|Newspaper Title||The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946)|
|Trove Title||In Death's Disguise|
IN DEATH'S DISGUISE.
She was not fair, she was not fat—but she was 40; indeed, to be quite correct, she was 44. She was dark-haired, and owned the remains of a brilliant complexion, and a well-preserved slight figure, and the gen- tlest, sweetest, expression in the world. He was a fine-looking young fellow of three and twenty, with an intimate knowledge of the ordinary traveller's world, and a bright, en- thusiastic temperament which made him a general favourite. He was a worshipper of beauty too, and Beatrice Rylance looked very pretty indeed the first evening she appeared on deck. She was lying back in a low canvas chair dressed in some soft white silky stuff, and the moonlight shone full on her finely-featured face in its frame of wavy black hair.
She was a childless widow, returning to Australia, after a brief trip to see her late husband's relatives in England. They had wished her to stay altogether in the old world, but she was home-sick for the bright- skied new one, where her calm negatively happy married life had been spent. Her husband had been years older than she was, and the match was not a love one on her part, so that she only mourned when he died as one mourns for a tried and kind friend; but she was innocent as a girl of all that human beings can feel who have loved
Gus Pakenham was making his first trip to Australia, meaning to look round him, and invest some of his spare capital in the great new continent, and he was full of thirst for information, and interest in the antipodes. Beatrice, who had been born and bred in the bush, was able to interest him, and there was nothing on earth then that she loved like her mother-country; and she was drawn to this handsome, well-grown young fellow from the very first, mainly on account of his enthusiasm in her favou- rite subject.
He spent almost all his time with her, and the passengers have plenty of spare time on the big ocean liners, in spite of the continual round of amusement which invariably means hard labour to some, and the scandal-lov- ing part of the miniature world were shak-
ing their heads and whispering long before the moonlit evening on which impetuous Gus laid his heart at Mrs. Rylance's feet. "I fell in love with you at first sight,"he said. "I knew you were my fate directly
you spoke to me."
Beatrice was startled indeed, and gently but firmly refused him.
The ship's society heard of it somehow, and decreed that she was quite right, al- though her sweet nature had gained her many friends, and even stout Mrs. Ward, with her seven single daughters, acquitted her of "trying to catch the young fellow." Still it was only in human nature to remark that "a man may not marry his grand- mother".
However, Gus was not easily beaten. They were left together in the music saloon some days afterwards and he seized the oppor- tunity, and proposed again. His stormy, masterful wooing was so unlike poor Bea- trice's past experiences that this time she was startled into admitting that she did care for him very much, only it could never be— there were twenty years between them. And then Gus cursed his youth, and longed for grey hairs and stiff joints, as perhaps a young man has never done before or since.
But she persisted in her decision, and felt physically tired when Gus left her at last. It was so hard to withstand so imperious a lover, especially as—but no; she would scarcely admit that possibility, even to her-
And yet, after that day in the music room she found herself blushing furiously several times when the tall figure came to- wards her. She grew to know every expres- sion of the handsome sun-browned face, whose chief charm was that same facile ex- pressiveness. And she knew for the first time in her life what it is to be jealous—for the first time at 44! —when he spent a whole evening with the youngest Miss Ward, talk- ing in the low, earnest tone she knew so well. That he was simply seeking for em- pathy for his hopeless love for Beatrice Rylance she did not know, for Pakenham was one of those men who always look as if they were devoted to the woman they happen to be talking to.
Jealousy is not a becoming emotion, and that night she gazed long and earnestly at herself in the glass—looking closely, one could see the faint wrinkles round the eyes. In another ten years they would show plainly enough, and in another ten years he would be scarcely in the prime of life. She shook down her rippling wealth of hair; there were no grey hairs yet, but dark women, when they do begin to age! "Folly, folly," she said, "there is no fool like an old fool whose heart is young," and she thought of various of her acquaintance whose stiff steps and portly figures were quite unsuited to gaiety, however their hearts might be beat- ing a merry polka-tune—of the old maids, to whom life still held possibilities of ro- mance, but in whom the world only saw the semblance of lovable womanhood past for
ever in wrinkled faces and shrunken figures!
