At Klondyke and Loose End they were great on celebrations. So very little except work happened that birthdays wedding-days, and anniversaries of all sorts wore greeted hilariously, and the various members of the community took it in turn to hold them at their various homesteads. A birthday happened to Mrs. Twist—her fortieth. She and Mr. Twist were the oldest inhabitants of the district and the birthday was a great occasion. Invitations were passed round from hand to mouth; about twenty grownups and twice as many children turned up one Saturday afternoon just before tea at the Homestead, which, decorated in branches of wattle and boughs of eucalyptus, looked very festive. The gathering had something of the nature of a surprise party in that most of the guests brought something to eat or drink. But most of them, in delicate compliment to the changed fortunes of Loose End, brought not necessities but luxuries. Jerry's gramophone was still hoarsely valiant; three Italians from Klondyke, manganese miners, brought mandolines; Jerry had recently acquired a mouth-organ with bells.
Marcella was always rather depressed about celebrations. Always Louis said, easily, that he would be safe; always he joined forces with the hard-bitten, hard-toiling miners who each brought his bottle of whisky and drank it without ill-effect. She could do nothing to help him: he resented her anxiety more and more as time went on.
The Homestead had grown. At the south side a big storeroom had been built: at one end of it flour-bags were stocked, both empty and full, to serve as seats for the dancers when they were exhausted. The guests sat long over tea, yarning, chaffing, gossiping and talking business; as it grew dusk the men sat on the verandah, smoking reflectively, talking little. In the living room the women all chattered at once. Louis had been working during the day on the gorse clearing again; until it was all burnt off it was a constant menace, for wind-blown seeds and underground leaders seemed to spring up spitefully in the midst of growing lucerne and wheat. Marcella's beloved garden had had a struggle against it: so had Mrs. Twist's patch of vegetables, so they were all making a gigantic effort to uproot the whole thing and get rid of it. Across the clearing the fire crackled and blazed and died down to a ruddy glow; in the storeroom Jerry's gramophone led off with "Oh Dry those Tears," and the youngsters started to dance. A new record was put on, because "Oh Dry those Tears" was not conducive; the sound of rhythmically beating feet drew the others towards the ballroom, and Marcella was left on the verandah listening to the barking of some half-dozen dogs, brought by the guests and tied up behind the Homestead. She knew that the massed force of cups and tumblers was not quite sufficient and decided to wash them before they would be needed for relays of coffee.
She was feeling very wretched; it was the end of the month; in two days Louis, already nervy and restless, would get the month's money, either by persuasion or force, and either vanish for a week or, coming home every night from Klondyke, reduce her to a state of inarticulate wretchedness. She was on the point of losing hope entirely. Sometimes it seemed to her that he drank deliberately now that the first flush of gratitude and love for her, the first zest of having a son, had worn off. He lied until she was sickened of the sound of his stammering voice—for never once did he lie without stammering. If he had not struggled and been so pitiful she would have given up, then, and been content to take three weeks' strained peace to one of blank horror. But his despair when he came out of his hell goaded her to keep on hoping.
She was washing the cups out on the verandah. Those of enamelled tin Andrew was trusted to carry indoors as she wiped them. She heard a horse coming along in the distance and guessed that it was a delayed reveller from Klondyke as she saw a tall man whom she did not recognize make for the storm centre of things in the ballroom. Clouds of dust and flour were eddying out of the door in a stream of light from the kerosene lamp. He dismounted and stood in the haze for a moment. Then he looked round in bewilderment and caught sight of her. The gramophone was playing "Rock of Ages."
"Can you tell me what is going on in there? Is it St. Vitus' Dance?"
Marcella looked at him and gave a little shout of laughter.
"No, it's Mrs. Twist's birthday. Didn't you know?"
"How could I? Never heard of her. I'm looking for Mrs. Farne. They lent me this animal at Klondyke. It seems days ago. They said she knew the way blindfold. They didn't think to tell me she didn't know it unless she was blindfold."
Marcella laughed again, and knew who he was.
"If it hadn't been for those fires I should never have got here. But, perhaps you can tell me where Mrs. Farne lives? They all seemed to know her at Klondyke."
