J ROY STEVENS, Print., 1-7 Knox Place, Melbourne
An Australian Story
GERALD R. BALDWIN
Author of "Dr. Pat Cassidy," etc.
Wholly set up and printed in Australia.
Registered by the Postmaster-General for transmission through the post as a book.
"MESSENGER" OFFICE, ST. PATRICK'S COLLEGE MELBOURNE
I. THE PRESBYTERY 7
II. MICHAEL O'CONNOR 17
III. THE QUIRKS 26
IV. PROMOTION 36
V. DENIS QUIRK 45
VI. READJUSTMENT 56
VII. "THE OBSERVER" DIES 68
VIII. JOHN GERARD 80
IX. DAYS OF STORM AND STRESS 91
X. RUMOUR, HYDRA-HEADED 104
XI. TEMPTATION 112
XII. SYLVIA JACKSON 120
XIII. DENIS REFUSES TO SPEAK 131
XIV. "AND ONE OTHER!" 140
XV. DESMOND GOES UNDER 155
XVI. THE VIRTUE OF GREY TOWN 167
XVII. FATHER HEALY'S MISSION 180
XVIII. THROUGH THE GORGE 186
XIX. "THE FREELANCE" 193
XX. GREAT IS THE TRUTH 199
XXI. THE BISHOP'S SOLUTION 211
XXII. A LINK BROKEN 221
XXIII. A SICK CALL 232
XXIV. DENIS QUIRK'S HOMECOMING 238
XXV. A PROPOSAL 245
XXVI. GOOD AND EVIL 252
POST SCRIPTUM 257
An Australian Story.
Grey Town looks down on the river and the ocean, its streets climbing up the small hill upon which the town has been built. It is a pleasant place in which to live, where, in winter, the air is warm, and in summer a cool breeze from the ocean tempers the hottest day. At the feet of the town the ocean beats restlessly on the narrow strip of beach that fringes the shore. On the distant horizon one may often see the black smoke, sometimes the hull, shadowy and indistinct, of some passing steamer. But only the smaller steamers or ships can enter the bay, for there are reefs and sand-spits, to touch which would mean destruction. Beside the town, the River Grey enters the ocean. When the tide is high, and the river swollen by heavy rains, there is a turmoil of waters at the bar, ocean and river contending for mastery. Then the river, banked up at its exit, overflows the low lands that lie to the east of the town, turning a green valley into a muddy lake. At other times the Grey valley is green and pleasant, excepting where the masses of grey rock from which it has its name jut out over the river.
At the highest summit of the town stands the Catholic church, the presbytery beside it. Years ago, when Father Healy came to his new parish, he found an acre block, vacant and forlorn, the very summit of the highest hill above the town.
"This has been destined for my church. In accordance with precedent, I shall build here," said the priest.
The agent to whom he made the remark laughed doubtingly. He knew Grey Town, man and woman, intimately; the peculiarities of Ebenezer Brown, owner of this plot of land, were well known to him.
"You can whistle for this site. It belongs to Ebenezer Brown," he said.
"Ebenezer Brown has his price, I presume," remarked Father Healy.
"He will sell this land—to an ordinary man—for twice its real value. To you he will not sell at any price."
"He shall have his price—from you. It will be worth four times its real value in a few years. Go and buy the land."
Thus was the site acquired, to the great indignation and consternation of the late owner.
"I might have named my own price if I had known who wanted it," he growled.
"You named your price, exactly double the true value," answered the agent.
"I could have got four times, six times, the real value, if you had dropped a hint. I have been robbed."
"Robbed!" cried the agent. "That would be a reversal of the ordinary routine. You old villain!" he added, as Ebenezer Brown walked out of his shop.
The old man was wealthy, and a miser, each of which characteristics may be corollary to the other. He made money by saving it; he saved it because he loved it. Many things he had achieved by strategy. The "Grey Town Observer," at one time the property of Michael O'Connor, was now Ebenezer Brown's, won by usury. The late owner, a careless man, was content to continue as editor, and thus serve the man who had robbed him. He was sufficiently shrewd to recognise his employer's character, yet at once too easy going and honest to prove other than a good servant. But he held, and always expressed, a heartfelt contempt for his master.
St. Mary's Church at Grey Town is large and commodious, built of bluestone, with a square tower. Over the porch is a statue of the Blessed Virgin, and from that position She appears to look down upon and bless the town.
When the church was built, many, both friends and enemies, declared that it was too large.
"It's all church, and no congregation," asserted Wise, the bootmaker, whose custom it was to address a few disciples in the Public Gardens every Sunday.
This remark was repeated to Father Healy, and smilingly he answered:
"The congregation will grow, but the church can't do that. Mr. Wise has a larger church, and a smaller congregation, all said and done."
And, sure enough, the congregation increased, until there was barely standing room for many at the early morning Mass.
In front, St. Mary's looks down on St. Paul's, the Anglican place of worship; below it, on the further slope of the hill, stands the Presbyterian chapel. On Sundays the three bells clang a loud discord. Throughout the week, however, Mr. Green, of St. Luke's, and Mr. Matthews, the Presbyterian minister, frequently visited Father Healy to discuss any subject but religion.
Saving for Wise, chief Ishmaelite of Grey Town, and opposed to every religious and political belief, peace prevailed in Grey Town. Father Healy came to the town desiring concord, and, after a short and natural estrangement, first Mr. Green, the Anglican clergyman, and later the other ministers of the town, had offered him the hand of friendship. There were, in fact, no greater friends and truer admirers than Father Healy and Mr. Green. When the priest had built his school, and invited the Bishop to lay the foundation stone, Mr. Green was present to offer his congratulations. Many an evening the two sat at bridge with Clarke, the solicitor, and Michael O'Connor to make the table complete.
"Let Grey Town be an object lesson to Australia," laughed Father Healy. "Here we value one another as citizens, and overlook each other's religious misbeliefs."
To this Mr. Green replied smilingly:
"You only need one thing to be a perfect man, Father."
"And that is to pull you over the wall beside me," cried the priest.
If St. Mary's Church were large and imposing, the presbytery was old and diminutive. Father Healy had bought the land and the house as it stood on a block beside the one for church and schools, and he had made no attempt to enlarge or improve the house.
"Time enough to build when I am dead," he remarked in answer to a deputation of his parishioners.
"But it is a disgrace to us to see you living in a ramshackle building, half in and half out of doors," said the spokesman.
"I have built church and schools, and I am content," replied the priest. "Let the next man erect a presbytery. What there is, is enough for me, and who is to grumble, if not I?"
Therewith he dismissed the deputation kindly, and returned to his study, the bow window of which looked out on the garden, a quiet solitude, where the priest often walked to say his Office. It was like the soul of good Father Healy, a peaceful spot, filled with sweet-smelling, simple flowers.
This garden was the pride of Dan, who acted as general factotum at the presbytery, and laboured and whistled the day through, with a smiling recognition for all comers.
"'Tis the finest piece of garden in Grey Town," he was wont to declare. "Give me the old wallflower, the rose, violet, and carnation, and let others be stocking their beds with dahlias and chrysanthemums, which have no smell to remind you of the old country."
There were few idle moments in his life. He scrubbed the presbytery verandah, and cleaned the windows, groomed and doctored the priest's horses, fed the fowls, and spent his leisure in an attempt to keep the school children out of the presbytery garden and orchard. In the last of his tasks he succeeded with all the scholars but Tim O'Neill. But Tim had respect for no one, not even Dan. Yet Father Healy prophesied good things of Tim.
Mrs. Maggie Gorman was housekeeper at the presbytery, a woman whose sour face concealed a kindly heart. She and Dan were for ever disputing, yet each held the other in profound respect. Let anyone traduce Mrs. Gorman, and Dan was bristling all over like an indignant porcupine. Say one word disrespectful of Dan before Mrs. Gorman, and you might wish that one word unspoken. Molly Healy, the priest's sister, declared that they quarrelled, yet loved, one another, as if they had been sister and brother.
Molly Healy herself spent a large part of her life in a struggle for precedence with Mrs. Gorman. But the housekeeper contrived to hold her position of authority.
"A child like you," she remarked, "to be troubling herself with the grocer and butcher! When you are as old as myself, I shall let you have your own way all the time."
To this Molly acquiesced of necessity; there was no appeal to her brother.
"Now, peace! peace!" he would say. "I am here to look after the souls of the parish, and you must not trouble me about the affairs of the flesh. Let Mrs. Gorman take care of the meat, since it pleases her. If you don't, she will be poisoning us."
Molly Healy was a notability in Grey Town. Saving the school children, no one called her any other title but "Molly," or "Molly Healy." If a friend had chanced to do so, it would have caused Molly bitter pain, for she was a kindly soul. Plain, yet not unpleasing, she had a superabundance of bright Irish humour, and a quickness of repartee that amused all, but offended none.
"It's only Molly Healy," people were accustomed to say, "and she's the sweetest, kindest creature, that wouldn't hurt a fly, of intention."
When she first came to Grey Town the girl had been desperately home-sick, and many the longing glance she had cast at the ocean, wishing that it might carry her back to dear old Ireland. But now she was content to live in the bright, friendly land that was so kindly a foster-mother to her. And there were a multitude of duties, mostly self-imposed, to keep her mind and body busy.
In the presbytery grounds there was a veritable menagerie of animal pensioners dependent on her—two dogs, three cats, with a numerous progeny of kittens; a cockatoo and magpie, marvellously gifted in slang; two seagulls, kept for the benefit of the snails that infested the garden; an aviary of small, brightly-coloured birds; and, lastly, a miserable sheep, rescued from death by the roadside to live in an asthmatic condition of semi-invalidism.
Then there were the human pensioners, men and women of any belief, who came periodically for food. They worshipped Molly Healy. But her kingdom was over the ragamuffins and rapscallions of the town, with whom she stood on the friendliest terms.
"Sure, I am reforming the imps," she was accustomed to say.
But it was a notorious fact that her young proteges rarely developed into moral perfection.
Such was the presbytery of Grey Town and its inmates in the days of which I am writing.
Father Healy was eating a perfunctory dinner in the dining-room, Mrs. Gorman and Dan wrangled in the kitchen, but Molly sat in the playground of the school, with Tim O'Neill, the culprit, facing her, and a circle of grinning children's faces as a background.
Tim had the face of a cherub, if we can conceive a cherub with an habitual grime on his countenance. Curly yellow hair, innocent blue eyes, for ever twinkling, a dimple in each cheek; add to these a dilapidated suit of clothes, and a sorely battered hat, and you have Tim O'Neill, the scourge of Grey Town.
