The following day, at nine o'clock, the big "Layton" car, resplendent in a recent coat of paint, well shod, and perfectly equipped, started from the house on the long journey to Millerton. Denis Quirk was at the wheel, the chauffeur beside him. In the tonneau Molly Healy and Desmond O'Connor kept up a crossfire of good-humoured raillery, while Kathleen sat between them, smiling at their jests. It was a bright, sunny day, with a gentle breeze blowing from the south; the roads were smooth, and the motor throbbed along throwing the miles behind her, and the dust in the faces of those whom they passed on their way.
"A brief epitome of this Commonwealth," said Denis Quirk, with a wave of his hand as they were running through a vast, untenanted domain, protected on either side by rows of dark green pines. "Neglected opportunities! Land that should be supporting one hundred families wasted on one man."
Again they were hurrying between cultivated farms and farm houses, widely scattered, but sufficiently near to one another to represent civilisation. Double-fronted wooden houses were dotted here and there, single-storied, each with its wide verandah, a small garden, and possibly a row of pine trees to guard them from the wind. Behind them each had its row of wooden outbuildings, large haystacks, and sleek cattle feeding on green meadow-land.
"The proof of what we can do—given the one necessary thing, man. Lord! how the Japs must gnash their teeth when they think of the prize out here in the lone Pacific! When I am a politician——."
"Why not now?" Desmond asked. "Go forth and preach your new crusade. You can't begin too soon."
"I object to his preaching it in a car. Motors were never made for moralising. There's a feeling, in riding in a car, that makes a person lazy and contented," cried Molly Healy.
"Until something goes wrong with the car," suggested Desmond. "Then——."
"I have heard them in difficulties, and my ears are still tingling and my conscience burning me for the language they used," said Molly Healy.
"It's no use carrying other men's sins on your conscience. Haven't you sufficient of your own?" asked Desmond.
"That is between me and my confessor, Desmond. But if I don't carry these men's crimes no one will trouble about them, for they don't seem to think it a sin to swear at a motor, although they call the thing 'she.'"
"That's why they abuse her—woman was the original cause of sin, and still is, nine cases out of ten."
"Shame on you! The world would have little virtue to be boasting of were it not for us poor women."
"And less of sin," Desmond replied, cynically.
"Peace, children!" said Kathleen; "you spoil the scenery."
The Bishop was at home—a handsome man, tall and erect, with a stern face, yet one that was singularly sweet.
"Well, my child," he asked Kathleen, "what can I do for you?"
"Mr. Quirk wished to know you, my Lord," Kathleen answered, with a smile. "I brought him from Grey Town to introduce him to you."
"It is very kind of Mr. Quirk to come all this way to see me. Perhaps you will lunch with me, now that you have come so far."
"Oh! no, my Lord——," cried Kathleen.
"Oh! yes, my child. You have something to say to me?" he asked Desmond.
"It is private, my Lord—but it can wait," Desmond answered.
"No; it must not wait. Come with me, and talk until luncheon is prepared. I will send Father Geary to entertain your friends."
In his study, a small room, where large books on Theology were ranged on shelves round the walls, where a large silver crucifix stood on the table, with the Bishop's breviary and writing materials beside it, he bade Desmond sit down. Then he began to interrogate him shrewdly, but kindly.
"You wish to be a priest?" he asked.
Desmond eyed the Bishop in profound surprise, and his Lordship continued:
"How do I guess? Eh? It is not great wisdom nor the black art that has told me your secret. A friend wrote to me——."
"Mrs. Quirk!" cried Desmond.
The Bishop smiled, and his usually stern face relaxed, so that the lines and wrinkles of care smoothed themselves out.
"A friend," he answered, "who was interested in you, and anxious for advice."
"My Lord, I am quite uncertain. I can see which is the better, and which the more difficult."
"Make a retreat, my child; then come to me again."
"Tell me it is impossible, my Lord!" cried Desmond.
"Nothing is impossible. I was myself a man of the world like you, and, when I found myself confronted with a vocation, I was for running away, like you. But the grace of God constrained me by force."
"I can save my soul in the world," said Desmond.
"You may; probably you will. But there are other souls to save besides your own. Make a retreat, my child——."
"But I know what the result will be. There can be only the one answer."
"Then a retreat is not needed, but it will do you good. The Bishop commands you to make a retreat—at once!"
After luncheon, a plain meal, seasoned with good stories and laughter, they bade his Lordship a respectful good-bye. He stood at the door watching them as the car slipped down the avenue. On his face was the smile of one who has scored a triumph. Kathleen turned to Denis, and asked:
"What do you think of my Bishop?"
"Equal in every respect to my own, and that represents the very summit of virtue. But Desmond can tell you more of his Lordship than I. I met him as a mere man; Desmond was privileged to a more intimate knowledge."
Desmond smiled as he answered:
"A wise counsellor and a kind Father. He administers unpleasant medicine, flavoured with human kindness."
"And will you be taking the Bishop's black draught?" asked Molly Healy.
"I have not decided whether I shall swallow it or throw it away," he answered evasively.
But Molly Healy realised that Desmond O'Connor had decided. To her, this represented the destruction of an ideal she had never hoped to realise; but, as she wiped a few tears from her eyes that evening she remarked to herself:
"Life is made up of not getting what you want, Molly Healy. It is better Desmond should become a priest than die a scallywag—and it will keep him out of the way of that Sylvia Custance. God knows what is best for every one of us."
A LINK BROKEN.
Denis Quirk was back in Melbourne, in the "Bachelors' Flat," and working relentlessly at the "Freelance." That intrepid little weekly had shouldered its way into a prominent position in the literary world. It stood for independence of thought, avoiding the humdrum of the beaten track, offering its own ideas to the public, careless of passing crazes and passions.
It may be said of Denis Quirk in those days that his only pleasure was in his work. He was lonely for Desmond O'Connor, now a student at Manly. The flat was still frequented by the representatives of motley and variegated talent, as in the old days. Jests were made, good stories told, and songs sung by well-trained voices; but these were mere acquaintances. Denis longed for the intimate companionship of the former days.
