On his arrival at Pollington, all the Shands welcomed him as though he had been the successful son or successful brother who had gone out from among them; and spoke of ‘Poor Dick’ as being the unsuccessful son or unsuccessful brother — as indeed he was. There did not seem to be the slightest anger against him, in that he had thriven and had left Dick behind him in such wretched poverty. There was no just ground for anger, indeed. He was well aware of that. He had done his duty by Dick to the best of his ability. But fathers and mothers are sometimes apt to think that more should be done for their own children than a friend’s best ability can afford. These people, however, were reasonable. ‘Poor Dick!’ ‘Isn’t it sad?’ ‘I suppose when he’s quite far away in the bush like that he can’t get it,’— by which last miserable shred of security the poor mother allowed herself to be in some degree comforted.
‘Now I want you to tell me,’ said the father, when they were alone together on the first evening, ‘what is really his condition?’
‘He was a shepherd when I last heard about him.’
‘He wrote to his mother by the last mail, asking whether something cannot be done for him. He was a shepherd then. What is a shepherd?’
‘A man who goes about with the sheep all day, and brings them up to a camp at night. He may probably be a week without seeing a human being, That is the worst of it.’
‘How is he fed?’
‘Food is brought out to his hut — perhaps once a week, perhaps once a fortnight — so much meat, so much flour, so much tea, and so much sugar. And he has thirty or thirty-five pounds a-year besides.’
‘No; — perhaps quarterly, perhaps half-yearly. He can do nothing with his money as long as he is there. If he wants a pair of boots or a new shirt, they send it out to him from the store, and his employer charges him with the price. It is a poor life, sir.’
‘Very poor. Now tell me, what can we do for him?’
‘It is an affair of money.’
‘But is it an affair of money, Mr. Caldigate? Is it not rather an affair of drink? He has had his money — more than his share; more than he ought to have had. But even though I were able to send him more, what good would it do him?’
This was a question very difficult to answer. Caldigate had been forced to answer it to himself in reference to his own conduct. He had sent money to his former friend, and could without much damage to himself have sent more. Latterly he had been in that condition as to money in which a man thinks nothing of fifty pounds — that condition which induces one man to shoe his horse with gold, and another to chuck his bank-notes about like half-crowns. The condition is altogether opposed to the regulated prudence of confirmed wealth. Caldigate had stayed his hand in regard to Dick Shand simply because the affair had been one not of money but of drink. ‘I suppose a man may be cured by the absence of liquor?’
‘By the enforced absence?’
‘No doubt they often break out again. I hardly know what to say, sir. If you think that money will do good — money, that is, in moderation — I will advance it. He and I started together, and I am sometimes aghast with myself when I think of the small matter which, like the point on a railway, sent me running rapidly on to prosperity — while the same point, turned wrong, hurried him to ruin. I have taken my glass of grog, too, my two glasses — or perhaps more. But that which would elate him into some fury of action would not move me. It was something nature did for me rather than virtue. I am a rich man, and he is a shepherd, because something was put into my stomach capable of digesting bad brandy, which was not put into his.’
‘A man has more than one chance. When he found how it was with him, he should have abstained. A man must pay the fine of his own weakness.’
‘Oh, yes. It is all understood somewhere, I suppose, though we don’t understand it. I tell you what it is, Dr. Shand. If you think that five hundred pounds left with you can be of any assistance, you can have it.’
But the doctor seemed to doubt whether the money would do any good, and refused to take it, at any rate for the present. What could he do with it, if he did take it? ‘I fear that he must lie upon his bed as he has made it,’ said the doctor sorrowfully. ‘It is a complaint which money cannot cure, but can always exaggerate If, without costing myself or my family a shilling, I could put a thousand pounds into his hands to-morrow, I do not know whether I ought to do it.’
‘You will remember my offer.’
The doctor thanked him, and said that he would remember. So the conversation was ended, and the doctor went about the ordinary occupation of his life, apparently without any settled grief at his heart. He had done his duty by his son, and that sufficed — or almost sufficed, for him.
Then came the mother’s turn. Could anything be sent to the poor lost one — to poor Dick? Clothes ran chiefly in her mind. If among them they could make up a dozen of shirts, would there be any assured means of getting them conveyed safely to Dick’s shepherd-hut out in the Queensland bush? In answer to this Caldigate would fain have explained, had it been possible, that Dick would not care much for a dozen new shirts — that they would be to him, even if received, almost as little a source of comfort as would be a ton of Newcastle coals. He had sunk below shirts by the dozen; almost below single shirts, such as Mrs. Shand and her daughters would be able to fabricate. Some upper flannel garment, and something in the nature of trousers, with a belt round his middle, and an old straw-hat would be all the wardrobe required by him. Men by dint of misery rise above the need of superfluities. The poor wretch whom you see rolling himself, as it were, at the corner of the street within his old tattered filthy coat, trying to extract something more of life and warmth out of the last glass of gin which he has swallowed, is by no means discomposed because he has no clean linen for the morrow. All this Caldigate understood thoroughly; — but there was a difficulty in explaining it to Dick Shand’s mother. ‘I think there would be some trouble about the address,’ he said.