Marcella pointed towards the glowing gorse.
"That's where I live. I'm Marcella Farne," she said. "But why didn't you say you were coming? Mr. Twist would have fetched you in his buggy. He loves meeting people at Cook's Wall because he tries to convince them that it's a real road he's driving them along. And it isn't, you know."
He sat down on the edge of the verandah, looking distastefully at the mare, who shook her head impatiently. Marcella gave her water and let her wander, when she had taken off her saddle and bridle.
"Suppose you hadn't been able to ride. I didn't think Professors had time for that sort of thing."
"Neither did I till a few hours ago," he said, with a short laugh, taking out a cigarette-case and offering it to her. She sat down rather trustfully on a verandah rail Louis had carpentered. Andrew stared at them both and made off silently towards the noise. "But how did you know who I was?"
"I only know one other man in the world, you see, and he's an old doctor in Scotland."
He was watching her as she spoke.
"I see," he said. "And you think you know me?"
"Yes. I know you like I know St. Paul and Siegfried and Parsifal—people living in my mind all the time. I've talked to you for hours, you know—hours and hours—"
"It was very good of you to ask me to come. But—embarrassing, you know! I simply had to come, out of curiosity. To find someone reading one's lectures right in the heart of the Bush!—"
"I thought you would come," she said, staring at him gravely, "when Dr. Angus told me what you said about the socialization of knowledge. But I can hardly believe it's you, even now. Yet somehow you look as if you could think those last lectures of yours. Before I read those you seemed tremendously clever and—and rousing. To speak biologically—"
"Oh, please!" he said, smiling. "They've been doing that in Sydney—out of encyclopedias—!"
"I was going to say that your thoughts always fertilize my brain. But you must be hungry, so I'll not tell you what I want to about the lectures yet."
She slipped off the verandah rail and went indoors, leaving the Professor rather amazed. He was not quite sure whether to think she was a serious and dull young person, absolutely sincere and very much a hero-worshipper, or one of the lionizing type he had met in the city. He was deciding that she was too young for the latter role when she called him inside the candle-lit room.
"I hope you drink tea. We drink quarts of it here."
He nodded reassuringly.
"There's some beer, too, but the shepherds and old Mike from Klondyke will have to drink that. It was put into a kerosene tin that hadn't been boiled and it smells terrible. But they won't notice."
"They'll probably be dead," he remarked.
"Mike drinks methylated spirit and the shepherds have a bottle of squareface each on Sunday afternoons when Betty and Andrew and I look after the sheep. Nothing hurts us. We're hard people out here."
"What made you write to me like that?" he asked, still puzzled. "I still have no idea—"
"I wanted to see you, for one thing. But that's only a small thing. I can't tell you now. I'm the cook to-day, you see, and they'll be wanting their supper in a little while. I must go and find somewhere for you to sleep, too. How long can you stay?"
"I'm not sure," he said guardedly. "I don't want to embarrass you, however much you embarrass me."
"I'd like you to stay for months," she said simply. "I—we're very lonely."
The gramophone groaning out the "Merry Widow" waltz seemed to contradict her words, with its accompaniment of tramping feet, laughter and talk. "This only happens on birthdays and things. Even then, it's lonely."
"I don't believe you're any more lonely than I," he said.
"I can understand that. I've felt it in your lectures. You're so much wiser than most people."
"What rubbish!" he said with a laugh, wondering again if she were sincere. "Much less, very much less wise than most people."
"If you tell me that I'll be wishing you'd not come. I'm counting everything on your being wiser than other people—and shining—like your lectures. But Louis once said that people usually think much better than they can do—"
"That was very penetrating of Louis," he said. Then—"I hope I don't disappoint you. I do—most people. Women especially—"
"Do you? Why?" she said with her puzzled frown.
"I suppose it's because I'm what you called, in your letter, a student of life. I like to understand things—and people. Particularly do I like to understand women. But one finds it impossible to take them seriously, as a rule."
"I don't know many women—" she began.
"And how many men did you say? Two?" he said, smiling. She shook her head.
"I'm afraid I take everyone rather seriously."