Jackson had invited him to his home in Brighton, but there he found Sylvia Custance. She weaved her web to enslave Denis, interesting herself in his career, asking him fairly intelligent questions, and doing her utmost to persuade him that he was the most important person in the world to her. Denis watched her as a scientist observes a remarkable organism. Once, after a prolonged silence on his part, she asked—
"What are you thinking about, if I may ask?"
"I was thinking about you," he replied.
She eyed him for one moment, as if uncertain how she should regard his answer. "And what is your opinion about me?" she asked, after a pause.
"One that I cannot properly express in every-day language. You are the most versatile woman I have been privileged to know, and in some respects one of the very cleverest."
"That is great praise from you," she answered.
"It is neither praise nor flattery; it is merely the truth. You are so clever that I cannot understand you."
Sylvia Custance imagined that she had at last won Denis Quirk's admiration. Had she listened to him coldly dissecting her for the benefit of one of her chosen bodyguard, she would have suffered a bitter disillusionment. Denis was walking home with this admirer, a mere boy, to whose unopened eyes Sylvia Custance was the ideal of women.
"Did you ever see such another woman as Mrs. Custance?" the young man asked, in his youthful enthusiasm.
"No, thank God, I never did," Denis answered bluntly.
This was a sudden and unexpected check to the boy's eloquence. He regarded Denis frowningly.
"If you intend——," he began.
"You asked my opinion, and I have answered you. There is no need for anger. I have a very high regard for good women. Mrs. Custance is not a woman, merely a psychological problem to me. She cares for only one person—herself, and that self she regards as a celestial body around which all other lesser bodies should revolve. To attain this necessary consummation she adopts a chameleon character, altering herself to suit all who approach her. To you she is sweet, and inclined to gush; to me, a woman whose interests are in the stern affairs of life; to another an artist—something different to all men. She is so versatile that she has no fixed character. She is neither good nor bad, frivolous nor earnest; she assumes whatever she considers most suitable to the present moment. But I annoy you?"
"No, you don't. Not one bit. Mrs. Custance's character can bear your satire. She is the sweetest and most kindly woman in the world."
"To you she probably is. That sweetness is the music to which you are expected to dance. I accuse her of no evil intention. She is far too prudent to ever repeat her one mistake of falling in love with anyone but herself. You may fall in love with her; she expects you to do that. But you need expect no act of imprudence from her. She will lead you to the very gates of love and close them gently in your face."
The boy went away furiously angry with Denis, but in the months to come he recognised that he had heard Sylvia Custance accurately analysed during that unpleasant half-hour's walk with Denis Quirk.
Denis watched the boy as he strode away towards his home, his figure stiffly borne, the picture of indignant protest. For his own part, Denis desired no further acquaintance with Sylvia Custance. He despised her so much that the very thought of her was repulsive to his nature. After that one visit he preferred to cultivate old Jackson in his office in the city.
Occasionally he made a flying visit to Grey Town to enjoy the restfulness of "Layton," but he did not stay long even there. After a week or ten days he would suddenly pack his Gladstone bag and return in haste to Melbourne. His answer to his mother was always the same, when she pleaded with him to stay a few days longer:
"I must get back to work. There is nothing else worth living for."
Denis Quirk was busy in his office, writing, revising, correcting proofs, reading a celebrated work for review, criticising illustrations, doing many things and several men's work at the one time. He had a sub-editor, a very capable journalist, but he had the feeling, like other great men, that no one could do his work but he, and in this he was partly right. The telephone rang while he was thus engaged, and he sprang up and seized the receiver. Grey Town was speaking.
"Yes, Grey Town speaking. It is Kathleen O'Connor. Can you hear me?"
"Distinctly," he answered.
"Mrs. Quirk is seriously ill. She wants you."
"I will be with you in seven hours. Will she last till then?"
"Dr. Marsh thinks so; but please waste no time. Good-bye."
He rang his bell, and the office messenger answered it with promptitude. He had learned the lesson of haste when the master's bell rang.
"Send Mr. Gillon to me, and order a motor to take me to Grey Town at once. Ring up my flat, and ask my man to pack my valise," cried Denis. "Tell the motor to call for it," he added.
To the sub-editor he confided the work that still remained to be done.
"I will take this with me," he said, picking up an important article, "and read it on the journey. I will send it back in the motor."
A quarter of an hour later he was being carried at full speed in a twenty-horse power Fiat car towards Grey Town.
"If you delay one moment; if you blow out, or even puncture, I will never employ you again," he remarked to the chauffeur.
"It's all luck," the driver answered, indignantly.
"I prefer lucky men," Denis replied. "Now drive like the very deuce."
Nursing his outraged dignity, the chauffeur sent the car at its topmost speed on the long road to Grey Town. This was his lucky trip; stray nails there were in plenty, also dangerous places, but the Fiat raced through in six hours. Denis sat rigidly perusing and correcting the article, determined not to think of grey sorrow at the other end. Once he groaned to himself.
"The last good thing in life, and I am to close it. But, there is work—and the Church, thank God!"
Then he made a further correction, folded the article, and placed it in an envelope. This he confided to the chauffeur.
"I like you," he remarked; "you can be as reckless as I when it is necessary. I shall want a driver soon. Would you take the post?"
"I prefer to be where I am," the man answered. "A driver can't be lucky always."
"He only needs to be lucky on occasions like this, when a mother is waiting to say 'Good-bye' to a son."
In six hours' time the car raced up the avenue at "Layton," to find Samuel Quirk pacing the verandah while he awaited his son. Denis could see the hand of bitter grief in the old man's bent figure, in the deep lines on his face, and in the sunken eyes. After nearly fifty years' companionship the prospect of losing his faithful wife struck Samuel Quirk a titanic blow.
Denis had never been outwardly demonstrative towards his father. Samuel Quirk had not invited any sign of affection, and his son had not offered it. But they loved and respected one another, for Samuel Quirk was the type of man that Denis could best admire. He recognised honesty and purity of intention in the old man; he knew that Samuel Quirk would never intentionally injure another. These virtues appealed to him like rich jewels hidden within a rough casket. To-day his heart went right out to the pathetic figure of hopeless misery portrayed by his father.
He sprang from the car and took his father's hand tenderly.
"It's the will of God," he said.
