"Now, throw off your coats," cried Denis Quirk, "every one of you. You too, Cairns, and do what I tell you. You, Tim O'Neill, take this telegram to the post office. We will have a new staff to-morrow, and men I can rely upon."
In this way "The Mercury" was printed under the greatest difficulties, but the rival newspaper failed to appear. Ebenezer Brown was stubborn, and when his editor brought him the news of the threatened strike he refused to concede anything.
"Not one penny more, and not one second less, will they get from me. Let them strike," he growled.
"But you must come to terms," said the editor. "You can't afford to miss one issue of 'The Observer.'"
"I am paying fair wages, and they may fish for a rise," replied Ebenezer Brown.
The following day, like its rival, "The Observer" was manned again and working smoothly, but its prestige was hopelessly impaired. Thenceforward "The Mercury" advanced daily at the expense of the older paper, until, six weeks after the beginning of the campaign, Ebenezer Brown went to Denis Quirk to effect a compromise.
Denis was sitting in his shirt-sleeves, his collar off and neckband loosened, when Ebenezer Brown entered.
"Sit down, Mr. Brown. I will attend to you in five minutes. We are so confoundedly busy that I must put this through at once."
Ebenezer Brown mumbled something inarticulate and sat down, watching the pile of papers on the desk in front of the man he hated. After a few minutes Denis Quirk swung round on the office stool to face him.
"Well, sir, what is it?" he asked. "An advertisement or an obituary notice of 'The Observer?'"
Ebenezer Brown was rendered speechless with indignation for the moment.
"I didn't come here to be insulted," he growled.
"Then why did you come? Haven't you been throwing insults at me from the columns of your rag these six weeks past? A man doesn't walk into the lion's den to have his hand licked by the lion."
"And how have you treated me?" cried Ebenezer Brown. "First you stole my reporter's copy, then you stole my reporter."
"Stole, sir!" Denis Quirk rang his bell, and Desmond O'Connor entered. "Kindly take down this gentleman's words, Desmond. Now, Mr. Brown, please repeat your statement."
"You are an unscrupulous person!" growled the old man.
"You have that down, Desmond? Continue, Mr. Brown," said Denis Quirk.
"Robber! Forger!" cried the old man, roused to fury. "You have neither manners nor honesty."
Therewith he rose and rushed into the street, and the burst of laughter that he heard as he went did not tend to make him better pleased or satisfied.
"Do you intend to prosecute?" asked Desmond O'Connor.
"Prosecute! No, my lad, I only defend actions for libel. If he had used every term of reproach in every dictionary, I would not be tempted to a prosecution. I am highly flattered. It proves that I have succeeded in making the old man uncomfortable, and satisfies me. Just write a humorous sketch on the little skirmish, but don't give any names. The town will understand who is the principal character if you manage your article dexterously and with humour. Bring it to me to touch up when the sketch is completed."
For two weeks longer "The Observer" struggled on; then Ebenezer Brown sent an intermediary, in the person of a lawyer, to make terms.
"There is only one possible arrangement—"The Observer" goes out," said Quirk. "How much does Ebenezer Brown ask?"
"His proposal is to buy 'The Mercury,'" replied the messenger.
"Hopeless! I have started 'The Mercury' as a financial investment and something more. It is to be a literary battery to galvanise Grey Town into energy. I really don't care a hang for 'The Observer.' That organ is dying rapidly; in a few weeks it will be dead. But I am prepared to pay for a more speedy ending to a useless life," replied Denis Quirk.
"How would a limited proprietary suit you?" asked the lawyer.
"With Ebenezer as a shareholder? Impossible! 'The Mercury' intends to shoot at old Eb. and his sort. These are the men who are holding back the wheels of progress. He is a landlord who keeps his premises in a shocking state, charges big rents, refuses to make repairs, refuses to build, opposes reasonable rates, and holds one half of the council under his domination. Ebenezer Brown represents stagnation and corruption, the last things I intend to countenance."
"Shall I tell him your objection?" laughed the lawyer.
"If it will encourage him to prosecute for libel, I say yes; but you may use your own discretion. Tell him I will buy 'The Observer' right out for a sum to be settled by arbitration—buy it out or destroy it."
Thus did it come to pass that "The Observer" disappeared into oblivion, and in its place came that fiery paper, "The Mercury," respecter of neither person nor position.
It was "The Mercury" that first breathed on the smouldering ashes of municipal discontent, and roused the ratepayers of Grey Town to organise for protection and advancement. Thus was accomplished the first act in a drama, and thus was fought the initial battle of a long and fierce campaign.
Cairns and Denis Quirk were working post haste in "The Mercury" office. "We must make 'The Mercury' a go-ahead, up-to-date paper," said Cairns.
"That's it, my man," replied Denis Quirk.
"We want to consider our readers' amusements," said Cairns.
"Tickle them, and make them laugh, and they will put their arms round the old 'Mercury's' neck and love her," cried Denis.
"Racing is the first and most important amusement in Australia. You need a sporting editor."
"Good old Cairns! With you and Tim O'Neill I have the finest stuff in Victoria. A sporting editor you shall have, sonny. What about Desmond O'Connor?"
Cairns shook his head doubtfully.
"Couldn't stand it," he answered. "He's too fond of Dame Chance already, and inclined to be one of the good-natured 'have-a-drink-with-me' crowd. Desmond needs watching."
"I'll tell you what he wants—to get right away from here, and fight the world alone," said Denis.
"You and I," cried Cairns, "are the men to found a new party with a new Australian policy. Mere parochialism must go, sir, if Australia is to have a destiny. I have my eye upon Desmond as a disciple."
"Don't hurry, Cairns. Reform Grey Town first, then turn your mind to Australia. There is plenty to be done here. Have you prepared that article on the municipal omissions?"
Cairns handed a proof to Denis Quirk, and the latter ran his eye over it.
"Good!" he cried, approvingly. "Slash it into them! 'Too much of a hole and corner system.' 'Too many surprises sprung upon a too-confiding public.' That's the way to make things hum. I must give Wilde a retainer to defend us in our libel actions. I see them coming, Cairns. To-morrow rake it into Ebenezer Brown for the state of his premises in Chester Street; on Saturday draw attention to the insanitary condition of the best residential part of the town. Keep things moving, and we will make Grey Town a live community. Then we will turn our attention to Australia."
Now, the first sporting editor of "The Mercury" was a handsome man, clean-shaven and well-dressed, who presented himself to Denis Quirk in answer to an advertisement in a Melbourne paper.
"Mr. James Gerard," read Cairns from the card that Tim O'Neill handed to him that morning. "Have you any idea who Mr. Gerard is?"
"He says he's 'Trafalgar,' sir; not the battle, sir, but the horse. I fancy he's dotty, Mr. Cairns; he looks more like a donkey than a horse."
"Show him in to Mr. Quirk; I have no time for lunatics," said Cairns.
Mr. James Gerard was accordingly shown into the managers' room. Denis Quirk was at the moment preparing a speech, for he had already decided to contest a vacancy on the council. He received his visitor abruptly.
"What do you want?" he asked.
"I am 'Trafalgar;' perhaps you have heard of me," said the newcomer.
"Never!" replied Denis.
"Hem! I thought you might have seen my nom de plume in the 'Sporting Chronicle.'"
"Never heard of it. What do you want?"
"You advertised for a sporting editor. I have come after the place."
"Do you know anything about horses?" asked Denis.
"No one better; I have studied them all my life," replied Gerard.
"That doesn't say you can write about them. How much do you ask?"
"Salary is no object to me. Racing is my hobby. I have an income of my own, and I write as an employment and a pleasure."
"If you come to me you will have to accept a salary, much as it may pain you. You will be a servant, and do exactly as I ask. Are you prepared for that?" said the manager.
"Naturally! Why would I be here if I were not prepared for that?"
"Very well, then. You will begin at L4 a week, to be increased if you suit us; if you don't suit, out you go. When are you prepared to begin?"
"To-day, if you like."
"To-morrow you can go to Melton and report the meeting. See that you are spicy; we expect spice on this paper."
"Trafalgar's" first report did not satisfy the manager.
"See here, Mr. Gerard," he said, entering the outer office, where "Trafalgar" was already fraternising with Desmond O'Connor, "'The Mercury' is out to put down fraud and hypocrisy wherever it is to be found. I sent you to Melton to draw public attention to irregularities. Why did Caprice run last in the Melton Cup?"
"Not quite fit," replied the sporting editor glibly. "I was talking to Carter——."
"Talking to her trainer and asking his opinion! That's not what we want here. Last week Caprice started at 6 to 4 on and won the Welter Handicap at Balnogan; yesterday she was quoted at 5 to 1, and ran last in the Melton Cup. Sit down and mention those two facts together, leaving the readers to draw their own deductions, as I do."
"Are you looking for libel actions?" asked "Trafalgar," innocently.
"Not looking for them, but quite prepared for them in a just cause. Did you read my speech last night?"
"I have not found time," stammered the sporting editor, while Desmond O'Connor sat listening with a broad smile on his face.
"Oblige me by reading it. It represents my policy, and the policy of this paper. We call a spade a spade on 'The Mercury.' Just read that speech, and then sit down and write about Caprice. You can mention the running of Bailiff in the Hurdles at the same time. If the stewards won't do their duty, 'The Mercury' will point it out to them."
In this manner was Gerard introduced to the policy of Denis Quirk and his paper. He was, however, a smart man, quite capable of grasping a situation when it was demonstrated to him. In a few weeks' time the clever division began to read the accounts of their acts of brigandage with fear and trembling; obsequious stewards became more alert, and less timid in dealing with glaring acts of fraud, while threats were openly indulged in, and actions for libel suggested. But Denis Quirk and his paper went on their prescribed course, regardless of threats, and awaiting libel actions that failed to come.