"You will confess now, Tim O'Neill," said Molly Healy, with an assumed severity.
"It's to the Father I'll be confessing," replied the boy.
"No, Tim; it's to me. The Father is too gentle, and you know it. Didn't I see you with my own eyes?"
"Where's the need of me telling you, then?" asked the unabashed Tim, careful the while to keep beyond the reach of her hands.
At this retort the audience giggled. They admired the audacity of Tim, although most of them were model children. For, as his distracted mother often said, in excuse of her own leniency, "Tim has such a way with him. You couldn't help but smile, even when he is at his wickedest."
"I saw you stealing the apples," cried Molly, disregarding his rejoinder. "Do you know that it's a big sin to steal the priest's apples? It's"—she hesitated for a moment, anxious to leave a lasting impression—"it's sacrilege."
The corners of Tim's mouth dropped, and his face became grave.
"Is it, miss?" he asked soberly.
"Now, listen to me, Tim, and I will teach you logic. Of course you know what logic is?"
"Is it a pain here?" asked Tim, pointing to the region below his waistcoat, the twinkle returning to his eye. Molly sternly repressed a tendency to giggle.
"No, logic is the art of reasoning," she replied, gravely. "Is that the presbytery, Tim?"
"What else?" asked Tim, scornfully.
"And to whom does it belong?"
"To the Father, to be sure."
"No, Tim; you are wrong."
Mrs. Gorman hailed the group from the kitchen door.
"Is Miss Molly there? Then send her to her dinner."
"I am busy, teaching logic. Sure the dinner can wait," replied Molly. "Now, Tim, and whose is it?"
"Is it the bishop's, Miss?"
"Wrong again. It belongs to the Church, and to steal from the Church is sacrilege. That's a big sin for a little boy to carry on his conscience, Tim O'Neill."
"It was only for a lark I took them, miss. Joe Adams there dared me to do it." And, his face brightening at the thought, "I have them in my pocket."
"Have you tasted them, Tim?"
"They have been bitten—by someone, miss," replied Tim, feeling in his pocket as if to assure himself of the fact.
"Let me see them," said the relentless Molly.
"There is not much left to see."
"Was it you that tasted them?"
"Me and Joe, miss. He was hungry."
"Then you and Joe will die, Tim," cried the tormentor in a melancholy voice.
Tim's face became gloomy, while Joe Adams rubbed his eyes with his knuckles.
"No, miss. Don't be saying that," sighed Tim, now thoroughly repentant.
"Yes, you will—and so will I—and the doctor, too."
"I really am ashamed of you, Molly. This is persecution of an innocent boy."
The big, gaunt man, with deeply-lined face and iron grey moustache, who had paused to smile at the conversation, feigned an expression of disapproval as she looked up smilingly into his face.
"Persecution! For shame, Doctor Marsh, to be making such a suggestion. It's logic I'm teaching Tim—the apples, Tim, the apples!"
"They're not apples, miss," replied Tim.
"What are they, then?"
"They're cores, miss."
This reply was greeted with a shout of laughter, often repeated as Tim produced the remains of four apples, one by one.
"There you are, doctor. Now, what would you do to Tim," asked Molly.
"Tell him to take what he wants and change him from a criminal to a law-abiding citizen."
"There you are, Tim. Do you see the doctor's watch—it's a fine gold repeater. Take it, if you are wanting a watch!"
Tim riveted his eyes on the doctor's watch-chain, and the latter put his fingers on it to assure himself of its safety.
"Run away, Tim, and don't be stealing again," he cried. "And you come inside with me, Molly, and eat your dinner. It will do you more good than a ton of logic. I have business with Father Healy."
The children scattered in all directions, saving for a group around Tim O'Neill. To these he related an amended version of the late conversation.
"'D'you know what sacrilege is?' says she.
"'Sacrilege!' says I, scratching my head. 'Will it be telling lies?'
"'It may be, and it may not be,' says she.
"'Then I think it is sacrilege you're after, yourself. To be telling lies with a brother a priest is sacrilege, sure enough.'
"With that she wiped her eyes with the back of one hand. I think it's shamed she is." A burst of laughter rewarded the young sinner, and he darted off for home to gobble down a cold dinner.
"Is Michael O'Connor worse?" asked Molly, anxiously.
"He is dying," replied the doctor.
"What will Kathleen and Desmond do?"
"Desmond can battle for himself, but Kathleen's future needs consideration."
"Why not go to the Quirks, at Layton?"
"I would not allow Kathleen O'Connor to go to everybody. I must discuss the matter with Father Healy," replied Doctor Marsh.
Michael O'Connor died placidly, as he had always lived. An improvident man, as the world uses the term, he undoubtedly had been, but this arose from a defect of character. He never could refuse to give when asked to do so; his failing sprang from an excess of generosity.
A clever man, brilliant in his own chosen career of journalism, opportunities to make money had not been wanting; and money had been made and spent. He had founded "The Grey Town Observer," now a valuable property, but the paper had passed into the hands of Ebenezer Brown, with Michael O'Connor as editor; for Ebenezer Brown recognised that no other man could better fill the position. But the proprietor was careful to make the utmost of his employee's lack of worldly wisdom, offering him the very lowest salary that ever an editor worked for. The consequence was that Michael O'Connor lived and died an impecunious man, whose only legacy to his children was the record of a virtuous life.
Yet no fear had troubled the man as life slowly slipped from him. He had wronged none: to the poor he had given generously; staunch to his friends, loved by his children, and always faithful to his religion, why should he have any regrets? "Father," he said to Father Healy, "I am not afraid to die, for God is good; He will provide for Kathleen and Desmond, as He has provided for me, always a child. Father, always a child, as my father told me I would be."
"Just a child," said Father Healy, as he looked at the peaceful face of the dear friend, "as innocent and helpless as a child. God will reward him for what he has done for others."
Death was very near Michael O'Connor at that moment; it hovered over his bed, waiting every moment with thin, outstretched hands to snatch him away. On his bed he lay, his face waxen in colour and emaciated, while the white hands clasped the crucifix. Yet even then one might realise that the dying man had at one time been called "handsome Mike O'Connor." In the prime of his manhood—tall, broad-shouldered, and always cheerful—no other man in the district could look anything but insignificant beside him. But many a one from among the Irish farmers knew that he came of a line always noted for beauty. Men and women, the O'Connors had rarely failed in good looks, and as rarely succeeded in keeping their money. The dying man was, after all, the inheritor of his ancestors' virtues and failings.
The candles were lighted by the bedside. Father Healy, with Kathleen and Desmond, knelt on the floor reciting the prayers for the dying. The children were crying, Kathleen impulsively and without restraint, Desmond secretively, as men are accustomed to weep. The sick man's breathing came more slowly and weakly, his lips framed an occasional act of contrition which he was too feeble to utter. When the end came, it was a gentle transition from life to death. Through it all the old clock on the bedroom mantelpiece, dark-stained, and of a quaint design, ticked on as it had done ever since Desmond could remember. Symbolic it seemed of the world, that heeds not death; but moves, always onwards, replacing each one as he dies.
They clothed him in the brown habit, and placed him in the coffin, with the crucifix on his breast. There his many friends came to pray for him—men, women, little children, among them the good nuns, to whom he had always been a benefactor. It may safely be said that Michael O'Connor had not left one enemy behind him. If his life had been something of a failure, the man's death was a complete success.
But there were the children to think of, Kathleen and Desmond, inheritors of his good looks, but of nothing beyond that. Left young in the hands of a careless, happy-go-lucky father, who had always religiously applied the text of Scripture, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," what were they to do for themselves? Desmond could draw and paint; he had the usual smattering of knowledge to be obtained in an ordinary school. Beyond these accomplishments and his father's gift for writing, the big, handsome, curly-haired fellow, half man and half boy, had nothing wherewith to fight the world.
"Writing for him, I suppose?" suggested Father Healy, as he and Dr. Marsh drove out in the doctor's gig to interview the O'Connors.
Dr. Marsh grunted, as was his way. He never had paid much attention to Desmond O'Connor. His opinion of the boy was that a battle with the world would do him nothing but good.
"Whatever he can get. If he does that well, he may begin to pick and choose," he said. "But Kathleen needs consideration."
Kathleen O'Connor was undoubtedly the doctor's favourite. She was such a sweet girl, beautiful in face, gentle in her manners. In her black dress she had looked so fragile and broken with grief on the day of her father's funeral. Vainly trying to maintain composure, yet shaken constantly by an involuntary sob, she had marvellously affected the tough old doctor, to whom female beauty appealed, although he affected to scorn it.
"The girl is beautiful," he said, "and it's a dangerous gift with weakness."
"The O'Connors always were beautiful," replied Father Healy. "Michael's father was the finest man in Ireland. They were born to be kings, and spent their money as if they had been emperors, while the money lasted. The boy is as grand as the girl, and I am fearful for him."
"Oh, there is good and bad in the boy, as there is in every man of us."
He and the priest were sworn friends and allies, although they argued on every question that ever arose local or general—the doctor because he liked it, and Father Healy to humour a friend. At the gate of "Avoca," as Michael O'Connor had called his house, the doctor reined his horse in, and the two men scanned the dilapidated gate and unpainted fence, part of the general decay of what had been a pleasant villa and garden in the good days.
"It's like poor Michael," sighed the priest. "He only troubled himself about one thing, his soul. Well! that's saved, please God."
"Hem!" grunted the doctor, "that won't help Kathleen."
"It's a consolation to her, and always will be. To have had a good father is of as much value as a fortune," replied the priest.
"From your point of view, perhaps. There is only one thing you people value—the soul. The poor body may look after itself, and often gets more kicks than ha'pence."
The priest smiled significantly.
"You flatter us," he said.
"Rubbish!" replied the doctor. "Why don't you look after yourself; aren't you of more value than the people you are killing yourself for?"
Father Healy laughed, for he was a stout, rubicund man.
"I wonder whether you or I look the better nourished," he asked, surveying the doctor's attenuated form.
"Some day you will drop down dead," replied the other.
"Death comes to all sooner or later," said his companion.
"Avoca" had at one time been a fine property; now over everything lay the mark of decay. A broad drive, covered with grass and weed; the remains of beds, where thistles and docks were destroying the flowers and lawns, knee-deep in the over-growth.
"And mortgaged for more than its value," sighed the priest.
"Do you approve of this?" asked Dr. Marsh, with a comprehensive wave of the hand.
"I do not. But better this than order and iniquity. I would like the property neat, tidy and unencumbered, with a fortune in the bank for Kathleen. But," Father Healy added with a sigh, "one can't have everything exactly as he wishes."
