“Do you know that I have heard from Australia?” asked Mrs. Verner.
The words aroused him thoroughly. “Have you? I did not know it.”
“I wonder Mary Tynn did not tell you. The letters came this morning. If you look about”—turning her eyes on the tables and places—“you will find them somewhere.”
Lionel knew that Mary Tynn had been too much absorbed in his business to find room in her thoughts for letters from Australia. “Are these the letters?” he asked, taking up two from a side-table.
“You’ll know them by the post-marks. Do sit down and read them to me, Lionel. My sight is not good for letters now, and I couldn’t read half that was in them. The ink’s as pale as water. If it was the ink Fred took out, the sea must have washed into it. Yes, yes, you must I read both to me, and I shall not let you go away before dinner.”
He did not like, in his good nature, to refuse her. And he sat there and read the long letters. Read Sibylla’s. Before the last one was fully accomplished, Lionel’s cheeks wore their hectic flush.
They had made a very quick and excellent passage. But Sibylla found Melbourne hateful. And Fred was ill; ill with fever. A fever was raging in a part of the crowded town, and he had caught it. She did not think it was a catching fever, either, she added; people said it arose from the over-population. They could not as yet hear of John, or his money, or anything about him; but Fred would see into it when he got better. They were at a part of Melbourne called Canvas Town, and she, Sibylla, was sick of it, and Fred drank heaps of brandy. If it were all land between her and home, she should set off at once on foot, and toil her way back again. She wished she had never come! Everything she cared for, except Fred, seemed to be left behind in England.
Such was her letter. Fred’s was gloomy also, in a different way. He said nothing about any fever; he mentioned, casually, as it appeared, that he was not well, but that was all. He had not learned tidings of John, but had not had time yet to make inquiries. The worst piece of news he mentioned was the loss of his desk, which had contained the chief portion of his money. It had disappeared in a mysterious manner immediately after being taken off the ship—he concluded by the light fingers of some crimp, or thief, shoals of whom crowded on the quay. He was in hopes yet to find it, and had not told Sibylla. That was all he had to say at present, but would write again by the next packet.
“It is not very cheering news on the whole, is it?” said Mrs. Verner, as Lionel folded the letters.
“No. They had evidently not received the tidings of my uncle’s death, or we should have heard that they were already coming back again.”
“I don’t know that,” replied Mrs. Verner. “Fred worships money, and he would not suffer what was left by poor John to slip through his fingers. He will stay till he has realised it. I hope they will think to bring me back some memento of my lost boy! If it were only the handkerchief he used last, I should value it.”