There was no lack of excitement in Grey Town in those days. Men did not go about wearily, and sigh because there was nothing in the papers. There were times of stress and battle in the town when Denis Quirk and "The Mercury" fought with sloth, indifference, and vested interests; times when he was rarely at home with the old people, because he had many and important things to do, to say, and to write about in the town.
But Gerard dropped quietly into a position of family friend and confidential adviser at "Layton." He was introduced by Denis Quirk, and, being a man of comparative leisure, it became his habit to spend a part of his leisure at the house, and to accompany Mrs. Quirk and Kathleen O'Connor when they went out to find amusement. To this Denis Quirk readily assented, for he was more at ease among the men and women who worked than among those who played. Desmond O'Connor, too, was shouldering the burden of stern responsibility, and someone had to look after Mrs. Quirk and Kathleen. Who could better do this than Gerard, a harmless and pleasant man in Denis Quirk's eyes?
This was the first male friendship of Kathleen O'Connor. Here was a man who told her the history of his lifetime, not discursively, but in fragments dropped here and there. There is pleasure, entertainment, and pathos in every man's life, no matter who he may be. Gerard had lived more adventurously than many others. He was a man who could make love charmingly, one who had been liberally educated. There were many pleasing reminiscences, many sad incidents in his past, and he had a happy method of speaking of such events.
This is the manner in which love sometimes comes to man and woman, not, as it is often pictured, as a sudden passion, but slowly and in stages. Gerard loved easily and lightly; he had already had his grand passions, and the current of his life ran none the less pleasantly because of them. To make love to a pretty girl was nothing to him, merely another passing incident. But a man was an event to Kathleen O'Connor, an admirer something hitherto unknown. She had laughed and flirted with boyish admirers, as girls do; but such events are mere ripples on the surface of passion. The love and admiration of a man are to such things a vast upheaval of the depths of the ocean.
There was at this time one person who cordially disliked Gerard, probably the only one in Grey Town. This was Molly Healy, and she had great difficulty to find a reason for her antipathy to the sporting editor of "The Mercury." After her first meeting with Gerard, she expressed her sentiments to Kathleen O'Connor unreservedly, as was her way.
"I couldn't bear to have that man near me," she said.
Kathleen was, in those days, perfectly unbiassed in her opinion of Gerard. He was to her merely a new acquaintance, but she found him pleasant and well-informed. Laughingly, she asked:
"He is too spick and span for me," said Molly, "and altogether too smiling. He has got no soul."
These sentiments she cherished doggedly, and expressed on every occasion, to his face and behind his back. As the romance began to take possession of Kathleen, she found it hard not to resent Molly's criticism. Mrs. Quirk went so far as to scold Molly relentlessly for her expressions of dislike, but the girl only laughed at her:
"Sure, you are too young and innocent. You don't know the wickedness there is in the world. But I have been taking lessons from every guttersnipe and old good-for-nought in the town. There's wickedness in Gerard's eye, and in his nose too."
Desmond O'Connor was a particular friend of his brother scribe, but the acquaintance was not for the boy's good. Gerard taught him to drink more than he should, and to gamble for money that he could not afford to lose. While these facts were unknown in the semi-retirement of "Layton," they speedily came to Molly Healy's ears. She acted with a customary impulse that was imprudent with such a nature as Desmond O'Connor's. One morning on his way to "The Mercury" office he was stopped by Molly.
"Desmond," she said, "what is this I am hearing of you?"
Desmond met her laughingly, for he seldom took Molly Healy seriously.
"Something wonderful?" he said.
"Something you should be ashamed of! Look there at old Mason."
She pointed to where an old man was crossing the road, a dilapidated wreck of humanity, for Mason was the champion drunkard of Grey Town.
"It is such an old man as that you will become," said Molly.
Desmond flushed crimson at her words, and he turned in repressed fury on her.
"Mind your own business," he said. "Reform your old age pensioners, and kindly allow me to look after myself."
Therewith he went on his way, leaving her to look after him with tears in her eyes.
"Wouldn't I give my life for Desmond!" she thought, as she watched him until he turned a corner. For his part, indignation overcame every other feeling. He was sufficiently young to resent interference, and to forget for the moment the bonds of friendship that bound him to Molly Healy.
Turning to climb upwards to the Presbytery, the girl met Denis Quirk. Like Kathleen O'Connor, Molly Healy was not quite sure how she regarded the manager of "The Mercury." He was always brusque and unapproachable, yet she infinitely preferred his attitude to the polish of Gerard.
"Looking at Desmond?" he laughed.
"And why not? Isn't it a pleasure to look at a handsome man?" she answered.
"I hope you gave him a good talking to. My mother says that Molly Healy is the one that can do that," he said.
"Wait until you are standing for Parliament, and then you will see what Molly Healy can do," she replied. "But you should look after that boy, or he will get into mischief so deep that there will be no getting him out."
"I have an eye on him, never fear," he said, and left her abruptly, to her infinite amusement.
"Denis Quirk has no manners, but he doesn't mean any harm," she told her brother. "It is only his way; a hard crust, but a good wholesome crumb."
That very morning Denis Quirk summoned Desmond into his room.
"See here," he said, "we are not teetotal on this paper, but we know where to stop. It's time you stopped. Make a note of that."
"Perhaps I had better go," cried Desmond in a passion.
"I don't actually say that, for there's good stuff in you, but if you can't behave, you can't go too soon," said Denis.
Cairns was standing near the door, and he heard these exchanges. He had a very kindly feeling for Desmond, and when the reporter came from Denis Quirk's room Cairns drew him into his own.
"Quirk is blunt, but he is true," he said. "He sees that you are going the way of many another real good fellow, and he wants to pull you up short. Don't ruin a promising life, Desmond. Give Gerard a wide berth; he's a bad companion for a man like you."
"Gerard is a good fellow. What have you against him?" cried Desmond.
"He is altogether too good a fellow for a penniless reporter that has a place to win in the world," said Cairns.
"He is the only white man in Grey Town!" said Desmond.
Remonstrance was thrown away on the boy. One night he staggered into the office in a half-drunken condition, and the following day he disappeared into the dark oblivion that we term "the world," taking with him a letter of recommendation from Cairns to the editor of a metropolitan paper.
"I recommend you for your talent, not for your bad habits. See that you cure them, or Smythe will shoot you out as Quirk has done," said Cairns.
But he gave the boy five pounds to help him while he was looking for work.
Desmond O'Connor was the first victim to the friendship of John Gerard. There were other young men who owed their downfall to him, not that he bore any one of his victims malice; he was merely a man with a full purse, and a lover of good-fellowship. "Let the young beggars look after themselves. All that I ask is good company. It is not my place to teach men morals," he said to one who remonstrated with him.
In the same spirit he continued to court Kathleen O'Connor, enjoying placidly the game of love, and perfectly regardless as to the result.
DAYS OF STORM AND STRESS.
It was during breakfast at "Layton" that Kathleen O'Connor attacked Denis Quirk on the subject of his treatment of Desmond. Mrs. Quirk was breakfasting in bed; her husband had scrambled through his meal, and rushed out to superintend the making of a drain, leaving Denis alone with the girl. He had noticed her silence and aloofness, sure signs of displeasure, and, as was his way, he calmly faced her in the moment of bitter resentment.
"You are angry with me?" he asked abruptly.
"Why should I be? I have no claims upon your kindness," she answered.
"He had to go, for his own sake," he said, going straight to the point without explanation. "It was the only hope of saving him."
She did not answer, but her eyes filled with tears, vainly though she tried to repress them. Denis Quirk feigned not to see them.
"In Grey Town he must be ruined," he said, not unkindly.
"And what will he do alone in a great city, with no one to advise him?" she cried.
"Fight it out and win, if he is made of the stuff I believe to be in him. He had enemies here who were ruining him, body and soul."
"He had one friend at least in Mr. Gerard," she said.
"We had better not discuss Gerard," he replied, rising quietly.
"Mr. Gerard has told me——," she began.
"Never believe a hostile witness until he has safely stood the fire of cross-examination," he remarked, oracularly.
"Oh, it was cruel not to give the boy just one chance!" she cried. "My heart is breaking for him!"
Therewith she rose and left the room. Denis took out his pipe and filled it. Then he went to "The Mercury" office, smoking thoughtfully. The first person to meet him on his arrival was John Gerard.
"What do you want with me?" asked Denis Quirk, abruptly.
"Just to hand in my resignation. I have other schemes on hand, and cannot find the necessary time to your work," replied Gerard.
Denis Quirk noted the absence of the customary suavity and deference in the way in which Gerard addressed him.
"Right you are! Come to me in five minutes for your cheque. You have saved yourself dismissal," he said.
"Are you dismissing the whole staff?" asked Gerard.
"Only the useless ones," replied Denis quietly, as he entered the room.
"Your cheque—and the door, you durned skunk!" he said, five minutes later. Gerard was on the point of retorting furiously, but one look at the strong, ugly face and sturdy figure convinced him of the wisdom of silence until he was actually on the doorstep of the office. Then he said:
"You will have to deal with me yet, Mr. Denis Quirk."
"I am quite capable of doing that," replied Denis, smilingly.
Thus did "The Mercury" lose its first sporting editor.
In the quiet of his office Denis Quirk sat for fully five minutes thinking, a most unusual thing for him to do, and, more unusual still, thinking of a woman. He checked himself abruptly with the half-muttered words:
"Well, she must battle through alone: I can't help her."
Then he began to write a letter to a friend in Melbourne:
"'The Mercury,' Grey Town.
"January 17, 19—.
"Dear Jackson,—There is a young fellow now in Melbourne, one Desmond O'Connor, a wild, harum-scarum, but of good stuff. You will find him at Mrs. Tippett's, 102 The Grove, Upper Hawthorn. Look him up, if you still love me, and take him under your care. Find him a place in your office; he has the necessary qualifications. He is a journalist, but I foresee ruin in that line for Desmond. Supply his immediate needs, and draw upon me, but invent some pious fiction to account for the capital—a dead maiden aunt or any other apocryphal person you like. If he thinks that the money comes from me, ten to one he will have none of it. Make him keep himself as far as possible by his own brains, and never offer the boy whisky. If you do this for me, I shall recognise that you are the same good old Jackson, whom I am proud to call a friend.—Yours sincerely,
As he closed the note and handed it to Tim O'Neill, Molly Healy entered the office. Like Kathleen O'Connor, she resented Denis Quirk's treatment of Desmond, and she had come to express her sentiments openly.
