The Silence Broken
THE SILENCE BROKEN.
By ETHEL TURNER.
THERE were ugly rumours abroad. Men were whispering that the great wool people, Marsden & Clackerty, were unsafe.
Clackerty no man in the big warehouse had seen; he was almost a myth to his employees. They knew he drew his share of the profits regularly; this much the head clerk could testify. They knew, too, vaguely, that he was interested in Arctic expeditions, and lived almost meanly himself in London or Norwegian towns that he might contribute his thousands to opening up the stilly icefields of the north.
The clerks in the office read Nansen's "Voyaging" as a duty. Had not they by their daily work helped to equip the Fram and other vessels? When February's shroud of heat hung over Australia, and tallow and wool and half-dressed hides flung their most abominable odour right into the glass enclosures of the offices, the sickened clerks used to project their thoughts to the stout-hearted little ships creeping wearily through the locked seas, and feel cooler and mentally stronger for the exercise.
"It's a cold hearthstone for any man," said Shaw, the head clerk, who had a cheery little home in one of the suburbs, and drew his salary of two hundred and fifty a year feeling the profoundest pity for both of his heads with their thousands. "Clackerty married to icebergs, and Marsden—well, say what you like, I'm sorry for Marsden."
They were eating their lunches, three of them, on the grassy slopes above Lady Macquarie's Chair, their faces turned so that they might drink in the harbour's cleanliness with their sandwiches—a necessary draught after the office atmosphere.
"Everyone knows his wife's left him," said Hillyer, married on an income of one hundred and twenty. "Well, if I was several sorts of a beast like he is, I'd expect my wife to leave me on the first chance."
"Wonder if he's got any kids?" Mathers said, who was nothing if not a father. "If he hasn't, it's a pity, for they'd do him good. But if he has, I'm sorry for them."
"He's got one, I think," Shaw said. "I saw him in a cab with it once, going off to the mountains. A white-faced little youngster it was."
"Poor little beggar! can't call its soul its own, I expect," Mathers said, and felt warm to think how his own rosy-cheeked little girl had the temerity to call him "Dick."
They fell to talking of the crisis of affairs in the office. Shaw had not slept for nights and was growing careworn with worries that were not his own. The firm was a new one, five years more than bounding its existence. Clackerty, who had once been a squatter, had brought three parts of the money to it, and consequently felt entitled to go off at fifty and indulge the hobby he had dreamed of all his life.
Marsden, who had been a junior partner in a long-established firm, brought the remaining quarter of the money and undertook all responsibility.
For three years they flourished, and Clackerty's home in London became headquarters for captains and adventurers, out of work, anxious to induce him to fit up expeditions for them to go in search of lost poles, submerged islands, and unknown continents. Then for two years the firm ran downhill.
The distant Clackerty and his captains grumbled at the diminished income. Marsden went about with tight lips. Shaw every night in his cheery suburban home washed his hands of all the concern, and resolved to resign; then in the morning buckled to again and tried by superhuman efforts to bring things straight.
The post-office bell chimed out over the eating city the third quarter of the hour, and the three clerks disposed of their banana-skins, their crumbs and papers, and sauntered back through the Domain to the warehouse.
As they passed in, a heavy bale was being hoisted up from a trolly in the street to the top storey, and the clerks watched it idly as it dangled between heaven and earth and finally swung in out of sight.
"That's us," said Shaw, as he turned in at the doorway, "only we'll be down with a thud soon—we can't dangle for ever."
Marsden had spared no time for lunch at all; he had sat in that reeking atmosphere since half-past eight. His desk was in an astounding confusion; his iron safe was open, and the papers bulged out in any fashion; the floor was strewn with invoices, four chairs stood near the desk, each patiently holding an important litter.
"If only he were tidy, now" soliloquised Shaw, hanging up his hat in the adjacent room, and seeing through the glass the wildness of his chief's apartment.
