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  ― 52 ―

Chapter VIII Love and Death

THE Captain's house was, perhaps, the highest on the left of the town. It can be seen to-day, reared aloft on stone retaining walls, above the golf-links; while the precipitous road leading up to it, now open to gazers in the Reservoir Valley, was then hidden in wild scrub and trees. Still well above the later born houses, the place lies secluded beneath the impregnable woods of the hills, its walls starred with the crimson blossoms of knotty old geraniums.

On an afternoon, not many days after the ball, a tall man in a pea-coat and small, black, flat-crowned slouch, started to ascend the Pitt's Villa Hill, stopping, however, before he reached the retaining wall across the top. Here, in the shadow of the hanging woods, he gave up his climb, and began to stride about among the logs and bushes by the wayside. He seemed pale with the upward tramp from the town. His face was peaked, small, doubting, and gaunt; and curious brown leather half-boots poked from the broken straps of his black frieze trousers. He had a very small mouth like a button, an immense sharp nose, and watery, uncertain eyes. His movements were stiff—his air even stupid—and he looked about him, his hat somewhat back upon his head, as if he had been born uncertain into this world, and was still far from being confident of his foundation. This dull and temporary air was not only a characteristic of his countenance, but seemed to sit even in the hang of his still aspiring neckwear.

The man, after a little, wandered from the right to the left hand of the road, and here stood with his foot on a recumbent tree, looking dully down into the wood. He was there, singularly quiet, for a matter of twenty minutes, when, a noise of galloping rising from behind the trees, he immediately returned into the road and began to descend. He again stopped, however, as Sir William Heans turned into the road on a bay horse and galloped easily up the hill.

His somewhat fevered eyes were on the man from the first, and not till he was close up under the wall did he rein in, trotting up with spurring heels.

“Captain Stifft sir.” he cried. “you will have to scuttle from


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here. The police are awake to some faddle on the way. The good lady, above, wrote yesterday. The fellow Daunt is testing the ground about me—poking into my coming and going. Give me my news, sir. Get down by the wood and in by the beach.”

“Why,” said the other, his dull eyes yellowing a little, “some servant-woman up there must have turned on you!”

“One of the young women, you think—more possibly a mere nosing into my business. Basset was at the Boundary and saw me as I came through. Some of them want to take away this pass. They may take a gallop along here.”

“Hang it, have you been dallying with some young woman, Sir William?”

“'Pon my word,” said Heans; “it doesn't always require such strong measures, does it! Come, Captain, I'll spare you two minutes!”

“Well, if they've got a vapour of evidence you've been meeting me,” said Stifft, dully, “they'll never take eyes off us. I'll take my hook through the scrub. Mr. Daunt has never stood me since I dealt with Shelk. I don't know how he found out. We landed him with the sealers on Kangaroo Island. Daunt all but spoke to me.”

Sir William began to shake his reins.

“Wait a minute,” said Stifft. “I've got a piece of good news. Here, I have a provisionary receipt for the Emerald—yes” (he hastily held up a paper to the rider), “that's all right now, if you've got the £400. She's dirty and not much as to bottom planking, but she'll do the v'ige with a red-leading and a bit of a scrape. She goes for the seal-skins again. That's repeating my last venture with the Jargonelle; but Dawson and O'Neil made that reputable. It's a piece grim, my buying her myself.”

Heans took the paper. His voice was high and his hand was trembling.

“And Dawson and O'Neil won't move?” he asked.

“No, they won't do it.”

“What are they propping at?”

“They've been to look at her. They don't favour with the ship. But she's well enough. She'll do Vansittart Island.”

Sir William crushed the document into his waistcoat pocket. “My Heaven, Stifft,” groaned he, stretching out a lavender glove and touching the other's shoulder, “so you've done it, have you! Why, it's too good to believe!” (He drew away sharply, staring behind him.) “These great lanky trees!” he said, “I can't believe I shall ever rid my eyes of them! How shall I get those notes to you?” he finally asked. “Ought I to see you after this?”

“No,” said Stifft. “I can't come again. Better not risk it all.” He looked at Heans' face with a dazed, peculiar, shy look. “Would the lady—Mrs. Shaxton—er—do something for us in that line? Look, sir, I'd be at the turning into Davey Street on


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Tuesday after three, and she could drop them out of the fly as she drove down.”

Heans glared down the hill again with his hand on his croupe. He was white in the face, but calmer.

“Would she do it?” hazarded Stifft, with that dull, peculiar stare.

“Yes, I am sure she would do it,” said Heans.