"Are you busy?" she asked.
"Not more so than usual; a pile of advertisements and correspondence, a few proofs to glance at, and a council committee at ten. I can spare you five minutes," he answered.
"I have not come to talk gently to you," said Molly. "I think you should be ashamed of yourself for your treatment of Desmond O'Connor."
"Now, Miss Molly, have you considered this question carefully? Just sit down for five minutes, and hear me explain it to you."
Molly Healy took a chair reluctantly, her face expressing a determination not to be convinced.
"Desmond O'Connor," he said, and all the while he was stamping and closing envelopes, "came under the influence of a man——."
"Gerard!" she cried, interrupting him.
"John Gerard. If he had remained here that influence must have ruined him."
"And could you not separate the two?" she asked.
"Not I, nor you; not even Father Healy. Desmond was gambling, he was beginning to drink; he would have degenerated into an habitual drunkard——."
"I as much as told him that myself," said Molly Healy.
"Outside there," he pointed to the window towards the east, "in Melbourne, lies the boy's chance. It was not for my sake I sent him packing. That boy was useful to me, and I can never replace him; but better 'The Mercury' should suffer than he and Kathleen O'Connor."
"Well, you're not a bad sort of man," she remarked. "Your heart's better than your face."
Denis Quirk laughed heartily at her remark.
"You don't like my face?" he remarked. "Haven't I been called the ugliest man in Grey Town? And proud I am of it."
"Good-day!" cried Molly Healy. "I will not ruin your paper, after all, as I had intended doing. But my heart is sore for poor Desmond—out there."
She, in turn, pointed towards the east before she left the office.
This day was spent by Denis Quirk in fighting. In the council committee he came into conflict with the man whom he regarded as the greatest opponent to the progress of Grey Town. This was Councillor Garnett, and he was not above the suspicion that he made use of his privileges to further his own ends. Apart from this, he was at once narrow-minded and obstinate. For such men as he Denis Quirk had no mercy.
The council of Grey Town was not unlike other municipal councils—its members honest for the greater part, but many of them men who followed old traditions, and believed that quiet things should not be moved. For many years they had lived under a system of accepting the imperfect, and never attempting to make it more perfect. Of these easy-going, self-satisfied gentlemen Councillor Garnett was the chief.
This special meeting of the council had been summoned to consider the condition of the roads in the town. Year after year the council had spent less money on the roads than they deserved, and year after year the roads had degenerated. At this time they were deplorable, and Denis Quirk had compelled his fellow-councillors to take action. After a drive around the town, they met to discuss ways and means, and then occurred a scene that was the first skirmish in a fierce campaign.
At this time Denis Quirk stood practically alone. Opposed to him was a body of resolute Conservatives; between the two factions, a few who hesitated, favouring Denis Quirk rather than Councillor Garnett. The debate began gently, but it ended in such a storm as the municipal council chamber had never witnessed before.
The mayor, a kindly man, was at his wits' end to keep the peace. Again and again he called the two parties to order, until finally the meeting broke up, Denis Quirk having been defeated.
But he was the last man to accept defeat. From the municipal chambers he hurried round the town to convene an indignation meeting for the following week. Meanwhile he laid his case before the public in the columns of "The Mercury." This accomplished, he turned home to "Layton."
Councillor Garnett was hand in glove with Ebenezer Brown, and the latter was, above all things, a good hater. He had little cause to love Denis Quirk, and he possessed not a little power in the town, gained by illicit means. In those days there were factions in Grey Town, as there always will be where progress confronts stagnation. The skirmishes and battles were fought over mere trifles, but they were fought none the less bitterly for that reason. Day after day Denis Quirk found himself defeated; yet day after day he gained strength, a member here and there from the doubtful councillors, and public approbation abroad.
But at home in "Layton" he was not happy, for he recognised relentless hostility on the part of Kathleen O'Connor, and he realised that John Gerard was too intimate with the girl. It was not for him to remonstrate with her. He had no right to speak, no reasons to advance against Gerard, beyond an unreasoning antipathy. In his heart of hearts he believed that Gerard, now an agent in the town, was a worthless fellow, but such unproven beliefs are useless. He could only look on hopelessly, and trust that time would put things straight.
Desmond O'Connor paid a flying visit to "Layton" in the summer. He came quite unexpectedly, and surprised Kathleen one afternoon when she was reading to Mrs. Quirk out in the garden. Molly Healy was there, too, cutting flowers for the church, returning every now and again to interrupt the reading.
Desmond O'Connor came walking up the avenue, lined by trees and shrubs, and paused to look at the group on the green lawn under the shade of a large elm tree. He looked fresh and bright in his face, although it had lost some of the tan associated with country life. His eye was clear, and his step free; there was the dignity of self-respect in the way in which he carried himself.
Molly Healy was the first to see him. Shading her eyes with her hand to avoid the glare of the sun, she took one look at him. Then she dropped her basket of flowers, and hurried towards him, crying:
"It is Desmond himself!"
Kathleen sprang up and dropped her book. The two girls hastened to meet him.
"Take him away to your room, Kathleen," said Mrs. Quirk, when she had welcomed Desmond. "I can look after myself, and you have much to talk about."
"Let me look after you, Granny," cried Molly Healy; but she cast a regretful eye at Kathleen and Desmond.
"No, Molly; you can come with us and hear what he has to say for himself," said Kathleen.
"May I, then? But I would only be in the way," suggested Molly.
"Not one bit, Molly. Come and listen to my wonderful tale of adventure—a story of robbers slain, wild animals subdued, good fairies and witches," said Desmond.
"I hope you are minding your soul. It is a dangerous place for young men, is Melbourne," said Mrs. Quirk.
"Oh, that's all right," replied Desmond, airily. "I am not on the side of the saints or the sinners."
Molly Healy noted this reply, but she abstained from commenting on it. She was shrewd enough to recognise that the man who boasts of lukewarmness is generally something less than tepid.
"You will be coming to see the Father?" she suggested.
"You must make my excuses, Molly. I am here to-day and back in Melbourne to-morrow. I have fallen on my feet. Where do you think I am working?" he asked Kathleen as they walked towards the house.
"On a paper," she suggested.
"No; in an advertising agency, the biggest in Melbourne, drawing posters for them, and helping in the business. I shall be a partner before long. Jackson, the boss, has been a good friend to me, and Mrs. Jackson might be a mother, and Sylvia—a sister."
The hesitation that preceded the latter part of this speech was not lost upon Molly Healy. It caused her a spasm of pain that was sharp, if it was only short-lived, for she was a girl, if a sensible and healthy one, and she always had greatly admired Desmond O'Connor.
In the dining-room they sat down close together.
"I am glad you have such good friends? How did you find them?" asked Kathleen.
"I can't for the life of me discover that. Jackson came to see me and offered to help me. I rather fancy Gerard must have sent him."
"Gerard!" cried Molly Healy, scornfully. "Do you fancy he would take so much trouble? It is 'out of sight as good as buried' with Gerard."
Kathleen O'Connor flushed up at these words, but refrained from reply. Desmond answered banteringly:
"You will hate to the end, Molly?"
"Sure, my hates are as enduring as my loves," said Molly. "You can always know how you will find Molly Healy."
"I don't think you are quite fair to Gerard," said Desmond.
"Now, tell us about—Sylvia Jackson, Desmond," said Kathleen, anxious to terminate the discussion.
"Sylvia Jackson," he answered, with an assumed carelessness, that was in itself suspicious to the critical ears of Molly Healy. "Why are you so anxious to hear about her?"
"Is she pretty?" asked Kathleen.
Molly Healy watched him curiously, and noted a certain embarrassment in his face.
"That is a question of taste. Some people consider her pretty," he answered.
"And why not say that Desmond O'Connor is one of those people? Of course she is pretty, Kathleen, and charming and kind to Desmond. Didn't he say so? Are you kind to her, Desmond?" cried Molly.
"Kind to her?" he replied, with a species of horror in his voice, as if one of his most sacred convictions had been criticised. "One cannot be kind to a girl like Sylvia Jackson."
"And why not kind?" asked Molly.
"I admire and respect—in fact, I almost reverence—her. She is so"—he paused for a suitable word—"so ethereal. She is more like a spirit than a piece of common human nature."
Molly Healy was with great difficulty attempting to restrain a giggle. She recognised that to give her amusement full play would be to grievously annoy him. For this reason she turned to look out of the window, thrusting her handkerchief into her mouth the while.
"Does she play?" asked Kathleen.
"She plays and sings divinely. She does everything well. To dance with her—is——."
He ended abruptly, not being capable of giving full expression to his sensations when dancing with Sylvia Jackson.
"Denis Quirk!" cried Molly Healy, and climbed through the window. It was a relief to her to give her mirth full vent.
"Ethereal! Poor Desmond! I wonder will he recover?" she laughed.
"You will not be rude to him?" Kathleen asked her brother anxiously.
He laughed unrestrainedly. All resentment against Denis Quirk was long forgotten, for his anger was short-lived.
"I regard him as a benefactor. He has released me from the thraldom of Grey Town and introduced me to the larger life," he answered.
"Whatever you do, don't speak to him of Sylvia, or I shall laugh," cried Molly on meeting Denis Quirk.
"You are speaking Dutch puzzles, Miss Molly. Who and what are he and Sylvia?" he answered.
"Desmond O'Connor is him, and Sylvia a spirit, just a woman that's ethereal and a spirit. I am thinking poor Desmond is love sick."
