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(vii)

THE night of the dinner was hot; nevertheless, most of the servants kept sober. Miss Milly maintained them so. She raided all cupboards in the morning, and locked up any liquor that might conceivably be employed as stimulus or soporific; marching to the clank of keys at her waist as to a solemn music, and with her own hand adding the final glorification of sherry to the turtle soup. Her eye was an arrow, her tongue a flail. She had all the attributes of deity, save omnipresence; she could not, unhappily for the issue, be everywhere at once. Thus at an hour when the hostess, dressed, curled and becomingly restless, should have been awaiting her guests' arrival, only Flusky was in the withdrawing-room, standing four-square, never shifting the cigar from under his drooping nose, nor moving his hands from his pockets. William Winter's alertness had perceived a kind of scurry among the maidservants at one period, following the departure of Miss Milly upstairs, and read a kind of satisfied thunder in that personage's brows when she returned, the expression of one justified in an ominous prediction. But nothing more. There was nobody to question. He had to make what he could of the fact that Flusky stood waiting alone.




  ― 38 ―

The dignitaries arrived. Flusky, correctly waistcoated and cravatted, received them with an odd dignity of his own, and made his wife's excuses:

“My wife isn't any too good, can't be with us. She hopes another time you'll give her the pleasure.”

The dignitaries eyed one another, and at once became more at ease, though it might be supposed that one or two of the married men regretted they would have nothing of interest to tell their wives. Mr. Adare even voiced this regret, saying that a dinner without ladies was no better than a board-meeting. There was laughter, and they went in to Miss Milly's turtle soup.

Mr. Adare and Banks, the student of aboriginal tongues and Colonial conditions, found themselves separated by the empty chair, the glasses and knives and forks, that should have accommodated their hostess. Both looked idly at the card, then quizzically at each other. As the first glass of sherry went down and the noise of gentlemanly talk grew louder, the Irishman said to the student:

“What is she, really?”

The student shook his head, and lifted an empty glass with significance.

“That way, is it? I meant the name, though.”

Banks again shook his head, looked for a moment at his host, and shrugged.

“I see,” answered Mr. Adare; and felt a moment's compassion for the man who could buy his wife, if she chose, diamonds for her garters, but not keep her sober.


  ― 39 ―
He turned to his neighbour, a soldier, and they fell to a discussion on the technique of flogging, and the scandal of Sudds and Thompson, one of Sir Ralph Darling's legacies to the incoming Governor.

It was just as the dessert was being set on the table; (walnuts from England; wine darkly glowing, that had rounded the Horn); at this moment, when the meal had done its duty, and the gentlemanly voices at last were loud and easy, their hostess appeared framed in the long window. She wore the leaf-green skirt of a ball-dress, with a cambric bodice which did not cover the rising points of her stays; red hair hung free on her magnificent shoulders, and her bare feet were shod with ancient red cloth slippers that flapped as she moved. She looked like a goddess careless of human clothing, or some heroine of antiquity run nobly mad.

Flusky did not see her at first. As the heads turned and the talk ceased he sprang up, with a face which Mr. Adare saw later in dreams, and put out a hand to keep her back. She took the hand with a pretty readiness, smiled, pressed it, and passed on to her place, the vacant chair at the table's foot. There, leaning on the chair's back, she graciously bent her head and spoke:

“Pray, gentlemen, excuse me. I was not aware of the hour. It is not too late, I hope, to take a glass of wine with you.”

Her speech was blurred, the syllables ran together as though written on damp paper, but the quality of the voice was not to be mistaken. Mr. Adare, for something


  ― 40 ―
to do, moved back the chair for her. She thanked him, and sat rather suddenly. The guests still stood, glancing under their brows at each other, until Flusky's voice loudly bade them sit down, sit down. Uncomfortably the dignitaries took their chairs, but the talk could not rise, it had been knocked on the head. A sentence or two, and the chink of a decanter's lip against glass, was the best they could do, while they directed their glances so as not to perceive the hostess's bosom or the host's face. Thus every man in the room heard what was being said at the foot of the table, where the red-haired woman was peering into the face of Mr. Adare.

“You have a look of somebody I knew. Long ago. In Ireland, was it? Somewhere——”

“I come from Ireland. Queen's County. Ballaloe. Adare is my name.”

“Ballaloe. I remember. Have you not a sister named Alethea?”

She made two attempts at the name; her tongue was thick; for all that Mr. Adare could recognize it and be astounded.

“You know her? You know Alethea?”

“Alethea Adare. We used to ride together. Riding——” She looked at Flusky, and laughed. “Riding's dangerous. How did you leave them at Ballaloe? My father—oh, but I was forgetting. My father died, not so very long after.”

At that Mr. Adare fairly jumped in his chair. With a glance at the card, on which William Winter had so


  ― 41 ―
doubtfully set out the courtesy title not borne by private gentlemen's wives, he said aghast and aloud:

“Lady Hattie; my God! Lady Hattie Considine, that ran off with the groom!”

“Not Considine,” said she correcting him, and kissed her hand, vaguely, in the direction of Flusky's chair. “He married me, you know. Was it not good of him? But he is such a good man. You mustn't believe the things they say.”

She rose suddenly and superbly from her chair, swaying a little with the grace of a blown tree; filled a tumbler with port and drank it down, not blinking; bowed one hand on the table for support, and made for the door. Adare ran to open it. As she reached him she paused mysteriously, a hand groping for his arm; the guests heard her whisper, after a backward look of triumphant cunning:

“Are you any kind of shot with a pistol?” He nodded. “Pray come with me upstairs. There's a something, I can't quite tell what, on my bed.”

