Old Roses by Gilbert Parker

Story type: Literature

It was a barren country, and Wadgery was generally shrivelled with heat, but he always had roses in his garden, on his window-sill, or in his button-hole. Growing flowers under difficulties was his recreation. That was why he was called Old Roses. It was not otherwise inapt, for there was something antique about him, though he wasn’t old; a flavour, an old-fashioned repose and self-possession. He was Inspector of Tanks for this God-forsaken country. Apart from his duties he kept mostly to himself, though when not travelling he always went down to O’Fallen’s Hotel once a day for a glass of whisky and water–whisky kept especially for him; and as he drank this slowly he talked to Victoria Lindley the barmaid, or to any chance visitors whom he knew. He never drank with any one, nor asked any one to drink; and, strange to say, no one resented this. As Vic said: “He was different.” Dicky Merritt, the solicitor, who was hail-fellow with squatter, homestead lessee, cockatoo-farmer, and shearer, called him “a lively old buffer.” It was he, indeed, who gave him the name of Old Roses. Dicky sometimes went over to Long Neck Billabong, where Old Roses lived, for a reel, as he put it, and he always carried away a deep impression of the Inspector’s qualities.

“Had his day,” said Dicky in O’Fallen’s sitting-room one night, “in marble halls, or I’m a Jack. Run neck and neck with almighty swells once. Might live here for a thousand years and he’d still be the nonesuch of the back-blocks. I’d patent him–file my caveat for him to-morrow, if I could, bully Old Roses!”

Victoria Lindley, the barmaid, lifted her chin slightly from her hands, as she leaned through the opening between the bar and the sitting-room, and said: “Mr. Merritt, Old Roses is a gentleman; and a gentleman is a gentleman till he–“

“Till he humps his bluey into the Never Never Land, Vic? But what do you know about gentlemen, anyway? You were born only five miles from the jumping-off place, my dear.”

“Oh,” was the quiet reply, “a woman–the commonest woman–knows a gentleman by instinct. It isn’t what they do, it’s what they don’t do; and Old Roses doesn’t do lots of things.”

“Right you are, Victoria, right you are again! You do Tibbooburra credit. Old Roses has the root of the matter in him–and there you have it.”

Dicky had a profound admiration for Vic. She had brains, was perfectly fearless, no man had ever taken a liberty with her, and every one in the Wadgery country who visited O’Fallen’s had a wholesome respect for her opinion.

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About this time news came that the Governor, Lord Malice, would pass through Wadgery on his tour up the back-blocks. A great function was necessary. It was arranged. Then came the question of the address of welcome to be delivered at the banquet. Dicky Merritt and the local doctor were named for the task, but they both declared they’d only “make rot of it,” and suggested Old Roses.

They went to lay the thing before him. They found him in his garden. He greeted them, smiling in his quiet, enigmatical way, and listened. While Dicky spoke, a flush slowly passed over him, and then immediately left him pale; but he stood perfectly still, his hand leaning against a sandal tree, and the coldness of his face warmed up again slowly. His head having been bent attentively as he listened, they did not see anything unusual.

After a moment of inscrutable deliberation, he answered that he would do as they wished. Dicky hinted that he would require some information about Lord Malice’s past career and his family’s history, but he assured them that he did not need it; and his eyes idled ironically with Dicky’s face.

When the two had gone, Old Roses sat in his room, a handful of letters, a photograph, and a couple of decorations spread out before him, his fingers resting on them, his look engaged with a far horizon.

The Governor came. He was met outside the township by the citizens and escorted in–a dusty and numerous cavalcade. They passed the Inspector’s house. The garden was blooming, and on the roof a flag was flying. Struck by the singular character of the place Lord Malice asked who lived there, and proposed stopping for a moment to make the acquaintance of its owner; adding, with some slight sarcasm, that if the officers of the Government were too busy to pay their respects to their Governor, their Governor must pay his respects to them. But Old Roses was not in the garden nor in the house, and they left without seeing him. He was sitting under a willow at the billabong, reading over and over to himself the address to be delivered before the Governor in the evening. As he read his face had a wintry and inhospitable look.