Marsden was the lankest of men; when he rose up unexpectedly, a stranger was inclined to gasp, so astounding seemed the fashion in which he unfolded himself to reach his six feet. His face was repellent—hard grey eyes, a stubble of harsh grey hair, a nose broken early in youth and grown crooked in the setting, a mouth whose weakness the grey stubble of beard could never quite disguise. One noticed he was lame, too. The jerky motion was owing to some deformity that made the length of his legs unequal, and forced him to wear on one foot a boot with an abnormal sole. His speech was harsh, his natural manner abrupt and unpleasant.
When he heard the creaking of his head clerk's boots in the next apartment, he raised his voice stridently. "Mr. Shaw! Mr. Shaw!"
Shaw entered and looked at him anxiously.
"Now, look here," were the words that met him, "it's no use making a fuss. I've got to save money somewhere, so I'm going to cut down your salaries. Now, that's enough; don't argue—twenty per cent., and to commence from the first of the month." "The Head's" manner had in it the hysterical nervousness of a woman dismissing an abusive cook.
"It's a suicidal policy," Shaw said. "You reduced salaries six months ago. The men will resign—they can't stand it; and at a crisis like this, raw material in the office is a serious drawback."
"I can't help it: it's got to be done. And see here, Mr. Shaw, you're too lax with the clerks—they're a ruinously extravagant lot. I gave out a box of paper-fasteners and a ream of foolscap on Tuesday, and Mr. Hillyer had the impertinence to come to me for more to-day. I'm continually seeing paper-fasteners lying on the floor."
"Look here, sir," Shaw said earnestly. "Do believe I know what I'm talking of. It's not small economics that can save us; but if you'd authorise me to make a bold stroke—that matter with Dighton and McManamey, now, and I'd like to get the whole of the wool that's coming down from Sheens—I believe, even at this late hour I could pull things straight."
"Could you make the stroke without money?" Marsden said.
Shaw looked at him patiently. "I'd like forty thousand for it," he said, "but I believe I could just manage it with twenty."
"You're a fool, a fool, Mr. Shaw! You'd better get out of my room—get out at once, if that's all you've got to say! Twenty thousand! twenty thousand!" Marsden almost choked.
"But it's the easiest matter in the world," Shaw said. "You—excuse me, sir—but—but perhaps you don't understand this sort of thing very well. Borrow the twenty thousand at six per cent. It is only twelve hundred to pay yearly for it."
"Twelve hundred! Why, that's all I've been drawing from the confounded business myself for the last three half-yearly settlements. Where's it to come from?"
Shaw's temper ruffled itself slightly. "Of course, some sacrifice would have to be made. Mr. Clackerty's dividend has already been posted, but there is your twelve hundred still here. It is your own business to stand or fall by, sir. I suggest that you do not draw your sum, but keep it to meet the interest."
Marsden's wrath was frightful. "Get out of my room!" he said. "Get out of my room! Not draw my income? Great Heavens! how do you suppose I'm to meet my private expenses? For two pins I'd dismiss you, Mr. Shaw—dismiss you at an hour's notice! Go and carry out my instructions. Twenty per cent., remember. And warn Hillyer about the paper-fasteners."
Shaw sighed hopelessly and went.
During the afternoon clerk after clerk came in and tendered his resignation. Mathers had suggested the action should be concerted and immediate, and might make "the Head" think better of his resolve.
One or two made futile appeals. One had his boy ill, doctor's expenses, and so on, and begged that the deduction should not be made. Another's wife was delicate and in need of luxuries that a diminished income would render impossible.
They spoke to ears of stone.
Hillyer came in—Hillyer, prodigal of brass paper-fasteners. He stood a second by the desk, and Marsden saw a tear aglisten in his handsome eyes. "Don't dock me yet, sir," he said. "In six months I could stand it better, but just now my child's delicate, and must be sent away to the mountains."
"It is no use," Marsden said, "I cannot be responsible for the health of your son."
"It's a little girl," Hillyer said; "she's four, and she's had diphtheria badly. The doctor says she'll never pick up again till she has a change."
Maiden thrust his hand into the adjacent iron safe and drew out a ten-pound note.