"Did I say it was not?" asked Samuel Quirk. "I knew it must come soon—but that doesn't make it one bit easier!"
"How is she?" Denis asked.
"Slipping away—and calling out for you."
Denis waited to hear no more. He ran up the stairs to his mother's room. Here he found Father Healy, Molly, Kathleen, and the nurse who had been with Desmond O'Connor. At his coming they left the room, whispering each one a short welcome as they passed him.
Mrs. Quirk turned her head, and her thin, white face broke into a sweet smile.
"Come to me, Denis. God is good to send you. Sure, I am blessed above all women. Himself is with me, the Divine Redeemer, and His Blessed Mother, and the angels. Father Healy has been praying over me, and now you have come to say good-bye. Sit beside me, and take my hand. Don't be crying. I am just passing to God. Don't forget to say a prayer for me."
She paused in distress, while Denis took her hand, and sat on a chair, the tears rolling down his cheek. After a few seconds she spoke again:
"Don't be fretting because the world is hard, boy. All will come right, and there's a good wife waiting you—one that will be true to you."
"Don't be worrying yourself about me. I shall always land on my feet," he answered. Then, after a pause, he added: "You have been perfect as a mother and as a woman. There is nothing to regret on that score."
"Many things undone, and many that might have been done better. But God is good and merciful, boy. He doesn't expect too much."
Thus they spoke together for ten minutes. Then Denis saw that she was exhausted. He rose to call the nurse, but she held his hand for one minute.
"Promise me that you will marry Kathleen," she whispered.
"I am already married," he answered.
"You will be set free—I am sure of it. Promise me, Denis."
"I promise to do that if it is ever possible."
"God bless you and keep you. May the Sacred Heart prevent you from sin, and Mary, the Mother of God, pray for you," she said, in a low, broken voice.
A few hours later the end came to her peacefully, and the soul of "Granny" Quirk passed the narrow gate that leads from things seen to those that are apprehended by faith. With a smile on her face she passed the portal, confident in the mercy of Almighty God.
After the funeral the question of Kathleen O'Connor's future came up for discussion. After various solutions had been suggested by Father Healy, Dr. Marsh, and Denis, old Samuel Quirk calmly settled the matter.
"Kathleen will stay here, and keep the house for me," he said. "She will be my daughter. What would I be doing all alone in this big house?"
The few days that had elapsed since Mrs. Quirk's death had changed him into a decrepit old man. He sat through the greater part of the day in an easy-chair on the verandah, taking no interest in anything; just gazing vacantly in front of him for hours at a time. Mental and bodily strength seemed to have deserted him. From vigour he had passed suddenly into senility.
"Are you willing to stay with him?" Dr. Marsh asked Kathleen. "It means acting as a nurse to an impatient old man."
"I promised Mrs. Quirk that I would remain at "Layton" while he needed me," she answered.
"The burden may be a heavy one," said Father Healy.
"I can bear it," she answered cheerfully.
Denis Quirk waited until the other had gone. Then he went to Kathleen to find her working among the flowers, filling the vases and placing them in the positions where Mrs. Quirk had liked to see them. He sat watching her silently, as he had been accustomed to do in the days of their first acquaintance. Presently she turned towards him.
"You remind me of the old Denis Quirk to-day—the one whom I resented," she said.
"I was summing you up in those days," he answered; "just wondering whether you were genuine."
"That was what I objected to," she answered. "I have never been subjected to examination—I have not so much as examined myself too critically—and the feeling is creepy."
"You have been tried and acquitted," he laughed. "You leave the court without a stain upon your character. Indeed, you have been promoted to stand upon a pedestal, and receive the admiration of your fellows."
"No, no! Not that, if you please," she cried. "Allow me to remain just a woman. It is my best plea for leniency. I detest the idea of a pedestal. Supposing I were found to have a flaw—I have a good many, I assure you—everyone would see it. Let me hide myself in the crowd."
"Only one person is permitted to admire you on the pedestal; the one who has placed you there. In his eyes there is no flaw. But," he added, hastily, "I may, at least, thank you for your kindness to my parents. You are a good woman, and you need no higher praise. Take care of the old man, and—good-bye."
He took her hand and crushed it in his own. Then he turned abruptly on his heel and left her. That night she fancied she could hear him pacing the avenue restlessly, and in that fact she found security. The following morning he was gone.
"Where is Denis?" old Samuel Quirk asked her, in his half-sleepy way.
"He has returned to his work. You should be a proud man, Mr. Quirk, for I believe that Mrs. Quirk is a saint, and I am sure that Denis is a hero."
"He should be here in Grey Town," the old man grumbled.
"He is in the best place—out there in Melbourne. He will return to Grey Town when the time is ripe for him."
A SICK CALL.
If there is one suburb in Melbourne where a man might be excused depression and discontent it is that undesirable and dusty part called Tottenham. On a hot night in the summer time Tottenham gasps in the streets. In shirt sleeves and thin blouses, not infrequently in a still scantier attire, men, women, and children sit on doorsteps and pavements, or collect in the small parks and open spaces, seeking fresh air. The language on such occasions is apt to be in keeping with the weather, for the heat excites men's tempers, and leads to unpleasant remarks and retorts that are still less courteous, until a brawl frequently terminates the proceedings. The neighbouring hospitals anticipate scalp wounds and bruises after a hot spell in Tottenham.
It was on such a night that Father Desmond O'Connor, recently ordained, and appointed curate to Father Quinlan, the parish priest of St. Carthage's Church, went quietly and swiftly along Carrick Street in answer to a sick call. He walked absorbed in thought, and heedless of the groups of people whom he passed.
Desmond O'Connor had fought a severe campaign, and had triumphed. In Tottenham he lived a quiet and uneventful life, content to do his duty conscientiously, and pass his leisure hours with his brother-priests and in the society of his books.
Father Desmond O'Connor was not perfect; he was a good, honest, hard-working priest, one of that splendid army who are fighting the Church's battles against human weakness in Australia. His brothers among the clergy liked and respected him none the less because he was a cheerful companion, not above an occasional joke.