"It's a mistake," he said. "I used to. But they disappoint one. When I stopped taking people, women especially, seriously, and made love to them, I found them quite adorable—"
"It seems silly."
"It's quite a delightful pastime."
They had gone out on the verandah again now, and she looked across at the lake that glimmered red in the fire-glow.
"You didn't seem to think women a pastime in those lectures of yours three years ago. You said then that they were man's heel of Achilles. You seemed rather in a panic about them—"
He nodded his head and, meeting her intent eyes, decided that she had to be taken seriously. He was just going to speak when she went on:
"But you've got past that now—the panic stage, the pastime stage, the cynical stage—"
"I suppose you're thinking of those last Edinburgh lectures? They're the furthest I have got yet. I believe they are a very clever piece of work, a sort of high-water mark. But there are so many pulls to jerk us back from the high-water mark, don't you think? And as Louis—wasn't it?—said, we most of us think better than we do—"
They had reached the haze of the ballroom by this time. People sitting on the flour-bags sent up white auras which mingled with the dust and the smoke of strong pipes to make an effective screen. Kraill looked astonished. Marcella smiled.
"They say Englishmen take their pleasures sadly," he whispered confidentially. "I don't think they could say the same for Colonials."
"They work so hard, and they like to let off steam sometimes," she said. "By the way, I must simply say you are a friend from England. If I say you are someone very wise they'll either be rude to you or frightened of you. And all the girls will want to dance with you if I say you're from London. They're mad on dancing, and they'll take it for granted that you are. They'll expect you to teach them all the new things."
He looked startled as he watched the swaying crowd. It certainly looked dangerous, if it was not difficult. The gramophone was playing the "March of the Gladiators"; the mandolines were tinkling anything and the mouth-organ had given it up entirely, merely punctuating the first beat of every bar with a thin concussion of the bell. Betty had sprinkled the floor with a slippery preparation she got from the store, called "ice-powder."
"Be careful when you cross the floor. It's worse than ice, to make it easy for those who can't dance. You just cling to someone and slip if you don't know any steps. Some of them say their slip is a waltz: others call it a gavotte, and some say it's the tango. Old Mike's very definite that it's a jig. The great thing is to make the slip coincide with a groan from the gramophone. Just watch a minute, and you'll see that there is quite a lot of method in it."
She looked round for Louis, who was in a corner with some of the miners. By his flushed face, his high voice and hysterical laugh she guessed that she must try to keep him from seeing Kraill that night. She never could be quite sure what he would do or say.
Mrs. Twist was pathetically honoured that the "gentleman from England" should have chosen her birthday for his visit, and Marcella left him with her.
"It's a pity to be Martha to-night, Professor Kraill," she said in a low voice. "I want to be Mary—"
She was gone before he could answer.
The noise had made Andrew cross and tired, and she put him to bed in the hammock under the gum trees, and hitched up her own hammock in the bedroom next to Louis's. She knew that he would be drunk to-night; experience had given her a plan of action. She had to pretend to go to bed with him and stay with him until he was asleep. Then she crept out into the open air beside the boy.
She tried to transform the storeroom into the semblance of a bedroom, but it did not occur to her to apologize for discrepancies; she would not have done so had the king come to visit her: indeed, she considered that he had, for Kraill had always taken his place in her imagination, as she had told him, with heroes of romance.
When she got back to the Homestead everyone was ready for supper. They had to get away early, for most of them had to walk the five miles to Klondyke. The Professor seemed to be at home with the miners. His air of intense interest that had so won Dr. Angus' heart had immediately flattered and enslaved them all. Before they said good night he had committed himself to visiting them all. Marcella won a good deal of reflected glory by possessing him as friend.
"Are you tired of us?" she asked him after a while.
"I am very glad I won that toss!" he said.
"I tossed up whether to stay in Sydney or come here"—he stopped sharp, for it seemed to him that she looked hurt. He decided that, with Marcella, it would be better to be honest than pleasant.
"As a matter of fact, your letter completely puzzled me. I'm a modest sort of person, you know. To be asked to help anyone seemed such a wonderful thing to me that I scarcely believed it. If a man had written the letter I should have believed it more. But as I told you, I can't take women seriously—"
"Before you've finished with me you will," she said, and laughed.