"Here," he said, as unpleasantly as he could, "perhaps that will take her. But hold your tongue about it, do you hear? Didn't you say diphtheria? That's very contagious, isn't it? Why, you might give it to—to me. Exceedingly careless of you, Mr. Hillyer, to keep coming here! You'd better go away, too; I'm not going to run any risks. Here's another ten-pound note—you'd better go, too, and stay away three weeks."
Hillyer went back to his work, a stunned look on his face.
The office-boy knocked at the door. "There's one of those canvassers insisting on seeing you, sir," he said. "I told him 'twasn't no use."
Marsden lashed himself into a rage that he should be interrupted like this; the boy cowered before him a minute, then recovered. "I've kept seven of them off this afternoon," he said: "blotting-pad, insurance, typewriter, patent ink-bottle, medical book, summer helmet, and heel-protector; but this one says you told him to come; he's got a phonograph, or graphophone, or some such thing. I told him you weren't the man to take up with things like that, but it was no use."
"Hold your insolent tongue and send the man in," Marsden said.
For one hour they were closeted together, while the office gaped, and Shaw came more and more over to Mathers' opinion that a strait-waistcoat would be the next piece of tailoring required by "the Head."
At six o'clock Marsden went home. He lived in the most inconvenient suburb Sydney boasts, but the doctors guaranteed its healthfulness. When the train deposited him at the primitive siding, he had a mile to walk before he could open his front gate. From the gate to the front door the walk took five minutes more of his time, for he had built his small cottage as far from contact with the world as the grounds would permit. He opened the door with his latch-key and entered the hall; his eyes went to another door at the far end—closed. He walked softly down the passage and, when within a few feet of the barrier, set down his large parcel and went down on his hands and knees. He gave two knocks on the lower panel, five sharp ones on the upper one, half turned the handle, and emitted a series of curious grunts and calls.
Then, as no response came, he rushed into the room, still on his hands and knees, crept under the table, mewing as no self-respecting cat would ever mew, and burst out at the other end, barking softly.
His little girl had been half asleep on the rug. She rubbed her eyes and laughed up at him delightedly; she tumbled to her feet and rushed to encircle his leg; she said: "Farvie, Farvie comed home!" She looked round for his bag with sparkling eyes; she began to tell him some strange account of how the kitty had bited her cheek, and what had led up to the sad event, but so great was her excitement her words tripped on one another and there was no disentangling the confusion. She rushed to show him she had broken the spout off her new little teapot; she dashed off to another cupboard and brought a doll's plate with a bit of squashed banana upon it. "Me saved it for mine Farvie," she said, and held it up to him eagerly.
"Saved it for poor old father? Kind little baby," he said.
"But you isn't eating it," protested the mite.
He made a feint to swallow it, and brought his hand down rapidly, his fingers over the untempting morsel.
She turned away, a tear in her eye. "You on'y 'tended to eat it," she said—"you have dot it hided in yours hand."
The man ate it, and the smiles came back.
"How has she been, Mrs. Corbett?" he said.
A neat woman was sewing in a corner.
"Just as usual," she said; "lonely, of course, poor child! She saw a little boy go down the street, and screamed and cried because I wouldn't go and bring him in. He looked a nice, healthy little fellow, too—it really would not have hurt. Of course, though, knowing your wishes, I did not let her have him in."
"Quite right, quite right," Marsden said. "He might easily have been sickening for whooping cough, or have been with a child who had come from a home where there was scarlet fever."
"Oh! he might," said Mrs. Corbett, and stitched a button on with great care.
"What has she eaten all day?"
Mrs. Corbett replied like an automaton. "Seven o'clock meal, bread and milk; eleven, a cup of cocoa; half-past one, mutton, French beans, potatoes, and custard pudding; four, biscuits and milk; six, egg and bread-and-butter."
"Was a 'ittle fly in my milk," volunteered the tiny one.
"Is this true, Mrs. Corbett?" Marsden said anxiously. "A fly is often the means of transmitting infection. If ever this happens again, throw the milk right away and give her fresh. Of course, you boil all the milk?"
"Oh, yes, as soon as it comes from the milkman, sir."