But from that out Gus grew moody. He scarcely spoke at dinner, and he ate next to nothing, but drank rather more than was
Truth to say, Gus was a very love-sick boy, indeed, and, man-like, could not hide it.
He even hinted at suicide, and the plea- sures of floating on—
"Beneath the sea, Beneath the sea."
Beatrice was dreadfully worried, and in certain lights the wrinkles showed plainly now. Had they been on shore she would have flown temptation, and put as many miles as possible between herself and Gus. Here in this circumscribed space, with the wide blue sea all round, and the wide blue sky above, escape was out of the question, unless she could develop wings or fins! Love and idleness. Had Gus been able to work, his case might not have been such a serious one, but unless he changed place with one of the stalwart A.B.'s that was out of the question. There was a latent fund of motherhood
that had never found expression in Beatrice Rylance's nature, and it awakened now, and she grieved, as a mother would, to see him so miserable.
When Gus proposed again there was a capful of wind blowing, and they were alone on deck. A great tress of her hair unfas- tened, and swung across his face. She strove to put it back, and loosened her hold on the rail to do so, and the fierce gust of wind flung her against him. Gus promptly took her in his arms, and then he kissed her.
The flood-gates of long-sleeping passion seemed open then. The warm kisses on her lips, the firm clasp of strong arms, the depths of a deep love answering love—there was no thought of resisting now. Gus was
not refused this time.
Gus wished to make the engagement pub- lic next day, but she shrank from the looks and comments, the veiled smiles of astonish- ment that she knew must meet the news; Gus, in his fool's paradise, saw none of this, but for all that it did leak out. The young man's look of pleased responsibility, and the air of proud possession that seemed to en- velope him, told its own tale. Mrs. Ry- lance's pretty colour returned, and the light of happiness made her look scarcely thirty. After all, it seemed as if she had done the right thing in accepting him when he sat at her feet in the long starlit evenings, and poured out all his hopes and ambitions, all his love and desire, for her.
"We were made for each other," he said.
"But I was sent into the world years too soon," she answered. But such speeches as these were always refuted in the same
Gus was a demonstrative lover—there was no doubt of that—and a new world had opened to the woman's starved heart, a world of delights she had never dreamed of.
There were married very quietly in Sydney, and then went up to her western station, which had been the home of her childhood, and was now her own; for Beatrice was very much alone in the world—orphaned and widowed, until Gus supplied every want with his wonderful love for her.
The bush life added another touch of ro- mance to his life with her, for to the young Englishman everything Australian was ro- mantic and full of possibilities—the very fact of being able to kill all wild things, feathered or furred, within a few hundred yards of the house, was a joy in itself. Then he threw himself heart and soul into the management of the run, and was willing to take lessons from the wise old Scotch- man who had taken charge of Eaglesnest for half a lifetime. Beatrice rode well, and they spent many long happy days pic- nicking by the river and riding through the sweet-scented scrubs of sandalwood and pine, breathing the enchanted atmosphere of cloudless spring and first romance.
Of course people talked of the unequal match, but as years went on, and Gus seemed as contented as ever, people began to say this case was the exception that proved the rule. Pakenham looked older than he was, and Beatrice knew the value of becoming veils and different shades of
pink, and though not a vain woman spent much time in designing dresses to suit her- self. She was a sensible woman, and knew that the average man is a creature to be ruled by the senses, and so during the five years after her marriage her life was an ideally happy one—and then Pussie Chand- ler came to Eaglesnest. She was a slip of a girl, with fluffy, fair hair, and big serious eyes, with dark, long lashes, and a hard
little mouth. She had no features to en- sure her being a pretty old woman, but she was decidedly a pretty young one, with her soft baby complexion and slow, quaint way of saying clever things. And she was young—very young— although owning twice Beatrice Paken- ham's knowledge of the world and the world's evil—for Pussie had lived a hard life, and had fought the world in uncon- genial company. And to her Eaglesnest seemed the very height of luxury.
