CAPTIVITY

CHAPTER XXIV

For nearly five months peace stole round Castle Lashcairn. Marcella was almost incredibly happy and so was Louis. Mrs. Twist and Marcella held long consultations about the baby, but Marcella, afraid of worrying Louis, tried to make him forget all about it. Even when, as time went on, she really began to feel tired and unable to work with him, she fought her tiredness indignantly; she was terrified lest he should get "raked up" and go along to the hotel for solace. So she hid everything from him, arranging all details with Mrs. Twist who promised to "see her through it." There was no nurse within a hundred miles; there was a dreadful old woman who had brought several bottles of squareface with her when she attended Mrs. Twist at Millie's birth. They decided to dispense with her services.

Marcella sent money to Mrs. King to buy things for her in Sydney. They spent a whole Sunday evening making out the list. Many of the things he had learnt, from textbooks, to associate with babies, Mrs. Twist thought unnecessary, but Marcella, with no basic opinion of her own, let him have his way, and one day in May he took Gryphon, the Twist pony, to fetch the packages from the station.

He was to be away one night—starting at four in the morning he would rest at the hotel for the night and start back next morning. That night Marcella lay long awake, thinking about him. She was vaguely anxious; when she fell asleep she dreamed that he came home to Castle Lashcairn drunk. He was talking French—his eyes were wild, his mouth loose and slobbering, his tongue bitter.

She started up in fright and rolled out of the hammock.

"No—no. It couldn't happen again. It couldn't. We could never live now, if we were to get miserable like that after we've been so happy. He's so—so clean, now. He can't get dirty again."

She could not sleep after that, and walked down to the lake in the moonlight. She was really feeling ill. Louis's lectures and diagrams and descriptions of "midder" cases at the hospital sickened and frightened her. Mrs. Twist, with the average woman's unscientific and morbid interest in such illness, sickened her still more.

The moonlight was very bright; the weather was warm, for May. Louis had begged her not to swim now. She had given in to him rather than worry him, but a sudden impulse to do what she thought pleasant without troubling him came to her, and she slipped out of her nightgown quickly. The lake lay at her feet, a shimmering pool of silver, almost without ripples. It lapped very gently against her feet, bringing back the softly lapping waters of Lashnagar on spring mornings. It was adorably, tinglingly cold; she forgot the dream in the exhilaration and gave a little cry of rapture as she waded further out. Then, without warning, a ghost was in the water beside her. She stared, and knew that it was her own reflection. With a little cry she hurried back to land, her heart thumping wildly as she pulled on her nightgown over her wet body with trembling hands.

"How horrible I look!" she whispered. "He mustn't know I look as awful as that!"

The next day she waited for him, anxious to unpack the thrilling parcel from Sydney, but he did not come, and all the night she sat waiting, afraid that he had met with some accident. If someone had come, then, and told her he was drunk she would not have believed it. It seemed to her just as unreal a thing as last night's dream.

But at four o'clock in the morning as she sat on the verandah, half nodding with red-rimmed, heavy eyes, she saw him come stumbling along, holding on to the pony's neck.

She went out to meet him, knowing just exactly what she was going to meet. And she felt frozen with horror. The average man coming home drunk is not a tragedy. He is merely amiably ridiculous. To Louis, after all his fights and all his hopes, tragedy had certainly come, but he was too drunk to know it yet. He began to bluff and lie just as usual.

"Ought be 'shamed, sending a chap thirty—thirty—thirty miles f'r lot fem'—fem'—fripp—fripp—fripperies! Sick an' tired, stuck in with a wom' day an' night f'r months. 'Nough make any man k-k-kick."

She did not speak, and he went on in the same old way, French words peppering the halting English; she could have shut her eyes and fancied she was back in the city again, or on the ship.

He muttered and shouted alternately all the way to the cottage; there was a meal waiting but he could not eat; sitting on the edge of the verandah, he ordered her to light him a cigarette. She knew there were none in the house and felt in his coat pocket, guessing he had bought some. She was not really unhappy. She was too sick, too frozen to feel yet at all.

"Come out my pock'," he growled, hitting her arm away fiercely, his teeth clenched. "Aft' my money, eh? Think you're winning, don't you? In league with the Pater against me. Think you'll always have me under your thumb, nev' giv' free hand. There's not a man on God's earth would stand it, damned if there is—tied to wom' apron strings all the time!"

"Very well, get your own cigarette. I'm going to bed."

"Y-you w-w-would," he said, and laughed shrilly. "Think you've got me in blasted bush, work like blast' galley slave while you skulk in bed."

"Oh don't be such an idiot, Louis. You'd better go to bed. I'm tired of you," she said, going past him into the bedroom.

"Ta' my boots off," he grunted, trying to reach his feet and overbalancing. "If you can't make yourself 'tractive to a man, you can be useful. Nice damned freak you are f'r any man t' come home to! Nev' trouble to dress please me—like Vi'let."

Marcella began to laugh hysterically. It was uncanny how his opinion of her appearance coincided with her own.

