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The Toll of The Bush

Chapter XI Lena Consults the Oracle

page 112

Chapter XI Lena Consults the Oracle

Lena went soberly into the house. The youngest child, who had not yet passed the stage when an oatmeal bag would cover the greater portion of him, was howling himself into an apoplexy in one corner. Lena picked him up, and in his astonishment at her gentleness he stopped crying on the instant. Mrs. Andersen looked round suddenly at the abrupt cessation of the noise.

'Father's gone,' Lena said cheerfully.

'Good riddance to him,' said her mother.

'He was very sorry, mother, and he is going to be good; and there were tears in his eyes.'

'Yes, he's the sort that cries easily. Was there any money in his pocket?'

'He's going to work and bring us money. Oh, mother, I wish you could forgive him!'

'Let me forget him then.'

Lena looked wistfully round the wretched room, seeking for an inspiration that might thaw the frozen heart.

'It seems so hard,' she said, 'that all his trying should come to nothing; it seems so cruel. He page 113means so well in his heart now, and he is so gentle and kind, and then the drink masters him and he becomes hateful. Why doesn't God help him? It would be so easy for God. Oh, I wish there were no more drink in all the world!'

Her mother laughed savagely. 'I've been wishing it for fifteen years,' she said, 'and there's been more and more all the time.'

'Poor mother!'

The woman caught her breath and sitting down on a stool with her face to the wall, began rocking herself to and fro.

Lena set the child on his feet and went and knelt down beside her. Her face was pale, but there was an absence of demonstration from her manner which seemed to speak of a sensibility unusual in one of her years. 'Poor mother!' she said softly, possessing herself of one of her mother's hands.

'Don't,' said Mrs. Andersen peevishly; but the child persisted, and presently both hands were in her possession. 'Oh, Lena, Lena!' said her mother. 'I was not many months older than you when I married him, and I am only a young woman yet, and I have wished myself dead any day for more than a dozen years.'

'Yes, yes—I know.'

'How can you know, you child? If you had been a boy you could have helped me, but the boys came last.'

'I can help you, mother, and I will.'

'But it is too late. You must let me go my own way. If it had not been for you last night, everything would have been settled now. Why did I listen to you?'

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'Oh, mother, could you ever be happy again?'

'There!' said Mrs. Andersen, pushing her away. 'You are only a child; you don't understand.'

'But I do, mother. I know what your going to Mr. Beckwith meant. I know all that it meant.'

Mrs. Andersen looked at her uneasily, a faint colour showing in her careworn cheek. 'What did it mean then?' she asked huskily.

'It meant that father would not be your husband any more.'

'It meant clothes for you and the children, and comfort and peace for us all,' Mrs. Andersen said slowly. 'It meant protection from what we had to endure last night and what we shall have to endure again.'

'Never again.'

'Yes, again. Well, we shall see.'

'But you have given father another chance?'

'One more.'

'And then? Oh, I wish—I wonder if we do right when we let him go away. Perhaps if we clung fast to him it would be easier for him to resist. We ought to let him go only by little and little till at last we could trust him altogether.'

'I've tried it all,' said Mrs. Andersen wearily, 'and I broke my heart over it; but now I don't care what happens. Bah! A man should not need a parcel of women to keep him straight. It's not natural.'

'Was he always like that, mother?' Lena asked musingly,—'even when you first knew him?'

'He drank a little, but I had never seen him more than merry. It was afterwards that I found page 115he had no will of his own. Never you marry a man who can't say "No" and stick to it.'

Lena started and the colour deepened in her cheeks; then she caught her mother's hand and her eyes sparkled. 'Did you love father very dearly?' she asked.

'I suppose I loved him or I should not have married him, but I hadn't the sense to see him as he was. But what do you know about love? Love is all very well, but it won't feed you or clothe you or keep the wind out of the house. How are we going to live now?'

'I suppose we can manage somehow. We have managed hitherto.'

'Yes—on Mr. Beckwith's money.'

'Oh, mother!'

'Yes—and oh, Lena! The world's none of my making. Would you have me sit by and see the kids starve while there is a way to prevent it? I suppose he has a right to be charitable if he likes, even though he does—love me, as you say. Come, are you thinking of any one but yourself? You wouldn't like it because people would talk, but what about the children? It's his idea, not mine. He says all and for good, and he never changes, and he is a just man and a good man, and your father isn't worthy to black his boots. There!'