She was a distant cousin of Beatrice's first husband, and at first came on a visit, which lengthened out until circumstances seemed to point to her stay being a per- manent one, the little pariah was so utterly friendless and so sad at the thought of leaving darling Bee and dearest Gus.
She brought an atmosphere of merri- ment and frivolity into Eaglesnest that was unusual. It rather wearied Beatrice, but Gus seemed to enjoy the nonsense and the laughter, and she was at first glad to see him amused. The long rides he en- joyed so were not all roses to Beatrice, who could not afford to ruin her complexion in the hot Australian sun; so Pussie often
went with him, tying a big flop hat under her chin, which hat would simply have made the elder woman look ridiculous, but which suited Pussie's infantile style all to pieces.
Gradually a change was coming over Gus, which only the sharp eyes of love could discern. He showed temper once when his wife suggested that Miss Chandler might be
wanted at home,
"Poor little devil," he said. "Can't you let her enjoy life a little while. She has a hard row to hoe at the best of times, and she makes things lively far us."
Beatrice sighed. Pussie had one of her wild fits on, and had challenged Gus to race her to the lagoon, and she had seized Beatrice's hand and urged her to try, too. She was always sweet and lovable to the elder woman, and was so con- trite and apologised so profusely when she made one of her blundering little speeches about, "people being ancients and antediluvians, and hoping she might die at forty", that Beatrice felt there was no rea- son for the dull pain that was slowly grow- ing in her heart. There was a time, too, when she had thought anything over twenty quite middle-aged.
It was not Pussie's fault either that she could amuse Gus with her stories and knowledge of a world which he knew well, but which had been only a name to the shy, bush-reared woman, and could she blame Gus, who was such a very boy in some ways,
for his delight in those long rides and mad races after kangaroos which were begin- ning to try both her nerves and health, and which brought a rosier glow to Pussie's cheeks and a brighter light to her eyes, and yet—
The days passed on, and Beatrice kept in the background more and more, and her love-sharpened eyes saw that she was not missed particularly. To do Gus justice, he had no idea of her trouble. He was as kind in his manner and as courteous as ever to her, but there was a spice of wicked- ness about Pussie that was very invigorat- ing after the long years spent with a woman who was too large-hearted for gossip, too good and true for the realities of life. As
for Pussie—Ah! well, the world is a rough school, and Becky Sharp has many descen- dants, and Pussie was compounded of strange mixture, from which one item, "a heart", had been omitted.
One afternoon in particular Beatrice re- membered all her life. She was standing
waiting at the slip-rails with Pussie for the man of the house to return. One of the
station children, a brown-haired tot of two, had toddled along with them, and Beatrice had lifted it up in her arms to carry it over the creek. The baby crowed and laughed, and pulled at her hair with its busy little fingers. Untidiness is only becoming to the very young, and Beatrice, trying to put back the straying locks, with the searching westering sun shining full in her face—and trouble was not improving her failing charms—was not looking at her best. At that moment Gus cantered towards them. She looked up and smiled at him, but the smile faded quickly. He was looking at her closely—very closely—and his face looked disturbed. "What have you been doing to yourself, Bee; you don't look at all well?" he said irritably, and then he looked at Pussie, with her fresh young tints and active movements. She swung the baby to her shoulder, and told him to let her give the child a ride. He dis- mounted, and gave the bridle to her, while he held the baby on the saddle. It was a pretty picture. Gus was very fond of chil- dren, and they of him, and his face was merry and clear again as he encouraged the baby to "hold on" and Pussie ran ahead urging the horse to a quick walk.