"That is right. And what is this she says about the kitten biting her cheek—I see a little scratch? You surely don't allow her to put her face near the cat?"
"Oh! law, sir; what can you expect? You won't let her see a child. She talks all day to the kitten and plays with it, same as if it were human. I seen her kissing it in such a way this morning—it were quite sad, it were."
Marsden looked worried to death. "Surely you must know it is dangerous, Mrs. Corbett; hydatids are communicated in this way. I must give the kitten away, and give her a bird instead."
"Girlie go with kitty," the child said stoutly; "frow nasty old birdie in ze dust-box."
Marsden resolved to say no more just then, but to meet the problem and deal with it himself.
He asked after the sore throat of Maggie, his other domestic. He had left orders the child was not to be allowed near her.
"Oh! it is nothing but an ordinary sore throat—she got her feet wet doing the washing," said Mrs. Corbett. "I don't know what's to be done, sir, if you won't let her touch baby, for it's my night out."
Not for one second dared Marsden suggest she should for once give up her night out; she was far too valuable to offend.
"Oh! that will not matter," he said; "I'll put Baby to bed myself—I easily can."
While Maggie dished the dinner, the eager little girl dragged him down the garden to look at her "purply pansy zat is out." It was the warmest of summer evenings yet, and the light broad as day, but he wrapped her up in her warm pelisse and carried her all the way, lest her feet should be wet with the dew. Wherever in the garden there was a drop of two or three feet, that place was safely railed round; there were little gates with strong fasteners wherever steps occurred, to guard against a tumble; no big bushy plants were allowed in the beds, lest by chance a snake should be harbouring behind the thick leaves; and the grass was kept clipped like the hair of a convict, to lessen the likelihood of insects lurking there.
The child dragged him all over the garden on one pretext or another, and Mrs. Corbett was gone, and Maggie growing irate over the spoiling of the dinner before they came back.
A quarter to seven! He ate his meal in a choking hurry, for was not seven o'clock supposed to see his daughter sound asleep?
She slept in a cot by his own bedside, so he carried her off to that room to undress her. Bathing operations had taken place in the morning, so he had only the little clothes to untie and the nightgown to slip on.
The child admonished him continually. "Corby takes it off zis way. Corby wasses my face with zis soap. Corby brusses my teef with my 'ittle teefum-bruss." His clumsy fingers could not undo all the tapes and little buttons; two he was obliged to cut with his pen-knife, hut he resolved to apologise to Mrs. Corbett for it. Girlie made merry over his shortcomings and ordered him about imperiously. "You hasn't brussed my hair!" she cried reproachfully, when she was actually in her cot.
He brought her tiny brush and smoothed her head gently.
"I hasn't said my 'Bless everybody!’" she said, with startled eyes, as she laid her head on the pillow.
He held her against him for her tender little prayer.
"Why," she said in the middle of it, "why, I remember there was a drate big 'menjous parcel in ze hall." Her eyes grew round and brilliant at the recollection that had thus suddenly obtruded itself in the midst of her devotions. Marsden had forgotten it, too—he went back for it and brought it into the bedroom.
"But you are sleepy, Girlie," he said doubtfully. "I will show it to you to-morrow."
Girlie scorned the aspersion and sat up excitedly; twice at least each week she had some delightful parcel to open.
Paper and string flung aside, she looked at the treasure uncertainly.
"I sought it was a dolly's plamburator or a yocking-horse," she said, disappointment in her tone.
"No, this is a nice new sort of toy," Marsden said. "We put Baby's voice in it and shut it up, and then when she is a big girl we can get it out and listen to it."
Baby did not seem to see many points about the thing. A horse with a real mane, or a perambulator with a movable hood, would have incited her to a degree of rapturous frenzy. But Marsden had been in love with the idea ever since a canvasser had got him to listen at his office to the eulogies about this Home Phonograph. That little tinkling voice at home that made the only music of his life—he felt he must keep the records of it. As she spoke this year she would never speak next, and by the year after would herself be laughing at the babyish sentences that now were his delight. It would be very sweet to have all stages of her talk, he told himself, thus faithfully kept—harmony for the winter evenings of his life that no musical instrument could ever equal.