Desmond followed Molly through the window, and came with outstretched hand to meet his former chief. Kathleen O'Connor, watching from the window, admired her brother's magnanimity. She would herself have unbent to Denis long ago had it not been for Gerard's influence, and for the dread lest her brother should be lost in the darkness of the great city life.
Denis took the proffered hand and wrung it cordially. One glance at the open face convinced him that his plan had proved successful; the drink fiend had been exorcised.
"And how is Melbourne treating you?" he asked.
"Better than I deserve. I have found good work and good friends," replied Desmond.
"I knew you would come out all right, lad," said Denis, kindly. "What is your work—papers or politics?"
"Nothing so grand; just advertising."
"Then you are at the very top, for advertising is the great power these times. You will make and unmake kings and emperors of commerce."
Kathleen O'Connor was that evening kinder and more gracious to Denis Quirk than she had been since Desmond had gone away. Mrs. Quirk, who had noted their estrangement with wondering sorrow, smiled placidly as she heard them laughing, while Molly Healy and Desmond exchanged jests together.
"You are not cross with Denis now, Honey?" she asked the girl after the two men had left the house—Denis for his office, and Desmond for the hotel. "He is good at heart, if sometimes quick in his temper."
Molly Healy, who was preparing to drive home in Father Healy's jinker, cried out:
"Denis is a great man! His heart is as big as your own, Granny!"
Kathleen kissed the old lady as she answered:
"I could not long be cross with anyone whom you loved."
"God reward you, Honey, for your kindness to an old woman," said Mrs. Quirk, lovingly.
Ebenezer Brown lived a lonely life in an old house on the outskirts of the town, the large garden surrounded by a high stone wall. There was always a feeling of gloom about the house, no sound of voices, for Ebenezer Brown was a bachelor, with no relations to care for him, and only one elderly female to provide for his comfort. A venturesome relation had on one occasion taken advantage of the old man's sickness to attempt to secure a footing in his house; but no sooner was the old man out of his bed than the relative was to be seen driving to the station with her luggage. Warned by her fate, no other relation, male or female, dared to enter the house.
It was seldom that lights were seen to gleam from the windows of the house. Still more uncommon was it to find visitors assembled there. The old man had a place of business in the town, and anyone wishing to see him might find him there. He discouraged visitors, for visitors suggested hospitality, and hospitality represented the expenditure of money, the one and only thing that the old man valued.
Lights were, however, twinkling from Ebenezer Brown's dining room out into the night a few evenings subsequently to Desmond O'Connor's visit to Grey Town. A meagre attempt at hospitality had been made for the visitors, a scanty supply of water biscuits, a few apples of an antique appearance, with a bottle of limejuice and water. But not one of the guests was sufficiently hungry or thirsty to taste of the good things provided for them.
They sat around the large, bare table, Ebenezer Brown and his three guests, Garnett, Gifford and Gerard—the three G's, as Denis Quirk had nicknamed them. Ebenezer Brown half leaned on the table, his face peculiarly white and eyes very bright in the light of an incandescent gas burner.
"Every man has a past, if you can unearth it. The greater the saint, the worse his past. Eh, Garnett?" he asked.
It was noticeable that Garnett refrained from any direct answer; possibly even he had had a past.
"That play," continued Ebenezer. "What did you call it?" he asked Gerard.
"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
Ebenezer Brown's hearing was exceptionally acute to-night.
"That's the one!" he cried; "and it's true to nature. There's good in a few and bad in all. Eh, Gifford?"
"Unhappily there is," sighed Gifford.
"This man, Quirk," cried the old man, vindictively, "has a past, if we can discover it. We must rid ourselves of him; he's a public nuisance, a dangerous, meddlesome fellow. Always poking his nose into something; always making things unpleasant. Quirk must go!"
"Quirk," said Garnett, in the slow and sententious manner he adopted, "is a radical and a demagogue, a positive scourge to the town. As you say, Quirk must go!"
Ebenezer Brown turned to Gerard this time and asked him:
"Are you prepared to make the necessary enquiries for us?"
"Certainly, if you are prepared to pay the necessary expenses," replied Gerard, carelessly.
Ebenezer Brown winced at this, but his hatred of Denis Quirk was an absorbing passion now.
"Garnett and I will share the expenses."
Garnett protested feebly, but the old man overbore him triumphantly.
"Garnett and I will pay," he said.
"Let me have it in writing," said Gerard, producing a typewritten paper from his pocket.
Ebenezer Brown read it through carefully; then, after one or two protests as to the amount, he prepared to sign it, but he paused, saying:
"No evidence; no pay?"
Gerard looked the old man full in the face, and answered:
"You can add that. I promise you full and convincing evidence."
The deed was signed and witnessed to by Gifford and the old housekeeper, aroused from her sleep for the purpose. A few minutes later the three G's were leaving the house. As they emerged from the gate the bright head lights of a motor picked them out distinctly, before the car swept by, leaving a blacker darkness behind it.
"Did you see those three, Cairns?" asked Denis Quirk, who was racing towards "The Mercury" office in company with his editor. "There's mischief on foot when you see insects like those together."
"Ebenezer Brown has been having a card party," laughed Cairns. "Cards and wine."
"And light talk? It's a pity there is no law for the destruction of vermin of the human sort!"
"Did you see who was in the car?" Garnett asked Gerard.
"I think it was Quirk himself and Cairns," replied Gerard. "Probably they have been writing an article about you; something hot and strong. Quirk knows where to strike, and he hits hard."
Garnett's comment was hurled into the surrounding darkness; but his companions heard it and laughed.
"I expect to return in six months' time," said Gerard; "possibly sooner. Another six weeks later, and 'The Mercury' will probably need a new proprietor. Why not buy it yourself and make me the editor, with Gifford under me? You might do worse."
Outside the first hotel he suggested a drink. Gifford refused to enter the bar, and went on towards his home; the others walked into the private bar and called for whisky and soda.
"Did you ever see such a miser as Ebenezer Brown?" Gerard asked. "Dry biscuits, dry apples, and that sour stuff! It makes me sick to see a man like him, with all his money. He won't enjoy it here—nor hereafter, if there is a hereafter," he added.
Garnett, a strict Calvinist, winced at the remark, but passed it over. Gerard was too useful a man to quarrel with.
And so these two worthies walked home, laughing together, while Denis Quirk and Cairns were preparing fresh powder and shot for the campaign against reaction. When Councillor Garnett read the leading article in "The Mercury" on "Ways and Means," after the first irritation he smiled grimly.
"This can't go on for ever. We shall wear them out," he remarked to his wife.
There was yet another question in the town, about which the feeling ran high and bitterly. The council was desirous of building a more imposing town hall, and the land they desired belonged to Ebenezer Brown. Naturally, he asked twice the just value for it, and, as was now the commonly accepted course of events, Councillor Garnett supported him. Denis Quirk and the councillors, who now followed him, set resolutely to work to prevent this spoliation. Had Denis not been there, the public would have grumblingly accepted the purchase of the land. As it was, he roused them to such a pitch of resentment that the price was slowly reduced until it finally remained at one and a quarter times the rightful value of the block. At this price the council purchased it.
During the conflict party feeling ran high, and personalities were indulged in. It was at this time that the scandal was first whispered.
Who originated it, no one knew, but it flew from mouth to mouth, and it was not the less grim for the constant repetition. Denis Quirk had a past—an evil past—so evil indeed that his wife had divorced him in the States. At this time the story had no substance; it was merely an ugly rumour. Strange to say, it did not reach Denis Quirk's ears, because his enemies repeated it among themselves, while his friends refused to insult him by mentioning the story.
Father Healy, on hearing it, lost for once his accustomed kindliness.
"Would you be bringing such tales to me, a priest?" he asked. "Denis Quirk is a man who goes to his duties; not by any means a saint, but a good, honest Catholic. Tell the next man or woman who speaks about it that scandal and detraction are steps in the ladder down to the devil's kingdom. There are more souls lost that way than you can count."
The narrator, a well-meaning gossip, left the presbytery in consternation, and forbore from further repetition of what was to her a "bonne bouche." But not even Father Healy could keep the tale from growing in magnitude and increased offensiveness.
The story came to Kathleen O'Connor's ears, and, curiously enough, she strongly discredited it. Not that she cared for Denis Quirk, but she had a strong sense of justice and of probability. She could not believe that Denis Quirk, whom she regarded as an honourable man, could be guilty of that of which he was accused. He was a hard man, rugged and deficient in manners, but, seeing him constantly, she recognised that he was not the sort of man to commit the crimes of which he was accused.
For this reason she was kinder to him than ever she had previously been. Denis Quirk, although he appreciated the fact, never attributed it to any absurd reason, such as a younger and more conceited man might have done. In the matter of women he was absolutely humble and wanting in vanity, for he regarded himself as hopelessly ugly and deficient in the qualities that charm the female sex.
But poor old Mrs. Quirk had a romantic idea in her mind that the two persons she loved best, after her husband, should make her happy by marriage. She noted the kindlier feeling between them, and one evening she spoke to Kathleen, most diplomatically as she believed.
"You are beginning to understand Denis, honey. The more you know him the better you will like him."
It was an autumn evening, and the air was beginning to turn chilly. Mrs. Quirk, who felt the cold, sat near a wood fire. Kathleen was beside the window. Presently she would slip out to say a few words to Gerard, for thus far had their intimacy gone that he frequently came and talked to her in the avenue near the house. And these meetings were unknown to Mrs. Quirk, who dozed in her chair, or to Samuel Quirk, smoking in his den. There was nothing in their tetes-a-tetes, no word spoken, no action done, that was wrong; but there was danger to the girl because of her very innocence. She was this night working and watching. Outside a bright moonlight lay on the trees and gardens, making the shadows darker by the contrast. Gerard, who lurked in the shadow, would presently call her from one of these.
"Mr. Denis Quirk is an honourable man, and I respect him," she said.
"It is near my heart——," Mrs. Quirk began. Then she paused.