Beatrice turned away to hide the mist of tears that would rise. She was nearly 60 now, and time will tell. Her cheeks had lost some of their rounded outline, her figure its slightness, and there were grey streaks in the thick dark hair. She remem- bered that night on board the steamer, when she had shuddered at the thoughts of what ten years might do. In ten years from now she would be quite an old woman, and Gus—
His merry laugh rang out, as if in answer to her thoughts. He was carrying the baby now, and soothing its fears, and Pussie laughed, and said he would be a good nurse, and wondered to see a man so awfully fond
And then Beatrice wondered also, but not aloud, if things would have been any different if she had had a child of his own to be a link between them.
Next day Gus and Pussie went for a long ride to the farthest boundary. It would be the last one, for Pussie was soon going away. Beatrice had managed to work that —cleverly, too—so that even Pussie did not suspect her hand in it, and Beatrice hated herself for stooping to subterfuge, but she was fighting for what was dearer to her
Yes, Pussie was going, but things could never be as they had been. The woman's eyes were opened, and she saw all the hor- ror of the long fight before her with the vanishing years, and knew that no human power can conquer time.
Her heart was very bitter as she watched them ride away. Pussie waved to her thea- trically from the slip-rails and then they were gone, and Beatrice went into the big, lonely house alone.
In all that followed Pussie Chandler was wont to assert that Beatrice Pakenham had not an ounce of heart.
"As for me," she said to her sympathising listeners, "I was quite upset, and ill for days. It was a dreadful thing. The horse bolted just in sight of home, and Gus was flung against the big bloodwood tree before our eyes. I tore up as fast as I could. You see I had been riding with him, and Beatrice and the groom ran out of the stable-yard and got to him just as I did.
"And when the groom said, 'Oh, ma'am, I'm afraid he's dead,' she scarcely looked sorry. Most women would have screamed and fainted, but not Beatrice Pakenham. She just sat down, and took his head in her lap, and gave orders to send for the doc- tor, and all that, as coolly as you pleased."
Which allowing for exaggeration, was ex-
actly what did happen. Beatrice held the
poor, crushed body in her arms, without either screaming or fainting. He was not dead, but she knew he would die. but he opened his eyes once, and he spoke once. "Bee," he said, "Darling 'Bee'," and the look in his eyes and the words took her back to the starlit evenings on the ocean liner, and the unforgotten time of love that seemed undying, and when two human be- ings caught the glimpse of heaven that only
comes to men and women once in a life time.
"Bee," he said, "Darling Bee," and Bea- trice was satisfied.
Pussie also told her friends that Mrs. Pakenham was wicked enough to disregard her husband's last wishes.
"For he had just been telling me," said Pussie, "that he wished me to live at Eagle's- nest always, and that if ever anything did happen to him (strange, was it not, that he should speak like that just before the dreadful accident happened?) he hoped that I would have his diamond ring to wear in remembrance of our friendship; and, of course, the old woman refused to comply with either of his requests. Poor Gus, I only hope his spirit was hovering round somewhere, just to see the look on her face when she knew he was really dead. He would know her real character then, at any rate. I am speaking the truth when I say she looked positively 'glad'."
And, no doubt, Pussie did speak truth as regards her last assertion. Beatrice took her sorrow strangely, though a deep and lasting sorrow it was. There was never a day but she would miss the quick footstep and the merry smile of the man who was more than husband—lover, friend, and son in her lonely life.
And yet under all lay a feeling that it was all for the best. At least he died loving her still. His words proved that, and the haunt- ing nightmare of the fast-fleeting years was vanquished for ever—age to age, and youth to youth. Had he lived neither would have escaped the inevitable consequence of their folly, and she still had the memory of the golden years before his love had changed or cooled. So no doubt if Pussie's pious wish could have been realised, and Gus Paken- ham's watching spirit have seen, it would also have understood, and no doubt realised, as Beatrice did that sometimes mercy is in death's disguise.