Three minutes later, as the uneasy gentlemen sent port round the table, a shot was fired somewhere in the house. Each halted an instant the movement which engaged his hand—lifting, pouring, stretching—and Flusky made insufficient answer to the question thus mutely asked:

“Finish your wine.”

Dubiously the gentlemen obeyed. Whatever their speculations may have been, relief showed itself plainly when Mr. Adare reappeared in the doorway, betraying


  ― 42 ―
no sign of a struggle in his demeanour or his dress. He said with simplicity, and as though unaware that anything out of the way had passed:

“She'll be all right now.”

With that he sat down. The gentlemen longed to question; they waited for his uprising as for a signal, that they might all depart together and question him on the way home. But he sat on. At last the dignitaries, labouring jokes, and reminding each other of business to be done in the morning, gave up hope of Mr. Adare and departed, aware that the unfinished story would earn them a wigging from their wives. The adieux were cordial; the wine had been sound. At last they were gone, clop of hooves softened by dust, voices rallying and dying abruptly as the vehicles turned the hill.

On the shadowy verandah some blacks and their wives had gathered unnoticed. When the door closed they ran forward, and began to stuff nuts into their clothes, and, like so many monkeys, into the pouches of their cheeks. They sampled the wine, spitting out claret, sour stuff, but gulping brandy down. One of the gins drank from a little vase that adorned the epergne, pulling out the flowers, and looking mystified to find that these had imparted no sweet savour to their water. Another bound up her head in a white napkin. They talked, with sudden bursts of chatter that sounded angry, like monkeys. They were blissful; the cigar-ends and brandy would have been enough to make them so, without the added fun of plundering, which lent savour even to crumbled bread.




  ― 43 ―

Suddenly their leader, a man wearing a brass half-disc engraved with the name “Ketch,” signalled for quiet. They listened; then, with a final swig, a final fistful of raisins, scampered off, and were lost in the night. Two men came into the deserted dining-room, and one looked askance at the disorder.

“Never mind that,” said Flusky, “it's the blacks. They'd steal your big toe.”

Mr. Adare sat down, choosing a chair not damp with spewed claret, and asked his host point-blank:

“Is there anything we can do? Why don't you let her go back to Ireland?” Flusky looked at him. He amended the question. “Make her go back, then.” Flusky did not answer, which troubled Mr. Adare. “I don't like this. This isn't right at all. Coming into a roomful of men like that. And then afterwards—I had a pistol on me. I shot her bogy.” He pulled a little weapon from his tail-pocket. “Get her away out of this, can't you? For God's sake.”

“Her old father cut her off, he's dead, her mother's nothing but an old nanny-goat,” said Flusky rapidly and suddenly, and he imitated a kind of Irish country bleat. “Me-e! Me-e! All the time. What for do you say send Hattie back? What is there for her there? She can show her marriage-lines; who cares for that? They'd respect her the more, they'd take her back the sooner, if she'd none to show.”

“What started her drinking?” asked Mr. Adare in the merest conversational tone. “They don't


  ― 44 ―
get the horrors, women, till they're in pretty deep.”

“I was assigned here in Sydney,” Flusky answered, after a pause so long that the young man had time to draw his handkerchief through the pistol's dirty barrel. “I got into a piece of trouble once and they gave me up the ladder and down—there's the marks on me yet. Hattie—she'd followed me out. She went to the Superintendent, told him who she was. He made fun of her. She never used her rightful name after that—it's years ago, now. There was a bit of money from some old brooches she'd sold, bits of lace, I don't know what. She lived on it; but the drink got her before I'd got my ticket.”

Mr. Adare looked at the flabby man, involuntarily picturing the scars running ladderwise up his back.

“What did she say?” Flusky went on, with a jerk of the head towards the stairs.

“Not much. I shot the bogy for her that sits on the bedpost. She gave me a thank you, and started undressing for bed. It seemed to me time to be leaving then.”

Flusky nodded, and after a moment irrelevantly told him:

“I was their groom, ye know.”

“I'd heard the story.”

“It's her own people she misses. Not relations. Just the sort of women; ladies. Since I've made the money I've taken care to have gentlemen about the house. There's one now, my secretary, that was at some great school in England. She won't look at him, though,


  ― 45 ―
squeals when he's mentioned. She don't like the idea that he deceived some girl. Before him was a clergyman, a very quiet man, a forger. He's got his ticket now. There's always gentlemen getting into trouble; I can always be sure of a gentleman, no one else will put in for them, they can't make themselves useful, ye see; no offence. But you don't get ladies transported. So there's no company for her, and she don't take to the others.”

Mr. Adare was silent, unable to reconcile the simplicity of this recital with the reputation of his host as a man cunning, mysterious, and blunt to rudeness. As he sat puzzling, he was aware, as before in the bank secretary's office, of some compulsion being put upon him. Before he could recognize whence it came, and draw back to resist it, the words were out of his mouth:

“Let me have a word with her. Let me try.”

“Done,” answered Flusky at once, “why not? You're welcome.”

He stretched out his hand across the table. Mr. Adare for the second time took it, and once again felt a fleeting wonder at himself. Flusky got up to look for a clean glass, with some liquid in which to drink the partnership's success. But the blacks had been thorough, every drop of liquor was either drunk or spilled. Flusky, surveying the table, found an unbroken horseshoe of bread, and held it out to the other man.

“What's this?” said Mr. Adare, not understanding.

Flusky smiled, spat on the baked horseshoe, and


  ― 46 ―
tossed it over his shoulder out of the window behind him.

“For luck,” said he.

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