The night came. Old Roses entered the dining-room quietly with the crowd, far in the Governor’s wake. According to his request, he was given a seat in a distant corner, where he was quite inconspicuous. Most of the men present were in evening dress. He wore a plain tweed suit, but carried a handsome rose in his button-hole. It was impossible to put him at a disadvantage. He looked distinguished as he was. He appeared to be much interested in Lord Malice. The early proceedings were cordial, for the Governor and his suite made themselves agreeable, and talk flowed amiably. After a time there was a rattle of knives and forks, and the Chairman rose. Then, after a chorus of “hear, hears,” there was general silence. The doorways of the room were filled by the women-servants of the hotel. Chief among them was Vic, who kept her eyes fixed on Old Roses. She knew that he was to read the address and speak, and she was more interested in him and in his success than in Lord Malice and his suite. Her admiration of him was great. He had always treated her as though she had been born a lady, and it had done her good.

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“And I call upon Mr. Adam Sherwood to speak to the health of His Excellency, Lord Malice.”

In his modest corner Old Roses stretched to his feet. The Governor glanced over carelessly. He only saw a figure in grey, with a rose in his button-hole. The Chairman whispered that it was the owner of the house and garden which had interested His Excellency that afternoon. His Excellency looked a little closer, but saw only a rim of iron-grey hair above the paper held before Old Roses’ face.

Then a voice came from behind the paper: “Your Excellency–“

At the first words the Governor started, and his eyes flashed searchingly, curiously at the paper that walled the face, and at the iron-grey hair. The voice rose distinct and clear, with modulated emphasis. It had a peculiarly penetrating quality. A few in the room–and particularly Vic–were struck by something in the voice: that it resembled another voice. She soon found the trail. Her eyes also fastened on the paper. Then she moved and went to another door. Here she could see behind the paper at an angle. Her eyes ran from the screened face to that of the Governor. His Excellency had dropped the lower part of his face in his hand, and he was listening intently. Vic noticed that his eyes were painfully grave and concerned. She also noticed other things.

The address was strange. It had been submitted to the Committee, and though it struck them as out-of the-wayish, it had been approved. It seemed different when read as Old Roses was reading it. The words sounded inclement as they were chiselled out by the speaker’s voice. Dicky Merritt afterwards declared that many phrases were interpolated by Old Roses at the moment.

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The speaker referred intimately and with peculiar knowledge to the family history of Lord Malice, to certain more or less private matters which did not concern the public, to the antiquity of the name, and the high duty devolving upon one who bore the Earldom of Malice. He dwelt upon the personal character of His Excellency’s antecedents, and praised their honourable services to the country. He referred to the death of Lord Malice’s eldest brother in Burmah, but he did it strangely. Then, with acute incisiveness, he drew a picture of what a person in so exalted a position as a Governor should be and should not be. His voice assuredly at this point had a touch of scorn. The aides-de-camp were nervous, the Chairman apprehensive, the Committee ill at ease. But the Governor now was perfectly still, though, as Vic Lindley thought, rather pinched and old-looking. His fingers toyed with a wine-glass, but his eyes never wavered from that paper and the grey hair.

Presently the voice of the speaker changed.

“But,” said he, “in Lord Malice we have–the perfect Governor; a man of blameless and enviable life, and possessed abundantly of discreetness, judgment, administrative ability and power; the absolute type of English nobility and British character.”

He dropped the paper from before his face, and his eyes met those of the Governor, and stayed. Lord Malice let go a long choking breath, which sounded like immeasurable relief. During the rest of the speech–delivered in a fine-tempered voice–he sat as in a dream, his eyes intently upon the other, who now seemed to recite rather than read. He thrilled all by the pleasant resonance of his tones, and sent the blood aching delightfully through Victoria Lindley’s veins.