‘But you must know so many people out there.’
‘I have never been in Queensland myself, and have no acquaintance with squatters. But that is not all, Mrs. Shand.’
‘What else? You can tell me. Of course I know what it is that he has come to. I don’t blind myself to it, Mr. Caldigate, even though I am his mother. But I am his mother; and if I could comfort him, just a little ——’
‘Clothes are not what he wants; — of clothes he can get what is necessary, poor as he is.’
‘What is it he wants most?’
‘Somebody to speak to; — some one to be kind to him.’
‘My poor boy!’
‘As he has fallen to what he is now, so can he rise again if he can find courage to give his mind to it. I think that if you write to him and tell him so, that will be better than sending him shirts. The doctor has been talking to me about money for him.’
‘But, Mr. Caldigate, he couldn’t drink the shirts out there in the bush. Here, where there is a pawn-broker at all the corners, they drink everything.’
He had promised to stay two days at Pollington and was of course aware of the dangers among which he walked. Maria had been by no means the first to welcome him. All the other girls had presented themselves before her. And when at last she did come forward she was very shy. The eldest daughter had married her clergyman though he was still only a curate; and the second had been equally successful with Lieutenant Postlethwaite though the lieutenant had been obliged in consequence to leave the army and to earn his bread by becoming agent to a soap-making company. Maria Shand was still Maria Shand, and was it not too probable that she had remained so for the sake of that companion who had gone away with her darling brother Dick? ‘Maria has been thinking so much about your coming,’ said the youngest — not the girl who had been impertinent and ill-behaved before, for she had since become a grown-up Miss Shand, and had a young attorney of her own on hand, and was supposed to be the one of the family most likely to carry her pigs to a good market — but the youngest of them all who had been no more than a child when he had been at Pollington before. ‘I hope she is at home,’ said Caldigate ‘At home! Of course she’s at home. She wouldn’t be away when you’re coming!’
The Shands were demonstrative, always; — and never hypocritical. Here it was; told at once — the whole story. He was to atone for having left Dick in the lurch by marrying Maria. There did seem to him to be a certain amount of justice in the idea; but then, unfortunately, it could not be carried out. If there were nothing else against it but the existence of the young lady at Chesterton, that alone would have been sufficient. And then, though Maria Shand was very well, though, no doubt, she would make a true and loving wife to any husband, though there had been a pretty touch of feeling about the Thomson’s ‘Seasons,’— still, still, she was not all that he fancied that a wife should be. He was quite willing to give £500 for Dick; but after that he thought that he would have had almost enough of the Shands. He could not marry Maria, and so he must say plainly if called upon to declare himself in the matter. There was an easiness about the family generally which enabled him to hope that the difficulty would be light. It would be as nothing compared with that coming scene between himself and aunt Polly, perhaps between himself and his uncle Babington, or perhaps — worse again — between himself and Julia!
When he found himself alone with Maria in the drawing-room on the following morning, he almost thought that it must have been arranged by the family. ‘Doesn’t it seem almost no time since you went away,’ said the young lady.
‘It has gone quickly; — but a great deal has been done.’
‘I suppose so. Poor Dick!’
‘Yes, indeed! Poor fellow! We can only hope about Dick. I have been speaking to your father about him.’
‘Of course we all know that you did your very best for him. He has said so himself when he has written. But you; — you have been fortunate.’
‘Yes, I have done very well. There is so much chance at it that there is nothing to be proud of.’
‘I am sure there is a great deal; — cleverness, and steadiness, and courage, and all that. We were delighted to hear it, though poor Dick could not share it with you. You have made an immense fortune.’
‘Oh dear no — not that. I have been able to get over the little difficulties which I left behind me when I went away, and have got something in hand to live upon.’
‘And now ——?’
‘I suppose I shall go back again,’ said Caldigate, with an air of indifference.
‘Go back again!’ said Maria, who had not imagined this. But still a man going back to Australia might take a wife with him. She would not object to the voyage. Her remembrance of the evening on which she had crept down and put the little book into his valise was so strong that she felt herself to be justified in being in love with him. ‘But not for always?’
‘Certainly not; — but just to wind up affairs.’
It would be no more than a pleasant wedding-tour — and, perhaps, she could do something for poor Dick. She could take the shirts so far on their destination.
‘Oh, Mr. Caldigate, how well I remember that last night!’