“Well then, I'll wait under the oil-lamp at the corner. You can describe my features,” he explained, with a facile naiveté, “and she'll hear me call out ‘Stifft’—so—as if I was sneezing. I needn't see you after that for the four weeks. I'll tar her outside, get the red-lead in at once, and pick the boy. When all's ready, I'll go to Fraser's and hang about. Don't speak to me. I'll pass a message to you, somehow. Just give me a nod like a respectable gentleman.”

“Well, Captain,” said Heans, “it will leave me—so to speak—cleaned out. You must do with the £400, and I must give up my Burgundy. 'Pon my soul, I'd sell my bed and take to ‘pink champagne’ for a chance of that schooner!” He flushed slowly over the face and temples. “The good woman,” he said. thinking possibly of his landlady, “she'll do that much!”

“Name of Quaid, isn't it, 25 —— Street?” asked Stifft.

Sir William nodded, looking back and listening.

“Ah, faithful soul!” he sighed, settling his reins. “Thanks, Stifft. I'll get away up—I'll get her—madam—to do that, and,” he put his hand again on the other's shoulder, gazing at him sternly, “help a poor devil out of it.”

Stifft eyed him darkly, with his dazed, disappointed eye. “I don't know whether to warn you for or against the blessed women,” he cried, in a sudden high panic. “In my knowledge, they've saved men, and they've brought men to the roads, for a lark as I see it. Spitfire beldams—beauteous, kindly natures—you can trust this one, ye can nurse that one, ye can pray to the one yonder, ye can take and dub that one in the rivulet and be in your rights. Yes, and this will go over to the enemy of its father, while that'll sit with its mother's son all its life. Oh, mercy upon us, I leave it to you gentlemen, Sir William Heans—to your gentleman's honour and cunning, if that'll tell you!”

The man snatched his hand from Sir William's saddle, and with a cry of warning, sprang away across the road, and down the embankment into the broken logs and wattle of the lower wood. Sir William did not pause to listen, but, to cover Stifft, slashed down his cane and shot his horse to a gallop. In a few terrible jerks he was round in the shelter of the retaining wall.

On this same Wednesday following the Sailors' Ball, Matilda had gone out into the front to gather some white valerian for a child's burial, and was tragically picking among the blowing bushes, when she heard the distant thumping of a horse in the


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wood. In some alarm because of the pace, she listened with the valerian in her hand, while it thundered nearer, till—suddenly bellowing into a gallop below the garden—the horseman appeared flashing up along the sea-wall towards the gate. This was near the house-door, and some twenty yards to her right, and through its slats could be seen the grey-green channel flecked with storm-waves. Next instant the rider dismounted between sea and gate, and Sir William Heans came in, with his face much flushed, hurrying behind him his frightened horse. He swiftly latched the gate without looking about him. He then urged his horse along the walk across the house front. The quiet and trembling Matilda he did not see. Pausing beside a hitching-post in some uncertainty, he eventually came to a decision, and continued along the drive to the stables, through the high wooden gate of which he led the animal. He was out again almost as soon as he had entered, but, still blind to Mrs. Shaxton's tearful figure among the flowers, returned at a swift pace to the front. In a few seconds the lowering maid opened the door and let him in.

He had no sooner gone than Mrs. Shaxton ran to the stable gates, pushed the great prison-bolt to, locked the staple and removed the key. Then, still clinging to the flowers, she fluttered after Heans to the front, where she was met by the servant-maid, who held aside the door.

Not five minutes afterwards, a fresh guest appeared behind the sea gate. It was actually. Daunt of the foot police himself. He entered in a leisurely way, though his brown cob glistened with sweat; and with a glance of some intentness about the garden, took the animal to the hitching-post.' Buckling it securely, he did not approach the door, but strode on as if to stretch his legs, past the stable, the entrance to which he stared at, but did not closely approach. The next instant, he took a running leap at the gate, pulled himself up with splendid and finished agility, and sprang over. A few minutes after, he appeared again on the gate, wiping his hands with his handkerchief, and jumped into the garden. Returning along the drive, he seemed hardly flustered by his exertions, but his alert face was stern as death.

The same maid—a large brown woman with a sinewy step—let him in. She greeted him with a little, hissing, serene smile—a sort of half-angry familiarity—as if she half-expected he would ask her more than the whereabouts of Mrs. Shaxton.

Matilda came into the drawing-room with the valerian, and greeting Sir William, told him of the child for whom she had been picking it. Sir William touched the flowers in her hands with his lavender glove, and, remembering death, was dumb. She looked up at him with her staring eyes.

Presently she went to a table, on which were some vases of cut green, and a buckram shape in the form of an anchor. Here


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she sat down and began to cut and plait the leaves. The man—hot and flushed—took a chair, and watched her through his eyeglass.