And even if—but he brushed that thought away, paling as he always paled before it.
Now was the time to get the first record, he told himself; the child was not sleepy, and Mrs. Corbett was safely out—Mrs. Corbett, who, he knew, looked upon him as a fond fool, and who would only see in this new idea a fresh instance of foolishness.
He placed the thing in readiness, and tried to explain to the little girl that he was going to pick up all the words she spoke in the funny trumpet.
"Now talk to Farvie," he said; "talk just as you always do, Girlie."
"But what sall I say?" she said.
"Tell me about your dolly or kitty," he said.
"I did tell you," protested the mite.
"Tell me again," he urged.
But she was mute, and merely passed her curious little hands all over the strange new plaything.
"Hasn't Mrs. Corbett taught you any new little pieces?" he asked. "Here is a nice new sixpence if you will say some for Farvie."
Girlie wrinkled her brow. "Oh! I know," she said—
Caught a f'y,
Tied it to a stwing.
"But Maggie says it's 'Put it in her tea; 'tisn't, is it, Farvie?"
"I thought it was 'Shuts her eye,’" he answered. "Well, say 'I love little Pussy.’"
"No," said Girlie; "I'll say 'Birdie'—
"Come here, 'ittle birdie, and don't be afraid,
I wouldn't hurt even a fefer;
Come here, 'ittle birdie, and pick up some bwead
To feed on very cold wefer.
"I don't mean to hurt zou, zou poor 'ittle sing,
And I hasn't dot Pussy—behind my—back:
So—so pick up za cumbs an'—an' put zour head
Under zour wing, poor sing!
"Dat's all, Farvie."
She grew sleepy presently, so Marsden resolved to get a record when Sunday came along to give him plenty of her waking hours.
There was a verandah just outside the bedroom, and when the child relaxed her hold of his finger, and her eyelashes lay quiet and heavy on her little cheeks, he stole there to smoke his postponed pipe and to try to fix his brain once more upon his business difficulties.
Years ago—twenty, perhaps; for the man, with all his greyness, was far from forty—he had made an appeal to the then ruler of his destiny, his schoolmaster. The occasion had been the dreaded one of the annual examinations. "It's no good," he had said excitedly, when fairly brought to bay for his wretched papers, "I can't do them. I've tried; no one knows how I've tried. I can't take the stuff in like the other fellows can; I believe my head's built differently. Won't you speak to my father, sir, and get him to let me leave?"
But the schoolmaster, overworked and worried, had merely treated the outburst as the common plaint of an idler, and forced him to greater efforts.
The boy appealed to his father himself. He entreated to be allowed to leave school and go on a station or to sea. He vaguely recognised there might be something in himself if he were allowed free play; but as long as mathematics and languages were required of him, his life was an evil dream.
The father, a University man, but unintelligent, saw no further than the schoolmaster had done. Of course the boy must be educated, and according to approved methods; he would not even permit the remission of Greek and algebra; thus did so many idle lads talk. So the boy stumbled on, his brain harried and protesting, to manhood. On the verge of that stage of life he met with an accident—just such a common and everyday accident as the papers always are telling of. He was in his father's warehouse, and a bale of wool fell from the crane that was raising it, clear down upon him. The world counted him fortunate to have come through with his life; the details of a broken nose and irreparably injured leg it hardly heeded. The boy rose up from his bed in time and attacked life again; maimed, the warehouse must now be his destiny for ever; disfigured, he shunned women, though his heart yearned to them.
Years brought the dull philosophy of acceptance. He had grown so used to himself, and so lonely, he had the temerity to ask a beautiful woman to be his wife. She refused kindly. Seven years later he asked another, and this time recognised there was much he must expect to go without; it was not for him any longer to select the faultless. And she refused—hiding a smile. In two years he tried yet again; he did not dare to be particular now; a woman, fairly good-looking, had deferred to his opinion and smiled openly on him. He would not stay to remember that now he was rich, and many things, therefore, were not as they had been. He asked her, and she accepted him, philosophically.
