CAPTIVITY

CHAPTER XX

He went to sleep that night with the muscles of his mind tightened. He was going to fight for his wife and child! She, judged by all he had known of women in his select suburb among his family's friends, and in his externing in the Borough was now a poor weak thing, to be cossetted and cared for, worked for and protected. He felt he could move mountains to-night—for the first time in his life he had someone weak to care for. No more charity from his father! No more slacking, no more giving way! He had an aim in life now. And, moreover, he had the thrilling excitement of a "case." That he could not forget, though it was certainly subsidiary to the feelings of pride in himself that her imaginary weakness had brought into being.

And the "poor weak woman" lay at his side, staring at the stars with eyes that held bigger worlds than they. After the heat of the day to lie here in the coolness, with the night breeze fanning her hair, tickling her bare feet and arms, was very delightful. Several times she pressed her hands tight down on the mattress and once she pinched herself. She seemed, in her exhilaration, to be losing weight; she would not have been surprised, if she had found herself floating away to have a real, close-hand look at the Southern Cross. She had no idea what was going on in Louis's mind. No kindly angel whispered to her that she should go in, now, for "swounds and vapours," and thus bolster up the protectiveness that had come to birth within him that night. She knew nothing of "swounds and vapours." The rather hard women on Lashnagar were never ill and weak until they were ready to drop into death. Aunt Janet had never been weak save in the matter of the acid drops. She certainly felt thrilled rather than weak. She had something of contempt for the weakness of women. She was very fond of Mrs. King, but her constant complaints about Mr. King's badness and her aching back did not seem to Marcella to be quite playing the game. Mrs. King had solemnly advised her, several times, to make Louis think she was not well. When she had seen her carrying pails of coal quite easily up the stairs she had said, with a shudder:

"Oh, kid—you make my back ache to see you! Why don't you let him do those jobs? You ought to lay down on the bed and tell him you feel queer. Then he'll be all over you, trying to do all he can for you."

"I don't want him to, thanks," said Marcella concisely. "Why should he do it any more than me?"

Mrs. King thought she was mad.

But now she felt that they must get away from Mrs. King, from everyone. She began to shape her letter to her uncle in her mind, and as she did so, realized that she and Louis would be alone together no longer. They would join the communal life at Wooratonga. If he failed again—and she felt that, perhaps, he might fail—there would be critics. It came to her that it was quite impossible to go and live with her uncle and the three daughters who were "rather hard." She was not ashamed of Louis now; for that she was thankful, but she dreaded that less kindly eyes than hers should see him when he was weak.

She touched him on the cheek with her lips. He wakened at once.

"What is it, my pet?" he asked anxiously, striking a match and holding it close to her face.

"Louis, I can't let our baby come to live in Sydney," she said.

"Well, he isn't coming to Sydney to-night," he laughed.

"No. But I want it settled. Louis, I was thinking it would be a good plan to ask uncle to let us go and work for him. But now I feel I can't go among his people—"

"You're afraid of what I'll get up to?"

"Not a bit, now. Only they'd never understand you as I do. And—we're fearfully happy when we don't have whisky worrying us. Don't you think we could go and live together in the Bush?"

He sat up, lit a cigarette and passed it to her. Then he lit one for himself.

"Can't you face the fact that you're going to be ill, Marcella?" he said, irritably. "You'll have to lie down for hours and all sorts of things. You're a lick to me—abso-bally-lutely! You ought not to be well like this! Lord, the things I've been told about women having babies! They simply get down to it—all except the unrefined working women."

"Then I'm an unrefined working woman, that's all," she said complacently. "Anyway, Louis, to please you or anyone else I can't pretend to be ill. Now just forget it till it gets obtrusive. I shall."

Over the roof-tops, through the moon haze streaming about the chimneys came a vision of the spaewife riding to Flodden after her man, riding from Flodden with the twin children wrapt in the Southrons' pennants. Marcella smiled a little. Louis frowned and fell in with her way of thinking. He suddenly felt flabby again. She felt taut as a steel spring.

