XXIII The Tale of Suicide

MY engagement with my sweetheart was not countenanced by her uncle and aunt without opposition. Mr. Shaw inflicted upon me a bad quarter-hour, which I shall never forget, to such a rigorous cross-examination did he submit me. If I had not been previously thoroughly persuaded that he regarded me with much sincere affection, I must have considered him as the sternest of business men, and the hardest parent imaginable. I told him that I possessed only enough money to

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enable me to take my degree as LL.B., and that thereafter I should be obliged to depend upon the profession of law, combined with politics, as a means of livelihood. He there-upon very frankly informed me that I had no right to approach his niece while my prospects remained so poor; he said it would, in all probability, take me many years to earn more than bread and cheese at the bar, and even if I entered Parliament, as was my ambition, the salary I should receive of £300 per annum as a member was of too precarious a tenure to be seriously considered. This interview took place at his office, and I left him feeling much abashed, and half convinced that he looked upon me as a fortune-hunter. Mrs. Shaw was more charitable; she admitted that it was not my fault I was not a rich man, but declared that she did not think it right that Miss Denton and I should become engaged until I had taken my degree, and had been called to the bar. This would necessitate our waiting for nearly tow years, for although I was then in my third year at the University, the law degree was not conferable within a year of attaining the B.A.

My sweetheart, however, promptly took the matter into her own hands. She sent for me one evening, and leading me before Mr. and Mrs. Shaw, introduced me to them as her fiancé, with these words: “It is no use you dear people protesting, for the matter of my engagement concerns me, and me only. All that you have a right to demand is that I shall marry a presentable man. Well, I don't think you can deny that Lucas is presentable. I tell you frankly that I love him, and I shall marry him whenever he wishes me to.” With that she put her hand within my arm and looked at them with smiling defiance.

Mr. Shaw shrugged his shoulders. “Of course it is your own business, May,” he said; “you are your own mistress now, and I have no longer any right to control your actions. I thought it, however, my duty to protest, and I still hope that you will wait until Lucas can make himself independent before you marry. You know how glad people always are at a chance to talk. Everyone will say that he has married you for your money. It is always an odious thing for a husband to be dependent on his wife.”

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“Do you think I care a pin what people say?” she cried, scornfully. “So long as I am satisfied, how dare they talk! Lucas does not trouble about my money, I can tell you.”

Mrs. Shaw threw up her hands. “Don't tell me that you think of getting married soon?” she gasped.

“It rests with Lucas!” replied my sweetheart, proudly. “I am his, when he wants me, and everything I possess. I only wish I were ten times richer for his sake!”

I squeezed her hand, so grateful and proud, that I felt my eyes burn. I turned to our elders, and said as sweetly as I could,

“Dear sir and madam, please try and think a little more kindly of me. I shall not marry your niece until after I have taken my degree in Arts, and that cannot be for six months hence, but I do not see why we should wait longer for our happiness. May's money would elsewise be a curse to us both, rather than a blessing. Believe me, I shall not always be dependent on her; I shall work all the harder because of her sweet generosity, and before we marry every penny she possesses shall be settled upon her as firmly as you, Mr. Shaw, may desire!”

It was then that they made a virtue of necessity. Mr. Shaw observed, with rather a husky voice, that I should know he liked me, and did not think me a fortune-hunter; and Mrs. Shaw, after a moment's hesitation, gave me a motherly kiss, whereupon she and May fell into each other's arms and had a quiet weep together. To my delight no one thought to question me as to my antecedents; they knew certainly that I was an orphan, so I suppose they took it for granted that I had no relatives on my part whose wishes I should consult. Edward quizzed me unmercifully when he heard of my success, but I think he was sincerely glad of it. I told him I had confided to May the secret of my birth, and how she had received the information.

He nodded, and said, kindly, “That was rightly done, Lucas. Well, old boy, soon we shall be cousins, and let me tell you I have no blood relative outside the mater and the governor whom I like half as well.”

A week swiftly passed by, each hour of which was a

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period stolen from Paradise. I lived in a perfect dreamland, into which not a single disturbing thought dared seek an entrance. In the mornings I dreamed through my studies; the afternoons and evenings I spent with my sweetheart, wrapped in a trance of love; and I returned each night to my rooms like one in a gentle delirium of joy. For the time I forgot the world, the Push, everything, except the beautiful girl who loved me; I have no excuse to offer for my folly, save that I loved, and that my love was strong enough to overwhelm both reason and memory.