When he sat down there was immense applause. The Governor rose in reply. He spoke in a low voice, but any one listening outside would have said that Old Roses was still speaking. By this resemblance the girl, Vic, had trailed to others. It was now apparent to many, but Dicky said afterwards that it was simply a case of birth and breeding–men used to walking red carpet grew alike, just as stud-owners and rabbit-catchers did.

The last words of the Governor’s reply were delivered in a convincing tone as his eyes hung on Old Roses’ face.

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“And, as I am indebted to you, gentlemen, for the feelings of loyalty to the Throne which prompted this reception and the address just delivered, so I am indebted to Mr.–Adam Sherwood for his admirable words and the unusual sincerity and eloquence of his speech; and to both you and him for most notable kindness.”

Immediately after the Governor’s speech Old Roses stole out; but as he passed through the door where Vic stood, his hand brushed against hers. Feeling its touch, he grasped it eagerly for an instant as though he were glad of the friendliness in her eyes.

It was just before dawn of the morning that the Governor knocked at the door of the house by Long Neck Billabong. The door opened at once, and he entered without a word.

He and Old Roses stood face to face. His countenance was drawn and worn, the other’s cold and calm. “Tom, Tom,” Lord Malice said, “we thought you were dead–“

“That is, Edward, having left me to my fate in Burmah–you were only half a mile away with a column of stout soldiers and hillmen–you waited till my death was reported, and seemed assured, and then came on to England: to take the title, just vacant by our father’s death, and to marry my intended wife, who, God knows, appeared to have little care which brother it was! You got both. I was long a prisoner. When I got free, I learned all; I bided my time. I was waiting till you had a child. Twelve years have gone: you have no child. But I shall spare you awhile longer. If your wife should die, or you should yet have a child, I shall return.”

The Governor lifted his head wearily from the table where he now sat. “Tom,” he said in a low, heavy voice, “I was always something of a scoundrel, but I’ve repented of that thing every day of my life since. It has been knives–knives all the way. I am glad–I can’t tell you how glad–that you are alive.”

He stretched out his hand with a motion of great relief. “I was afraid you were going to speak to-night–to tell all, even though I was your brother. You spared me for the sake–“

“For the sake of the family name,” the other interjected stonily.

“For the sake of our name. But I would have taken my punishment, in thankfulness, because you are alive.”

“Taken it like a man, your Excellency,” was the low rejoinder. He laughed bitterly.

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“You will not wipe the thing out, Tom? You will not wipe it out, and come back, and take your own–now?” said the other anxiously.

The other dried the perspiration from his forehead. “I will come back in my own time; and it can never be wiped out. For you shook all my faith in my old world. That’s the worst thing that can happen a man. I only believe in the very common people now–those who are not put upon their honour. One doesn’t expect it of them, and, unlikely as it is, one isn’t often deceived. I think we’d better talk no more about it.”

“You mean I had better go.”

“I think so. I am going to marry soon.” The other started nervously.

“You needn’t be so shocked. I will come back one day, but not till your wife dies, or you have a child, as I said.”

The Governor rose to his feet, and went to the door. “Whom do you intend marrying?” he asked in a voice far from vice-regal, only humbled and disturbed. The reply was instant and keen: “A bar-maid.”

The other’s hand dropped from the door. But Old Roses, passing over, opened it, and, waiting for the other to pass through, said: “I do not doubt but there will be issue. Good-day, my lord!”

The Governor passed out from the pale light of the lamp into the grey and moist morning. He turned at a point where the house would be lost to view, and saw the other still standing there. The voice of Old Roses kept ringing in his ears sardonically. He knew that his punishment must go on and on; and it did.

Old Roses married Victoria Lindley from “out Tibbooburra way,” and there was comely issue, and that issue is now at Eton; for Esau came into his birthright, as he said he would, at his own time. But he and his wife have a way of being indifferent to the gay, astonished world; and, uncommon as it may seem, he has not tired of her.

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