She was just going to suggest to him that he was tired and should go to bed: she was so anxious to get him out of the way before Louis came out of his corner that she could scarcely talk coherently. But just at that moment Louis came up to her. He took no notice of Kraill or Mrs. Twist, who was quite used to him by this time. At the back of Louis's mind was the obsession that in two days he would draw his pay; half of him was a blazing hunger for whisky after three weeks' abstinence and hard work and peace; the other half of him was fighting the desire desperately; he wanted to win over one of these warring halves to the other; the fact that he had been drinking all the evening had weakened the finer half; his brain worked quickly. If he could find some grievance against Marcella he would be able to excuse himself to himself for getting drunk, for taking the money that he knew she needed. He wanted peace—unity within. So he raved at her because the tag had come off his shoelace, and it was her wifely duty to see that a new lace had been put into the shoe that morning. From that he went on to the usual gibberish of French, the usual accusation against men in the neighbourhood, the usual mélange of Chinese tortures and gruesome operations. From Kraill's horrified face Marcella saw that he understood more than she did. She had never been sufficiently morbid to ask anyone to translate his words for her, even after more than three years of them.
She wondered weakly what would happen. Judging Kraill by her father and Dr. Angus she knew that his ordinary code of convention could not let him disregard Louis as the others did, as being merely a rather weak, silly young man, who "went on the shikker" every month and made many varieties of a fool of himself. Everyone gave him the mixture of disgusted toleration and amusement given to a spoilt child who kicks his nurse in the park, and pounds his toys to pieces. Marcella never talked about him to anyone; she cut off ungraciously the attempts at sympathetic pumping made by the women at Klondyke. They concluded that she did not feel anything since she never cried out. But, looking at Kraill's face for one fleeting instant Marcella knew that he understood how sore and shamed she was.
"He's very ill, really," she said in a low voice. "But no one believes it. They think he's just wicked. I'll tell you all about it to-morrow. I expect you know without my telling you. But I didn't want you to see him like this. I've fixed up a bed for you at home. Will you let Jerry show you the way?"
He decided instantly that she knew her own business better than he did, and that his desire, both natural and conventional, not to leave a woman to see a drunken man to bed, was not going to help her.
"Shut your door up tight, please," she said. "He may not go to sleep for a long time."
He nodded, looked at her to show her that he had begun to take her seriously, and turned away with Jerry, rather astonished to find himself dismissed so coolly from the scene. She turned to Louis, forgetting Kraill. Jerry, who adored Marcella, became very voluble on the subject of Louis; Kraill listened mechanically to all he was saying as they crossed the paddock.
It was one of Louis's bad nights; he had been drinking both whisky and squareface. A letter from his mother, saying how she was longing to see her grandson, had roused him to great deeds. His fall after such resolutions was always the more bitter; always it needed more than usual justification; always Marcella was the scapegoat. She had forgotten Kraill in the intensity of her misery until, worn out by his ravings, Louis fell asleep. She knew, then, that he was safe for the rest of the night and she crept out silently into the cool cleanness of the garden, closing the door softly. Only his loud, stertorous breathing came to her with mutterings and groans. The moon had risen and little mist-wreaths walked in and out among the wonga-vines on the fence: Marcella's golden flowers with which she had planted the clearing all round the house—nasturtiums, sunflowers, marigolds and eczcoltzias—shone silvery and ethereal. The smoke from the dying fires rose in thin white needles, plumed at the top: out in the Bush a dingo barked shrilly and some small beast yelped in pain. Andrew stirred and she tucked the clothes round him, kissing his brown, round arm and fingers, wishing he were awake so that he could be crushed in her arms and let her bury her aching head on his wriggling little body for an instant—he was never still for longer.
She sat down on the edge of the verandah, her arm round the post; her eyes were aching; she felt too tired and helpless to go on living and yet the relief of having got Louis to sleep was really very great. She was trying to decide to write to Dr. Angus, asking him to give her some sort of sleeping draught she could give Louis when he had one of his bad times; she had forgotten that, in a week's time, all the money would be spent again and they would be happy for another period: but to-night's misery, more and more each time, was beginning to shut out pictures of a peaceful to-morrow, a vindication of faith.
