on that day. Indeed, I could discover the time from the servants. What is it about, Mr. Daunt?”

“It is nothing. Since this business at Fraser's we have been deluged with information about your friend. It is always the way when a prisoner takes a foolish step of the kind, and we must sift it all. You would be surprised at the vicious rubbish which has reached us. If you could give Sir William a hint to be careful who he mixes with—above all to be constant in his punctuality.”

“Yes, I can tell him that.”

“These men are so devilish clever at inventing the likely.” There was a look almost of pity in his dark and deferent gaze.

“We may not know then,” she said, “this new rumour against Sir William Heans?”

“I would not assoil your hearing with it,” he said, in an indifferent tone. “Don't think any more about it, madam. Only for a while it would save us a world of trouble if he is careful to take his pleasure in your direction.” In the midst of music he bowed and went off, friendly, smiling, if a little drawn and stern. Matilda, as she turned to look for her next partner, drew a deep breath. Indeed, she could have cried out, The strange man's rumours and warnings, the double-meanings she knew him to employ, his kind actions, his excellent cleverness, his deferent, polite, sharp eyes, his lawful activity, filled her with distrust. She knew him for an alarmist; a man who,

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if with a sharp guard upon himself, instinctively exaggerated While dismissing much that he said as a sort of fussiness, her excitement for Sir William, facing unknowingly this man's activity (this man's—was it jealousy or stern probity?) was feverishly increased.

At that moment the great Mr. Montague, ambling by with his tremendous coat-collars and high old-fashioned airs, bowed low to her, saying: “What a fey night! Only we Derwenters would think of dragging out our ladies to dance in a storm!”

There was a hoarse growl of thunder.

She bowed towards his dark, experienced, weighing eyes. “We women, sir,” she said, “must think of it as part of the brave decorations.”

“Flags and guns—good! good!” He laughed a quick, dry laugh. “The convicts have it,” he said, “that the devil has a fort of his own up on Old Storm Hill. Listen! There they go! “You'll see the smoke of 'em hanging about his old head in tomorrow's sun.” He laughed and nodded himself away.

Immediately after the next dance, Shaxton called to Matilda that Sir John was “exploring” for her. She at once walked more towards the centre of the room that he might see her, her heart beating painfully. He came towards her, his round, swarthy face rather strained upon the short neck, but very dignified, with those splendid tragic eyes which had seen men languish, and yet had drawn the weak body beneath them from camps of the dead—came to her—she, Matilda Shaxton—and bent to her that small limb of flesh and blood which was to stiffen against years and acres of white sleet, and at last to hold fast among those howling winds—a monument—for good.

The east wind was pulling and harshing at the awnings, the ship was groaning at her ropes, and the thought came to her: “These wonderful men!”

Up the room a rather severe and dignified set of notabilities were preparing for a set of quadrilles. She recognised Mr. Montague, Captain Crozier of the Terror, the Colonial Surgeon, and Mr. Bichino. The fans of several ladies fluttered upon her with some wonder, but whether at Sir John's choice, or some visible sign of the excitement and anguish that was in her heart, she cared little. Sir John called some jests at her in the intervals of the music; but on whole he seemed distrait, with a fierce eye upon his dignity.

As she danced, she learnt something of the little treacheries which assail the great. A glance at Mr. Montague's pale face, strangely attenuated; at his malignant smile; at his eye, which never touched Sir John Franklin's; at his carefully pruned and deliberate dignity; above all at his grim unreadiness, which infinitesimally kept the dance waiting on him, reminded her of the rumours of political trouble, and (as had been whispered by

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Mr. Montague himself) “of a local North-West Passage still undiscovered by Sir John.”

The rain stopped with the music, and Matilda, suddenly very pale, was led by Sir John to a flagged-off enclosure about the wheel. There he took his seat beside her upon a couch. Beside themselves, there were two old ladies, with fine, remote faces, talking serenely in a corner. An aide-de-camp came quietly to the door, looked in upon his chief in a troubled manner, and as quietly departed.

Feverishly excited, and with only a short time in which to bring up her plea, Matilda turned to Sir John and expressed for a second time her regret at Lady Franklin's indisposition. She continued that she had hoped to have spoken to Lady Franklin about a prisoner—a sort of relation of her family—about whom the Hon. Miss Gairdener had written from England. She had wished to ask her ladyship if she could help him a little. It was a gentleman of good family who was likely to go under for want of a few friends and a more congenial atmosphere. She and her husband had done what they could, but some one in authority only could save him from his sensitiveness to his position, by perhaps giving him some little literary secretaryship or organising work. She took then the letter from the breast of her gown and put it in the Governor's hands as he sat beside her somewhat amazed.

“It is there, sir, the Hon. Miss Gairdener speaks of this gentleman,” she said, in a low violent voice, approaching tears.