"Yes?" asked Kathleen.
"Never mind, honey. If it is God's will, He will work it. It is difficult to arrange things for Providence."
A low whistle from a deep shadow, like the note of a bird. Mrs. Quirk fancied it was a bird, but Kathleen rose and slipped out.
"I shall be gone only a few minutes," she said.
Kathleen O'Connor was walking slowly in the deep shadow of the avenue with Gerard beside her. There was a stillness everywhere save for the droning of flying beetles as they hurried past, apparently careless as to where they might go. Beyond the avenue lawns, gardens, and trees were distinctly outlined in the bright moonlight. From the pines and from shrubs and flowers a sweet perfume arose, enervating, intoxicating, but this was as nothing to the intoxicating power in the words of Gerard. Never before had he or any man spoken to Kathleen as he did on this night; never had she felt the same strange thrill as now. Not that his words were evil or suggestive of evil; they were merely a powerful appeal to the girl's affections. They appeared to come straight from his heart, and they had a compelling effect upon her.
"I am going away from Grey Town to-morrow, Kathleen," he began.
Her heart sank at these words, for already his visits had come to assume an important part in her scheme of life.
"For a long time?" she asked him.
"For six months. Will you come with me?"
"I can't leave Mrs. Quirk," she faltered. "Not yet. Wait until you return."
"I may never come back," he urged.
"Surely you cannot expect me to come with you, like this, at a moment's notice?" she pleaded.
He put his arm around her, the first time he had touched her, and she did not shrink from him.
"You love me, Kathleen. I am sure of it. I cannot wait until I return. Come with me to Melbourne—now, at once. We shall be married there," he said, in a low voice.
"But I can't leave Mrs. Quirk like this. It would be so horribly ungrateful," she protested.
"You must!" His arm was more firmly around her. She had the feeling that she was in his power, that he was exercising some influence over her, hitherto unknown to her. "I need you more than she."
"I can't," she answered, more faintly. "Why should we steal away clandestinely, without telling Mrs. Quirk?"
"Because I am compelled to go, and I cannot go without you. I will take you to America, and give you a chance of seeing the world. We shall be happy together, you and I. Come, Kathleen!"
They had strolled back along the avenue, and were not far from the house.
Kathleen could hear Mrs. Quirk's voice calling to her from the house.
"I must go inside," she urged.
"No! You must come with me, now, to-night! There is the night express, and I have a cab waiting for us outside the gate," he answered. There was mastery in his voice, and she felt that she could not resist.
"Kathleen! Honey!" cried the voice again. Looking up at the window, she saw Mrs. Quirk framed in the light as she peered out.
"I must go! I will!" she said.
"Come with me," he answered, and began to lead her towards the gate. As she went the voice became fainter and fainter: her resisting power weaker.
They were half-way down the avenue when they heard a man's steps, rapid and firm. A moment later they could see the figure, though indistinctly, in the shadow. For one moment Gerard hesitated, then with an oath he sprang behind a thick shrub, leaving her free. Immediately she was running towards the house, her heart palpitating, her breath coming and going in gasps. She felt that she must get away from the temptation.
In the drawing-room she found Mrs. Quirk still peering anxiously out into the garden. The old lady did not hear the girl's entry, nor did she know that Kathleen was present, until the latter went and touched her on the shoulder; then she turned quickly.
"I had a dream, honey, a fearsome dream," she said, "that someone was taking you away from me. Sure, I thought it was," she added, lowering her voice to a whisper, "the devil! I could see him leading you down the avenue there, and I awoke calling out to you in terror. When you did not answer me I went to the window to peer out."
"No one shall take me away from you," said the girl. "I will stay with you while you need me."
She led Mrs. Quirk back to her chair, and placed a cushion behind her. Then she remained beside her, gently stroking the old lady's hand and singing to her in a low voice. Thus did Denis Quirk find them when he entered.
Little did he know how closely she had approached to destruction. Nor was he aware that a man crouching behind the shrubs had viewed him with the acute hatred of disappointment in his heart. Gerard had clenched his fist in impotent rage, and cursed the man he regarded as an enemy. "I will be even with you for this, Denis Quirk!" he had muttered to himself as he went down the dark avenue, after waiting in the vain hope that Kathleen might return to him.
Of all this Denis Quirk was ignorant. He had fancied he saw figures as he came up the avenue, but even of this he was doubtful. Entering the room, and seeing Kathleen occupied with his mother, his voice became almost gentle as he said:
"Miss O'Connor, you are very nearly an angel."
Kathleen appreciated the kindness of his words and tone, but she did not look up nor answer him. She had not yet recovered from the scene in the garden; to speak at this moment might have proved too much for her.
Denis was, where women are concerned, quite ignorant and simple. Men he understood, but the female mind was like a strange, unexplored territory to him. He had a vast respect for women, a respect that bordered on fear. To conceal this he made use of a brusquerie of speech and manner that was merely a cloak to his real nervousness. Kathleen O'Connor he regarded as an ideal of womanly perfection: he placed her on a pedestal, and paid her his homage secretly. For her part, Kathleen was beginning to realise that the rough exterior concealed a character truthful, and not ungentle. Realising this, she had laid aside her attitude of resentment, and adopted a friendly camaraderie such as may exist between brother and sister.
To-night, finding his remarks unanswered, Denis turned to his mother.
"I have a plan for to-morrow, old lady," he said—"a day off. What do you say to a boating excursion up the river?"
Mrs. Quirk was still influenced by the vivid effect of her dream. It had been peculiarly real, and had left a marked impression on her mind.
"Will Kathleen be coming?" she asked.
"Kathleen has not been asked," said the girl in a low voice.
"Miss O'Connor was included in my plan," said Denis.
"And will you come, honey? Sure, if I must be drowned, I would like to have you beside me," said Mrs. Quirk.
Denis laughed at the reply, and Kathleen could not forbear from a smile.
"We will all go down together, and lie twined up in the bottom of the river. It will make the fishes smile to see us," he laughed. "Be prepared to-morrow, ten sharp."
Kathleen was sorely tempted to ask his advice in regard to Gerard. Indeed, she went so far as to call him back as he was leaving the room, but, when he turned, she asked:
"Have you any news of Desmond?"
"The best," he answered. "He is doing well. Did I do right to send him away?"
"You did," she said; "but I could not foresee. Shall I thank you now?"
"No need to do that. I am always at your service."
"Denis meant that; every word of it all," said Mrs. Quirk, when her son's footsteps had died away. "He is true to his friends, that boy is."
"I am sure that he is," replied Kathleen.
All night she lay between waking and sleeping, the events in the garden returning constantly to disturb her. She still regarded Gerard as something more than a friend; to-night she had stood on the threshold of love. But she was afraid of him; the strange influence he exerted over her had terrified her. What should she answer when he asked her to marry him on his return, and what would she do without his companionship while he was away? The morning found her still wearied with her night's combat. It brought her a note from Gerard, written prior to his departure. In it he urged Kathleen to join him in Melbourne, but all the desire to do this had now left her. Last night in the garden she had struggled almost vainly against his power, now she was able to realise the folly and danger of that which he suggested.
The quiet party up the Grey River, with Denis Quirk rowing and Mrs. Quirk beside her, while she steered, was soothing to the girl's tired spirit.
As they wound in and out of the river bends, now between the frowning grey rocks that jutted out on each side of the river, and now through green meadows, where the cows were contentedly browsing, the quiet and stillness of the day was a sedative to her. Here and there they would pause to explore a cave, its interior, moist and covered with moss, extending far into the rocky hill, away out towards the ocean. Now and again they could obtain a distant view of Grey Town, a blue smoke hanging about its roofs and church towers.
Denis Quirk rowed steadily, but without undue exertion, and Kathleen allowed one hand to trail in the water as she steered with the other. It was a still day, and the river reflected the sky and the rocks as they passed; even the cattle standing to drink in places knee deep in the water were reduplicated. In silence the girl drank in the peacefulness of the scene, while Denis Quirk cast an occasional remark at his mother and her.
About mid-day they drew the boat up on a patch of sand, while they picnicked on a piece of green meadow land. When that was ended they drifted slowly down the stream, and returned in the motor to "Layton."
"Now," cried Denis, when he had assisted his mother and Kathleen out of the car, "after a day of peace to return to war and strife. Don't you feel better for the day off. Miss O'Connor?"
"Much better. Why is not every day like to-day?" Kathleen asked.
"We should not appreciate it properly. Work and play in thin slices makes life an appetising sandwich. Good-night, and pleasant dreams."
He turned to the chauffeur and told him to drive him to the "Mercury" office. There he flung off his coat, and directed the staff with an energy that was almost superhuman. With Denis Quirk and Cairns to control the paper, it was not to be marvelled at if the Grey Town people boasted of their daily paper.
Sometimes Ebenezer Brown, smarting over an exceptionally vigorous attack, vowed that he would start his old paper in opposition; but a short reflection showed him the hopelessness of such an undertaking.
"Wait until Gerard returns!" he said, rubbing his thin hands together. "Then we shall see Quirk crumble up and fall into pieces. Take away a man's reputation and you destroy him here in Grey Town."
"Marry? Why should I? I am perfectly happy as I am. My father dotes on me and gives me everything I ask for. I know at least a score of men who regard me as the last thing in feminine perfection. I am perfectly content to remain as I am."
Sylvia Jackson, fair haired, ethereal, as Desmond O'Connor had described her, with large, rather sleepy, blue eyes, looked at Kathleen O'Connor in surprise.
"But you may fall in love," suggested Kathleen.
"Love? I really don't know what it means. I have always liked to have a few men about me and know that they will do whatever I ask, even to destroying themselves. But the passion is on their side."
The two girls were sitting in Kathleen's room, in evening dress, as they had come from the annual club ball in Grey Town. There was a fire in the grate, a lamp in a corner of the room was lighted and half turned up, but it shed a very subdued light on the room.