Father Desmond O'Connor was, in fact, meditating a practical joke as he hurried on his sick call this hot summer's night. His eyes were twinkling, and his lips occasionally relaxed into a smile as he considered the details of this piece of drollery. Once he remarked to himself, half-audibly:
"I must confer with Father Gleeson. He would suggest the necessary details."
Thus did he go, smiling and occasionally laughing to himself as some particularly amusing aspect of that which he was considering struck him. So pleasant was his face that a man whom he met paused to ask the direction to a certain street that he well knew. When Father O'Connor had answered his question, the man asked him:
"Are you a Roman Catholic priest?"
"I am," Desmond answered.
"You'll excuse me stopping you, sir, but you looked so happy and pleasant that I thought I would like to speak to you. You remind me of a young fellow I once met some years ago—Desmond O'Connor."
Father O'Connor laughed aloud at the remark.
"Supposing I were to tell you I was he, would you believe me?" he asked.
The stranger shook his head emphatically.
"No, sir, I would not believe it, even from you. I had an argument with young O'Connor, half-fun and half-earnest. He was an Agnostic, while I profess to be a Christian of no denomination—just a Christian. You are not he."
"I am Desmond O'Connor, and your name, if my memory is correct, is Laceby, a reporter for the 'News.' If you care to have a chat with me, you will find me at St. Carthage's Presbytery, in Nixon Street."
"But how did you happen——," Laceby began.
"To change my views? A long story, which I will tell you if you call. You must excuse me at present. I have to attend a sick call at St. Luke's Hospital."
They shook hands, and bade one another good-night. Laceby stood watching Father O'Connor until he had disappeared round a corner.
"A strange army, the priesthood," he said to himself. "Every race and every rank of life—men who have always had a creed, and men who have had none. Soldiers, sailors, men from trades and professions, drawn to the Standard by an irresistible impulse that they term a vocation—but fine fellows, every one of them."
All the world knows St. Luke's Hospital, its Mother Superioress, and the devoted nuns who labour for the sick poor. Within the wards many a great healer has served an apprenticeship, and many a sorely-diseased man or woman has been snatched from death. There is no charitable institution in which the Catholics of Australia have more reason to take a legitimate pride. Standing in Burgoyne-avenue, its brick walls tower towards the sky, one storey above another, while beside it the small and modest building, now the convent, remains to speak of small beginnings that have been brought to a great success.
Father O'Connor was met at the door by a Sister in the black habit of the Order, a sweet-faced, gentle nun, smiling as kindly as the priest himself.
"Well, Sister Bernardine!" he cried. "What makes you always smile? One would expect a serious face in a place like this."
"A smile never made a sick man worse," she answered. "The Mother Superioress would like to speak to you before you see Mrs. Clarence."
"Certainly, Sister. I am never the worse for a word with Mother Superioress. Where is she?"
"In the convent expecting you. I think you should be as quick as you can; the poor woman is seriously injured."
The Mother Superioress beamed upon Father O'Connor. She had conceived a great liking and respect for the young priest, for she recognised that beneath his humour and high spirits was concealed a strong sense of duty, akin to her own.
"I shall not detain you, Father," she said. "This poor lady met with a motor accident outside our doors, and was carried in here. She is too sick to move, otherwise we would have sent her to a private hospital. Dr. Broxham has just seen her, and holds out no hope of recover. But the trouble is this: she is a Protestant, yet she has asked to see a priest."
"Does her husband consent?" Father O'Connor asked.
"The poor man was killed," the Mother Superioress answered. "We have not told her that. But she does not ask for him. She asks constantly for a priest—and for Denis Quirk."
"Denis Quirk?" cried the priest, "and her name is Clarence! Strange! Have you sent for Denis Quirk?"
"Who is he?" she asked.
"You must surely know Denis Quirk, the editor of the 'Freelance.' Two such important persons as you and he must have met."
"Of course I know him. He is one of our best friends. But are you certain it is he she wishes to see?"
"I merely surmise, Mother. I will see her at once and ask her—the Sister told me to lose no time."
In the big surgical ward of the hospital, the bed surrounded by screens, Father O'Connor found a woman, her face of an ashen colour, and constantly contracted in pain. She lay very quietly and in silence save when a faint groan spoke of a spasm of agony. Her voice had sunk to a faint whisper, so that the priest was compelled to bend over and listen to that which she desired to say. But, in a low voice, and disjointed sentences, she confided her sins to Father O'Connor's ears, and was then received into the Catholic Church. Before the priest left her she asked:
"May I see Mr. Denis Quirk?"
"He shall be sent for at once," Father O'Connor answered. "Good-bye, and God bless you. You are happy now?"
"For the first time for many years. I only need Denis Quirk's forgiveness before I die. Promise me I shall not see Mr. Clarence again."
"I promise that," Father O'Connor answered, whispering to himself: "May the Lord have mercy on the poor man's soul, for he will need mercy."
In half an hour Denis Quirk was shown to the sick woman's bedside. It is not my purpose to say what passed between the dying wife and the husband whom she had so grievously wronged. Denis Quirk readily forgave her the evil she had done him, and with her he remained until she had passed the portal of death, holding his hand in hers. Then he rose from his knees and gazed into her face, and on it he saw a great joy and peace, that had not rested there for many years.
DENIS QUIRK'S HOMECOMING.
There is a large field beside the house at "Layton," sloping downwards from the rise, on which the house stands, towards the road. It is particularly green in spring and early summer, while scattered here and there about it are giant gum-trees, left purposely for shade. Here Denis Quirk gathered the employees of the "Mercury," their wives, children, and relations, soon after his return to Grey Town. In the centre of the field was a huge marquee, with a great table in it spread with snow-white linen and adorned with flowers and coloured ribbon. The silver, cutlery, and glass, together with a multitude of eatables and tempting drinks, proclaimed that this was provided for hungry appetites and for the thirsty. Waitresses in black dresses, with white aprons and caps, flitted backwards and forwards, arranging the table; occasionally an inquisitive child peeped in to view the arrangements, while now and again Molly Healy or Kathleen O'Connor entered to confer with the caterer.