"It is the fault of your system," growled the doctor; "you are too strong on Eternity."
"I could not be too strong on that. But I always preach prudence and thrift."
"Bah! The presbytery is a sanctuary for all the loafers in Grey Town."
"You had better discuss that with Molly. She is almsgiver at the presbytery. But she tells me," the priest continued, with a twinkle in his eye, "that she doles out the food and money prudently, and lectures once a week on the virtues of total abstinence and hard work."
Even the doctor could not refrain from a dry chuckle at this aspect of Molly Healy's almsgiving.
"Then the lectures are as fruitless as your sermons," he said. "If Michael O'Connor had copied Joe Sheahan——."
"Ah, there you are! Didn't I teach Joe worldly prudence myself?" cried the priest, hastily. "I am proud of Joe, a good honest man, for all his money."
They drew up in front of the house, and Desmond came running down the steps to take the doctor's horse. He was a big, bright-faced fellow, though he still bore the marks of the recent sorrow in the black band on his arm.
"Let me take the mare to the stable," he said.
Priest and doctor slowly descended from the gig and entered the house side by side, noting that here, too, were signs of decay and of neglect.
Kathleen emerged from the dining-room to greet them. In her face she still bore traces of recent tears, for she was a woman, and grief was not so easily forgotten by her as by her brother.
"Mr. Brown is waiting for you in the dining-room," she said, after the first greetings.
"Ebenezer Brown?" said the doctor, as if to turn back. "What brings him here?"
"Just the same errand as yours," cried a harsh voice from the dining-room. "To mourn over the man you killed."
A dry cackle followed the speech. But no one heeded what Ebenezer Brown said, so notorious was he in the town for a love of money and a bitter tongue. The doctor accepted the speech as a challenge, and entered the room defiantly, while Father Healy followed him.
"You didn't expect to find me here," said the old man, who sat in an armchair, a thin, stooped figure, with a pallid face and white hair.
"We did not," replied the priest.
The doctor murmured something about vultures and the dead.
"Eh?" asked the old man, feigning a convenient deafness, "I might expect you and the priest; the one generally prepares the way for the other."
"I am expecting it will be a difficult meeting," murmured the priest.
Dr. Marsh, however, made no reply to the remark. He was awaiting a convenient time to lunge at his enemy, and he sat down opposite Ebenezer Brown, regarding him critically. After a moment's pause, he asked:
"Are your affairs in order, Brown?"
"Mind your own business, sub-dividing men into small allotments," snapped the other.
"I should arrange everything if I were you. Your money won't buy you a passport," said the doctor. "Increase your subscription to the hospital from threepence to sixpence, and lower your rents to twice what they should be, before it is too late. Your time will come before long."
"You won't get a penny of my money, living or dead," replied Ebenezer Brown.
"That shows you have a little wisdom remaining, for I would poison you, and believe I was performing an act of public utility."
"Let us get to business," cried the priest, anxious to terminate the wrangle. "Dr. Marsh and I am here to discuss what is to be done with Michael O'Connor's children."
"I am here to help the children," said Ebenezer. "Not with money," he added hastily, "but with sound advice."
"The only thing you ever gave away," commented the doctor.
"Eh? Yes; it is more valuable than money," said Ebenezer, relapsing into deafness. "Now, Desmond there will have to work. He has been idle too long."
To this remark Kathleen replied hastily:
"My father thought——."
"You must speak up if you expect me to hear, young lady," growled Ebenezer. "Your father was improvident."
"A noble and generous man," replied the doctor, hotly.
"No doubt you think so. He lined your pockets, I believe."
Dr. Marsh could stand this no longer. He rose, pale with fury, but Father Healy gently pushed him back into his seat.
"Don't be paying attention to the old man," he said.
The two older men glared at one another across the table; the doctor growled out "Miser," Ebenezer muttered "Quack." But, fortunately, Desmond O'Connor entered the room at that moment, and distracted the attention of the company.
"Well, Desmond," cried Ebenezer Brown, "I need an office-boy; how would you like the billet?"
Desmond paused in the door, his face flushing crimson. He was 18, and to be termed an office-boy sounded like an insult. Father Healy, noting his shame and anger, went to the boy and placed a hand kindly on his shoulder.
"Take the rungs one by one if you would be at the top, Desmond," he said.
"He will be a long time getting there," sneered Ebenezer Brown.
Father Healy offered no reply. He had not come to quarrel, and where was the use? But Dr. Marsh answered quickly:
"You may sneer now, Ebenezer Brown—it is easy to do that—but the day will come when you will be asking Father Healy to help you, for he is as certain to be saved as you to be lost."
This defence came as a surprise to everyone present, perhaps most of all to the priest. The doctor was accustomed to scold and taunt him; this unexpected championship almost took his breath away. Ebenezer Brown was too greatly annoyed even to retort, but he glanced vindictively at the doctor.
"And now for Kathleen. Mrs. Quirk would like to have her at Layton as a companion and friend," said the priest.
"Friend!" grunted the doctor. "Quirk was a grocer."
"And where is the harm in that?" asked Father Healy, "if he were honest?"
"Honest?" commented Ebenezer Brown. "There never was an honest grocer; they all put sand in their sugar, and sell their second-rate goods as the best quality. I know them."
"Set a thief to catch a thief," cried the doctor. "How did you make your money?"
"Honestly! Not as you did, by poisoning your rich patients after they have left you a legacy," replied Ebenezer Brown.
"Honestly! You caught poor Harris drunk, and swindled him out of his land," retorted Dr. Marsh.
"Peace! Peace!" sighed Father Healy, attempting to take the doctor away by force.
"And you murdered Mat Devlin, as you've murdered a host of others," cried Ebenezer Brown.
Dr. Marsh broke from his friend's arm and went round the table where Ebenezer Brown sat. Shaking his fist in the old man's face, he cried:
"If I had one per cent. of your sins on my shoulders, I would never sleep again. I am tempted to give you the little blow that would be the end of you; but I don't like to rob you of your small hope of repentance."
A splendid house, extravagantly furnished, green lawns, gardens bright in colours, and rich pasture lands around. Inside the house a crotchety old man and a lonely woman. Such was Kathleen O'Connor's new home at "Layton."
The name, "Samuel Quirk, Grocer," had reposed over the front of a small shop in a small street of Collingwood for many years. The grocer was known to the district as a shrewd tradesman on a small scale, and a keen politician. He had a limited connection with certain well-tried customers, and a number of irregular clients who came and went. In the neighbourhood where he lived, the grocer must assuredly have gone under had he not conducted a cash business. As it was, he kept his head above water and lived a quiet life, respected by his neighbours.
One day the postman brought a letter that completely altered the Quirks' scheme of life. It came from Boston, bringing news of a brother's death, and the gift of a great fortune to the Quirks. Such an unexpected event brought confusion into the orderly life of the old people.
"What shall we do with all the money?" the grocer asked his wife.
She was sitting over her knitting at the time, for her nimble fingers were seldom idle.
"Why not ask Father Healy?" she answered at once; for Father Healy was her one idea of wisdom. Years ago the priest had been a curate in Collingwood, and had there entwined himself about many hearts, Mrs. Quirk's among the number. Even now she wrote to him when her heart was troubled.
"Father Healy! And why ask him?" replied the old man.
He always began by disputing his wife's suggestions, but generally ended by putting them into practice.
"He is the good, wise man," replied Mrs. Quirk. "Did he ever tell me anything I should do that was not the only thing to do?"
Samuel Quirk grunted disbelievingly. "Oh, he's right enough for the soul, but what would Father Healy know about the body?" he asked.
Mrs. Quirk having placed the yeast in his mind, left it to ferment. She well knew that in a few days' time a letter would be despatched to the Presbytery at Grey Town. And this happened as she anticipated. In due course, too, the answer came back to them.
"Why not buy 'Layton' and settle down on the land? It will give you something to do, and lengthen your own and Mrs. Quirk's life," the priest wrote.
Samuel Quirk read the letter to his wife, commenting unfavourably on it the while.
"Buy a farm? What would I be doing on a farm?" he asked.
"Why not go down to Grey Town and see the place for yourself?" suggested Mrs. Quirk.
After a prolonged argument, the old man again accepted her advice. It was something of an adventure to him to journey so far by train, and to spend a night away from home. But it was far worse for the old woman, as he always termed her, to be alone in the shop for thirty-six hours. She missed her husband's rough voice, the heavy shuffling tread, above all the rare endearments that she valued for their infrequency. When Samuel Quirk returned he was received as if his absence had lasted twelve months.
"Well? Are we to go?" she asked.
"It's done. The place is bought and sold, and it's mine—and yours," he answered.
"Is it a grand place?" she questioned.
"It's as grand as the Governor's house," replied the old man. "I couldn't count the rooms, and the gardens are amazing."
A sigh came from her lips as she cast her eyes around the small sitting-room where every object was familiar.
"Can we take our things with us?" she asked.
"Take these!" he replied scornfully. "I've bought furniture, cows and horses, everything. What would we do with these?"
He was a man, and she a woman, whose heart was devoted to these old familiar, useful friends. A few of them she took with her, and placed in her own room at the new home, among them the old cane chair where her husband had sat, night after night, to smoke his pipe.
In the new home, Samuel Quirk soon found work and pleasure in supervising the employees. Of agriculture and horticulture he knew nothing, but he gathered knowledge speedily as he stood over his workers. He bore the transplanting well, and throve in the new soil, while Mrs. Quirk was lonely and sad. There were none of her old cronies with whom to discuss small gossip over the counter or in the back room behind the shop. She missed the noise of the great city; the house was so large that it frightened her. When Kathleen O'Connor came, the old woman put her arm lovingly around her and said:
"Sure you will be coming to stay, Honey?"
"I hope so," replied the girl.
"Now, don't be calling me Mrs. Quirk; just call me Granny, as all the girls did in Melbourne. It was: 'How are ye, Granny?' and 'How are the rheumatics, Granny?' I miss the bright girls now."
Kathleen realised that here was a lonely soul, and found all the expected strangeness in the new life vanish from her.
She set herself to the purpose of making Mrs. Quirk happy, devising a hundred means to accomplish this. In the house she interested the old lady in reading, with fancy work, and, above all, with the artistic arrangement of the rooms.
"There is no reason why things should not be pretty," she said. "Let us begin with your own room, and gradually transform the house. It is so ugly now."
"Ugly!" cried Mrs. Quirk; "to my mind it's grand—far too grand for a plain woman like me. But you're an O'Connor, Honey, and 'tis natural you would know more about these things than me. Didn't I know your grandmother? Didn't I work for her myself? But don't be telling the old man I told you. It is strange having you in my house."