I think my uncle must have been aware of what I had done, almost from the first, for he had always enveloped me with spies; but for a week he made no sign. While I dreamed, he cogitated, schemed, and planned. On the tenth evening after May's return to Sydney, I walked home to my cottage a little before midnight, my fancy, as usual, steeped in splendid visions. I was destined to have a rude awakening. Entering my bedroom, I found seated there, like six silent ghosts, my uncle and his five councillors. They had climbed in from the fernery through the open window. My uncle had a copy of that week's Bulletin open in his hand.

I started violently. I read an omen in the faces of all. I felt in my heart what was to come. They offered me no greeting; all sat like mutes, staring at me accusingly.

My uncle broke the silence. “Sit down!” he commanded.

I obeyed. He raised the journal to his eyes, and read aloud:

“An engagement has been arranged between Miss May Denton, one of Sydney's heiresses and prettiest girls, who has just returned from a long sojourn in the old country and Mr. Lucas Rowe, a young Englishman of good family, who is a student at the Sydney University. The marriage will take place as soon as this fortunate young man takes his degree in Arts, which, barring accidents, means about six months hence.”

My uncle silently handed the paper to me. I had not seen the paragraph. The Bulletin was a smart society paper which I seldom looked at. In order to collect my

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wits I put it before my face and scanned the column. At first the print played strange gambols, but presently another paragraph met my eyes. I read it word by word without comprehension, but it so fascinated and compelled my attention that gradually its meaning dawned upon me. “Miller's Point enjoys the grim distinction of holding the record among all Sydney suburbs for felo-de-se, and a curious feature observable about those of its inhabitants who vicariously seek such a refuge from the ills of life, is that a great proportion have preferred the death by water to all others. During the last two years, without apparent rhyme or reason, no less than six respectable and well-to-do tradesmen have cast themselves into the sea. The body of the latest of these unfortunates, one John McSwiney, was picked up on Wednesday last, where it had been washed on to the rocks at Bondi. In one of his pockets was found a half-obliterated letter addressed to his wife, the contents of which go to prove that the poor wretch must have been deranged in mind before he committed the rash act, for they contained an unintelligible request to conceal the manner of his death from his son, William McSwiney, a child of six, who died a month ago of scarlet fever. When he left his home to proceed upon the fatal expedition Mr. McSwiney carried quite a large sum of money with him in his pocket-book. This has vanished, probably wrested from him by the waves, but his watch still reposed in his vest-pocket when he was discovered.”

In my turn I put down the paper. A revelation had come to me. I discerned the hand of the Push in the reputed suicide of John McSwiney. The obliterated letter, the foolish reference to his month-dead child, the large sum of money that had vanished; above all, the fact that McSwiney had been a resident of Miller's Point. The Push, then, had broken their vow to me, probably many times. It was possible that the six tradesmen mentioned by the Bulletin as having drowned themselves within the two past years had all been murdered by the Push. It was possible that there were even other victims. The horror of my thoughts paralysed my faculties, but only for a moment. In another I was stirred with a dull cold anger. I turned to my uncle;

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my face was stiff, almost rigid. I had to force my jaws open, in order to speak, with a real physical effort.

“I am waiting,” I said.

“Is it true?” he demanded.

I returned to him the paper. I pointed out the paragraph I had read.

“Is that true?” I asked, and my voice grated horribly.

He read it slowly; he then passed it to Jack Robin. The whole council read it; meanwhile my uncle stared at the floor, biting his lips. Dave Gardner was the last to read, he let the Bulletin fall when he had finished. The rustle made such a loud noise in the dead stillness of the room that they all started; guiltily, I thought.

“Boys!” cried my uncle, who appeared curiously upset. “You tell him he is wrong. He accuses us of murder!”

I held up my hand. “Sir!” I said, hoarsely, “the French have a proverb—‘qui s'excuse, s'accuse,’ which means ‘he who excuses himself, accuses himself.’ I did not accuse you. I asked you was that true—that tale of suicide. Your thoughts flew at once to murder!”

“Damn you!” he cried, in an instant furious; “don't you dare hector me, boy. If you think that we put those coves away, you're a blasted fool; we didn't. The crowner brought 'em all in suicides, and they all left letters behind 'em. So put that in your pipe and smoke it!”

“Did they write those letters, uncle?”