He was not a pleasant life partner. The bale that had fallen had not improved a brain that had never been strong. He carped and worried over the details of life to such an extent that his wife, when their only child was a year old, had walked out of his house and entirely refused to come back. The child, delicate and fretful, had never appealed to her. She asked for a thousand a year—half his income—and promised, so long as it was paid, not in any way to interfere with the child's life.
Marsden tingled for months with shame that a woman, his wife, had found him so unbearable; he would not meet his employees' eyes—they were laughing at him, he felt certain. He grew more and more didactic and overbearing; the office detested him.
But there was a green isle in the sea now for him. The love that had lurked, starved and discontented, in his heart since earliest boyhood, now rose passionately and flooded itself over his weakly child.
He seemed to close and wrestle with Fate. "She shall be mine," he said.
He built a little house for her, away from the world, and blown upon by only healthy winds. He found a careful woman to carry out his theories. He bought a whole library of books on the care of children, and studied them in office and out.
But it was the same as expecting him, when a schoolboy, to keep Euclid and algebra distinct and apart in his head.
Poring over the prevention of rickets in infants and "Bone-Forming Foods," he lost all grip of his business, and, at a drought crisis, when master minds could hardly keep their ships from foundering, it was small wonder his badly sailed bark went on to the rocks.
Shaw and a few of the clerks stuck to the wreck, waiting for a settlement of affairs. The reduced salaries were paid, and smaller transactions went on as usual. Mrs. Marsden drew her stipulated sum. Marsden had not the courage to ask her to take a smaller one, so struggled to make the remaining two hundred and fifty serve where once he had spent two thousand. Then Mrs. Corbett asked for a rise of five shillings a week in her wages, or announced her intention of leaving.
Marsden came to the office with a careworn brow.
"Mr. Shaw! Sir. Shaw!" he called.
Shaw came in.
"I see by the books there is five shillings a week allowed to a boy for cleaning the windows."
"Yes, sir," said Shaw.
"Discontinue it," said Marsden. "Five shillings is a large sum. There is no need for the windows to be cleaned."
And Shaw went straight back into his room, sat down and wrote a complete account of affairs to Mr.Clackerty at Christiania, urging him to come out instantly and take control of affairs. For this idea of saving five shillings seemed the sole result of a week's intricate thought on the part of "the Head," and Shaw had been hoping much as the result of it.
It would be three months before Clackerty could arrive, but the days slipped past one after the other.
"Only seven weeks now," Hillyer said one morning. "It seems a farce to open the doors. There's not been a penny spent at the sales for two months, has there?"
"Does it look like it?" Shaw replied, and looked round at the strangely empty warehouse, and sniffed at the air, which was positively pure. "Another month, and the season's over. And Jackson and Parker have pulled themselves together just by buying up all that lot of Dighton and McManamey's that I wanted to get. We'd be afloat yet if Marsden had let me do it."
"Wonder what's got him these three days?" Mathers said.
"Oh! it's no loss," said Shaw. "I wish he'd stop away till Clackerty comes."
He almost had his wish. It was five weeks before Marsden put in an appearance, and the whole office was shocked at his looks. His clothes hung as loosely on him as if they were sizes too large—yet the suit, a well-worn and particularly ugly tweed, everyone knew, and no one had noticed the misfit before. His cheeks were sunken and of an unhealthy yellow tinge; his hair long, rough, greyer than ever; his eyes wore a dead, empty look, as if all the light had gone out of them.
But he came in as usual, and went to his room with the curtest of nods to Shaw.
They noticed he carried a very large parcel.
During the lunch-time, when he might reasonably have been expected to be abroad for necessary nourishment, a stranger entered the warehouse and asked for the head clerk.
They showed him to the room, and Shaw looked up inquiringly. But the stranger had glanced through the glass partition and had seen the rough grey head inside.
He caught Shaw's arm and drew him quietly outside. "I want a talk with you," he said; "come out in the street, since he's there. I'm his doctor."
Shaw followed, thankful to feel "the Head" had such a person.