Kathleen turned the conversation into another channel. But she could not help reflecting upon the vicissitudes of life. A few years ago and Mrs. Quirk was a servant in her grand-parents' house; now she, by a quick reversal of the wheel of fortune, found herself practically a servant to Mrs. Quirk.
But her employer never permitted such a thought to enter her own mind; it seemed almost as unthinkable as a heresy against her Faith.
"You are my friend," she told the girl; "though it is hard even to call you that. Look at my hands and yours; mine that have scrubbed the floor and been in the wash-tub, and yours that were just made to look at."
Kathleen took one of the old lady's hands and kissed it.
"And which are the better in the sight of God?" she asked; "the ones that have done the work they were made to do, or those that are merely objects of vanity? But I have worked with mine, too; scrubbed and washed, like you."
"Tis a wicked fate that made you have to do it; more shame to me for calling what is done by Providence wicked. But it's a strange world, Kathleen, this one; no one seems to be in their proper place. There's Father Healy, him that should be a Bishop, still a priest."
"Why not a Cardinal, or the Holy Father himself?" laughed Kathleen.
"And why not? It's a wise Pope the Father would make," answered Mrs. Quirk. "Not that I am finding any fault with the Holy Father," she added quickly; "he is a great man, the greatest in the whole world, and the wisest."
Kathleen O'Connor exercised a remarkable influence on the old lady. Mrs. Quirk had needed a companion, and an interest in her new life; these she found in Kathleen. Together they slowly transformed the house, Samuel Quirk grumbling and protesting at each innovation, while he aided them the while with his purse. In a phaeton drawn by a quiet old pony, they travelled about the district, never missing a daily visit to the Catholic Church.
"I go out to visit my friends. Shall I miss calling on the best Friend ever I had?" Mrs. Quirk asked Kathleen. "In Collingwood I never missed the morning Mass, nor the afternoon visit. Here it is too far to go to Mass every day, but the Good Lord would miss me if I did not come once in the day to see Him."
"If I am not good, it will not be your fault," laughed Kathleen.
"It will be nobody's fault but your own; but you couldn't help being good. Didn't Father Healy tell me——."
"Hush!" cried Kathleen; "you must not give Father Healy's secrets away."
At the church gates they held a daily conference with Molly Healy. She had interested Mrs. Quirk in her gamins, and was accustomed to draw upon the old lady's purse when the Presbytery funds were low, or Father Healy obdurate to her appeals.
Molly Healy acted as sacristan in the church, and Father Healy was accustomed to say:
"If you attended to everything as you do to the Altar, you would be a treasure to the husband that came seeking you."
"It's not many are doing that," replied the girl. "I could not count them on my fingers—because, even I can't count what does not exist."
"How many would you be expecting at eighteen? You are but a child," he answered. "Well, the Altar is a credit to you. You make the brass shine as if it were gold."
"Gold it would be, if I had my way, and the glass precious stones. But I do the best with what there is," replied Molly.
She dearly loved to hear a word of praise in return for her labours. This Kathleen knew well, and she encouraged Mrs. Quirk to admire the flowers and other decorations. The old lady readily did this, for she was typically Irish in finding it far easier to give a generous measure of encouragement than to blame the actions of another.
"It is you, Molly," she would say—at first, until corrected by the girl, it had been Miss Molly—"that can put the flowers in their proper places! It is a pleasure to come into the church and find the altar so beautiful. Those carnations, now, they remind me of Heaven."
"It is dahlias they are, Mrs. Quirk," Molly would reply; "and out of your own garden."
"Is it dahlias? Well, I am getting a little blind, Molly; but the beauty is there, whatever the flowers may be."
Thus encouraged, Molly would speak of her proteges.
"Joe McCarthy told me the same, and he thinks more praise is due to you than me. You send me the flowers every day."
"And why not? What better use for them? But which is Joe McCarthy?" Mrs. Quirk might answer.
"Don't you know Joe? Such a good boy, but unfortunate. He was with Regan, driving the cart, when the horse ran away and broke himself and the cart into small pieces. It was a mercy Joe was not in the cart," Molly would continue.
"Poor lad! And that was a misfortune. Is he badly hurt?" Mrs. Quirk would ask.
"Not hurt in his body, but dispirited. Regan discharged him without a character. I went to him myself; it's a surly man he is. 'Why not give the boy a testimonial?' I asked. 'It's the whip I will give him,' he answered. That was all I got from Regan."
"And why was the man so heartless?" asked Mrs. Quirk.
"After all, Regan lost his horse and cart. You can scarcely blame him," Kathleen would explain.
"And hasn't he plenty of money to buy another? I have no patience with Regan. And there is Joe, with a mother depending on him, out of work, and with no testimonial to help him to another," Molly would reply.
The result would be a few shillings from the old lady's purse, which Joe would probably spend on "a good thing," that would just fail to secure a race, as "good things" so often do. But Molly Healy was never discouraged by such trifles as these.
"What did you do with the money, Joe?" she would ask.
"It was Harry Price told me to invest it on Blue Peter."
"I told you to take it home to your mother. Shame on you, Joe, to be wasting her food on horses."
"It was like this. 'Would you be making a fortune?' Harry asked me. And who wouldn't, Miss Molly, not you nor I. 'Blue Peter is a cert,' said he; 'my brother Bill will be riding.' Could you resist that?"
"Hem!" Molly would reply; "and did he win?"
"If his neck had been as long as Smoker's he would have won," Joe would explain.
After a few days he would return to favour, and continue a pensioner until he found work for a short time. But ill-luck ever dogged Joe's footsteps, and his periods of work were ever briefer and briefer, until he threatened to relapse into chronic idleness. Then, to her own surprise, and that of all who knew her, Molly suddenly compelled Joe to reform.
"I have a place for you, Joe, and the last you will ever be getting," she said. "It's a disgrace to me you are, and everyone saying I have spoiled you. Mr. Quirk will take you on, and he is a slave-driver. He stands over his men with a whip. It was hard work I had to get you the place—milking the cows, and helping in the garden. But I told the man you were a hard worker. If you don't work hard, Joe, it is the whip I will give you with my own hands."
Whether it was this threat, a fear of Mr. Quirk, or the effects of the mission cannot be clearly said, but Joe McCarthy clung to his work until he eventually became overseer at "Layton." With his change in habits, Joe also acquired a self-respect that led him to dress neatly, and to sign the pledge. Thenceforward Molly Healy quoted him as the proof of her powers as a reformer when taunted because of the rabble over whom she reigned.
"There was Joe McCarthy, that would not work until I persuaded him," she would say. "Leave the boys to me; I am correcting them."
Yet only Mrs. Quirk had absolute confidence in the girl's vocation as a reformer. The old lady was never told of a good-for-nothing son or husband but she would cry:
"Send him to Molly Healy. If there is any good in him, Molly will bring it out."
Her hearers, knowing of Molly's long succession of failures, naturally smiled at these commendations.
"You can run round to the meeting in the Town Hall to-night and see what sort of a fist you make of it," said Cairns, the man who now sat in the editorial chair of "The Grey Town Observer," to Desmond O'Connor, just one month after the young man had been admitted to the office.
"Thank you, sir," said Desmond, springing to his feet in his excitement.
"It's a chance," said the editor. "Don't be too diffuse, but see that you miss nothing. What is that paper in front of you?" He took the paper from Desmond O'Connor's hands and held it at arm's length, while a sardonic smile held possession of his face.
"Shall I let the old man see it?" he asked. "Mr. Brown would like to see himself as you see him, under the title of 'Old Eb.' By the way, if you could catch Martin smiling to-night, and Langridge in tears, it would help your report. You appear to bring out the salient features of a handsome face, even if you accentuate them. Martin's teeth and Langridge's nose are striking objects. Let us have them for to-morrow."
Desmond returned to his type-writing with a sigh of satisfaction. In this meeting he saw a road to promotion.
Meeting Molly Healy on his way to luncheon, he paused to make her sharer in his good fortune, for Molly and he had always been good comrades.
Molly was in a tearing hurry at that moment. One of her dogs had strayed, and she was beating the town to find him; but she paused to listen to his tale.
"Going to the meeting! Is it to speak?" she asked.
"No," he replied contemptuously, "to report what the beggars say."
"Just to write down the words of a lot of windbags. That's nothing! If I were Ebenezer Brown, you would be in Mr. Cairns' place. But, good luck to you, Desmond. I will set all the old women praying for you. Some day you will be owning a paper yourself, if I can help you."
"Thank you, Molly," he cried.
The girl cast a wistful glance after him as he left her, for no one admired Desmond O'Connor more than she. But the vision of a black dog vanishing around a distant corner caused her to start in a hurried pursuit. Round the corner she ran, straight into the arms of Constable McSherry, who was coming sedately along the footpath in an opposite direction to her own.
"What would my wife say if she saw this?" he asked, as she cannoned into him; "a young lady running into my arms?"
"Don't be talking nonsense," she replied, laughingly. "Did you see a dog?"
"It's nothing but dogs," he answered. "Which was the one you were after?"
"A black-and-tan collie with a blue-ribbon round his neck, and a saucy look on his face."
"A blue ribbon around his neck? It wouldn't be the one I saw going into the public-house, then?"
The constable paused to consider, while Molly suddenly whirled down the street and pounced on the errant collie. Seeing this, Constable McSherry turned to continue his leisurely course of inspection.
As Desmond returned from his hurried meal, he again met Molly, towing her unwilling captive home. She signalled to Desmond to stop.
"I have been thinking that you might take me to the meeting," she said.
Desmond shook his head.
"Not to-night, Molly. You would have me laughing all the time. There's a circus coming next week; will you come to that?"
"Do you think I am never serious?" the girl asked. "I would not so much as smile."
"It can't be done, Molly. I shall be sitting at a table writing for all I am worth."
"Then I will sit just behind you and torment you all the while," she remarked vindictively.
And such was her purpose when she induced Dr. Marsh to accompany her to the Town Hall that evening.
"You don't know what you are doing!" he protested. "I shall go to sleep, I know. Did you ever hear me snore? They tell me it's like the grunt of a boar when he is hungry after a seven days' fast."
"Let me hear you do it now!" she laughed. "I am going there to-night just to tease Desmond O'Connor. He refused to take me."
"What is Desmond doing there?" asked the doctor.
"Taking notes of the speeches. It won't be many notes he will take to-night," she answered.
"For shame, Molly. This is the boy's chance of promotion. If I take you, we shall sit at the back of the hall."