There were other marquees in the field, places of interest and curiosity to the smaller guests. In one of these were sweets in abundance, to be had for the asking. The young lady in charge was the kindest and most obliging dispenser of sweets that any child had ever yet seen. She did not ask, "How much?" nor did she expect payment in base metal. A "Thank you" and a smile was sufficient to satisfy her. In another there was an amusing man, whose purpose it was to make children, both young and grown up, laugh. With him was a mysterious gentleman who performed the most wonderful feats of magic, and two young ladies who sang and danced as never young ladies had done before.
Outside there were sports and cricket, the big "Layton" motor to ride in, and the whole range of the field for romps and games. Finally, to complete the day, there was to be a picture show after dark, with music from the Grey Town Band to add greater enjoyment. Was it to be wondered at if children and adults vowed that this was a picnic complete to the smallest detail?
Denis Quirk had arranged the entertainment to celebrate his return to the "Mercury" Office. He had begun on a very small scale, his intention being to limit the pleasure to those immediately interested in the paper. But the invitations had spread from one to another, from the staff to their relations, then to their friends, and finally to their friends' friends.
"Let them all come," cried Denis Quirk. "If the thing is to be done, the more who find pleasure in it the better. Every child in Grey Town who cares to and can squeeze in, is welcome."
He had returned to the town without fuss or excitement, and had strolled into the "Mercury" office as if he had never been absent from it. Cairns had rushed to welcome him, a broad smile on his face, and a suspicious dimness, about the eyes.
"Upon my word, Quirk, I am glad to see you," he cried.
Then he turned away for an instant.
"I never knew I was an emotional man before, but it makes my eyes wet to see you," he explained, as he blew his nose violently, and gripped Denis Quirk's hand. "You swear not to leave us again?" he asked.
"Not until I am called for, Cairns. Upon my life, Cairns, I never knew how much I loved you until to-day," Denis answered. He wrung Cairns' hand until the editor winced. Then he went in haste to interview the staff.
"Tim O'Neill!" he cried, meeting that youth outside the editor's office, "how far up the ladder have you climbed?"
"Senior reporter, sir. Glad to see you back, Mr. Quirk."
"Thank you, Tim. I suppose you will be leaving us soon, now that you are famous?"
"Not unless you tell me to go, sir. I am quite happy here—plenty of work, and, now you are back," Tim asked wistfully, "there will be some fighting to do?"
"You are a worthy descendant of a fighting race, Imp. Is there anything perfect in Grey Town?"
"No, sir, nothing quite perfect—excepting Miss O'Connor," Tim answered with a blush.
"Nothing perfect! Then we must fight. Take down your blackthorn, Tim, and get your muscle up."
In this manner he passed from one to another, and the "Mercury" staff was one broad smile of joy and satisfaction, for they all loved the big, ugly man.
A week after his return the picnic was arranged. Kathleen O'Connor and Molly Healy had charge of the minutiae, while Denis ordered the big things, and opened his purse to its widest extent.
"They shall remember this, every one of them, right down to the babies in arms," he said. "They welcomed me when I returned; it is for me to show my gratitude."
At one o'clock the adults assembled for dinner in the large marquee. Old Samuel Quirk was wheeled in in an invalid chair, but, though he smiled urbanely on the company, he did not gather the significance of the proceedings, for he was now as much an infant as the head compositor's youngest baby. Father Healy came to bless the proceedings, and Dr. Marsh to stand by in case of sickness. After the dinner Cairns rose to his feet, to the sound of loud applause.
"Reverend Father, ladies and gentlemen," he began; "I want you to drink the health of the finest man in Grey Town. Mr. Quirk went away against our wish, and he has not come back a minute too soon. We needed him all the time he was in Melbourne. The 'Mercury' missed his power of organisation, his splendid gift of pugnacity. The old gang has been broken up, but there are a few of the same type prowling about. See that your gun is loaded and cocked, Quirk; there is plenty of shooting to be done in this town yet."
"Ebenezer?" Denis Quirk asked, with a broad grin.
"Ebenezer is crippled, but a few of the same species remain with us," replied Cairns. "We will put you back into the Council, and send you to Parliament if you like."
At this there was loud applause, while from the distance could be heard the sound of a baby squalling.
Before Cairns could continue his speech Molly Healy appeared at the door and cried out to Mrs. Crawford, the baby's mother:
"You will have to come to him yourself. Sure, I fancy he must have swallowed a pin, and it is scratching his inside."
Mrs. Crawford sprang from her seat and hurried to the succour of her offspring, while Molly remarked to Cairns:
"No wonder the child is scared, with you shouting so loud."
Thereupon she whisked out of the marquee.
"We want a few of your stamp in Parliament," continued the orator. "So, whenever you pass the word, we will be up to put you into Parliament. Meanwhile, here is your good health, Quirk, and we are glad to have you with us."
Men, women, and children shouted themselves hoarse as Cairns sat down, and Denis Quirk rose to his feet.
"Not yet, Cairns," he said. "I don't intend to leave the 'Mercury' just now, when I am realising all she is to me. The sound of her heart, as she turns out the news of the world, is music to me. I love to sit at work with my coat off and sleeves rolled up, preparing a daily stimulant for Grey Town. But when Grey Town is braced up, if you still need a man who will make your interests his, and battle for you in Parliament, just call on me. I am glad to be with you again. There is not one man in the office that is not dear to me—I love even his wife and children. Dr. Marsh and I have been consulting as to the future management of the paper, turning over, at the same time, the great social problem. Now, we offer you a partnership in the profits of the paper. Dr. Marsh and I will take one-third of the sum, and divide two-thirds between you, on a graduated scale, to be decided in conference. Mr. Cairns will, of course, receive the largest share, and from him, down to the printers' devil, you will all be partners. How does that suit you?"
A shout of applause showed that his proposal was satisfactory to the whole staff.
"Then an agreement shall be drawn up between us, but we rely upon you all to work hard and prove your appreciation of the offer. This scheme is an attempt to find a solution to the labour problem. You all realise that fact? Dr. Marsh and I have purchased the machinery; we have initiated the enterprise, and we are not prepared to divide our property among you; we are merely trying to pay you on an equitable basis. This is to be a partnership of profits, not of the stock. I wish you all to understand that. I now ask you, if you approve, to hold up your hands."
Every man, woman, and child signified their acceptance.