The next day she wrote to her uncle for money, telling him the truth. It was not pleasant, but it had to be done. As soon as he saw that she was quite decided on going, and showed no signs whatever of falling in dead faints about the house, Louis entered into the spirit of the adventure. The lure of wild places got into his feet. As he wrote down a careful list of the things they were to take in their swags he looked up and actually suggested that she should wire to her uncle for the money so that they need not waste a day more. As for the prospect of work, that worried him not at all.

"You're always sure of a meal, anyway, if you're a sun-downer," he said. "And usually there's a job of sorts that'll keep you in grub. I say, old girl, we'll have to live on damper and billy-tea. It's the finest stuff going!"

He argued long with himself about how many blankets to take, how much tea and flour; he talked about the kind of boots best fitted for walking on unmade roads: one day when they went out together he discovered a patent "swaggie's friend"—a knife at one end of a composition handle and a fork at the other.

"It's a good thing to take a fork," he said reflectively, "you needn't eat with your fingers if you do. Fried sheep eaten with the fingers is rather messy at times."

They arranged for Mrs. King to collect and forward their letters from home as soon as they gave her an address; Marcella did not mention the chief reason for getting away from Sydney now. She had an instinctive feeling that Mrs. King would think she was raving mad to run away into the Bush with an unborn child.

"I hope you'll be happy, kid," she said, as they talked over plans. "But I doubt it, with him. You want more than I do—"

"I want everything," said Marcella, decidedly.

"I don't care so long's my back isn't too bad, and he scrubs down for me, and I can pay my way. I've got this house paying proper now, and the young chaps treat me as if I was their mother."

Marcella felt it was well that she was getting away from this atmosphere of dull acceptance of misery, of the worst in life. Anyway, she told herself, she would make a quick end to things with fire or knife before she got like that. Expediently keeping a drunken man quiet; expediently kissing him and fondling him for fear he would get drunk again to-morrow in spite or pique: content with a man who would scrub floors for a "livener"! It was better, far, to be homeless wanderers in the Bush where there was no need to be expedient for the sake of others, where they would have to stand up on their own intrinsic strength or fall; where they need not be respectable and where she could, if he were weak, alternately shake him up and soothe him without spectators. She would never, never, never allow herself to get into this cringing habit of being thankful for the small mercies of life when the big justices of life were there, so very big and shining.

"Of course," went on Mrs. King in a flat voice, "I've always one mercy I thank God for on my bended knees every night. That is, not having any drunkard's children to bring up and be a curse to me when their father's left off breaking my heart."

"Oh—no, no!" cried Marcella, staring at her with horror.

"Yes, kid, just you keep that in mind! You ta' care, my dear. It's on'y natural, if you have kids, they'll take after their father. And I'd sooner see them laying dead before me than bring up drunkards to be a curse to some other poor devil. They'll not escape it. It's in their blood."

Marcella burst in passionately:

"Why, Mrs. King, that's the rottenest, wickedest heresy that was ever invented to tell anyone! If you believe a cruel thing like that, it means that the whole scheme of things is wrong. Why should children take after a bad parent more than a good one? Why should they be weak rather than strong? If you're logical, what you say means that the world is getting worse and worse. And everyone knows it's getting better every minute—"

"I'd like to see it," said Mrs. King.

"Besides," went on Marcella, "besides, if I had a baby I'd build him so strong, I'd make him so good his father would simply get strong and good because he couldn't fight the strength and goodness all round him! I'd build a wall of strength round the child—I'd pull down the pillars of the heavens to make him strong—I'd clothe him in fires—There, I do talk rubbish, don't I?" she added, quietly as she turned away. But Mrs. King's words stuck: she pushed them forcibly away from her mind: they would not go, and sank deep down; they came back in dreams, tormenting. She dreamed often of a little child starving and cold out in the Domain, while the southerly winds lashed rain at him—dreams of a little boy with Louis's brown eyes—a little boy who gnawed his nails—and stammered—and grew old—and wavered—and shook in drink delirium.

She refused the dreams house-room in her conscious thoughts. She looked at the shining billy and big enamelled mugs they had bought that day, at the bright brown leather straps that smelt so pleasantly new, fastened round two grey and two brown blankets. Louis came in and made her strap the two blankets on her back to see if they tired her. In spite of the heat of the day she scarcely felt them.

"This is what they call Matilda," he told her, weighing the swag in his hand.

"I can carry you both if you get tired," said she, looking from Matilda to him.