"Among the boys?" asked Molly. "Then you shall take me to enjoy the fun. I'll ignore Desmond to-night; but I will be even with him for this."
A political meeting, with two picked speakers to leaven a number of dull and uninteresting harangues. It was not a very exciting entertainment. But there were "the boys," vociferous, intolerant, sometimes amusing, to enliven proceedings for Molly; while Desmond snatched up the salient features in shorthand and with pencil. Samuel Quirk was a keen politician, and he had transferred the scope of his energy from Collingwood to Grey Town. Unlike many men, he had not changed his politics with the change in his fortunes. He it was who had organised the opposition. At his word a storm of protest, a roar of ironical laughter, or a volley of interjections harassed the speakers on the platform. And it was Samuel Quirk who asked the first questions at the close of the meeting. Straightway Desmond transferred the old man to his note-book, to appear on the following morning as "The Interjector in Chief," in company with Martin and Langridge.
"You have scored a bullseye," cried Cairns, when he had read Desmond's report, and had glanced at the sketches. "You are promoted to the reporting staff. Keep your observant faculties keen and your pencil sharp, my boy, and we will make the old "Observer" boom."
Samuel Quirk smiled when he saw himself in the morning's paper.
"See here, old woman, what they have been doing to me!" he cried, as he banged "The Observer" down in front of his wife at breakfast.
With trembling hands, she adjusted her glasses, fully anticipating that her husband had been sentenced to some heavy penalty for his political creed. But when she saw him on the front sheet of the paper, with the bellicose features of his face exaggerated, Mrs. Quirk was moved to anger.
"And who has been doing this?" she asked. "It is time something should be done to put an end to this. It is an outrage——. Does he call himself an artist?" she questioned, after studying the picture.
"I think it's a very fine picture; perhaps the nose is a little large, and the mouth, too. But it's quite a pleasant picture," said Samuel Quirk complacently.
"If I knew the man that had done it, sure I would make it quite unpleasant for him," said Mrs. Quirk.
"'Tis a sign of fame to be made a sketch of," said Samuel Quirk. "They know that I have organised the boys, and this is the way they try to have revenge."
Therewith he went out to talk politics to his employes while he watched them at work.
"'Tis but eight hours you will do, lads, but it will be an honest eight hours' work you will give me for the decent wages I pay you," he was accustomed to say.
Kathleen O'Connor recognised Desmond's hand in the sketch when Mrs. Quirk showed it to her. She, however, considered it prudent not to mention the artist's name, for she could see that Mrs. Quirk was deeply hurt at what she regarded as an insult to the old man. Fortunately, however, an event occurred during the day that entirely diverted Mrs. Quirk's attention from the picture of her husband.
It was one of Kathleen's duties to read to Mrs. Quirk the few letters that came for her.
"My sight is leaving me," the old lady remarked in excuse for her lack of education, "and these spectacles don't appear to improve it."
Therefore, Kathleen opened a letter, addressed in a man's bold handwriting to "Mrs. Quirk, 26 Rainey-street, Collingwood," and forwarded from that address. It had come from the United States, and had evidently been delayed in transit, for the letter was dated three months before it was received.
"My dearest old mother," Kathleen began to read.
"It's from Denis!" cried Mrs. Quirk. "Denis, that I believed was dead! Call Mr. Quirk, my dear! Oh, this is too much joy! God is good, far too good, to an undeserving old woman like me."
Kathleen went out into the gardens and found Mr. Quirk, spade in hand, busily instructing a raw recruit how to work.
"There's no art in it," he remarked contemptuously. "'Tis merely a matter of muscle. You won't do for me!"
"Mrs. Quirk wants you in the dining-room," said Kathleen.
"Wants me? And what for?" he asked.
"She has a letter from your son."
Mr. Quirk laughed contemptuously. But he paused in his work to reply.
"My only son is dead these ten years. Is she mad?"
"No, she is not," replied the girl indignantly. "I opened the letter myself, and it is from your son."
"I will come and see it. It is probably some idle vagabond that is playing a trick on her," growled Samuel Quirk. "Here," he cried to the labourer, "take the spade, and let me see what you can do."
Kathleen was always annoyed by the old man's assumed contempt for his wife. Samuel Quirk recognised the fact, and was secretly amused at it. He feigned a greater intolerance and disrespect before the girl, just to increase her indignation. Now, as she moved away, the picture of resentment, he called out:
"Tell her I am coming to expose the scamp. She is too soft. Every idle fellow makes use of her."
Kathleen found the old lady holding the opened letter upside down, vainly attempting to decipher the writing, while the tears of joy dropped from her eyes upon the pages.
"Mr. Quirk does not believe it is from your son," said Kathleen.
"Who but Denis would call me mother?" she asked. "But himself was just saying that to annoy you; don't be taking too much notice of him. Read it, dearie. Let me hear my boy speaking to me again."
"I have prospered and made a fortune in America. I am coming home to look after you and the father. Prepare to pack up and come with me to a better home than the old one in Collingwood. I have been wanting all these years to have the old mother, who sacrificed herself for me, beside me."
"And why not sacrifice myself for him? Wasn't he my only child? And a dear boy—and good. Didn't my heart all but break with joy when I first saw him serving the good priest's Mass! It was Father Healy's himself, no less. Does he say anything about the Faith?" asked Mrs. Quirk.
"I shall buy a fine home, with the church not half a mile away. You can make the church your second home, as you did in Collingwood," read Kathleen.
Samuel Quirk marched relentlessly into the room, his face showing the most determined incredulity it could assume.
"Let me see the letter," he said, calmly taking it from Kathleen.
"Could Denis write like this?" he asked.
"And who better?" cried Mrs. Quirk. "Wasn't he the smartest boy at school? Do you remember the day he won all those prizes?"
A smile of pride overspread the old man's face for one moment, then he remorselessly subdued it.
"I am thinking it is some scamp that has heard how soft you are," he remarked, as he read the letter. "Hem! I wonder how much money that will be? And when will he be here?"
As if in answer to his question, the sound of wheels was heard on the avenue. Mrs. Quirk flew to the window, while the old man followed more sedately.
"It is himself!" cried Mrs. Quirk. "Let me be the first to bid him welcome."
She almost ran to the front door in her excitement, to find the strong arms of a man around her.
"Glory be to God! And is it Denis?" she sobbed.
"Who else would it be?" answered the newcomer.
Cairns was compounded of energy, his policy to snatch from the hands of progress all that was good, and make the uttermost use of it. "Try all things," he would say. "Throw away the rubbish, and keep that which is enduring." Under his management, "The Observer" advanced from a second-class country paper to one but little inferior to the metropolitan organs.
One man whom he found on the staff he classified as hopeless.
"Worse than this," he added, speaking to Desmond O'Connor, to whom he unburdened himself, "'Gifford will never learn. He believes himself to be a journalistic planet. I don't mind an ordinary honest fool that knows it is a fool, but a fool that regards its own inane folly as the final thing in wisdom is hopeless. Gifford must go."
Here, however, Cairns found himself opposed to his employer. Ebenezer Brown had so high a respect for Gifford that he had been sorely tempted, after the death of Michael O'Connor, to place the sub-editor in the editorial chair. For this promotion Gifford was fully prepared, and only a very small incident preserved Ebenezer Brown from ruining his paper. It had so chanced that the editor of a leading metropolitan paper had come to the funeral of his former colleague, Michael O'Connor. Meeting Ebenezer Brown after the funeral, he had asked:
"Who will succeed O'Connor?"
"I am thinking of promoting Gifford," replied the old man.
"Gifford!" cried the editor, under whom many a journalist had graduated. "Are you quite mad?"
"Are you?" retorted Ebenezer Brown, hotly.
'Many people say I am. But I was sane enough to shoot Gifford out the first chance I had of ridding the paper of him.
"You sent him to me with a yard of testimonial," growled Ebenezer Brown.
"Diplomacy, my dear sir. I never make an enemy unless I find myself compelled to do so in self-defence. You needed a new sub-editor, I a new reporter, and I merely shuffled the cards and dealt them again. In your case Gifford seems to have proved a success."
"How do you know that?" asked the old man, rudely.
"You are anxious to promote him."
"On your recommendation. 'A brilliant journalist' you called him," cried Ebenezer Brown.
"And he has been with you six months. Surely you know him by this time?"
"Perhaps you know a better," suggested the old man.
"I know few worse, and I know one man the very man for 'The Observer'; but I doubt if he will come to you," said the editor.
"Why not?" asked Ebenezer Brown.
"Because you sweat your employes. No man but O'Connor would have worked as editor for the pittance you paid him. Cairns certainly will require a fair salary and a free hand before he gives 'The Observer' a chance."
Ebenezer Brown recognised the truth of what the editor said. His chief regret was that Michael O'Connor had not lived for ever. However, after prolonged negotiations, he accepted Cairns on the latter's own terms.
It was another matter, however, when the editor demanded a more capable lieutenant than Gifford. Here he found Ebenezer Brown inexorable, for the sub-editor was linked to him by the triple bonds of flattery, usefulness, and influence. He made it a rule to regard Ebenezer's every action as perfection; outside the office he assisted the old man in his business affairs; and he brought influence to bear in buttressing his position against the assaults of his chief. The consequence was that he remained as nominal sub-editor, while Cairns deputed Desmond O'Connor to do the work. Gifford, recognising the slight, bore his chief and subordinate no love, but, being unable to injure Cairns, bent himself to take his revenge from the reporter.
It was in his power to make his subordinate's life unpleasant, and this he accomplished to the utmost limit of his capability. But he was not satisfied with this; his purpose in life was to ruin Desmond. He sowed the seeds of dislike in Ebenezer Brown's mind—an easy thing to accomplish when one was so careless as Desmond O'Connor.
Sketches he left lying about, and verses of poetry which were like pointed barbs in the flesh of Ebenezer Brown. But when the old man turned to Cairns suggesting the dismissal of the reporter, he received small encouragement from the editor.
"O'Connor is careless; I grant that. He is still a boy, and he acts on impulses, often mistaken ones. He is very clever with his pencil, and does not care a hang whom he caricatures. He has even had the cheek to sketch me. I saw it.
"And me, too," growled Ebenezer.
"I saw that, too. I suppose Gifford exhibited it to you?" said Cairns.
"Never mind how I saw it. It is impudence, insubordination, ingratitude," replied the old man.
"Hem!" coughed the editor, dubiously.
"Look what his father owed to me."
"And you to O'Connor," suggested Cairns. "I should put the ingratitude on one side. O'Connor can go if you like, and I shall also retire."