"Thank you. I hope it will prove a success, and that we shall never regret our new departure. I have only a few more words to say to you at present. Mr. Cairns tells me that you are loyal, every one of you. That is what I ask of you—loyalty to your own interests. Put your best work into the paper, and remember that the 'Mercury' is the production of every member of the staff. Thank you again for your welcome; you have made me realise that the 'Mercury' is home, the staff a happy and united family, to whom I am a father."
He spoke simply, in a straightforward, manly style, that went to their hearts. When he sat down they continued to applaud for several minutes before filing out to view the pictures.
"Denis Quirk is white," a compositor remarked emphatically to Tim O'Neill.
"White!" replied Tim. "He is snow-white. He is the biggest and the whitest thing in Grey Town—outside Miss O'Connor."
"Where shall I put the old gown?" sighed Molly Healy as she surveyed a trunk already packed to overflowing. "I took it out to make place for the shoes, and now I must take out the shawl to make place for it. I am tired of taking out and putting in again."
Therewith she seated herself despairingly on a chair and eyed the trunk in disgust. Kathleen O'Connor regarded her with a smile of amusement.
"May I see what I can do?" she asked.
"I am beyond refusing you anything, Kathleen. I have that trunk on my brain, and it's worse than water in the same place. Mrs. Gorman kept poking her nose in and telling me: 'I had no method' until I slammed the door in her face and locked it. Then the Father and Dr. Marsh began to look in on me through the window, telling me I was overlooked when the gift of tidiness was being distributed. But I have sent them on a dying message to Pat Collins, who is not sick. Dan, too, must come along and ask me why I was swearing? There is only one good angel in Grey Town, and you are that one, Kathleen O'Connor."
Kathleen began to remove the contents of the trunk, loosely rolled up and thrown in after a harum-scarum fashion.
"What will you do at St. Luke's?" she asked.
"I am going there to mortify the flesh. Nursing I love, but to be tidy is a penance to me."
"Make a big effort," suggested Kathleen.
"I wonder could I? I wouldn't enjoy a tidy room one bit. I would not so much as dare to brush my hair for fear of disturbing the arrangements."
"The Mother Superioress insists upon her nurses' appearance being spick and span," said Kathleen.
"For two ha'pence I would not go there, but ever since I cared for poor Joe Mulcahy I have wished to be a nurse. Well, heaven help me and send me the virtue of order."
Kathleen had managed by rearrangement of the contents to find a place in the trunk for the rebellious gown. She closed the trunk and tied the straps.
"I shall miss you every moment of the day," she sighed.
"Why not come with me and keep my room tidy? Now that Denis Quirk is home you have no call to be spending your life slaving for the old man."
A hammering at the door prevented Kathleen O'Connor from replying.
"What do you want with me?" cried Molly.
"A gentleman would be asking to see you—Mr. Cairns," Mrs. Gorman answered from the passage.
"Now, what would he be wanting with me?" asked Molly. "Tell him I am coming," she cried. "Am I tidy, Kathleen?"
"Of course you are," replied Kathleen. "I will put the smaller things in your bag for you while you entertain him."
Molly found Cairns waiting for her in the passage. Always punctilious in his dress to-day he was exceptionally spruce, his tie very new, and clothes without one crease.
"Come into the garden, Molly," he said, and there was an unaccustomed nervousness in his voice that caused Molly to ask:
"Are you not well, Mr. Cairns?"
"Oh, yes—perfectly well," he answered. "Why do you ask?"
"You look pale, and there is a kind of a quiver in your voice," she answered as they strolled to a seat in the garden that overlooked the town, a favourite place for Father Healy when saying his Office.
"Sit down and rest yourself," Molly advised. "You get no peace down there in the office. Denis Quirk believes you are all machinery like himself."
But Cairns remained standing behind the seat on which she sat. After a short silence Molly Healy asked:
"Now, what are you doing to my hair? Do be leaving it alone; it is untidy enough already."
"Molly," he said, and his voice caused her to turn suddenly.
"I knew you were ill," she said. "It's the rest cure that would be doing you good. Denis Quirk has overworked you."
"Try to be serious for once," he asked.
"Serious? There is no need for me to be serious. Your face is solemn enough for the whole town. Just let my hair alone. There it was just put up in a hurry and you have pulled it down."
Molly had glorious brown hair, her one real beauty, and she rose with it falling in waves to her waist.
"If you only knew the work it is to build it up you would be down on your knees begging forgiveness of me," she cried.
"If you only knew that," he began, and ended with a mumbled "that I love you?"
Molly Healy dropped her hair and gazed at him in absolute surprise.
"Did you come all this way to joke with me?" she asked.
"Please take me seriously for once," said Cairns. "I don't want you to go away from Grey Town if I can keep you here."
Molly had fixed her hair up in haste. It formed a great tower on her head, for she needed time to arrange it in order. Slowly dawning surprise crept into her eyes as he spoke, surprise with perhaps a not unnatural triumph.
"I really believe you are in earnest," she said; "but I can't understand it. They call me 'plain Molly Healy,' and I believe it from what the glass tells me."
"In my eyes you are beautiful," he replied.
"No blarney, if you please," she said. "I don't love you, and that is a fact, Mr. Cairns. But I will think of you—and perhaps—that is, if you don't find someone else in the meantime—when I come back——."
"How soon will that be?" he asked.
"A matter of three years."
"Three years!" he groaned; "an eternity to wait. I will give you three months to think about it; then I will come to Melbourne and ask again."
"And what will Mother Superioress say to me with a young man?"
"Oh, blow—I mean, never mind the Mother Superioress. Quirk tells me she is delightfully human, and as sympathetic as you are," replied Cairns.
"Sympathetic? Sure, you must be in love to believe that of me. I am as hard as flint. But come if you like, and bring me a big box of chocolates. Will you now?"
"I intend to bring a ring with me. What stones do you like best?"
"Emeralds, to be sure, and diamonds. But don't be spending your money until you are sure of me. I may be taking the veil myself."
"If you do I shall destroy myself," said Cairns.
"Would you do that for me?" she cried eagerly. "How would you do it?"
"Oh, poison, or possibly a razor. But there will be no need for that."