Sir John took the letter and opened it. As he began to read it, he said: “It is not easy to do anything for these men.” Suddenly he let it dangle from his fingers, and looked up and outward. “Do I not know that name?” he said: “Heans? Pray wait a minute.”

He seemed to recollect something and began slowly to fold up the letter. His face seemed to have deepened in tragedy a shade.

Matilda must have seen this. Her head drooped a little. “We have known Sir William Heans since his arrival here,” she said, a faint trace too desperately; “it has been dreadful to see the difficulties a man in his position is faced with. Up to now he has bravely resisted temptation to join the lower clubs—though he is entirely alone.”

Beneath his formality, the Governor's dark face, under its auburn hair, had taken a stunned look. He was very polite and spoke in a low voice. “I don't know what to say, Mrs. Shaxton. This letter in my hand” (his voice quavered) “is not the story I have heard.”

The blood rushed to Matilda's face: “No,” she said, “but that letter shows how the prisoner was respected and loved in his own family. Miss Gairdener asks our help for her nephew. I knew Miss Gairdener. She is a dear old woman. She would not—she would not ask a favour——”

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“For anyone unworthy of it?” said Sir John. He raised his hands in a foreign sort of way. “Oh these old mothers, madam!”

Matilda was silent for a long while.

At length Sir John said kindly: “How old now is your experience of this Sir William Heans?”

“He has been often to our house, Sir John Franklin,” she answered, “being engaged with my husband on some prison plans. And we have encouraged him as much as we could to come to us. Lately the plans have been put aside and engagements with the explorers have claimed a great deal of our time. We have seen much less of Sir William Heans. Oh, I think it must sometimes have seemed as if his only friends had forsaken him! And I fear his loneliness has driven him to one of the halls where cards are played. It seems such a little thing—if a man could be kept straight, and such a terrible—terrible thing if he goes wrong—in this place.”

Sir John nodded several times in a sort of tragic confirmation, but his mind was not in it. He got up and took a quick, sedate walk past her: his head bowed. As he came back he glanced up at the pretty, determined face of his partner out of anxious eyes, and though the glance was still veiled with politeness, seemed to see something that quieted them. He re-seated himself, inclining towards her with plain kindness.

“A woman who has the courage to come to me,” he said, “with a word for a man of such a reputation shall have what aid my wife and I can give her. As you must know, a prisoner not only needs courage, but indeed immaculate behaviour, to even touch on the fringes of the proud little society here. There is strong prejudice against the name. You have much troubled me, Mrs. Shaxton, by this tremulous handwriting” (he gave her back the letter), “and by the danger of this man. I promise you I will see a Superintendent of Police, who is, I think, here this evening, and if this Sir William Heans has done nothing worse than some preliminary haunting of gambling rooms, some organising matter may be found for him.”

He rose again, hesitated an instant, and passed over to the door of the ballroom. Pausing there, he beckoned, and the young aide-de-camp appeared. Him he dismissed with an order and returned. On the quarter-deck, the band began suddenly blaring, and the two old ladies, as if fascinated by the old summons, rose and tottered with smiles and trembling yellow ringlets towards it.

“I have sent for the officer,” said Sir John Franklin. “He will tell us in two words all we want to know. Who are those two old angels, Mrs. Shaxton?”

“It is old Mrs. Ordway, of Saltin Island, and Miss Meurice, sir,” said Matilda, who was near to weeping. “Thank you—thank you, sir, for doing so much for our prisoner. But,” she

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added, hastily, “if the police-officer is Mr. Daunt, he knows Sir William Heans well and has often met him at our house.”

At that moment Daunt entered from the ballroom with the aide-de-camp, and the Governor rose and went forward a little way to meet him. They were out of earshot, but Matilda was reassured much by the quiet ease of Daunt's face as he talked, and the look of helpful friendliness and familiar acquaintance he several times threw towards her. They stood a short time talking earnestly. Presently Sir John turned and came rather heavily towards her. “It can be done—possibly, Mrs. Shaxton,” he said. “Mr. Daunt says he thinks the news of Sir William Heans is satisfactory, and that he has as clean a bill of health as himself. I am glad of this.” (Yet he did not smile.) “Accept my compliments for a brave woman.” He offered her his arm, and she rose and took it. They passed Daunt as they traversed the little enclosure, and he gave a brisk shadow of a smile and a nice little bow. There was something so pleasant and unexacting in what he surely had kept to himself, and how it had all been done, that a rush of gratitude flooded Matilda's heart and she bowed to him affectionately. She looked back as she passed into the ballroom and thought how thin and pale he looked. Sir John Franklin said very little to her as he took her along, erect and fine, beside the flags. His conversation had become polite and brief. Once he said: “Mr. Daunt tells me he is your husband's oldest friend here. According to Mr. Charles Lamb, the ladies are chary of their husband's friends. Your happy circle seems an exception.” She laughed a little, wondering, yet thanking him once again. His chieftain-like eyes seemed a little tired as he bade her a somewhat grave good-night.