You'll have to look after that man, you know," were the doctor's first words.
"That'll take someone cleverer than I," said Shaw.
"Oh! but you know you'll have to. Go home with him sometimes, stop with him the evening, and so on; never mind if he thinks you a nuisance."
Shaw did not look as if he relished the proposed work.
"Has he been ill?" he said unwillingly. "We haven't seen or heard of him for five weeks; he's more than a bit of a crank, you know. If I followed him home, he'd kick me down the steps. Of course, if he's really ill, I'll risk that."
"Could you induce him to leave the house and go into lodgings—somewhere where there are other people? He'll never get over the death as long as he stops there."
"What death?" said Shaw, startled.
"His little girl; surely you knew?"
"Not a word. It is only indirectly we knew he had a child at all."
"She died a month ago. Bronchial attack—no constitution at all—went out like snuffed candle."
Shaw was profoundly moved for a moment, then he glanced at the doctor. "But was he particularly fond of her? He's a queer chap, you know. If it had been Mathers' child, now——"
"Don't make that mistake," the doctor said; "he was too fond of her—that's what's wrong. I've only just managed to induce him to come back to the office, and now he's in your hands. Put all the work you can in his way—it's his chance of salvation. Well, I must be off. Don't forget."
The office was very gentle to its "Head" that next fortnight. The man came every day at the usual hour, carrying with him a large square parcel. Every night he returned, the parcel in his hand.
Shaw followed him home one night, his heart in his month. At the gate of the distant house he spoke. "I thought perhaps you'd ask me in to have a smoke, sir?" he said.
"Certainly," Marsden answered, and held open the gate.
They sat together in an ordinary sitting-room for two hours, Shaw puffing at his pipe, awkward, constrained; Marsden seated motionless on a hard chair and watching his visitor furtively. There was absolutely no conversation. "You must excuse my silence," Marsden said; "I never talk."
"But you smoke," entreated Shaw.
Marsden felt in his pocket and stuck a pipe in his mouth, and Shaw dared not remind him he had used no match.
The ghastly evening ended, but Shaw came again and yet again.
The third night he took Hillyer with him. "On my soul, I can't stand it alone," he said; "he sits and looks past me, with that frightful, cadaverous look of his, till I feel like a girl on the edge of hysterics. And, Hillyer—don't laugh—I'm getting beastly funky about that parcel of his. I offered to carry it for him once, and he looked as if he'd kill me. All the time we smoke—I smoke, that is—the parcel's on the stand against him, and he keeps his hand on it. I—I have heard of such things, and you know what a strange fellow he is—I must say it—it has occurred to me that the parcel—suppose, Hillyer—you hear of such things sometimes——"
Hillyer's hair fairly stood on end. It was dark, and they were already within the cottage gate, and the pale, subdued lights from the windows shone in front of them. He was almost for turning back, so suddenly horrible had the thought become of that eternal parcel Marsden ever carried to and fro.
Hillyer caught at his companion's arm. "Suppose we—go another night?" he whispered.
Shaw was fighting the same temptation to flee. "Oh! we'll stand by him to-night; he's looked very bad all day, poor beggar!" he said, and bravely rang at the bell.
A dreary-faced woman answered the summons, and brightened faintly at the sight of the visitors.
"He did say I wasn't to let anyone in," she said; "but he's in there; s'pose you try."
The men went into the dining-room sheepishly. Marsden was standing at the table, his face ashen; the inevitable parcel was before him, and his trembling hands were fumbling at the cord that bound it.
He looked wildly at the intruders.
"I—I was just going to open it," he moaned.
Shaw went forward and took the wretched man's hand in his healthy, steady one; he shook it warmly, he led him across to Hillyer. "Hillyer and I thought we'd look you up," he said; "there was a business matter we wanted to settle, and we'd nothing else to do with ourselves—had we, Hillyer?—so we thought we might as well drop in. We'd like a smoke, if you don't mind, and—do you happen to have anything to drink about?"
Marsden wiped his forehead and sat down.
"Thank Heaven you came!" he said. "I—I'd almost done it!"