"And do you really love me—me, Molly Healy? I don't understand it. I am plain and untidy, with never an accomplishment to my name. If I had money I could see a reason for it. Why do you love me?" she asked.
"Because you are Molly Healy, cheerful, light-hearted and kind," he answered.
"I intend to think of you all night and every night. I can't think of you and be neglecting the day's work. But, perhaps, after three months, I may be willing to consider the ring. Now be off with you, for I am busy. You may kiss my hand, and here is a rose for you. Good-bye, Mr. Cairns, for three months. Sure, I will miss you."
To Kathleen O'Connor Molly confided Cairns' proposal.
"I don't understand it," she sighed. "If it had been you, Kathleen, I would not have wondered, for you are as beautiful as I am plain. But what made the man be wanting me? I have nothing beyond my hair, and who would be marrying a girl for her hair?"
"If I were a man I would marry no other woman but Molly Healy. Plain! Why, you are lovely, and you have a heart of gold, Molly," Kathleen answered.
"Mr. Cairns could not see my heart; it is what a man sees that he loves. But I am perplexed what to do. I like Mr. Cairns, and he is an honest gentleman, not like Gerard, all on the surface. But I don't fancy I love him. What does it feel like to be in love, Kathleen?"
Kathleen blushed scarlet at the question.
"There is a real love and a false one," she said. "The false sort loves a man, not for what he is, but for what he is imagined to be. The real love comes from recognising that a man is noble and brave."
Molly pondered a while over this.
"Mr. Cairns is not young, and he is not beautiful," she soliloquised, "but he is honest and brave, just a gentleman. Perhaps I might come to love him in time."
"Shall I prophesy?" Kathleen asked.
"If it would be any help to you or to me, I would not be the one to stop you."
"Then I see you, in six months time, Mrs. Cairns," Kathleen answered.
"I wish it had been O'Brien, or Fitzgerald, even O'Connor, but Desmond has chosen the better way," said Molly.
GOOD AND EVIL.
It was evening again at "Layton." The moon was shining down on Kathleen O'Connor as it shone on her that night when Gerard walked beside and tempted her. She was pacing the shadowed avenue with Denis Quirk beside her. Their voices were low, mere faint murmurs to Father Desmond O'Connor, who sat on the verandah beside old Samuel Quirk and spoke an occasional word to the old man.
There was stillness in the garden, bright moonlight and dark shadows. Overhead the heavens were glittering with a myriad stars. Well might Kathleen's thoughts revert to that other night when danger paced beside her. This night she had no dread, for Denis Quirk had been tried and tempered by the furnace of suffering. Nevertheless, the girl's heart was beating more rapidly than usual, because she recognised that this night marked an epoch in her existence.
For three months since his wife's death Denis Quirk had abstained from asking that which was constantly in his mind. This he did, not because he felt himself bound by a specious loyalty to a false wife, but that Kathleen O'Connor might become accustomed to him in his new position. He would not hurry nor attempt to constrain her; he preferred to give her time to consider him as one permitted to woo her honourably. He became more attentive, more openly anxious to give the girl whatever she desired, more courteous in speech and action; but he refrained from asking the inevitable question.
As they walked side by side Kathleen had the feeling that Mrs. Quirk was close to them. She could almost hear the voice calling "Kathleen" from the drawing-room upstairs, but this night there was no note of warning in the voice. She knew that "Granny" Quirk had looked forward to a union between herself and Denis as the consummation of earthly happiness. She believed that even in her present state of bliss her old friend would rejoice in that union.
Denis Quirk softened his voice to a tender key that is not customary. As a general rule he spoke in the tone of command or in a blunt, off-hand manner. To-night he had chosen the note of entreaty.
"Kathleen" (he rested tenderly upon the word) "I have longed for you many a day. Sometimes I have been torn by a tempest of passionate desire. But I have always respected you, and that respect restrained me. But if you had known the devouring furnace that has burned in me day and night you would have pitied me. I was compelled to hold myself always in hand, to avoid even an unguarded word or look, because I wished to walk with honour beside me. Now I am free to speak all that is in my heart, and that all is 'I love you and I desire you above all women.'"
Kathleen did not answer at once. She was moved by the passion in his voice; she had come to love him, but she was afraid.
"I am frightened," she said in a low voice.
"Frightened of me?" he asked. "Why, I will protect you against the whole world. There is no place for fear."
"You are asking me to give you myself, and if I give, I must give unreservedly."
"Take any time you like to consider it. I can wait," he answered gently.
"No. I don't ask any longer time than a few minutes. Leave me alone for ten minutes; then come to me."
Without another word he returned to the verandah and seated himself beside Father O'Connor, lighting his pipe and blowing thick volumes of blue smoke into the evening air.
Kathleen paced on alone. But suddenly the shrubs beside the avenue parted and Gerard came out quietly. So softly did he step that he was beside her before she recognised the fact. Then she shrank away from him in terror.
"Kathleen," he said, "I've tried to forget you, but I can't. I came here to-night to ask you to come with me; I heard that cursed Quirk speaking to you. What can you care for an ugly brute like that?"
"He is as far above you," she said, "as that star is above the world. How dare you even mention his name?"
He paid no attention to her remark.
"I don't come to ask you to share poverty. I offer you a good name and a fortune," he said. "My father is dead and I am heir to great estates and a time-honoured name."
"If you offered me the world I would refuse it," she answered.
"You loved me once——."
"Never. That was mere imagination on my part, not real honest love," she cried. "Go, at once, before Mr. Quirk returns."
"No, I shall stay," he replied.
"Then take the consequences."
Denis Quirk's step was to be heard crunching the gravel as he came. When he was near them Kathleen hurried to him.
Denis increased his pace until he came to where Gerard stood.
"I warned you not to come near this house," he said.
"The moth comes to the candle. Your warning was useless," said Gerard. "Night after night I have walked this avenue with Kathleen O'Connor. Now she is tired of me."
"Liar," cried Denis Quirk.
"Abuse cannot alter what I say."
"Put up your hands and defend yourself. I hate to strike a defenceless man," said Denis, moved to fury.
"Do you fancy I am afraid of you?" Gerard asked tauntingly.
"Then take it," cried Denis Quirk, and his fist flew out suddenly, beat down Gerard's guard, and stretched him on the gravel path.