"Oh, nonsense, Cairns! You have a good billet cried Ebenezer.
"No better than I deserve, I assure you. The long and short of it is that I will not allow the petty jealousy of Gifford to deprive me of an invaluable assistant. This is an ultimatum."
Ebenezer Brown retired, grumbling to himself, while Cairns sought Desmond O'Connor.
"You are a hopeless young dog," he said, picking up a sketch. "A racehorse! I presume you bet?"
"Just a trifle now and again," replied the reporter, carelessly. "I won a tenner over that horse."
"Knowing the prejudices of your chief, I am surprised at you. Ebenezer Brown detests racehorses."
"It runs in the blood, sir. My father was worse than I. He would have owned this paper but for a horse and jockey. The horse would have won the Melbourne Cup but that it did not fall in with the jockey's plans. The governor turned to Ebenezer Brown for assistance, and mortgaged 'The Observer,' The old man should be eternally grateful to racehorses."
"And here am I for ever fighting your battles. Why don't you help me? If Ebenezer Brown knows that you gamble, he will shoot you out," remonstrated Cairns.
"He knew the governor's besetting sin, and never so much as remonstrated with him," said Desmond.
"Because your father was invaluable to him, and cheap, neither of which qualifications you possess. There is another matter against you—in fact, several other matters. You dabble in theatricals."
Desmond O'Connor laughed.
"Do you object to theatricals?" he asked.
"Not in the least, excepting from a humanitarian point of view. My only charge against your company is that you contemplate the mutilation of 'As You Like It.'"
"Better to aim high," suggested Desmond O'Connor, "than to be content with second-rate melodrama. We have a capable instructor, and we are very humble, I assure you. Our attitude is one of deprecation; be merciful our prayer."
"Do you deserve mercy," asked the editor, "rendering none? But let that pass. You at least, I am told, are among the passable players. But Ebenezer Brown abhors plays and players; he detests billiards and cards; strong drink is anathema to him. How can you expect to keep your position—an actor, a billiard player, exponent of bridge, and one who shouts and is shouted?"
"I can only rely upon your support. All these things are harmless," said the reporter.
"Undoubtedly harmless in moderation. But the owner of this paper regards horses, cards and billiards merely as media for gambling; he cannot discriminate between cards as a pleasant relaxation and as a method for playing 'beggar my neighbour.' Plays and strong drink he associates with other vices. If you were a good and prudent young man, you would hide your vices under a pious exterior—for home consumption."
"Hypocrisy!" cried Desmond O'Connor. "I would rather be anything than a hypocrite. What right has old Ebenezer Brown to come dictating to me and preaching piety? Have you heard his history?"
"Snatches of it," said Cairns. "It is the history of many other successful men."
"He is a robber, a mere bird of prey. He has built on the ruins of widows and orphans.' The whole town knows what he is, and he deceives no man, excepting Gifford and himself. Does he expect to deceive the Almighty?"
A sound behind them, half a cry and half a curse, caused the two men to turn towards the door. There stood Ebenezer Brown, his accustomed pallor changed to an unhealthy purple.
"Go!" he cried, barely able to articulate the word in his rage, as he pointed an attenuated finger towards the door. "You are an insubordinate young dog! Go at once!"
"One minute, Mr. Brown. I warned you that no one should dismiss my subordinates but I. If O'Connor goes, I follow him."
"As you please," gasped the old man. "There are others as clever as you, and infinitely less expensive. You ungrateful young scapegrace!" he added, turning on Desmond, "I have been a friend to you and to your family. But for me you would have starved."
With this he stalked out of the office, leaving the other men smiling broadly in each other's faces at this outburst of impotent rage.
"I am a stubborn sort of person," said Cairns, "and I rather like this locality. Shall we stay in Grey Town and fight him?"
Desmond eyed his superior with an unaffected surprise.
"Fight him? But how?" he asked.
"Come round to me to-night—no, to-morrow night, young man. I must see one or two men of business in the town. After my interviews we will discuss the best means of fighting Ebenezer."
"Shall we take the old man at his word, and leave him in the lurch? Do you think he could run 'The Observer' for himself?" asked Desmond.
"No, Desmond; here I stay until he finds a successor. I love the old 'Observer,' and I am responsible for it while I remain on the staff. After I go, I may take my revenge out of the ancient sinner."
That day the work proceeded as usual. During the course of it a man came into the office and asked for Desmond O'Connor. He was a big man, with a good-humoured, ugly face, surmounted by curly black hair. He was tanned by the sun, and his blue-grey Irish eyes peeped out from the reddish-brown surroundings of his face. He had a determined mouth and chin, a jaw that spoke of a struggle with the world, and of success in that battle.
"You are O'Connor?" he asked Desmond when he appeared. "I am Quirk, the long lost and recently returned. Did Miss O'Connor speak of me?"
"She did," replied Desmond, "and of your adventures. Could you favour me with a brief recital of your career?"
"For copy? No, my lad; I am reserving that for my own paper. Any chance for another paper here?" he asked, casually.
"You had better not ask me. I am still an employe of The Observer.'"
"Still? Do you anticipate a move?" asked Quirk, leaning half over the counter.
"I do. I have my marching orders."
"Been playing up, eh? Well, I was a holy terror at your age. I made the old dad's life a torment to him, and sowed a bushel of grey hairs in the mother's head. Is the boss in?"
"Cairns? Yes, I think so."
"Approachable?" asked Quirk.
"Sometimes," replied Desmond.
"What sort of forecast to-day—stormy?"
"Knock at his door, and let him answer for himself."
"Right. I will see you as I go out."
He went to the editor's door, and knocked violently. There was no response, and he knocked again—more violently. Then the door opened suddenly, and Cairns confronted him in a white fury.
"Now, what the dickens, sir," cried the editor, "brings your big battering ram of a fist in contact with my door? Nature provides earthquakes in these parts without your assistance, you noisy devil!"
"Who are you shouting at?" answered Quirk, in an equal fury. "Can't a man tap gently——."
"Tap gently! What sort of a disturbance happens when you knock loudly? What do you want with me?"
"Nothing now. I came to speak to a man, and I find a grizzly bear. Can't a man who has come from the other side of creation call on a local celebrity but he must have his nose snapped off? Good-day to you, sir!"
Cairns' sense of the humorous saved the situation. Recovering quickly from his irritation, he burst into a roar of laughter. This, for the moment, only added to the other man's indignation.
"Are you laughing at me, sir?" he asked.
"No, I was laughing at myself. I apologise to you; but you came at a moment when I was hopelessly busy," replied Cairns.
Quirk's face relaxed into a grim smile. He regarded the thin, humorous face of the editor attentively. Satisfied with his survey, he said:
"Well, I won't bother you just now. I know what it is to be in a tearing hurry. I ran a newspaper myself in the States; you have to be here, there, and everywhere to do that. Can't trust to anyone but yourself, can you?"
"Not a living soul. But I will give you five minutes if you slip inside."
Quirk entered the editor's office, and the door closed. In half an hour's time it opened again, and the two men came out together.
"Five minutes!" laughed Quirk as he shook Cairns' hand at the door.
"You are such a fascinating man that the minutes have slipped away unnoticed. You will be at my room to-night?"
"Of course I will. Hard at it, young man?" he asked, with a friendly nod to Desmond.
"A twopenny-ha'penny report of a twopenny-ha'penny meeting," replied Desmond, contemptuously.
"Make it spicy; touch it up with a little humour. That's the way to make journalism attractive. Cover a commonplace incident with the mantle of merriment, and make the world laugh. Lord, how we love a good honest laugh!"
With this he went briskly out of the office, and Desmond turned to his task with a renewed interest. There was a point here and a sentence there that might be made humorous. When the speakers read his report of what they had spoken, they discovered that there was, after all, a latent wit in them hitherto quite unsuspected. Those who had been privileged to hear them discovered that remarks had been made at which they had laughed, and that the speakers were not such prosy old fossils as they had suspected.
"That man Quirk knows the secret of the new journalism," said Cairns to Desmond. "It is not truth, or even a make-believe truth; it is to arouse your readers' interest. Tickle them with humour; stuff them with the sensational; let everything be brand-new. We will make the old 'Observer' gallop to beat us."
Desmond raised his eyebrows and waited to hear more, but Cairns turned on his heel, saying:
"In a short time I may satisfy your curiosity, O'Connor; but there's a lot to be done first."
For weeks after Denis Quirk's homecoming Kathleen O'Connor was uncertain as to her feeling towards him.
He was ugly and abrupt, somewhat inquisitive, with none of those gentler qualities that we term polish. He spoke his mind, and spoke it bluntly, regardless of the feelings of others. Self-reliant and perfectly satisfied with himself, he sometimes irritated the girl to the verge of anger. But he was rarely angry, or, if he blazed out into sudden passion, returned speedily to his customary imperturbability, and he was always humorous. His mother he worshipped, and with her he was gentle as a woman; his father he jested with in an affectionate manner. Kathleen realised that he was a good son, while she resented his attitude to herself. His abrupt questions, his curious searching looks led her to believe that he was for ever testing her to discover the strength and weakness of her character. This caused the girl to adopt an attitude of defence, and to meet his inquisitive questions with replies that almost bordered on discourtesy.
Just a fortnight after his arrival, as she sat writing in the breakfast-room at Layton, pausing now and again to watch the gambols of Mrs. Quirk's Persian kitten, Denis Quirk marched into the room. He picked up the kitten, and seated himself with it near the door.
"Writing?" he asked, abruptly.
His manner of questioning her, indicating to her mind a desire to know as to whom and of what she was writing, aroused an immediate resentment in the girl.
"Yes, I am," she answered, shortly.
He smiled at her manifest annoyance, and continued to play with the kitten.
"Fire away then and get it all off your chest," he said.
Kathleen felt that writing was an impossibility under the circumstances, but she was determined that he should not recognise her embarrassment. Her nib flew relentlessly over the sheets, but the letter was disconnected and dry. At last she gathered her writing materials together, and rose to leave the room.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Never mind that," she replied. "I have never been asked to give an account of my actions, and I do not intend to."
Denis Quirk smiled yet more broadly. It was evident that her irritation amused him. This did not make her the better pleased.
"Sit down and talk to me," he suggested.
"I have other and better things to do," she answered.
He whistled the long-drawn note of surprise. His chair was across the door, but he made no attempt to move it.
"Angry?" he asked.
"Will you please move your chair?" she replied.
"Why should I? I am quite comfortable. Just sit down for five minutes and talk about the old people. I have any number of questions to ask you," he said.
"You always have; but I have no time to answer them. Please move your chair."
"Do you always have your own way?" he asked.