Kathleen remembered that Desmond had done his utmost at the ball to monopolise Sylvia Jackson, that they had disappeared for a considerable portion of the evening. She could still see her brother's flushed face and sparkling eyes as he returned from some dark corner with Sylvia on his arm. She had hoped to hear an avowal of love from Mrs. Quirk's guest.
"I fancied——," she began in a disappointed voice.
"Of course I like Desmond," said Sylvia Jackson, divining her thought. "He is so fresh and unconventional that we all like him at home. He is the very nicest boy I know; but I am like a mother or an elder sister to him. Why, I am centuries older than Desmond, not in actual years, but in knowledge of the world. I shall find him a charming girl-wife, like you are, but I shall always expect him to remain on my staff."
"After he is married?" cried Kathleen.
"Why not? It is a recognised thing, I assure you. But I suppose we must go to bed. What an ugly man Mr. Denis Quirk is! Really, he is the ugliest man I ever met!"
"That is because you don't know him. Mr. Quirk's face is the worst part of him," said Kathleen.
"I have a dread of ugly men. I select my staff with particular attention to good looks. What queer old people those Quirks are! The old woman should be in the kitchen; I am sure she would feel more at home there."
Now, if there was one subject upon which Kathleen felt keenly, it was the virtues of Mrs. Quirk. She well knew that the old lady was laughed at and derided behind her back; but no one had dared hitherto to speak disrespectfully of her to Kathleen's face. Reddening slightly, she answered:
"Mrs. Quirk is the best and kindest woman I know; if you really wish to be friends with me, don't say a word against her. I shall quarrel with anyone who does that."
"Don't quarrel with me, please! I am far too lazy for that. I always agree with everybody, and for your sake Mr. Denis Quirk shall be handsome, and Mrs. Quirk as refined as she is rich."
It had been Mrs. Quirk's suggestion that Sylvia Jackson should be invited to "Layton," and Sylvia, being at the time rather hipped at home, accepted the invitation readily. Desmond O'Connor, on hearing of her intended visit, managed to obtain a few days' holiday, and arrive in Grey Town in time for the club ball. There he had her undivided attention, an impossible thing to achieve in Melbourne. But the fact did not make her less elusive. She laughed at him when he became too tender, allowed him a certain degree of liberty to check him when he approached the question of love. She was always gracious and kind to him, as to every other man; in this way she prevented her staff from deserting her; but, while she loved to be admired, she had expressed her true sentiments to Kathleen as they sat together after the ball.
For his part, Desmond O'Connor lived in a fever heat of passion. To hint that Sylvia was not perfection was to make him an implacable enemy. She so far encouraged him as to make him believe that the barrier between them was the most fragile and easily broken affair, and that at any moment it would be shattered by his great love. Relying on this hope, he came and went at her bidding, filling to perfection the duties of an obedient staff officer.
On the morning after the dance, Kathleen met Sylvia in a somewhat hostile spirit. She resented Desmond's devotion to the girl, and she had been hurt by the allusions to Mrs. Quirk; but Sylvia did her utmost to dispel this feeling.
"I am sure you are cross with me," she said, "and I want you to like me. I think you are the most charming girl I have ever met. For your sake I intend to cultivate even Mr. Denis Quirk, and to make love to that dear old woman."
This programme she began to carry out scrupulously. To Mrs. Quirk she was most attentive, and on Denis she exercised her fascinations, to his intense surprise.
"Do you walk into town?" she asked him.
"Sometimes I do. It depends on the state of my liver. When I feel in a desperate temper and inclined to destroy the whole world, myself included, I walk into town; at other times I ride in the car."
"Are you walking to-day?" she asked him.
"I am," he answered.
"Then I intend to walk with you, if I may," she said.
"You won't enjoy it a bit. It is all that I can do to prevent myself from snapping my own nose off," said Denis.
"Oh, that does not matter a bit. You couldn't make me angry if you tried. Will you come with us, Kathleen?"
"I am afraid I can't leave Mrs. Quirk. But I will meet you in town, and we will have lunch together," said Kathleen.
"Come with us," said Denis Quirk, almost despairingly. "The mother will get on for once without you."
"I flatter myself that Mrs. Quirk will be quite miserable without me," she answered, laughingly. "I have a very good opinion of myself, Mr. Quirk; I feel that I am necessary to one person in the world."
But she watched them as they walked down the avenue, wondering what they were laughing about, perhaps a little bit annoyed at Sylvia Jackson's presumption in forcing herself on Denis Quirk.
Sylvia Jackson was very adaptable, where men were concerned. She rarely found any great difficulty in securing the attention of a man, old or young, when she desired so to do. It was her way to find out where a man's special vanity lay. If he were so singular as to have no particular vanity, she would discover wherein his interests were centred and attack him through that avenue. So skilful was she, so insinuating in her flattery and in her questions, that she rarely failed to secure admiration as a woman of singular penetration. She had the gift of being able to listen with apparent interest to a conversation, throwing in the necessary question here and there. When it was necessary to talk, she could change her tactics and make conversation for the shy, reserved man.
They had not gone far to-day before Denis Quirk said to himself: "This is a clever woman." He was not far wrong in this appreciation, for Sylvia Jackson was undoubtedly clever. Before they had come to Grey Town the two were laughing and joking with one another as though they had known each other for years. For a woman to arrive at such intimate relations with Denis Quirk in a short time was a triumph.
Desmond O'Connor was awaiting Sylvia outside "The Lounge," as the big emporium in Gressley St. was called. Seeing her approach with Denis Quirk, his brows contracted slightly, but he met them smilingly.
"You call this punctuality?" he asked.
"I call it feminine punctuality. If a woman fails to keep an appointment by not more than half an hour, she is a model woman. I promised to meet you at nine, and it is now barely twenty-five minutes past. Mr. Quirk, could any woman achieve more than that?"
"My acquaintance with women is so limited that I must refuse to arbitrate. If I were Desmond, I should swear," answered Denis.
"Have you been swearing, Desmond?" she asked.
"If so, I have forgotten it. I am now the most supremely contented man in the world," answered Desmond.
"Well, good-bye, children!" cried Denis.
He was surprised at himself for this speech; it was a frivolity that he had never before been guilty of. But with Sylvia Jackson there were no restraints, nor was his remark in the slightest degree extraordinary to her. She called out after him as he went:
"Don't forget our appointment after lunch."
"You have charmed the grizzly bear," said Desmond. "I believe you could teach him to dance."
"I intend to do that. Before I go away he shall dance to my music, the dear old grizzly," she answered. "I intend to drop you handsome men and cultivate the ugly ones. Denis Quirk is charming!"
"I believe he is a good sort," said Desmond, who was above the pettiness of deprecating a possible rival.
"I am sure that you are the very best of good sorts. Now, what are we to do?" she answered.
"Walk along the cliffs, and see the grandest sight in Nature—the eternal war between the ocean and the land," he answered.
And Sylvia Jackson, who was artistic and emotional to an extreme degree, fully agreed with him when she stood on the cliffs that tower over the sea just two miles beyond the town.
A strong wind was blowing from the south, the sun shining through a sky dappled with fleecy broken white cloudlets. The spray sparkled in the bright light before it broke into a rainbow of changing colours. Above the big rollers the cliffs rose in broken perpendicular columns; there was a constant roar in the ears as breaker after breaker hurled itself on the rocks. Sea-birds wheeled about overhead. In the far distance the ocean stretched out, to where a bank of clouds rested on the distant horizon, in slopes and peaks, a perfect copy of snow-clad mountains.
"Don't stand so close to the cliffs!" cried Desmond.
She laughed at him mockingly.
"You need have no fear for me. I am an ethereal spirit, a thing of vapour," she answered.
"I wouldn't dare stand where you are; I should be drawn down. Good heavens!"
As he watched her she became suddenly pale and giddy. Seeing this, he sprang and seized her in his arms, drawing her back, shaking and trembling in every limb.
"It was just in time," she said. "Another second and I was lost. Suddenly a giddiness came over me, as if someone seized me and was pulling me over the cliff. Take me away from this dreadful place."
There were tears in her voice and in her eyes. She continued to sob until they were remote from the sea. Then she suddenly asked, laughingly:
"Do you still imagine I am in danger that you continue to hold me?"
"It was an opportunity I could not miss. Sylvia——," he said, sinking his voice to the sentimental key.
"Now, you must stop at once. Remember our compact. Once you become too sentimental our friendship ends. Drop your arms by your side. That will do. Now you may smile pleasantly and talk to me like a sensible man."
It was a repulse, but it sounded rather as an invitation to continue the siege in a less impulsive manner. So did Desmond construe what she had said, and his spirits reflected the satisfaction which the belief afforded him. When she joined them at lunch Kathleen found the two as full of spirits as if they had been children. Their laughter and jests were an offence to many who were lunching in the same room as they. To these simple country folk the manners and style of the new school, to which Sylvia Jackson belonged, were something as yet strange and disagreeable. But the new school pays no attention to other people, and rejoices in causing a sensation and outraging old-fashioned ideas.
It was immediately after luncheon that Sylvia Jackson suggested:
"We will go and visit Denis Quirk, and turn his office upside down."
"I don't think you know Quirk," replied Desmond. "He's a martinet in 'The Mercury' office."
"Oh, nonsense!" she cried. "Denis Quirk and I are like brother and sister."
She shot a quick glance at Kathleen to note the effect of this remark, but Kathleen showed no sign of concern.
"You will come with us, Kathleen," she continued, "and take a lesson from me on the taming of bears. I positively love wild animals of the human sort; they afford a natural tamer like me such a fund of pleasure."
"Oh, yes, I will come," Kathleen replied.
She was vaguely surprised at the welcome they received. Denis Quirk was a new personality to her; for the moment he threw away his accustomed gravity and joined with his guests in their frolics. He led them around the office, introducing them in turn to each employe, from Cairns right down to Tim O'Neill, now promoted to office boy and occasional reporter. He explained the mysteries of the printing room, and retailed a score of newspaper anecdotes. Finally, he insisted on taking them to a tea-room, and there ordering tea for the whole party.