'And is there no other way?' Lena asked restlessly. 'I do feel the truth of what you say, and I do want us all to be happy—us who have never known what it is—but is that the way to happiness, through—yes, I must say it—shame, and over father's misery?'

'I would take any road to happiness now,' Mrs. page 116Andersen said recklessly. 'The wonder is I have refrained so long. But I am a fool to argue with a child. Wait till you have been through what I have and then see how much morality is left in you.'

But even as she uttered the wicked words the miserable woman burst into tears and caught her daughter in her arms.

'No, no,' she sobbed. 'Don't listen to me; don't believe me. Oh, my little one, it's that or madness! Once you might have persuaded me; but it's too late. I love him.'

'Poor, poor mother!'

'And if he were to walk in now and say to me, "Come," then I must follow him to the end of the world, and that is the way with a woman.'

Lena looked out despairingly through her tears. Was it for her to deny the supremacy of love?

'Oh, mother!' she said, 'perhaps you are right and I am too young to understand; and maybe I only repeat like a parrot what I have heard, because I am incapable of forming a judgment myself. I will believe that you are right, if Mrs. Gird will say so too. May I go to her and tell her everything? She is not like other women; she will never repeat a word of it. Then, if she is against you doing as you wish, she may think of some way to help us. Say yes, mother.'

'Very well, then,' said her mother, worn out by the struggle, and glad to throw the onus of a decision on another. 'She knows nearly all about it as it is. Yes, anything to bring it to an end.'

So in the afternoon Lena set out to consult the oracle, whose shrine was in the dark bush, where page 117the trees came down slowly one by one, and the tui's lustrous talk was always in the air so long as the daylight lasted. There was little to disturb him here, for the track ended at the Girds' doorstep, and beyond the forest stretched away to the south for forty miles without a break. And it needed little to disturb the tui, who for all his loquacity and gaiety has the reserve and pride of the aristocrat, shunning the places frequented by that sturdy foreigner the thrush, and turning his glossy back contemptuously on that vulgar little blackguard, the European sparrow.

Mrs. Gird was not visible in the clearing, and Lena, who had the distaste of the young for the sight of incurable sickness, went hesitatingly up to the open door of the house.

'The very lass,' said Mrs. Gird's voice from the dark interior. 'Come right in and take off your frock. Now, who says I haven't the power of summoning those I want? Yes, you may smile, father, but here's the maid in the flesh, and what's brought her here if it wasn't my summons? Well, Lena? You see father's been a bit poorly—oh, nothing to speak of—and so I'm stopping at home to cheer him up. And I've cut up my black velvet for you, because an old woman has no need of dresses in the bush; and it's been packed away ever since—well, never mind when, for it's good yet, and the very thing to show off the whitest skin and the bluest eyes in the settlement.'

'You are very good, Mrs. Gird,' Lena said awkwardly.

'Good! Good's no word for me. I am simply a wonder of generosity when I like. Take off your page 118frock; I'm dying to see what kind of a dressmaker I am. No, I didn't cut it out with the axe.'

'Oh, Mrs. Gird!'

'Well, then, that bit of thought-reading missed fire. Now, let me see. My! what lovely arms! Oh, if I only dared make it without sleeves! Mind the pins! Gracious! I believe it's going to fit. Gently! And the waist is like a dream—and the throat! Did you ever! Ain't I an artist? Ain't I just the most extraordinary clever woman in spite of my grammar?'

'You are very kind,' Lena said, her eyes beaming.

'I'm all kinds,' said Mrs. Gird. 'Now, let me see. We mustn't hide those pretty legs altogether. I should like it quite short; but you, of course—oh, you needn't tell me——'

'I should like it longer than that other one,' Lena confessed.

'I knew it, and it's so stupid. Just when, for His own reasons, God has made a girl most attractive she begins to curl up her hair and her toes and get out of sight. It's just an invention of the poor miserables to whom clothes are necessary for survival. The wonder is that the handsome people allow themselves to be imposed upon, and led by the nose or the clothes into all sorts of ridiculous disguises. It's indecent. Well, if you must; but not an inch longer. Now turn round. Ah, well, I suppose after all it's the girl and not the clothes!' And Mrs. Gird sat down and regarded her handiwork with thoughtful eyes, in which a gleam of anxiety played amid a deal of tenderness.