"Always—with gentlemen," she answered.
"Then you shall have it this once with Denis Quirk, who neither professes nor has the slightest wish to be—a gentleman."
He rose and put his chair on one side.
"Thank you," she said, as he held the door open for her. But, while she went up the stairs to Mrs. Quirk's room, the eternal question was repeating itself to her: "What do you think of this man?"
She found old Mrs. Quirk in her room, arranging a series of photos. There was Denis from infancy until the period when he had left his home—ugly, but smiling from infancy to manhood.
"What do you think of Denis? Isn't he grown into a fine man, and as full of fun as if he were a boy? And doesn't he love his old mother?" asked the fond old mother.
"Why shouldn't he?" asked Kathleen. "I love her as if she were my own mother."
"God bless you, child. I believe you do. Did you see what he has brought me? Brooches and shawls! But what good is jewellery to me? You must take them."
"No, no!" cried Kathleen, hastily. "You must keep them for Mr. Quirk's wife."
A smile lit up the old lady's face as she looked at the brooch in her hand and then at Kathleen.
"I just will do that same," she said.
A peremptory knock at the door, and Denis himself entered. He smiled as he noted the array of photographs.
"Which is the uglier," he asked Kathleen, "the picture or the original? Fire away, mother, and tell Miss O'Connor every detail of my life. Cut my first tooth when I was seven days old; spoke—or did I swear—at three months, fought my first fight on my first birthday, and I've been fighting ever since."
"Oh, Denis, Denis, you are as much an omadhaun as ever," sighed Mrs. Quirk. "But he was a fine boy, Kathleen!"
"And into a fine man he has grown, mother!" laughed Denis. "But what could you expect with such a mother? Father alive, Miss O'Connor?"
The abruptness of the question was quite disconcerting to Kathleen.
"No," she replied; "my father is dead."
"Sorry I asked," said Denis.
"God rest his soul! They do say he was a great man; but what could you expect, and him an O'Connor?" said Mrs. Quirk.
"Hem!" began Denis, but he checked himself and asked: "Any relations living, Miss O'Connor?"
"There's her brother Desmond, as handsome as herself," said Mrs. Quirk.
"Anything like me? But that's not to be expected. Where does he work?"
"My brother is a reporter at 'The Observer' office," replied Kathleen. Had it not been for Mrs. Quirk's presence she would have checked his questions once and for all.
"I must look him up to-day. I start operations in Grey Town this afternoon. Did it ever strike you that this place needs stirring up? It's been sleeping ever since it was born. I have come here to make things hum, I tell you that."
Kathleen laughed at the thought of Grey Town humming. All her life she had known it as a gentle, quiet town, to which excitement was unknown and undesired.
"What do you intend to do?" she asked.
"Everything," he answered. "See here, in twelve months' time you will scarcely know Grey Town. There will be squalls, of course, and plenty of fighting. But when I get to work I'll make the old place boom. Ran a paper in the States, and divided the town into friends and enemies. I was just over the last libel action brought against 'The Firebrand' by the last enemy on my list when I sold out. The paper went like wildfire, and the town all but doubled itself in my time. Nothing like a little mustard and pepper if you want to make things go."
"I prophesy that Grey Town will subdue even you. This is a very sleepy atmosphere. No man remains vigorous for over six months; you will soon be slumbering like the rest of us."
"I shall be dead first," he answered. "You don't know me."
"Nor you Grey Town. You are not our first reformer; we have had numbers of them, and we have destroyed them without remorse," said Kathleen.
From the window of the room they could look across fields now green in the freshness of early summer, across the racecourse and park, to where Grey Town climbed irregularly towards St. Mary's Church. There it lay, a town whose streets were only partly made; where sanitation had halted in its most primitive stages; where little attempt had been made to assist the beauties of nature. Yet Grey Town was, in the distance, a pretty spot, embowered in green trees, the blue smoke resting over it, and in the distance the great blue ocean. Large buildings and small hovels, well-cared for gardens and filthy back yards, imposing factories and dilapidated shops—there was surely work here for an energetic reformer. But Kathleen knew the strength of vested rights, the strength of contented indolence; above all, the bitter tongue of scandal that was ever ready to destroy a prophet. Others had fought with Grey Town and failed; why not Denis Quirk?
"No," he answered, reading her thoughts. "Grey Town has been waiting for me, and to-morrow I start on Grey Town. See here! This town should be a city. We need a few more cities, and Grey Town shall be one of the first. Given half a dozen factories and an improved system of railways——."
"Factories!" laughed Kathleen, her eyes straying towards the town and its open sea-front, where only a small peninsula of rock protected the bay from the south-west gales. "You are dreaming, Mr. Quirk?"
"Nothing is impossible nowadays. Why no factories in Grey Town? Shall Melbourne possess all the good things? Let us provide for ourselves and for other people, and bring money to the town. Factories Grey Town must have to make agricultural implements, to turn our wool into blankets, our wheat into flour, our milk into butter. Factories and an up-to-date paper."
Mrs. Quirk had listened in a dazed manner to this conversation. It delighted her to sit and listen to her son, just as it did on those rare occasions when her husband talked to her. But she never quite realised what the topic under discussion was, although she nodded or shook her head as she believed was necessary to the occasion.
"Another paper?" cried Kathleen.
"And why not?" asked Mrs. Quirk. "Denis knows what he is saying and doing. Why not another paper if Denis wants it? And what colour would it be, Denis?"
Denis Quirk laughed heartily at his mother's misapprehension, but he threw his arm around her and stooped to kiss her.
"Black and white," he replied; "a newspaper, old lady, up to date and go-ahead, like the old 'Firebrand.'" Then he turned again to Kathleen. "You don't know me," he said. "You imagine I am nothing better than a talker; just wait for three months before you judge me."
Therewith he swung out of the room. A few minutes later Kathleen saw him striding rapidly down the avenue on his way towards Grey Town. But she had other things to do besides thinking of Denis Quirk. No sooner was he out of sight than she had settled Mrs. Quirk comfortably in an easy-chair on the balcony, and was reading to the old lady until the latter fell into a peaceful sleep.
It was a quiet and monotonous life for a young girl. Mrs. Quirk was now so dependent upon her that she must have Kathleen always by her side. This was not due to selfishness on the old lady's part. She did not understand that young people need a certain amount of amusement and pleasure to make their lives complete. Kathleen, being wholly unselfish in her nature, considered it her sole duty to look after the old lady. Mr. Quirk, too, had made Kathleen his secretary and accountant. When she was not with Mrs. Quirk, the girl was generally to be found surrounded by accounts and business letters.
It was thus that Denis Quirk found her on his return from the town.
"Do you ever go out?" he asked her, imperatively.
"Every day," she answered.
"To theatres and dances?" he asked.
"I have no time for such frivolities," she answered, laughingly. "I am a working woman now, with every moment occupied."
"Pshaw!" he answered, impatiently. "You need readjusting; you all need readjusting. Life was never intended to be a mere drudgery."
At tea—the Quirks still clung to the old scheme of meals of the Collingwood days—as they sat around the large table, he suddenly asked his father:
"Why don't you buy a motor, Dad?"
Samuel Quirk glared at his son for some moments in speechless surprise. Then he answered:
"What would I be doing with a motor?"
"Enjoying the beauties of Australia, and giving the mother a little pleasure," replied Denis.
"Pleasure! I would die in a motor," cried Mrs. Quirk.
"Just as well die there as in a phaeton. If you once ride in a motor, you will never ride in anything else, unless it's an aeroplane. If the Dad doesn't buy you a motor, I will."
"A motor! What would the boys say to see me in a motor?" growled Samuel Quirk.
"Confound the boys! If the boys object to a motor, they are fools. Motors mean the circulation of money. What is the difference between a motor and a house, a motor and a horse, a motor and a coat? Don't they all represent money to the working man? Don't bother yourself about the boys, or the jackasses either!"
Already there were signs of political differences between father and son. Samuel Quirk had clung to his Labour political creed all his life; now, in his time of prosperity, he refused to resign his early principles. Denis, a Democrat at heart, was something of a freelance, inclined to tilt indiscriminately at both parties. This, however, was the first occasion since his homecoming on which he had openly opposed his father, and Samuel Quirk resented it.
"I have two legs to travel on, and they are good enough for me," he growled.
"Just hear him, and he calls himself a Progressive. It's a Conservative he is. Where's the use of science, if you refuse to make use of its gifts?" cried Denis.
Kathleen recognised that Denis was irritating his father and grieving his mother, not of intention, but simply because he did not realise that Samuel Quirk could not tolerate opposition.
"Well, I have a proposal to make. You shall hire a motor," she suggested. "Mr. Quirk and Granny shall ride in it, and see how they like it. Then, perhaps, Mr. Quirk may be induced to buy one."
"Never!" growled Samuel Quirk. "Them noisy, dusty, smelling inventions of the——!"
"Hush!" cried Mrs. Quirk. "The devil never invented anything good."
"And where's the good of them?" asked her husband.
"They make a long and hard journey short and pleasant. But Miss O'Connor is right. You shall try what a motor is like, and if you don't take to it I will buy one for the mother myself," said Denis.
It was an exciting moment in the house when he drove up the following day in a large car. Mrs. Quirk, if very nervous, was anxious to experience the new sensation of travelling in a motor; Kathleen was keenly desirous that Denis' plan might succeed; Samuel Quirk feigned contempt and indifference, but he was in his heart as excited as his wife.
"Now, come along, mother, and you, too, Miss O'Connor. Will you try a short spin, Dad?" said Denis.
Samuel Quirk strolled over to and eyed the motor even more contemptuously than before.
"What's that?" he asked the chauffeur.
"That's the throttle," replied the latter.
"Humph! I suppose you can drive the noisy thing?"
The chauffeur nodded; he was too insulted to reply in words.
"Can you stop it?" asked the old man.
"In a few yards," said Denis. "Step inside, Dad, and see for yourself."
Grumbling and growling, Samuel Quirk followed his wife and Kathleen into the tonneau. From the front seat Denis directed the driver.
"Easy at first, until they find their legs; then intoxicate them with the sensation of flying," he half whispered.
To Kathleen it was pure joy from the first; but Mrs. Quirk, and, to tell the truth, Samuel Quirk, were for half an hour very nervous.
"Can you stop her?" the latter asked as they flew down a steep hill.
In answer to the question, the chauffeur brought the car to a standstill. Thus assured, Samuel Quirk became confident, and before they returned home he was urging the chauffeur to increased speed.