A faint sound behind her made her start in horror, afraid lest he had wakened. But it was Kraill who was standing quite still looking down at her.
"Does this sort of thing happen very often?" he said with an air of intimate interest that reassured her.
"I'd forgotten about you," she said jerkily. "I'm so sorry—if I'd known you were coming I'd have arranged for you to stay at the Homestead to-night."
"But does it?"
"He can't help it."
"It can't go on, you know," said Kraill, lighting a cigarette and throwing it down impatiently.
"I know. That's why I wrote you that letter. He is so unhappy."
Kraill made an impatient gesture. Marcella stood up slowly.
"Are you tired? You must be," she said.
"No. I want to see this thing settled," he said. She felt very hopeful to hear him speak so determinedly.
"It's queer that you think as I do about that, Professor Kraill," she said with a faint smile. "People say other's troubles are not their business. But I think that's a most wicked heresy. I always interfere if I see people miserable. I can't bear to be blank and uninterested."
"Neither can I. I often get disliked for it, however," he said with a quick, impatient sigh. "And they don't often accept one's interference."
"I shall," she said gently. "I shall do whatever you tell me if it will make Louis well. I think that is really all I care about in the world. Sometimes, even, I think I care more about Louis than Andrew. I've a feeling that he's much more a little boy than Andrew is. You know, all my life, since I saw my father very unhappy and ill, I've wanted to save people—in great droves! And now I'm beginning to think I can't save one man."
"And you think I can?"
"I'm quite sure of it. People are not wise like you are just for fun. But will you come along the clearing with me a little way? I'm afraid our voices will waken Louis, and then he won't get any sleep. That is, if you're really not tired."
They went through the moon-silvered grass down to the lake. She sat under the big eucalyptus which clapped its leathery hands softly.
"I was sitting here when I read your lectures—the last ones—and decided to write to you. It is like—like Mount Sinai to me now. Will you talk to me out of the thunders, Professor Kraill?"
He looked at her for a moment, recalling the rather heart-breaking calmness and common-sense with which she had soothed Louis a while ago; he remembered her cool, patient logic in the midst of the drunken man's ravings—and he decided in a flash of insight that this rather rhetorical way of talking to him was very real to her. She saw him with the dream-endowed eyes of the Kelt and, embarrassing though it might be to him, and unreal though it made him feel, he had to accept the fact that, for her, he was clothed in a sort of shine. He saw, too, that she could not do without some sort of shine in her life.
"Tell me all about it," he said. "You don't mind talking to a stranger about these things?"
"You have never been a stranger to me, Professor Kraill. And I don't believe there is such a thing as a stranger, really. I like to think of the way the knights always went about ready to interfere with a good stout sword when they saw anyone in trouble."
And so she talked to him, and as she talked his quick mind gained an impression of her going about sordid ways and small woman tasks in knightly armour. After awhile he said something unexpected. It made her impatient for it showed that he was thinking of her. She was thinking only of Louis.
"You know, you make the years slip away," he said. "I have dreamed that women might go shoulder to shoulder with men, standing up straight and strong."
"Yes, I know," she said softly. "I think many a time I've very deliberately stood up straight when I wanted to lie down and cry my eyes out, just because I got the idea of a woman knight from those lectures of yours. And your talk about the softness of women rather goaded me. I wouldn't be soft."
"Soft! You're not soft," he interrupted.
"But think how expensive it is!" she said with a voice that shook a little. "It took a lifetime of discipline and two weak men to make me hard. I know now, very well, that Louis has been softened, weakened by me. To save him I think I must crumple up."
She caught her breath sharply.
"And I don't see how I can," she added.
"One might pretend," he said slowly, looking reflectively at her face.
"I couldn't. I can't pretend anything. That's the worst of me. And it seems so wrong to me that, to make one human being strong, another must be weak. And it seems to me that the weak thing kills the strong in the end. Like ivy, you know, choking out the life of an oak."
"I don't think he is likely to kill you."