"Wom' your condish' no damn goo' t' any man!" he mumbled. She went past him, into the room and left him. It was the first time she had made no attempt to soothe and sober him and bring him back. She felt impatient with him, and horribly lonely and frightened of being with him, horribly longing to run to someone and be comforted. But she was just as anxious to hide the trouble from the Twists and knew that she must bear it alone.

She cried for hours, completely disheartened, longing passionately to go to him and ask him to assure her it was only a dream, and he really was cured as she had imagined. But at last she fell asleep, too proud to go and ask him to come to bed again, guessing that he would sleep in the living-room.

She wakened early and started up with full recollection of what had happened. In the light of morning, after a sleep, she was sick with herself for having forgotten her theory that he was an ill man; she had let personal annoyance stop her from trying to help him. Brimming over with love and pity and self-disgust she ran out to find him, for she guessed he would be penitent now, and in black despair.

He was not there. On the verandah was a "squareface" bottle, empty. Wakening from a drugged sleep in the grey morning, his mouth ablaze, his brain muddled and full of resentment against her, he had remembered the gin he had brought home with him; there was not much left in the bottle. He drank it, full of resentment against it for making him so unhappy. He knew that ten pounds—two months' pay—was in the cigarette-box on the shelf. It was Mr. Twist's birthday next Sunday and they had decided to give it back to him to buy tools. Louis remembered it; fighting every inch of the way across the floor with the strength that the last few months had put into him, he took it out of the box. Then, a thousand devils at his heels, he dashed off into the Bush on his thirty-mile mad tramp.

It was a week before she saw him again, and all the time she was aching to follow him. But she knew she could not walk so far and, with a stern cussedness typical of her father, she went on with Louis's work, not mentioning to the Twists that he was away, though they all wondered what had happened to him. She burned the gorse as though it were whisky, almost savagely. She tore at the roots in the ground as though they were the fierce desires of life to be ruthlessly uprooted, smashed out, burnt to ashes. She was scarcely conscious of emotion; the smoke got into her eyes and blinded her; stooping to dig made her feel faint and ill, but in her desperate misery she attacked the work as even Louis in his best days had never done. It was not until she had been at it nearly a week that Mrs. Twist found her out, and came across the clearing to her, looking indignant.

"Want to kill yourself, and have the child killed too kid?" she cried before she reached her. "What the nation do you think you're doing?"

"I won't be paid for work that isn't done," said Marcella ungraciously. She was so sore, so aching that she knew to her disgust, that she would be crying weakly on Mrs. Twist's shoulder if she let herself be even commonly polite.

"Come on, kid, and have a cup of tea with me," said Mrs. Twist gently. "I know what it is to feel as if you could chew anyone's head off. It always takes me like that the last few weeks. Where's your boss?"

"He—Oh, I don't know. I've got to do his work. I daren't let him think he can shirk like this! He'll never get back again if I make him think it doesn't matter. Mrs. Twist, I'm tired of it!" she cried with sudden fierce intensity. "Never, never, never for a minute dare I be tired and weak; why I daren't even think tired for a minute. Always I've to be strong for him! Oh—" she suddenly choked and, flinging her spade aside, sat down clumsily on the ground, her face buried in her hands. "If only Father could come alive for a few hours—and thump him!"

Mrs. Twist made no enquiries about Louis; she had guessed a good deal and, by excessive tact, got Marcella to go across to the Homestead with her and rest for the remainder of the afternoon. But she was back at her work again next morning grimly determined to show Louis that if he shirked his job she would do it for him.

That night he came home—pale and haggard, unshaven and unwashed. He had spent the ten pounds until he had just enough left to buy two bottles of whisky. With these he had wandered off on the home road, to sink to sleep when he could go no further and waken to another solitary orgy.

She had been working till after dark, in spite of Mrs. Twist's remonstrances, to which she answered rudely and impatiently. At last the elder woman thought it less wearing to the girl to leave her alone; she guessed that she would faint with physical weariness before she had got over her mental misery. Louis could see the red glow in the sky for the last two miles of his dazed tramp; it led him homewards, muttering to himself about a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud. He looked into the house and saw that she was not there. He had not known, till he saw the empty rooms, with her frock hanging over the hammock, her nightgown neatly folded on the shelf, her books and a pannikin half full of cold tea in the kitchen, how much he had counted on seeing her, how he had hungered for her, deep down, during all the nightmare week. He felt too ashamed to go to the Homestead to look for her; then it occurred to him that she would be across the clearing.

And he met her, half-way. She was coming along in the dull glow of the dying fire, the pickaxe over her shoulder. She looked different to him; perhaps his eyes were distorted, perhaps the fire-glow making leaping shadows caused the difference; but she walked heavily, wearily, without the thrilling, young spring of swift movements that made her such an exhilaration to him. He wanted to run across the clearing, lift her in his arms and charm away the tiredness; swiftly on top of that emotion came the realization that she was walking wearily partly because she had been doing his work, partly because her spirit was heavy and sick. He felt sick with himself for having hurt her; he resented the misery his conscience was causing him: swiftly he found himself resenting the ungainliness of her figure which, in his morbid mood, seemed his fault too. He hated the unconscious reproach she gave him as she came along, stumbling a little, carrying the pickaxe.