He sprang to his feet; his face was livid with rage. In two seconds he stood before me; in another I was lying on the floor half-stunned from a brutal blow, and he was kneeling on my chest, his fingers clutching at my throat. He would have killed me then and there, I make no doubt, but that the councillors roughly dragged him from me. Even so he fought against them like a wild beast; for the moment a veritable madman, and the five had as much as they could do to hold him. I got up and resumed my chair, with dazed head and swimming senses. I watched the struggle curiously, every detail of it. I marked my uncle's strength gradually wane, and with its decadence the return of his reason. He ceased fighting, and of a sudden collapsed. They led him panting to a chair. He was chalk-white, and

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sobbed like a hysterical woman, but without tears, his head thrown back in wild abandon. After a time he partially recovered, and glared at me. I returned his glance without fear. I was stone cold, my hands felt like ice.

“You'll give up that girl!” he said, choking between each word.

“I'll not!”

“Within a week, or——” he gasped, and clawed at the air; he looked like one of Doré's devils.

“Or what?” I questioned, icily.

He rose unsteadily to his feet, and swayed from side to side, trying to speak. I thought he was about to fall in a fit, but I hated him too much to pity him.

“Or what?” I repeated, with a sneer.

“Death!” he roared out, of a sudden.

I sneered in his face. “Kill me now, murderer!” I cried.

He staggered towards his councillors, who immediately gathered round him. He clutched Robin's shoulder, and, so supported, turned to me. “Not you; not you, boy. I never meant to touch you—you angered me past bearin'.”

“Whom then?” I demanded.

“Her!” he almost screamed the word.

“Uncle!” I cried, aghast, and I, too, started to my feet. “You are mad; it is only a threat!”

But he turned from me. “Take me away; take me away!” he muttered, “I'm sick, I'm sick. As for you, boy, I'll send one to you. You do my bidding or you'll suffer. Oh, I'm sick!”

I watched the councillors give him some spirit, then bear him off between them. I, too, was sick, sick with fear and horror. But even then I was not permitted to rest alone. One man returned—Pat Daly. He patted me roughly on the shoulder, and muttered, “You oughtn't to cross your uncle, Lucas, it'll never do no good.”

I looked up at him, of a sudden longing for a little sympathy. I tried to read his soul. “Pat!” I said, “they killed your brother!” but then I started from him, for I remembered what my uncle had told me. “Ah!” I cried, with a violent shudder. “Don't touch me; don't come near me, you strangled him with your own hands.”

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“It's a lie!” he cried; “I never did!”

“What! think what you say. My uncle told me he was caught playing traitor, and you—you strangled him!”

“He lied then,” said Daly, with a sullen frown. “He was put away for drunkenness behind my back. They was frightened he'd split on us some day drunk, and so they did him up. I knew naught about it till afterwards. Poor old Alf was no traitor; never a Daly would turn on his pals.”

“Oh!” I gasped. “Oh! what would you do, Pat, if you loved a girl, and they threatened to kill her rather than you should have her?”

He frowned and shook his head. “You mustn't cross your uncle, Lucas; it's no good; it'll only lead to harm. You'll have to give up that girl. To-morrow night Judith Kelly's coming out to you.”

“What for?” I cried.

“To live with you!”

I writhed in my chair. “This!” I gasped. “This is their plan. I may not have the girl I want, but I must have Judith Kelly.”

“And be true to her!” said Daly, sternly. “It's no good kicking, Lucas; you've got to take your gruel, and there's lots in the Push who'd rush your chance with Judy Kelly. She's the finest girl in the Point.”

“And if I refuse?”

“That's what I come back for to give you a word of friendly warning over. If you kick, it's all up with the other one. It's all fixed, Lucas, the whole Push is in it; lots drawn, and everything passed but the decree! Only two voted the other way, and they're both mad on Judy.”

My brain reeled. “If you attempt to harm her—so much as attempt it,” I cried, “I tell you, and you can tell the Push, I shall go straight to the police and acquaint them with everything!”

He smiled pityingly at me. “You're a bit dotty just now, boy,” he said, kindly, “you'll think different and sensible of all this to-morrow.”

“Tell my uncle I refuse. Tell him I defy him, defy the lot of you!” I cried, wildly. “Judith Kelly shall never enter my doors. I swear it by heaven!”

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Pat Daly shook his head, and without another word departed from the cottage. I spent the night feverishly pacing the floor. I made a thousand desperate resolutions, all of which were wild and impotent for good. The future lay black before me. My dream of bliss was broken, and its fragments dispersed. I could not bring myself to give up my sweetheart, and yet I felt that my love for her had now become a sword above her head, that threatened her sweet life in no uncertain fashion.