"I very much wish he would, except that I dare not leave him. I have weighed it all up very carefully, and I feel it would be better to die than live this way. Sometimes I feel I shall get unclean—right inside. I can't explain it. There are things in Louis I can't bear—little meannesses, and selfishnesses. He locks things up—even here, where no one ever comes. That's a horrible spirit of selfishness, isn't it?"
She told him calmly, uncomplainingly, impersonally as one talks to a doctor, of his locking up his cigarettes, his tobacco, his writing paper; of how he carried the only pencil about in his pocket and hid away the papers from his mother, the books from Dr. Angus until he had read them. One day last week they had been short of milk, and Marcella had been anxious about the boy's food. The breakfast was on the table; she had to run to her bedroom for a bib for Andrew. When she got back Louis had already poured all the milk into his tea, saying that he had done it by accident. Another time she had thrown away the boy's tablet of soap by accident, and could not find it anywhere. Louis had his own tablet, locked away; there was no other nearer than Klondyke except the home-made stuff composed of mutton fat and lye, very cruel to tender skin. And he had made a scene when she asked him for his soap for Andrew and, when she, too, made a scene threw it away into the scrub where she could not find it. Little things—little straws that showed the way of the hurricane.
"You see," she said calmly. "It wouldn't do for me to die, and leave Andrew to that sort of love, would it? I knew a little boy once who had to look after his father," and she told him of Jimmy Peters on the ship. "I think if it came to dying, the only thing would be to take Andrew along too."
"Don't you think you're being rather conceited?" he said suddenly. "Has it occurred to you that you're taking too much on yourself? You admit that you're keeping your husband a parasite. Are you going to do the same to your child? Are you the ultimate kindliness of the world? You tell me of your own stern childhood. Has it hurt you? You must be logical, you know!" he added, smiling at her.
"I think I want Andrew to be happy rather than heroic. Heroism is such a cold fierce thing. I'm only just realizing what a coward I've been, and how utterly unheroic my hope in Louis has been. But it's so natural, isn't it? I didn't dare face the rest of life without the belief that some day we should be happy. Every time he gets drunk I've told myself, very decidedly, that this was the last time. And I know I've been lying to myself because I daren't face the truth."
Kraill smoked thoughtfully for a few minutes.
"I suppose it never occurred to you that, without the drink to consider, you would not be happy with him?" he said at last.
"Oh yes. We are quite happy in between," she said with a sigh.
"On the edge of things? Always with reservations?" he said quickly.
"Only on the edge of things," she said slowly. "How well you know!"
"I know all about it. I have never been past the edge of things myself. But always I think I shall be some day. I suppose I am quite twice your age, and still I am romantic, still I think there's a miracle waiting for me round the corner of life."
"I used to think that until just a little while ago. I used to think there would be a day when I should shine. Now I daren't think of it because I know I never shall. After all, stars and suns and things must be lonely, don't you think?"
"I don't know."
The moon sank, the dawn wind ruffled the grass and whispered in the tops of the rustling trees, making soft, eerie sounds.
She stood up suddenly. Unconsciously she held out her hand to help him up. Then she laughed bitterly, and twisted her hands in each other behind her.
"I'm sorry. I forgot you didn't need helping up," she said. He looked at her curiously.
"This is an appalling way to treat a guest," she said as they walked slowly towards home. "To sit out with him in the middle of the night and keep him awake. You make me selfish. I've never talked about Louis to anyone before. You make me dependent, Professor Kraill."
"And that, you say, is what you need."
Louis was calling out thickly, wildly, as they came within distance. She started and began to hurry. "I wouldn't go in there!" said Kraill sharply.
"It doesn't worry me now. If I don't go in, he's too frightened to sleep, and then he'll wake Andrew. And if he doesn't sleep he's very ill next day. Sleep gets rid of the effects of whisky, you know. Oh just listen to him! Why can't I do something? You will help me—you must!" she cried, clutching at his hands for a minute. To his intense distress he saw her eyes full of tears, and saw her cover them with her hands as she ran into Louis's room. He stood on the verandah watching her shut the door. Through the trellis window came sounds of a soft voice and a wild one mingling.