He had finished his last spot of whisky at noon and had not slept since; he was worn and tired and frayed, even more than she was. He was acutely uncomfortable for want of soap and water and food.

He dashed across the space between them, his eyes blazing madly, and she looked up, hearing his steps, seeing the blaze of his eyes, the tenseness of his clenched hands.

"Damn you—damn you!" he cried, "playing the blasted Christian martyr. Walking like that, to make people think I've made you tired!"

She stared at him, and her eyes filled with tears. She had got to the stage of longing to see him so much that she did not care whether he were drunk or sober. Then the ridiculousness of playing a role in the Bush at ten o'clock at night, struck her, and she laughed—a rather cracked laugh. He came close to her, all flaming with hate. He noticed the blue shadows under her eyes, smelt the fire on her clothes. She recoiled from the whisky on his breath, which, from association with her childhood's horrors, always reduced her to a state of unreasoning terror.

"Oh blast you—too fine to come near me, are you? You were damned glad to pick me up, anyway—and so you ought to be, with your drunken old scab of a father!"

She, in her turn, blazed and tingled; murder was in the ends of her fingers that quivered towards him. Luckily she had dropped the pickaxe. But her movements were slow, and his quick, and he got behind her in an instant. Next moment, without realizing what he was doing, he pushed her violently. She stumbled a few steps and fell heavily against the blunt end of the pickaxe. For an instant he stood looking at her; the next moment with a hoarse cry he was kneeling beside her.

"Oh my darling," he cried. "I told you I'd kill you in the end! I told you the damn stuff was making a madman of me."

The whisky vanished from him like the flashing of lightning. Lifting her in his arms he carried her homewards and laid her down on the verandah. Frantic with fear he was going to fetch Mrs. Twist when she sat up rather shakily and looked at him.

"I suppose that's what you've been expecting me to do—faint all over the place—swounds and vapours," she said, laughing faintly. "Louis, it was a horrible feeling."

"Marcella," he sobbed, kissing her hands, kneeling beside her desperate in his self-abasement. "I thought I'd killed you."

"You're not much of a doctor if you don't know I'd take much more killing than that," she said. "And I wanted to kill you for a minute, so we're equal."

In a torrent all his explanations came pouring out. He had thought the whisky hunger was killed; he had tried to test his certainty and had failed.

"I got cocky, old girl. I swanked to myself! I thought I'd got it beat and I'd just go and have one whisky at the Station Hotel to satisfy my own conviction. But when I'd had one I couldn't help it. I seemed to be outside myself, watching myself for the first two or three. I was interested. I kept thinking 'I'll tell Marcella she need not be frightened any more. I can drink two or three whiskies and not be a bally Blue Ribboner any more. We need not be banished to the Bush for the rest of our lives to keep me out of danger.' Then I got muddled and quite lost grip. It had a sort of chemical effect, you know. I hated you for keeping me from whisky that was making me feel so fine and jolly again. I felt I'd been a bit of a prig lately. I loved the stationmaster and a few manganese miners who came in. In fact, I just wallowed again. I came home hating you. I didn't come to see you. I came for money. And that's all. The whole thing's hopeless."

"It was my fault this time, Louis. I went to bed and left you. If I'd not been so proud and so huffy I'd have kept you."

"Yes, but only for a time, dear. I saw it all in a flash to-night when you lay there and I thought you were dead. Marcella, no savage would have done that—hurting you just now."

"What rubbish! If you hadn't done it to me I would have done it to you," she said easily.

"Don't you see how hopeless it is? The very first time I go near whisky, I want it. And this happens. I was a madman to-night. It means that we've got to stick here for the rest of our lives. I daren't even go to the store to fetch things for you when you're ill. I have to hide in a hole like a fox when the dogs are after it."

"After all, is it so very horrible here, Louis?" she whispered. "I think it's been heaven. Our Castle, and the clearing—and next month my seeds that Dr. Angus sent will be coming up. And the baby, Louis! Just think of the millions of things we've got!"

But he knew better than she did the torment of his weakness and refused to be comforted. He was near suicide that night; he too had been happy, happier than ever in his tormented, unfriended life before. He had the terrible torture of knowing that it was he who had brought the cloud into their sky; he had the terror before him, with him, of knowing that he would keep on bringing clouds, all the more black because they both so loved the sunshine.

And she, when she undressed, sick and faint but comforted with the thought that once more a fight was over, blew the light out quickly so that he should not see the ugly purple mark of the pickaxe.

She usually slept with her nightgown unfastened so that the cool winds should blow over her through the trellis of the window. To-night she muffled herself up tightly, and when he came in from a strenuous ten minutes in the lake, feeling once more as though she had sent him to dip in Jordan, she pretended to be asleep. Seeing her so unusually wrapped up, he thought she was cold, and fetched a blanket to cover her. She dared not yield to her impulse to hold out her arms to him and draw his aching head on to her breast for fear the bruise should grieve him.



Back | Next | Contents