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  ― 33 ―

Chapter V A Rough Night for the “Sailors' Ball”

ON the same evening, Matilda Shaxton, sitting at her toilette, was hailed by her husband from his dressing-room with the remark: “Have you seen Sir William Heans this week?”

Matilda answered: “Sir William was here to-day, Paul.”

“Looking well?”

“Yes—pretty well.”

“Daunt has got a beastly story of his being mixed up in some affray in Tout Street, at a gambling room. He oughtn't to go there.” Matilda smiled in a wild way, and the tears pressed into her eyes. “Was Mr. Daunt stern about it?”

“Daunt says it's a bad downward step. He protested he would come against all sorts of undesirables there: prisoners, low ship's-officers, and drunken soldiers. Some of the prisoners are Government constables, and they listen to what a prisoner says when he's taken too much, and watch whom he associates with. He'll have to be doubly careful if he haunts those places. Daunt says Heans hadn't been inside the door a half an hour when he was told of it. The police don't like his airs. Half of this is Daunt's hocus pocus, but it's a pity to think of its getting about. I told Daunt to close his mouth about it. He's” (chuckling suddenly) “not fond of Sir William Heans.”

“Was he—was he gambling his money?” asked Mrs. Shaxton, putting up her soft hair.

“Yes, and drinking more than was good for him—if all's true. He came out with a convict named Carnt—a swindler of all people—and a shady fellow named Stifft, who's been suspected of connivance in escape, and lost a schooner and twenty lives off the Iron Pot. Went to his rooms. He mustn't take up with those fellows—can't you go for him about it, Matty?”

Mrs. Shaxton's prisoner-maid was arranging her mistress's lace with impassive face. Matilda turned her head aside and a sudden sob shook her. “Is it too tight, madam?” said the woman, pausing and looking up, and seeing her mistress's eyes, she bowed her head and continued.

“Mr. Daunt is so stern now,” Matilda called, with a little quaver of fear. “I don't know what is coming to him. I used to think him brave and just.”




  ― 34 ―

“Gracious G—d, bring these fellows up against a prisoner, and out come their claws! Daunt comes up here with his police-brand in his pocket, and he can't help testing it against Heans. But Daunt's a careful man. He wouldn't say a thing like that if it hadn't some truth in it.”

“Yes,” said Matilda, “but he's very stern, and very clever. He might exaggerate. He has not been kind in his manner to Sir William Heans. You remember he was here when Sir William first called. He intimated to me, when he was shown in, that he was not very desirable. Oh, I was so glad I had Miss Gairdener's letter!”

“Egad—that's what he said, is it! What do you think he said to me on Thursday? Ho-ho!—he said he didn't like his manners towards you—Mrs. Providence! Yes, I laughed. ‘Speaking of a nunnery,’ says I, ‘it must have been virulent if Mrs. Providence passed it!’

“Ah, poor Heans!” said Shaxton, in a lower key; “he's paying heavily for that business. Talk of dignity—people are always asking a fellow to know who he is! Higgs of the Guiding Star was asking me only last week (ho-ho-ho!) if it was the military commandant! There was Heans riding by with his eyeglass. Hanged if I know what to tell them!”

“And—was he drinking—Sir William Heans?”

“I don't think he was taking much—singing a song and that. (Where are my dancing-pumps?) Made'em all laugh the way he sang—so stiff and such a funny little dandy voice. I'd ha' given (bah! there's no buckling this cravat!)—I'd ha' given a quid—he-he—to have seen Heans singing.”

Mrs. Shaxton threw open her jewel-case, and fingered blindly among its contents. Her wild and determined eyes were on themselves in the glass. Her fingers slipped through pearls and garnets, and caught upon an old silver cross. This she drew out, and clasped by its hanger about her neck. It seemed too heavy for that frail pillar, but not yet for those wild eyes.

“Oh, Paul, he is in terrible danger!” she said, as she put on her long ear-rings. “I must see Mr. Daunt and try and win him over. Sir William Heans is very sensitive. His manner is all fineness and bravery. Perhaps—perhaps Mr. Daunt could privately shut those places to him. It is just their terrible temptation!”

“No—no,” answered Hyde-Shaxton. “Be careful how you interfere with a man's liberty. He's little enough of it—poor fellow, and jealous enough of that, I suppose. Think of it, after the way he was lionized in London! I'd put it to him yourself. He's very fond of you, Matilda. Get him up here on Friday (I'll be up at Risdon with a surveying party). Tell him that story about Megson and Relph, who were sent to Macquarie Harbour. Stay a moment, you've never heard that. Wait till I get this cravat buckled. It's bad, but it's Gospel truth. They


  ― 35 ―
were men of his own station, you know. It began, as I told you, by their going to those low places.”

Captain Shaxton here related a story which, for those interested, will be found at the end.note When he had done so, his voice dropped away, and for a while there was silence. Outside there was a pattering sound and a low roaring of the wind.

“Poor Miss Gairdener——” said Matilda, in a trembling tone, and then broke off. Presently her brave voice cried out: “I cannot bear to think of Sir William Heans even touching these places!”

“I can't think of the handsome old ‘Marquis’ on the downward path at all,” chuckled Shaxton, in a subdued way, “though it's getting an oldish tale with him, I suppose. I can't help seeing the joke of it, though, gracious G—d! it can be a black business. What would he do with his eye-glass at Port Arthur—ho, ho! It tickles me to think of it!”

“Don't!”

“Bless you, he's too fastidious! There's no danger!”

“Oh, do not!”

“Egad, it would be like thinking of somebody who was buried in a chimney-pot!”

No answer came from Mrs. Shaxton. There was a sound as of the Captain rising from a chair in his dressing-room.

“Beastly night, Matty! Wasn't that sleet on the windows? Ha,” he cried, “there's the carriage! Hurry up!” Then in the distance, as he opened his door: “Be kind to the poor fellow, Matty; he's got no decent woman but you to go to. You're not very kind to him—are you? Short—or something! He's out here alone. You've been treating him to some of your high moods, haven't you now?”

He seemed to wait in the passage for an answer, but none went to him. In her room Matilda whispered, “God forbid!” as, with pale throat up, she wound a shawl about her cheeks and side-curls.

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