When he had parted from them to return to "The Mercury," Sylvia Jackson asked:
"What do you think of the martinet now? Can you suggest any other man in Grey Town whom I can transform into something human?"
"Ebenezer Brown," laughed Desmond O'Connor. "Why, there he comes, the old rascal!"
It was done in a moment. As the man came slowly up the street, Sylvia Jackson dropped her purse in his path. It fell with a clink, and this it probably was that caused Ebenezer Brown to stoop and pick it up.
As he handed it back to her, Sylvia Jackson gave him a most gracious smile.
"Oh, thank you, Mr. Brown!" she said.
Ebenezer paused for a moment to ask:
"You know me, young lady?"
"You would not remember me, but I met you once, years ago. My name is Sylvia Jackson."
"Jackson?" grunted the old man. "Don't remember the name, but I shouldn't forget you if I had met you once."
He went along the street, chuckling in his throat in a dry, disagreeable fashion he affected when amused.
"You took a great risk in allowing old Eb. to hold your purse. How he resisted an inclination to pocket it I can't for the life of me understand," said Desmond O'Connor.
"Are there no other impossible men in Grey Town?" asked Sylvia Jackson. "I feel so exalted by my two successes that I would love to discover a really hardened woman-hater, and convert him to more humanitarian principles."
"Be content with what you have achieved, and devote your gifts to me," said Desmond.
Kathleen recognised that she was the unnecessary third, but they protested that she must walk home with them, and managed to ignore her presence entirely as they followed the dusty road to "Layton."
DENIS REFUSES TO SPEAK.
Martin, the postman, was the most deliberate man in Grey Town. He never hurried, and he never made a mistake. If he had twenty letters to deliver at the same address, he would carefully read the address of each one before taking the responsibility of handing it over to the recipient. This accounted for the fact that Martin, the postman, was invariably late.
To Molly Healy, anxiously waiting at the Presbytery gate for the weekly letter from Ireland, Martin was a constantly recurring cause of sin. So keenly did she resent his leisurely methods that her indignation had changed to anger, her anger almost to hatred, when she resolved to check herself.
"It must be stopped," she remarked to Mrs. Quirk, "or one day I will be running at him with the pitchfork, and it would never do for the priest's sister to be pursuing the postman through the town to destroy him."
"Sure, then, if I was you I would be praying for the man, returning good for the evil he was doing you," said Mrs. Quirk.
"But he doesn't mean it, and that is the worst of Martin. His conscience is so big that it takes him all his time to carry it round. He's a poor, good man, but it is murder I sometimes contemplate," cried Molly.
At last she hit upon the device of giving Martin half an hour's grace before expecting him.
"I will be lenient with the man, and not expect him until he has arrived," she said. "But it would do my heart good to pinch him."
The half-hour had been prolonged to an hour, and Molly Healy was in a white heat of fury when Martin arrived.
"And what has kept you to-day?" cried Molly Healy. "You are the slowest man in Grey Town, for sure, and that is saying you are phenomenally slow."
"You are angry," said Martin, in his most deliberate fashion.
"Angry! I am just quivering with ungovernable temper. I could shake you!"
"You require your letters delivered by a twenty horse-power auto-motor," replied Martin.
Therewith he began to run through the letters with a deliberation that was almost cruel.
"When you have done shuffling the cards, perhaps you will give me the one you have in your hand," cried Molly.
"Patience, young lady. I have a duty to perform——."
"Your duty is to give me my letter. If you only knew how near you were to sudden death you would be in haste to get away from me."
"There you are, five letters—one for you. Let me see; is it for you?" Martin began to read the address over.
"Oh, the Lord forgive you! You are an occasion of sin to me."
"Patience, Miss Molly! Here you are, and good-day to you. The Lord send you a better temper!"
Martin delivered the letters, and proceeded placidly on his path of duty. Molly Healy watched him until he had turned a distant corner.
"The man will never get to heaven—he is too slow; and he will prevent me getting there unless Providence removes him to another round."
She carried the letters to Father Healy, and then proceeded to shut herself in her room, and there absorb the news from Ireland. In laughter and in tears she read her letter, and then re-read it, determined to lose not one word of the contents.
Dr. Marsh was with Father Healy when the letters came.
"May I read them?" the priest asked.
"Certainly! Why not?" replied the doctor in his brusque manner. "I will digest a slice of theology."
He took a book from the table and opened it.
"I hope it will agree with you," laughed Father Healy, as he tore the first letter open.
"Humph!" grunted Dr. Marsh. "When I am dying I will send for you; meanwhile I am quite content to remain a sinner."
Father Healy did not reply. He had become keenly interested in his letter. Twice he read it, and then he asked:
"Where was it that Denis Quirk told you he was editing that paper of his?"
"'The Firebrand?'" asked Dr. Marsh, who had become absorbed in the book he was reading.
"Yes! yes!" cried the priest.
"I don't exactly remember. I fancy it was Goldenvale. You had better ask Denis. Now, I can't agree with this," said the doctor, referring to something he had just read.
"I will controvert with you in due season. Just now I am worried. You are a safe and reliable man. Read this."
Father Healy handed the letter to Dr. Marsh, who having glanced at it, became deeply interested in the contents.
"Goldenvale! Do you know this man?" he asked.
"How should I?" replied the priest, almost irritably. "Could you expect me to know every priest in America? But I could find out if there were such a man."
"I would take this letter to Denis Quirk, and allow him to deny it. It's a lie, a palpable lie. I am sure of that."
"And so am I; but lies are more readily credited in Grey Town than the truth. I will see Denis Quirk at once. Will you come with me?" asked Father Healy.
"Not to 'The Mercury' office, but a part of the way. Put your hat on while I finish what I was reading."
Denis Quirk was in the outer office as Father Healy entered. He was inditing a letter to Tim O'Neill, who now claimed, among his other qualifications, a certificate as a typewriter.
"Good-day, Father Healy!" cried Denis Quirk. "What can I do for you? A paragraph to encourage your congregation to build the new school?"
"Not at present, Mr. Quirk. If you will give me five minutes, I will ask no more."
"Then come into my room. Finish that, address it, and post it, Tim."
"Yes, sir. And might I then go down to the hall and report that meeting?"
"Certainly, Tim. This is the keenest man on my staff, Father."
Tim O'Neill beamed all over at this praise, and he settled himself resolutely to his task. Meanwhile Denis Quirk's office door closed with a bang on Father Healy and himself.
"I should like you to read this," said the priest, as he handed the fateful letter to Denis Quirk.
The latter took it and read it frowningly. Then he leaned back in his chair, and regarded the priest with a composed face.
"Well?" asked Father Healy.
"Well?" responded Denis.
"You will, of course, deny the calumny?"
Denis Quirk shook his head.
"The writer is a good man and a priest. As for the accusation, let time be the judge. I shall neither acknowledge nor deny it. There are others concerned besides myself."
Father Healy was for the moment bereft of the power of speech. He could not understand Denis Quirk's attitude. At last he cried:
"You are accused of being a divorced man!"
"If I am, the action was not from me. I then adopted the attitude I now propose to adopt. I merely sat quiet. There are persons concerned in this whom I refuse to injure."
"And what do you intend to do?" asked Father Healy. "There will be a horrible scandal in Grey Town."
"I shall do what I did in the States—just live it down and wait. Time will put everything straight," said Denis Quirk.
"Your wife has married again?" the priest asked.
"I believe she has. Father Healy, all that I ask of you is your confidence and trust. There is certain to be a storm, but I am strong enough to stand it. I don't wish to lose my friends, you least of all. Will you believe in me?"
Father Healy looked in the man's eyes, and Denis Quirk met his gaze unflinchingly. He was particularly ugly that day, but Father Healy could read human nature, and he believed that Denis Quirk was honest.
"I would have preferred you to have proved yourself innocent," he said.
"I cannot do that; others can. It is for them to speak, not me," replied Denis.
"I promise that I will hold to you," said the priest.
"Thank you, Father. If you will do that—you, the old mother, and one other—I am content," he said.
As the good priest left "The Mercury" in a particularly dejected frame of mind, he found Dr. Marsh waiting for him.
"Well?" he said. "A canard, I suppose?"
Father Healy made no reply.
"You don't mean to tell me——," cried the doctor.
"I believe he is a wronged man, but he refuses to speak."
"I must speak to him myself. Don't wait for me, Father. Just get away home, and pray that a miracle may put this straight."
Denis Quirk was still sitting as the priest had left him when Dr. Marsh burst in upon him, and plumped down on the chair that had been vacated by Father Healy.
"See here, Quirk," he began, without further explanation, "I am a man of the world, and I know the utmost capabilities of human wickedness. I don't believe you are a real libertine. But I know Grey Town. Many a dog has been hanged here because of his bad name. You must disprove this."
"No, doctor. If you knew my story you would recognise the strength of my position. I must trust to time to put things straight."
"They will start another paper and fight you."
"Let them. That is what I want, a good fight," replied Denis. "Someone whom I can hit—hard!"
"And what if I withdraw my capital?"
"You won't do that, doctor," replied Denis, with a quiet smile. "I know you."
"Well, Quirk, I'll tell you what I think of you—a clever, Quixotic fool. But I will stand by you to the end. I am a sort of Ishmaelite; nothing pleases me better than an exchange of hard blows."
The two men shook hands in silence, and Dr. Marsh went out to find Father Healy waiting for him.
"We are a pair of idiots, you and I," said the doctor. "We ought to unite in hooting Denis Quirk out of Grey Town, but we shall fight for him to the finish. He is too ugly to be hopelessly wicked," he added, after a pause.
"Then you and I are not altogether bad," laughed the priest.
They walked in silence to the doctor's gate.
"Won't you come in?" he asked, as they paused to say good-bye.
"No, thank you. It is a strange thing I should have received the Bishop's letter to-day," said Father Healy, reflectively.