‘So indeed, do I — and the book.’ The hardship upon the moth is that though he has already scorched himself terribly in the flame, and burned up all the tender fibre of his wings, yet he can’t help returning to the seductions of the tallow-candle till his whole body has become a wretched cinder. Why should he have been the first to speak of the book?
Of course she blushed, and of course she stammered But in spite of her stammering she could say a word. ‘I dare say you never looked at it.’
‘Indeed I did — very often. Once when Dick saw it in my hands, he wanted to take it away from me.’
‘But I have never parted with it for an hour!’
‘Where is it now?’ she asked.
‘Here,’ said Caldigate, pulling it out of the breast-pocket of his coat. If he had had the presence of mind to say that he had lent the book to another young lady, and that she had never returned it, there might probably have been an end of this little trouble at once. But when the little volume appeared, just as though it had been kept close to his heart during all these four years, of course she was entitled to hope. He had never opened the book since that morning in his cabin, not caring for the academic beauties of Thomson’s ‘Seasons;’— had never looked at it till it had occurred to him as proper that he should take it with him to Pollington. Now he brought it out of his pocket, and she put out her hand to receive it from him. ‘You are not going to take it back again?’
‘Certainly not if it be of any value to you?’
‘Do you not value the presents which your friends make you?’
‘If I care for the friends, I do.’
‘As I care very much for this friend I shall keep the book.’
‘I don’t think that can be true, Mr. Caldigate?’
He was painfully near the blaze; — determined not to be burned, and yet with no powers of flying away from the candle into the farthest corner of the room. ‘Why not true? I have kept it hitherto. It has been with me in many very strange places.’
Then there was a pause — while he thought of escaping, and she of utilising the occasion. And yet it was not in her nature to be unmaidenly or aggressive Only if he did like her it would be so very nice, and it is so often the case that men want a little encouragement I dare say you thought more of the book than the donor.’
‘That is intended to be unkind.’
‘No; — certainly not. I can never be unkind to a friend who has been so very good as you were to poor Dick. Whatever else may happen, I shall — never — forget — that.’ By this time there was a faint sound of sobbing to be heard, and then she turned away her face that she might wipe a tear from her eyes. It was a real tear, and a real sob, and she really thought that she was in love with him.
‘I know I ought not to have come here,’ he said.
‘Why not?’ she asked energetically.
‘Because my coming would give rise to so much sadness about your brother.’
‘I am so glad you have come — so very glad. Of course we wanted to hear. And besides ——’
‘Papa and mamma, and all of them, are so glad to see you. We never forget old friends.’ Then again there was silence. ‘Never,’ she repeated, as she rose from her chair slowly and went out of the room. Though he had fluttered flamewards now and again, though he had shown some moth-like aptitudes, he had not shown himself to be a downright, foolish, blind-eyed moth, determined to burn himself to a cinder as a moth should do. And she; — she was weak. Having her opportunity at command, she went away and left him, because she did not know what more to say. She went away to her own bedroom, and cried, and had a headache, during the remainder of the day. And yet there was no other day!
Late that evening, just at the hour when, on the previous night, he was closeted with the father, he found himself closeted with the mother. ‘She has never forgotten you for one moment since you left us,’ said the mother. Mrs. Shand had rushed into the subject so quickly that these were almost the first words she said to him. He remained quite quiet, looking out from the open window into the moonlight. When a distinct proposition was made to him like this, he certainly would not be a moth. ‘I don’t know whether you have thought of her too, Mr. Caldigate.’ He only shook his head. ‘That is so?’
‘I hope you do not think that I have been to blame in any way,’ he said, with a conscience somewhat stricken; — for he remembered well that he had kissed the young lady on that evening four years ago.
‘Oh no. I have no complaint to make. My poor child! It is a pity. But I have nothing more to say. It must be so then?’
‘I am the least settled man in all the world, Mrs. Shand.’
‘But at some future time?’
‘I fear not. My mind is intent on other things.’ So it was; — intent on Hester Bolton! But the statement as he made it, was certainly false, for it was intended to deceive. Mrs. Shand shook hands with him kindly, however, as she sent him away to bed, telling him that breakfast should be ready for him at eight the next morning.
His train left Pollington at nine, and at eight the doctor with all his family were there to greet him at the breakfast-table — with all the family except Maria. The mother, in the most natural tone in the world, said that poor Maria had a headache and could not come down. They filled his plate with eggs and bacon and toast, and were as good to him as though he had blighted no hopes and broken no heart. He whispered one word at going to the doctor. ‘Pray remember that whenever you think the money can be of use, it is there. I consider that I owe him quite as much as that.’ The father grasped his hand, and all of them blessed him as he went.
‘If I can only get away from Babington as easily!’ he said to himself, as he took his place in the railway carriage.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14