CAPTIVITY

CHAPTER XXV

Once more came peace, so sunlit and tender that it seemed as though they had wandered into a valley of Avilion where even the echoes of storms could not come, and doves brooded softly. They talked sometimes now of the coming of their son; Louis, once he had got over his conventional horror of such a proceeding, said that she would be as safe in Mrs. Twist's care, with him hovering in the background, as though she had gone to the nursing home in Sydney, as he had suggested at first.

"I shall funk awfully to know you're going through it, old lady," he told her. "You know nothing about it yet. I've seen this thing happen dozens of times, and it's much worse than you imagine."

She decided, privately, to spare him the misery of it all by sending him off into the Bush on an errand for Mr. Twist as soon as she was taken ill. But her scheme fell through. All one day of blue and silver in June, a winter's day with keen exhilaration in the air, she stayed with him in the clearing, burning the branches as he hewed them down. She felt scarcely alive. Her body was a queer, heavy, racked and apprehensive thing down on the ground. She watched it slowly walking about, dragging faggots of gorse fastened together by the swag-straps which she loosened as she cast the branches cracking and creaking into the flames. Her mind was restless, a little fey. Louis, seeing something of her uncertainty, stopped work early, and they walked home slowly over the cleared land that was now being ploughed.

"I feel proud of it, don't you?" she said, looking back. He nodded, watching her anxiously.

As she was making the tea pain, quite unbearable, seized her. She got out on the verandah so that he should not see her. After a while it passed and, looking white, she came back into the room.

"I was going across to the Homestead to-night. Jerry's got a new record and wants to try it on us. But I feel tired. Will you ask Mrs. Twist to come and have a gossip?" she said casually.

The pain came back, quite astonishing her. She had heard that it was horrible, but had not expected it to be quite so horrible as this. Her mind had only room for one thought—that Louis must not suspect—or, in his anxiety; he would lose grip on himself and make away for Cook's Wall and oblivion. Going into her bedroom she took pencil and paper and wrote a note to Mrs. Twist, who understood the plot and was ready to invent some lost sheep for Jerry and Louis to hunt up.

"Can you come up? I think it's happening to me. Please send Louis away," she wrote, and folded the note into an envelope which she fastened down. That moment she found herself crying out without her own volition. She slammed the door and lay down on the floor inside it, to barricade it against Louis. She heard his steps coming along the verandah and clenched her hands fiercely over her mouth.

"Did you cry out then, dear?" came his voice as he pushed at the door. Feeling an obstruction he pushed all the harder: she could not speak, but he took in at a glance her twisted figure and as he bent over her, shaking with fright, she caught at his hands.

"I thought I'd do it all by myself, but I can't bear it," she gasped.

"Oh my darling," he cried, lifting her in his arms and holding her tight. "How long has this been going on?"

It was some time before she was able to speak. In the bleak aloneness of pain she was very glad of his presence.

"All day—only I didn't want you to know," she said. He groaned.

"For fear it'd bowl me over? Oh God—"

"I'd a plot to send you away. But I'll be glad to know you're not very far! Will you go for Mrs. Twist, Louis? It will be back in a minute."

Kissing her, he ran out across the paddock. In that moment he felt he would cheerfully die for her; it was not her illness that made him so tender, so unusually exalted. He had not it in his nature to regard pain as other than interesting. But the rending thought that she had suffered alone rather than risk his getting drunk—that jerked him. He felt he could beat any weakness that night, as he recalled her eyes, trying to smile at him through pain, her hands as they clung to his for help. He lived a thousand lives during the next few hours until, at two o'clock, he heard the heart-stopping cry of a newborn child that brought stuffy London nights in the slums back to his mind for an instant until Mrs. Twist said, with an air of personal pride, that it was a boy.

And then Louis cracked again; kneeling beside Marcella, who was quite calm and very tired, he sobbed out his love and his penitence and his stern and frantic resolves for the future, his undying intention to be as good a man as she was until Mrs. Twist, who was not very used to emotional young men, packed him out of the way to take the news to Mr. Twist, who was sitting up waiting for it.

The two women had never told Mr. Twist of Louis's tragedy. He had guessed that he had been "on the shikker" that week he stayed away, but he took that as the ordinary thing done by ordinary men—he himself was past "having a burst," he had no heart for it now; but no young man was any the worse for it if it didn't take hold of him. And so, when Louis went there with his eyes shining, his hair wild and his hands shaking, he brought out a bottle of brandy.

"We must drink the young fellow's health," said Mr. Twist, pouring out a microscopic dose for himself and passing the bottle to Louis. "I got that bottle a bit ago, as soon as mother told me your missus was like that. You never know when a drop of brandy may save life."

Louis refused the drink, but Mr. Twist laughed at him—and Louis could not bear to be laughed at. He too poured a microscopic dose, and they solemnly toasted the unnamed son. Louis was fidgety, anxious to get back.

"Leave them alone—they're better alone for a bit. All sorts of things to see to," said the man who had weathered seven birthdays. "Have a pipe with me."

They smoked; Mr. Twist talked. Louis answered vaguely, his mind with Marcella; he had suddenly determined that he could not keep his son, as well as his wife, chained in the Bush with him. Visions of the boy growing up—going to school—going to the hospital to do what his father had failed to do—floated before him. He was making titanic resolutions for the future. His eyes strayed past the brandy bottle. Mr. Twist pushed it generously forward.

"Have another dose. You need it, lad," he said. Louis stood up, astonishing Mr. Twist. He was trembling violently, his forehead wet and shining, his eyes wild.

"Put the damned stuff in the fire!" he cried, and dashed off over the paddock as though a pack of devils was after him. It was an epoch; it was the first time he had refused a drink.



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