“You're making new moorings for the little ship?” he said.

“Yes—that's for hope,” said Matilda Shaxton.

The channel wind howled up and shook the windows.

“Ah, there's the wind!” said Sir William; “I'm sorry the little child's dead.”

“She was like my own,” said Matilda, dropping her face a little nearer the flowers. “She would come here in the morning, and I used to tell her what I could of the world—and there—she's not to be troubled!”

“You too—not in love with life!” said Heans. “The dead child has missed nothing—you think?”

“Missed!” said Matilda, reaching slowly among the green. “She might have been beautiful for a little while; used it for good—she was a good little girl—she might have married; yes; might have helped and aided by her patience. Men's and women's patience—it's wonderful. Don't you think” (suddenly staring at him) “it's wonderful!”

“Yes,” said Sir William, dropping eyes and head floorward; “somehow the grave shows us where we sit. There are only one or two things.”

“We sit here in this room,” she said, “a little way behind the child.”

“Soon we're gone,” agreed Sir William, looking hungrily at her lit hair. “And the room's empty of us.”

“Yes—all go,” she said chokingly, breathlessly. “She's gone a little sooner. But she knew affection and kindness. She'd seen the beauty of the world. She'd enjoyed and—and helped. There wasn't much she'd missed. I think, with her, love meant help.”

“Help!” cried Heans. “But the child might have been loved for her beauty!”

“Oh——” (looking away at the grey window), “she might have loved.”

“She might have loved passionately,” whispered Sir William Heans. “Would not her silent chamber be the warmer for that?”

“But there's the wind goes by the window, sir,” she said, wildly, “crying ‘What were they all wearying for; what was it all about? They're gone now—gone—gone, and at peace!’” Suddenly she was weeping as she looked out.

He had risen to his feet. “And here's the silent room,” he said, in a shaken whisper, “and yourself gone, and the flowers, and none to treasure your beauty or your kindness——”

A sudden thumping of hoofs came up the passage and Sir William stiffened. Pale Matilda seemed to hold her breath, and suddenly dragged her eyes from the window, and rose. She


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stopped, however, as she was sidling past him, shrinking away with a grave face. “I will leave the anchor,” she said, in a wraith of a voice, putting it upon the table, “and go from here, Sir William Heans. You speak of my beauty, sir,” (in a voice almost baleful) “as if it were of value. I tell you it is the least part of me: a poor, ephemeral summer's garment. Here stand I among my bones—Matilda Shaxton. Am I not your friend? They will bury my bones, like those of the little body here” (she pointed down at the wreath), “and I will still be that.”

He turned and would have stayed her—he with his heated, pallid face, shame, shrinking, recklessness of imminent danger, and all—but she had slipped to the door with her dark dress and her fair head.

Sir William went to the window, and putting his foot upon a chair, leant upon his elbow looking out. There was a gleam of sun on the lashing channel and the opposite hills. The trees heaved and the house sang. He was there still—but little calmer—when the door opened and Daunt was shown in by the woman: he dapper and smiling, she white-eyed, with significant mouth-corners.

Daunt's eye dwelt for a second on the cut flowers, and flashed about at Heans, who turned at that moment with a proud face, moved and pale.

“You here, Daunt?” he said, clearing his throat.

“Mrs. Shaxton has just gone away. There is to be a funeral.”

“So the maid tells me,” said Daunt, somewhat curtly, in spite of his amiable expression. His eyes, as he spoke, passed curiously from Hean's face to his coat, and from his coat to his trousers. “You rode?” he asked. “I did not see your horse in the garden?”

“I put it in the stable out of the plaguey wind,” said Heans, sitting down and throwing his head up. “What a place it is for wind!”

Daunt also sat down upon a chair by the table.

“Has Mrs. Shaxton been long gone?” he asked, swiftly.

“Just gone,” said Heans. “I must explain. Er—it was a little child—a neighbour's child. Mrs. Shaxton is sad about it.”

“Heavens! it must be little Emily Meurice!” said Daunt, with a dark flush. His amiable manner suddenly left him, and he became sharp and bitter. “You can tell me,” he hissed, “If the Captain is about to-day?”

“I do not know, sir,” said Heans, stiffening.

“What! You don't know!” (He gave his hearty little laugh.) “You haven't quarrelled with him, come now! He'd have been in, if he was at home?”

“I don't think he would have much to gain, sir!' said Sir William, forcing out a jerky laugh. “I tell you what it is”


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(with a glaring hauteur, if still laughing), “you do talk damnable rubbish!”