She had asked her uncle for ten pounds. He characteristically made no comments about her omission to mention a husband when she saw him at Melbourne, and remarked that they would be very pleased to see her and her husband any time at Wooratonga. When he proved his unquestioning kindness she wished she had not had to ask him for money.

That night they packed. There was a new lodger downstairs who proved very helpful. He had come from the Never-Never Land to knock down a cheque in Sydney; in the ordinary course of things he would have been blind to the world till the cheques were all spent. The night of his arrival, when he was only softened by a few drinks after six months' abstinence, the Salvation Army had got him. He had saved his soul, his liver and his money at the same time. And he was bursting with information.

"You take the train to Cook's Wall, chum," he said, spitting on his hands and trying the strength of the good leather straps. He had tapped the billy and the mugs with a wise finger, giving them advice about soaking their boots in linseed oil for a few days.

"Yous ought to buy your tea and baccy and flour in Sydney. It's dear and poor the further yous get," he told them. And—

"Cook's Wall is the rail-head, chum," he said. "It's in the Lower Warrilow. There's a bit o' manganese down there, and they're clearing land. Plenty of work waiting. Lot of new squatters—small squatters without two fardens to rub together and make a chink. Them assisted lot. They're always glad of help, clearing scrub. They get a loand off of the Gov'ment for tools and seeds and stock, but they've got to clear the land—within three years, I think it is. Hard work, chum."

Marcella and Louis looked at each other with shining eyes.

"That's the place for us, old lady!" he said. "I've done clearing in New Zealand, and gorse grubbing. Makes you as black as your hat, and you sleep like a million tops and eat half a sheep at a sitting—"

"You'll get a job there, ma," he went on, turning the spigot of his information before her now. "They're always glad of cooks for the huts where the men live. And they don't pay so bad, either. You get your rations, of course. It's rotten hard for lads that have been working fourteen hours in the open air to come in and start cooking."

Marcella felt thrilled with the excitement of it all, but doubted her powers of cooking.

"You needn't worry, old lady," said Louis. "It's fried sheep for breakfast, dinner and tea unless a cow breaks its leg and has to be slaughtered. And then it's fried cow. And damper and flapjacks. I can do that much cooking in a southerly buster with three sticks for firing, standing on my head."

But she decided to be on the safe side and scoured Sydney for a cookery book. She found a very fat and flushed and comfortable Mrs. Beeton. It apparently weighed about two pounds. A week later Marcella decided that its weight was at least two stone, but the pretty picture of cooked foods, and the kindly advice it gave about answering doors, folding table napkins and serving truffles were all very reassuring.

They had a tremendous argument about books. Louis flatly refused to take any. Marcella refused to go without some. Finally she packed the New Testament, "Parsifal" and the cookery book inside her swag. Later, opening all her books to write her name in them before leaving them on the shelf downstairs for the use of Mrs. King's "boys," she noticed the gipsy woman's prophecy in the title page of "Questing Cells" and took that along too.

For the last time, they slept on the roof; as soon as Louis was asleep and Marcella lying quiet beside him, she had a visitation of her dreams about drunkards' children. Creeping from under the blankets silently, she walked right along the roof in the moonlight to have the matter out with herself once and for all. She did not want to take bad dreams away to a new life with her.

"I won't believe it. What's more, I don't believe it," she said decidedly. "Louis may be a drunkard. Father was. So were all the Lashcairns for ages. But I'm not. And my child is not going to be. After all—is he our child—? I mean—Jesus was not Joseph's child—only—"

She stopped, waiting. This was an immense, breathtaking thought.

"Just his body is made by Louis and me—and all the rest of him comes—new—quite new. The spirit—the quickening spirit—"

She felt, once more, as if her feet were taking wings with the hopefulness of this thought.

"Why that's what the Catholics mean by Immaculate Conception! Of course it is! Why—it's all Immaculate Conception! How on earth could it, logically, be anything else?"

She went back, then, and lay down very still. Louis lay white and quiet in the moonlight.

"You may hurt him, Louis, if I happen to die. Not that I intend to, for one small instant! You may let him be hungry and cold. But you won't hurt him inside. I'll see to it that there's strength in him—the quickening spirit."

Her last sleep in Sydney was dreamless.



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