"Do you call this fast?" he asked; and when the car began to race along the road a pleased smile lighted up his face. He even waved his hand pleasantly to those he passed on the road, and when the car stopped in front of the house the old man asked the chauffeur:
"How much do you want for it?"
"You don't think of buying this old car?" cried Denis. "You want a new one, and right up to date."
"Would it go as fast as this one?" asked Samuel Quirk.
"You shall have one out in a few days and try it."
Only a fortnight later a large twenty-horse-power car and a chauffeur were added to the equipment of "Layton." Samuel Quirk was the most enthusiastic admirer of, and the most frequent passenger in, the car. He was curious as to the machinery and the method of driving. Probably this was the most satisfactory thing that his wealth had brought him.
Mrs. Quirk, too, after her first nervousness, found great pleasure in the motor; but to Kathleen it was the first of a series of new enjoyments, for Denis Quirk hurried his mother on from one dissipation to another—concerts, theatres, even dances. Hesitatingly, Mrs. Quirk accepted his advice to try them; but, having once found pleasure in the evident enjoyment they gave Kathleen, she willingly went wherever Denis advised her. In this way the household at "Layton" received the necessary readjustment, with excellent results to all the inmates.
"THE OBSERVER" DIES.
Dr. Marsh was in his surgery, skimming the contents of a medical journal in search of the newer methods of treatment. Now and again he glanced from the printed pages out of his window at the asphalt path leading from the gate to his front door, not so much because he expected a patient as from mere habit. It was an off day in Grey Town, and his surprise was keen when he chanced to see, not one, but three men approaching the house.
It had become a custom with him to scan a patient and diagnose a complaint at long range, and to subsequently confirm or disprove his first opinion more intimately at closer quarters. Being a shrewd and observant man, he not infrequently hit a bull's-eye at the first shot. Scrutinising the three who were coming up the path, he muttered:
"Cairns, Desmond O'Connor, and the ugliest beggar I ever saw! But which is the patient? Cairns has dyspepsia, I swear; Desmond could not be sick if he tried; the ugly beggar suffers from nothing worse than his face, and that is a chronic condition."
Commenting half-audibly in this manner, he hastened to the door and cried:
"Are you all patients?"
Cairns shook his head sorrowfully. "No such luck, doctor! Beyond a little discomfort after meals, we are hopelessly sound."
"Are you a deputation, then, come to ask me to represent you in the Federal Parliament?" asked the doctor.
"It may come to that," said Cairns. "If Burrows does not speedily do something for Grey Town, we shall need a new member. May I introduce Mr. Quirk, a new resident and a live citizen?"
Denis Quirk and the doctor shook hands, each regarding the other curiously the while.
"An insurance agent," said the doctor in the half-audible tone he sometimes adopted.
To this the others replied with a laugh.
"No fear, doctor!" cried Cairns. "Am I the man to take a mean advantage of you? We have come here to consult you—not professionally, but as one who knows this district, alive and dead."
"None better," said Dr. Marsh.
They followed him into a cosy and orderly surgery, and sat down at his bidding. For his part, the doctor leaned up against the mantelpiece, one elbow resting on the marble and one arm free.
"Now, then, what is it?" he asked.
"We are contemplating a venture," said Denis Quirk—"a newspaper in opposition to 'The Observer.'"
Dr. Marsh shook his head emphatically, frowning the while at Denis Quirk.
"Mental, decidedly mental," he growled. "You have delusions."
Denis Quirk laughed uproariously at this remark. The doctor was a man after his own heart.
"You don't give it a chance?" he asked.
"Not a thousand to one hope! What do we want with two papers?"
"Precisely!" cried Denis Quirk. "But supposing we were to shoulder 'The Observer' out of Grey Town?"
"Is Cairns a mutineer?" asked the doctor.
"I am a cast-off. Old Ebenezer Brown has given me marching orders, and I am looking for a new master," replied Cairns.
Dr. Marsh's face brightened, for he had a consuming hatred for the owner of 'The Observer.' Even the faintest hope of wounding Ebenezer Brown was a reason for joy to him.
"It might be done?" he said. "Are you a newspaper man?" he asked Denis Quirk.
"In the past, and, I hope, in the future. I am tempted to risk a battle with 'The Observer.' With Cairns and O'Connor, myself, and one or two others—yourself, for instance, doctor—we might make the old rag gallop, possibly even beat it, eh?"
"Stop a minute. Do any of you drink?" asked the doctor.
The other men shook their heads.
"Too early," said Cairns. "If we started now, where would we end?"
"Very well, then. Let me have some details before I decide. Who is to finance the paper?"
"I shall do that, with your help, if you like, leaving the public to pay us principal and interest when we have destroyed Ebenezer Brown and his organ," said Denis Quirk.
"Cairns will be editor, I suppose?" asked the doctor.
"Cairns editor, O'Connor a reporter, myself manager, and Tim O'Neill printer's devil."
"Tim O'Neill!" laughed the doctor. "Where did you discover that rapscallion? Molly Healy introduced you to him, I swear."
"I forgot Molly Healy in mentioning the staff. She is to write a series of articles dealing with the seamy side of Grey Town life and her methods of reforming the riff-raff. Yes; it was she who brought Tim to me. 'Here you are!' she cried. 'Tis the wickedest boy in Grey Town. Make him something useful, and you will be doing a public service to me and to the town and district.' I engaged him as printer's devil on that recommendation."
After half an hour of facts and figures, the doctor dismissed his visitors. He was satisfied that this was not an impossible scheme, and he even went so far as to accept a portion of the financial burden. This argued well for the newspaper, for the doctor was a shrewd man.
Ebenezer Brown firmly believed in vested interests when those interests were his own. Until he was actually faced by "The Mercury," he had regarded opposition to "The Observer" as impossible. When confronted by the strong staff of Denis Quirk's paper, he at first began to whine over the treachery of opposition; then he straightened his back to fight.
Gifford, the sub-editor, had hailed the resignation of Cairns as promotion to himself; and so it might have proved, but Ebenezer Brown was far too shrewd to oppose Gifford to Cairns.
"We must find a new editor," he remarked to the former when the rumour of opposition reached him.
Gifford, with a half promise of the editorial chair in his mind, smiled blandly.
"You will not forget——," he began.
"I forget everything," snapped Ebenezer Brown, "when I have to fight. I am going to Melbourne to find a strong editor. After this opposition is crushed I intend to sack him and place you in charge," he added more gently, for he liked Gifford, if he really cared for any man.
But the fight was not to end so simply and speedily as the old man imagined. "The Mercury" dawned on Grey Town, strong, cynical, and up to date. There were initial troubles with the Cable News Agency, but Cairns managed to adjust these, against the determined opposition of Ebenezer Brown. Then came splendid days for the advertising public, when both newspapers brought down their scale of charges to the very lowest price. Keen, too, was the demand for copy when Desmond O'Connor and his junior reporter found themselves opposed to men almost as keen as they. Grey Town fairly throbbed with excitement, and daily searched the rival papers to discover which one had outwitted the other. In the office of "The Mercury" Denis Quirk and Cairns sat together planning new features to place their paper in advance of its rival. Their first success was the nobbling of "The Observer's" senior reporter. For this Tim O'Neil was responsible.
Tim was errand boy, printer's devil, and messenger for "The Mercury," and he firmly believed that the newspaper's success was due to his exertions. All the ingenuity of which he was capable, the boy employed on behalf of his employers. When the State member came to Grey Town to make his election speech, Tim O'Neill recognised an opportunity. It was a notorious fact that "The Observer's" new reporter was addicted to drink, and, after reporting the speech in full, he slipped into the "Royal Hart" Hotel, as was his custom, for a glass of whisky, his shorthand report in his pocket. After him, cautiously, went Tim O'Neill, and abstracted his notes from his pocket, substituting for them a spurious copy. Where Tim had secured this false shorthand report history does not relate, but they were cleverly done, so like and yet so unlike the original as to be ridiculous. It was this report that appeared in "The Observer" next morning. In his fury the editor discharged the chief reporter, and when he went out to re-engage him found that Cairns had been before him.
"Tim O'Neill, you deserve a sound thrashing," said Denis Quirk when he heard of the boy's escapade. "But your wages are raised, not as an incentive to further crimes, but because you have a future before you. Do you ever study?"
"Just a little. Miss Molly is teaching me," said Tim.
"I must arrange with Burnside to give you a few hours every week. You will be an editor some day, Tim, if you avoid the rocks," said Denis Quirk.
That very day Tim came in to Desmond O'Connor, his face the picture of anxiety. Noting this, Desmond eyed the youth in surprise: then he burst out in a shout of laughter.
"What are you doing that for?" asked Tim, furiously.
"I never saw you so melancholy before, Tim. What particular sin have you committed? Or have you lost a far-distant cousin? Confess your guilt, Tim."
"I suppose you think you're funny?" cried Tim. "I've half a mind to go and give myself to 'The Observer,' and ruin this blessed old paper."
Desmond O'Connor's shout of laughter brought Cairns from his room, anxious to share the joke.
"Let us have it at once," he cried. "In this strenuous life a joke is too precious an event to be wasted. Who made it, you or Tim?"
"Tim is acquiring a high sense of humour," said Desmond. "Tell Mr. Cairns your awful threat, Tim."
"Yah!" cried Tim, vindictively, "I'll tell Mr. Cairns what I came to tell you, and leave you to wish you knew it."
Therewith he drew the editor into his room, and closed the doors carefully.
"They're going to strike, sir, on both papers, for higher wages," he said in a low voice.
"Who do you mean, Imp?" asked Cairns, addressing the boy by the name he had especially devised for him.
"The compositors. To-night they're going out to stop both papers."
"Tim O'Neill, you are a perfect mine of information. Providence was determined to bless 'The Mercury' when it sent us Tim O'Neill. Just run away now and ask Mr. Quirk if I can see him."
Denis Quirk was at once a diplomatic and a determined man. On hearing the newest development, he hurried away to interview the prospective strikers.
"Lay your grievances before me," he said. "If I can put them right with justice to the proprietors of this paper, it shall be done."
It was the usual story—higher wages and shorter hours, a larger staff, better paid, with less work to do individually. Denis Quirk offered a compromise, but this was refused. After half an hour's discussion, he suddenly broke out into a white heat of anger.
"Do you fancy I can't do without you?" he cried.
The men replied with a burst of ironical laughter.
"I began life as a compositor, and I have not forgotten my trade," he said. "You can go, every one of you that wants more. But 'The Mercury' will appear to-morrow, take my tip for that."
Sullenly the men withdrew, to hang about outside the office, watching to see who would take their places. But no one came from outside, while in the printing room all was bustle.