Daunt darted a look at him, “Indeed—indeed!” said he, holding himself calmly. “Indeed, who would quarrel with a man like that! An easy-going, unsuspicious, joking, hospitable gentleman! Heans, you have my sympathy about the neglected prison. I suppose, sir, you hang about here in hopes of your colleague's return?”

“I hang about here!” said Heans. He dropped his glass, and swinging it, said in a hoarse voice: “We must remember where we are!”

“Oh, very well—I merely understood you'd been about here all day. I agree with you, it is a thankless task waiting upon these restless fellows—these witty gentlemen so much in demand!” Daunt had his mouth in his cupped hands, and he was speaking into them as one might into a trumpet.

Sir William suddenly rose to his feet, saying, with a fierce reserve: “Whom have I the honour to discuss with you? Is it our hostess, Captain Shaxton, or myself—a prisoner at a disadvantage with you? This woman has by her kindness—her companionship——”

“This woman!” slashed back the other, with an upward glance. “This is a lady, sir—one whom I have known and revered dearly for these three years—years of honourable friendship and close intercourse.”

Each eyed the other in a fierce silence for a moment.

“Mrs. Shaxton has, I say,” continued Heans, “made my life bearable here——”

“Yes, and for comfort's sake, she may connect her name with yours—yes—yes——?”

“What!”

“I say, connect her name with yours—your name.”

“My name? My——name!”

Sir William stood there daunted for a moment. Suddenly he burst out: “She has made my life more tolerable, I say—a mode of existence, you appear to think, needs the addition of your flippancy and approbation!”

“My flippancy, you singed butterfly!” (Daunt rose with eyes balefully fixed.) “I put it to you, you'd find a flower to trifle with in the Garden of Eden.”

Sir William had been standing there, his hand in his velvet waistcoat, and scorn on his pale face. A great relief suddenly overcharged this, and possibly to hide a change he was aware of, he bowed his head with elaborate courtesy, stepping backward. Daunt whipped a glance behind him. Just inside the door, Mrs. Shaxton was standing, with her hand still on the handle. Her long forehead-curls vibrated about a face of tense anger. She pointed her hand at Sir William Heans.

“You are to blame, sir,” she said, in a strained, broken voice,


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“for” (and her voice suddenly broke altogether) “this behaviour in a house where you know that there is mourning. Stand back, sir—and you, Mr. Daunt, if Sir William Heans can so easily forget a friend's grief, you need not have forgotten the many days of friendship this room has seen—its record of goodwill which you have broken. Ah, Sir William Heans, is this a gambling-house that you should dare to speak as you choose in it? It is my home, to which I made you welcome. Mr. Daunt, you are an old friend here——”

“Always your servant, madam,” interrupted Daunt, with his frowning face hung towards her.

“Give it to me, then, with less show of sternness.”

“I serve you, madam, with such means as I am allowed; as an old friend I serve you.”

“A friend too eager—too eager—too bitter after fault, Mr. Daunt—too ready to punish—too doubting——”

“To a lady so fine-hearted—to an old friend?”

“Have I a fine heart, Mr. Daunt? Thank you—thank you! It's a heart helpful or hating, as its friends choose to make it. This has been a terrible day! Emily dead—ah, threats and anger in the house whose blinds are drawn for her! You had better go—my—my comforting friends—what have you for a bitter woman?” She turned back through the door, her hand still on the handle, yet again confronting them, as though she could not let them go with such sour words. Daunt stood among the chairs between her and Heans, and faced her with head slightly lowered, yet stern eyes lifted, as if he would probe her soul. Heans, glass in hand, with a sort of homage, yet with his pale, handsome face tense and unutterably dignified in its withheld anger, seemed patiently to wait until he might go. Yet the hand which held the eyeglass had dulled it, and the fingers quivered over some regret.

“Go now, please, Mr. Daunt,” whispered Matilda, “and please come back again when you can, and we are happier, and help me to forget the anger and dreadful words which have been spoken here.” She held out her hand, and he suddenly sprang forward and bent his head over it. He was going out, and Sir William Heans would have passed her without a word, when she touched him—speaking rather appealingly.

“Sir William Heans, here is the key of the yard gate.” (Daunt did not turn his head.) “We have locked your horse in. He is restive and the latch is loose. We were frightened that he would break his bridle and get into the garden.”

He started, almost snatching the key. “Thank you, thank you,” he said gratingly. “I am sorry he has given you this trouble. The confounded wind—it maddens him.”

It must have suddenly flashed upon him why she had done it, and why she had just been so hostile to him. Bending away, he gave a blind look into her face, repeating, “Thank you.” As


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Daunt passed down the four steps to the lower hall, he looked up and saw the tears falling from the woman's proud eyes as she stood against the door.

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