"You have killed him," cried Kathleen in sudden terror.
"Not I. Such men as this never die."
Denis stooped and examined the prostrate man.
"He will live to lie again," he said. "I know him for a liar. Night after night I have followed you, not because I distrusted you, but I have seen him lurking about and I feared danger."
She came to him with outstretched hands and hid herself in the big man's arms. They went side by side up the long avenue, and their steps seemed to march to a triumphant anthem.
Grey Town after many years, and Grey Town in the early summer, when the farmers were congratulating themselves on fat factory cheques. But a changed Grey Town, for prosperity had transformed the town. It was no longer merely a country centre for a pastoral and agricultural district, but a busy industrial town, where the manufacturing interests were as important as the farming interests; where every morning a stream of workers flowed from the outside suburbs into the town; where there was bustle and noise and confusion; where money circulated freely; where men grew rich and proud in the power of their money bags. A happier Grey Town? Perhaps not quite so contented as the lazy, easy-going, and self-satisfied Grey Town, as Denis Quirk had found it, for here comparative poverty stood side by side with riches, and suffered in the contrast.
Prosperity had come to the town on sound lines, thanks to Denis Quirk. He had provided that riches should not be accumulated in Grey Town at the expense of suffering and discomfort to the poor. It was thanks to him, so the Grey Towners said, that the factory area was separated from the residential portion of the town. They also hinted in Grey Town that he was largely responsible for the Government Bill, compelling landlords to provide their tenants with sufficient space for a garden and yard of greater extent than one might swing a cat in. There were others in it, Grey Town acknowledged that; but their Member, their Denis Quirk, was the prime mover.
He was rich now, and happy, but I may safely say that no poor man paused beside his gate to hurl a curse at the oppressor of the unfortunate. He still had enemies—his determined and combative nature made that unavoidable—but his enemies were of those who had been prevented from exploiting the poor by his agency. These termed him an enemy to progress, their notions of progress being summed up in self-progress. And they vowed that "that demagogue Quirk" should go out when the country recovered its mental equilibrium, lost for the time in an absurd humanitarianism. He was in his garden, sitting on a garden seat, with a book in his hand, but work had been declared an insult by the two rosy rogues, a boy and a girl, by the way, who had escaped from Nurse, now vainly seeking them in the house. Kathleen was beside her husband, watching in an amused manner the subservience of the master of men to the children.
Kathleen, the elder, was a copy of her mother; Denis, the boy, promised to be as good as his father; singly, they were powerful; united, as to-day, they were irresistible. And they had decided that "Daddy" must play a game with them, and the game should be hide and seek.
"Hide 'oo eyes and count," said Kathleen, junior, in a compelling voice.
"But Daddy wants to read," expostulated Mother, in a tone of entreaty.
"Daddy mustn't read to-day. It's Denny's birfday. Daddies don't read on their little boys' birfdays, does they, Denny?"
"No," replied Denny, in a voice of conviction.
"What do Daddies do under such circumstances?" asked Denis, senior, in an amused tone of voice.
"What their little girls wants them to do, doesn't them, Denny?"
"'Es," answered Denny, seeing no reason to controvert this reasoning.
"But it's not your birthday, Kath," suggested Mother.
"It's Denny's, and Denny gave it to me, 'cos I told him I wouldn't kiss him if he didn't."
Here the peculiar injustice of this proceeding suddenly struck Denny, and he began to cry, not in a quiet and subdued manner, as a respectable boy would, but in a stentorian roar.
It was at this moment that Molly Healy came up the avenue, and she rushed at and snatched Denny up in her arms.
"Were they cruel to my boy on his birthday? Never mind. Molly's brought you something nice," she cried.
"Now, be under no misapprehensions, Miss Molly Healy. Neither Kathleen nor I have done anything to deserve that scornful look. If you must scold anyone, there is the culprit. Kath. has swindled Denny out of his birthday."
Kath. had noted the result of Denny's roaring, and she argued that similar conduct on her part would meet with similar treatment. Therefore, she took up the strain of loud weeping, from which Molly had interrupted her brother.
"Something for you, too, Kath.," cried the kind-hearted and impulsive Molly, handing Kath. a parcel similar to that which the boy was hugging in his arms. Straightway Kath. ceased from tears, and consented, when Nurse appeared, to accompany her indoors and there investigate the contents.
"I've done it at last!" said Molly, when she had ceased from bestowing kisses on the children, greatly to Nurse's indignation, and had permitted them to be led away.
"You don't mean to tell me!" cried Kathleen, springing up impulsively and kissing Molly.
"Done what? Murder, suicide, or the Confiding Public?" asked Denis.
"Oh! you old stupid. You never understand," cried Kathleen.
"I claim to understand the English language when it is openly expressed. But I lay no claim to a knowledge of female wireless telegraphy. Miss Molly tells you, in the tone of one who confesses a crime, that she has 'done it at last.' If she will explain, I may possibly be able to change the sentence from murder to justifiable homicide."
Kathleen went to him and whispered in his ear.
He rose, and grasped Molly's hand so firmly that she winced under his pressure.
"And why was this not done years ago?" he asked. "Why keep an unfortunate poor man constantly on the verge of suicide?"
"I was getting over Desmond," replied Molly! "It takes a girl a long time to recover from a heart affection, and I was trying him to learn if he was constant."
"Well, better late than never. I wish you and Cairns joy. Have you mastered housekeeping yet?"
"There you are!" cried Molly triumphantly. "How should I marry and never know how to look after the man's house? But I am getting on now, and I don't expect to be much better this side of the grave, so when he came with his monthly 'Will you?' I just dropped into his arms, and that ended it."
"And what did Cairns do under those distressing circumstances?"
"He didn't know exactly what to do until I told him. Then he did it fairly well for an amateur."
"And when do you intend to be married?" asked Kathleen.
"Next week, to be sure," answered Molly without hesitation.
"Impossible! It would be an outrage on the conventialities," cried Denis.
"And haven't I been outraging them ever since I came to Grey Town? If they expect anything ordinary of Molly Healy, they won't get what they expect. Next week will be Easter, and Desmond here to marry us, and next week will see Molly Healy Molly Cairns."