"Where did you say that whisky was?" said Shaw.
Marsden went over to a sideboard cupboard and brought out bottle and tumblers; he rang for Maggie to bring hot water. "I'm really very glad to see you fellows," he said when he had drunk half a glass.
But for the presence of the parcel the evening would have been almost cheerful. They got their host's pipe alight in some way, then he leaned back in an easy-chair and listened to their conversation, and occasionally joined in himself. By ten o'clock he was merely a gentle, quiet man, a man unknown to both of them, sitting sadly by the side of his hearth from which the fire had been for ever taken.
At eleven o'clock they rose to go.
"How is your little girl, Mr. Hillyer?" Marsden said—"the one who had diphtheria?"
"Quite well again," Hillyer answered deprecatingly, remembering the other child who was not quite well—at least, as we have it. Then he added, with swift, nervous sympathy: "But it was so close a thing, sir, I think I know pretty well how you feel just now."
The twitching muscles of the young man's face thawed the desolate father's heart, and for the first time he spoke of his loss.
"It would be even worse for me than it is," he said, "only that I have her there," and to the shuddering horror of the young men he approached the parcel and fingered it sadly. "Life is a very uncertain thing, Hillyer," he said, "and the life of little children is like the thistle-down. Your little girl seems much to you; while there is time, get one of these things, and then when the warm little body has slipped out of your arms, you still will have the voice."
"A phonograph" breathed the two men together, and looked with suddenly changed eyes at the parcel.
"The night before she was taken ill," went on Marsden, "I got her to speak into it, just little baby words, you know. Then she was sleepy, and I meant to get more another day, only there was not time. Any time I like I can open it and hear her voice, just the voice in which she used to speak. But—but——" his eye roved, grew unsteady, his breath came unevenly—"of course, it is not to be expected that I could—bear it yet. Presently, presently, when I am used to my loss—we get used to everything, you know—I shall open it and hear the little voice."
He pulled himself together—he who never spoke of his own concerns to be talking thus! "Good night, good night!" he said abruptly, and shut the door on them in uncivil haste.
He improved steadily the next fortnight; came to office with his clothes brushed, had his hair cut, went out for his meals like the rest of the city. Shaw reported his success to the doctor, and they both congratulated each other and relaxed their efforts somewhat.
The day of Clackerty's arrival, Marsden did not come to office. The senior partner went through affairs with Shaw, and his wrath at the frightful mismanagement and blank ruin was terrible to behold.
He insisted that his partner was a rogue—would not listen to the more palliative term of "fool." The failure was a put-up thing, he swore, and some nest—certainly not his, Clackerty's—had been well feathered.
When no Marsden appeared all day, and three telegrams and two office-boys had been unable to bring him to town, though the messengers stated the fact that he was assuredly at home, then Clackerty crushed on his hat, abruptly summoned Shaw and Hillyer, and made known his intention of proceeding to his partner's home.
It was seven o'clock when they reached the isolated cottage—Maggie was just running up the path, the doctor following close behind. They all went down the hall and through the door Marsden had been wont to enter mewing and barking on all fours.
He was standing now, perfectly motionless, by the table, and the parcel was unwrapped.
A tiny, tinkling voice was in the air. "What sall I say?" it said; "I can't fink what to say. Oh! I know—
Caught a f'y
Tied it to a stwing.
"But Maggie says it's 'Put it in her tea.' 'Tisn't, is it, Farvie?"
The instrument was not perfect; sometimes the tiny voice was muffled and lost; sometimes it came with such a strange vehement shrillness the heart thrilled. The new-comers heard it saying, "Good night, daddie," and "Oh! zere's a skeeter, kill it!" and "Tuck me up zis way!" and "One more 'nuzzer kiss"
"It's little baby, can't you hear? He's got little baby there. All the afternoon she has been talking like that," wept the affrighted Maggie, staring with starting eyes at the polished case.
The doctor went quietly across the floor, and Marsden turned and faced his visitors; and not one of them but felt relieved to know that the strained brain had at last given way, and that in all human probability the man would be happily insane for the rest of his natural life.