'So your father has come back?' she said page 119presently, busying herself with the more perfect adjustment of the dress.

'Yes, last night; and he went away again this morning. He was terrible, but he was sorry afterwards.'

'The same old tale—and what next?'

'He has promised never to touch drink again, and he means to try—he means to try so hard.'

'Yes, a weak man's resolution and a rope of sand.'

'Oh, Mrs. Gird, is there no hope for him?'

'Hope, child,' said Mrs. Gird softly, her eye travelling to the still figure in the invalid's chair; 'we can no more help hoping than we can stop the beating of our hearts; but the order of things is not changed in deference to human desire. In the end we have to make up our minds to the inevitable. Hope? No, not a shadow.'

Lena stood silent and miserable while the frock was removed. The futility of hope is a tragic prospect to the young, to whom, indeed, it is little less essential than the air that fills their lungs.

'Come and sit down by me,' said Mrs. Gird kindly, 'and let us see if the world is really as black as it pretends to be. Does it seem so dark? Is there no gleam of sunshine anywhere?'

The colour rose in Lena's cheeks and she dropped her eyes. 'I was thinking of mother and the children,' she murmured.

'Yes,' said Mrs. Gird, watching the downcast face, 'and what of mother?'

'She has given father another chance — the last—after that——'

'The deluge'—as Lena hesitated. 'Well, I did page 120not expect she would give him another chance; and that is something gained, I suppose, even if it's only time.'

'Oh, Mrs. Gird, mother seemed to say that you knew all about us, and she said I might come and talk with you—not on her account, you understand, but my own; because I want to know what is right and what is best for us all.'

'Ah, if there were any one who could really tell us that, Lena!'

'Mother has given him another chance, and if he fails she will leave him and go—to—Mr. Beckwith.'

Lena wrung her hands passionately.

'And that seems terrible to you?' Mrs. Gird asked gently. 'But of course and so it is—and yet, perhaps—probably—it will come to pass.'

'Oh, Mrs. Gird, could it ever be right?'

'No, it could never be right—that seems certain. But can we ever do what is perfectly right? Do we even know it? The best of human righteousness is only parti-coloured. Now and then, Lena, we all come to the place where the roads divide, and sometimes we know or think we know which is wrong and which is right, but we have to make our choice, and when we have made it there is no turning back.'

'But ought mother to do this?' Lena urged. 'I know that Mr. Beckwith is everything that is kind, and that the children would be well fed and clothed and taught, and when I think of them my heart says yes, but would that excuse it? Would anything excuse it? It seems that the price is more than we should be asked to pay.'

Mrs. Gird shook her head. 'It is for your page 121mother to decide. I would help her if I could; but, child, this question is not for you or me. When a rat finds itself shut in a hole with just one gleam of daylight, it works and gnaws at that point until it gets through, and though there may be worse awaiting it on the other side, still it makes for the daylight, and that's just human nature. You, of course, look at the question from a moral point of view, and that is only right and natural in a young girl, but I'm not a moral person to the extent that I would drive a principle like a juggernaut, and so, frankly, I have no answer for you. There are some questions that fairly bristle with if's, and this is one of them. But the hour for deciding is not quite yet, and it may never come. Meanwhile, let us eat and drink and be merry.'

And that was all Lena learned from the oracle that day.

Mrs. Andersen asked her daughter a few leading questions, which elicited the unfruitfulness of the errand, and then there was silence between them. It seemed to Lena that there was only one subject for discussion with her mother, and that for the present was exhausted. A meal had to be patched up for the children, and this, thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Gird, proved less difficult than on some other occasions. By the time it was over the sun's beams gilded only the trees on the higher ground. Lena tidied herself and put on her hat, her heart beginning to resume the elation of the morning. Usually her mother watched her departure in silence, as though her trust or her indifference were too deep rooted to provoke a care, but this evening she opened her lips to ask—

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'What do you two do with yourselves every evening?'

'We read,' said Lena.


'History and myth-ology and things,'

Mrs. Andersen said no more. It was about this time of the day that Mr. Beckwith frequently dropped in for an hour. Geoffrey had described him as a silent man; but though he did not say a great deal, there was frequently a great deal in what he did say.

It was probably better for Lena to read history with Robert Hernshaw.