Dr. Marsh could not grasp the meaning of this remark, so he refrained from comment on it.
"The Bishop wishes me to take a six months' holiday," continued the priest.
"You have earned it by hard work. A most reasonable suggestion. Take a rest before you die suddenly," said the doctor.
"And he suggests that I return to the old home in County Cork," added Father Healy.
"Naturally. Where would you go but to Ireland?"
"Why not America? It is a great country, and cousins of my own in every city. It might be I would find a cousin in Goldenvale itself."
"Goldenvale! Father Healy, you are a strange man, a many-sided man, but I don't think you are the best fitted person I would select to be discovering other men's secrets."
"Denis Quirk won't help himself. I intend to help him," said the priest.
"And if you prove him guilty?"
"No man need know but that I went to Cork, after all. But something tells me I shall find him innocent."
"I am prepared to lay 6 to 4 on that myself. Well, Providence go with you, for you deserve it; and if you require money——," said Dr. Marsh.
"Not one penny. I have a small income of my own, inherited from my mother, God rest her soul! Molly shall go to the Finns, in Brunswick. The change will do her good. And no one need know but that I am in Cork."
"In Cork you shall be, if I have to perjure my soul to prove it!" cried Dr. Marsh. "No man shall come near me when I come to die but you, for you are the best man living."
"AND ONE OTHER!"
The Grey River was in flood. It came down the valley a torrent of yellow water, rushing madly between the rocks where the channel was narrow, spreading out far and wide over the low-lying meads, bearing with it the trunks of trees and other debris snatched up along its course. It had overflowed the lower bridge, and rendered it impassable to traffic; the upper bridge was threatened by the turbulent river.
There had been storms far up among the mountains, where the Grey takes its origin, and rains all down the valley. From every small stream and gully a volume of clay-coloured water flowed into the main stream. But the day was bright and sunny after the rain. The sunshine glittered on the yellow surface of the stream, and on the green fields sloping upwards from it. Viewed from the distant hills, the Grey valley was a shining, sparkling amber, encased in an emerald setting.
Kathleen O'Connor had viewed the flood with concern. On the further bank of the river was Mrs. Sheridan's small cottage, where a poor widow struggled to keep a large family by milking on the share system. Kathleen knew that one of the children was seriously ill, and that the mother, always living from hand to mouth, but always carrying a brave face, would be seriously encumbered by Michael's sickness. She feared, too, that the flood waters might even reach to the little cottage, with disastrous results.
"Shall I ride over and see how Mrs. Sheridan is?" she asked, when the heavy rain had ceased, and sunshine was raising a warm vapour from the sodden earth.
"Why not?" replied Mrs. Quirk. "It will do you good—and Sylvia, too."
Sylvia Jackson still remained at "Layton." She had come prepared to spend a monotonous fortnight at Grey Town, because she was tired of the city. But she had remained at "Layton" day after day, accommodating herself to the inhabitants and to the routine of the house. No one resented her presence, nor did anyone desire her departure, for she had made herself pleasant to all. In Mrs. Quirk's eyes she stood second only to Kathleen. Samuel Quirk regarded her as chief critic and adviser on the estate, and to Kathleen she was a cheerful, madcap companion, who reminded her that she was yet young. Denis Quirk's sentiments in regard to the girl he carefully concealed from the outside world, even from Sylvia herself. He was polite and deferential, yet humorous, with her; but she would have liked him to demonstrate clearly that he had enrolled himself among her bodyguard. She had given him abundant opportunities so to do, walking almost daily into the town with him, paying flying visits to "The Mercury" office, and playing dreamy music while he smoked his evening pipe. But Denis Quirk made no sign.
When Kathleen O'Connor proposed to ride round and see the Sheridans, Sylvia was painting. She was an adept at every variety of artistic work. Of any of the arts she might have made a success had she been content to devote her talent solely to that one; but she was too versatile to be completely successful, and while everything was good, nothing was perfect.
"I would love to go with you," she cried.
"And I will meet you at the lower bridge and ride home with you," said Denis Quirk.
In accordance with this arrangement, the two girls rode towards Mrs. Sheridan's after breakfast. Kathleen O'Connor was a perfect horsewoman. Sylvia Jackson, on the other hand, was unused to horses, and very nervous; but she was too proud to confess the fact. Kathleen, while recognising Sylvia's lack of capacity was too charitable to comment upon it. She had protested once, when her friend asked to be allowed to ride a rather high-spirited horse, but when Sylvia retorted hotly, Kathleen offered no further opposition. Thus it came about that Sylvia rode in constant dread, and made a nervous, fidgety horse a thousand times more irritable.
The road towards the upper bridge that crosses the Grey at Swynford is bordered by stretches of green grass. Along this the two girls rode at an easy canter, saving when Dr. Marsh's car rushed past, the doctor driving furiously, as was his way. This incident upset Sylvia's horse for a considerable time, but he quietened down into an easy canter in the deserted bye-road that leads from Swynford, along the farther bank of the Grey, to Mrs. Sheridan's.
At a rise in the road they paused to look down on the cottage. It stood surrounded by pine trees, with a small garden around it. It was a demonstration of Mrs. Sheridan's perpetual industry that she found time to keep the garden in order, despite her numberless other duties. A bright little patch of gay colours she had made of it, and behind it she had cultivated a neat kitchen garden.
"The river has not done any harm to Mrs. Sheridan's cottage," cried Kathleen, with great relief, as she viewed the flood waters, still several feet below the level of the garden.
"Can you understand anyone living in such a poky, ramshackle little hovel?" asked Sylvia. "I would rather be dead and buried than live there."
"Mrs. Sheridan cannot choose; she must live there or die. She is a great woman," said Kathleen.
Mrs. Sheridan met them at the gate, clean, tidy, and talkative. She was noted throughout the district for her loquacity, but, if she spoke at great length, she always spoke kindly.
"Is it you, Miss O'Connor?" she cried. "Sure, it was like yourself to be thinking of me and Michael. Michael and me, we was thinking of you. Only last Sunday I said to the boy, 'Miss Kathleen will be going to Mass,' the which I couldn't do myself, and more is the pity; but when Dan was down with the chickenpox, Father Healy himself, no less, the Lord bless the good man! told me it was my duty to be with Dan. 'The Lord will excuse you from the chapel,' he said to me, 'and you can read the Mass to Dan.' The which I did to Michael here, and him listening to me as if he understood it all, every word. But won't you come inside, you and the young lady? You will be excusing the house, miss; and if you would be taking a cup of tea or a glass of milk, there's no spirits in the house to be offering you, for I think it is putting temptation in the way of some that's too fond of it."
"Yes, we will come inside and see Michael," cried Kathleen. "And if we might have a cup of tea——."
"Not for me," Sylvia whispered; "I couldn't drink tea in a place like this."
"To be sure," cried Mrs. Sheridan, not hearing Sylvia's comment. "Michael will be pleased to see you. Doesn't he call you 'Pretty Miss Kathie'? But you will excuse the liberty in a boy. He is recovering, the doctor says, which himself was here to-day, and the car stuck out there in the mud, and the doctor swearing! Michael could hear him in his bed, which it wasn't good for the boy to hear. But the doctor is too kind, for sure, to mean any harm, even to the car, and Michael and me pretended not to hear him, nor to know that he was angry. The Lord will overlook the words he used to the car and the council that should be taking care of the roads."
Kathleen hitched her own and Sylvia's horse to the fence, and entered a small, but wonderfully clean, room, that served as a kitchen and general sitting-room for the family. Here they found Michael, a boy of four, the baby of a family of nine. The other children had gone, as a troop, to the State school at Swynford. There they would remain all day, to return and assist at the milking, such of them as were capable.
Kathleen sat down beside the boy, and began to entertain him. In a few minutes the two were laughing together, as became old friends. Kathleen had brought sundry gifts with her, among them a sovereign, which she slipped under his pillow, to be discovered after she had gone.
Sylvia sat rigidly on her chair, absorbing the scene with her apparently sleepy eyes; while Mrs. Sheridan bustled about, talking unceasingly, as she spread a clean table cloth and prepared the tea for her guests.
"Did you ever hear such a rain? And the wind! The Lord preserve us; it was praying Michael and me was, the others fast asleep, that the cottage might not be blown away, and us in it. It was like the night himself died. I was sitting here beside him, watching to see him flicker out. He died as peaceful as a child—just one smile for me, and he was gone. An' me alone in the house with him. Mrs. Smith that would have been beside me—she's dead herself now, God rest her soul, for she was a good neighbour—the rain and wind prevented her and many another. And there I sat beside him, as I sat beside Michael, listening to the rain beating on the window and roof, and the trees groaning as if in mortal anguish, and the house creaking, and outside the river and sea roaring. It was praying I was for the morning, for the night makes the storm more fearsome. Now, sit down, Miss O'Connor, and you, miss; the tea is made. It's only bread and butter I can offer yous, but it is all I have, and welcome you are to it."
Kathleen sat down, but Sylvia Jackson, to Mrs. Sheridan's intense concern, refused to eat or drink.
"Thank you, I am not hungry," she said.
Kathleen was hurt by what she regarded as a want of courtesy. Everything was scrupulously clean, if poor, and the widow willingly gave all that she possessed. To make amends for her friend's refusal, Kathleen drank more tea and consumed a larger amount of bread and butter than she had ever done before. Then, after a chat on the affairs of Grey Town, which Mrs. Sheridan made a kind of prolonged solo, Kathleen and Sylvia rose to go.
Mrs. Sheridan followed them to the gate, talking vigorously. As they rode away her voice might still be heard as she chanted Kathleen's praises to Michael.
"What a dreadful woman!" said Sylvia.
Kathleen was already deeply hurt by her friend's conduct, and she fired up into intense indignation at this remark.
"Dreadful!" she cried. "Mrs. Sheridan is a good, honest woman. She has given her life for her children, and she is the soul of good nature."