At length, however, the day before my departure arrived, and I rode over to the Court to pay my farewell visit. The Squire was away at a neighbouring farm, and Mrs. Allerton had accompanied him for a morning drive. I found Ruth in the old-fashioned garden, near the fish-pond, a place where a stone balustered terrace had been built, nigh which was a seat which commanded an unrivalled view in our eyes. There were Hollingbourne Woods and Torry Hill—the marshes by the sea, with the isle of Sheppy like a cloud in the hazy distance.
It was called the Lady’s Seat, and was popularly supposed to have been placed there and much affected by an ancestress who had lost her lover in the battle of Long Marston Moor. It was the favourite resort of Ruth, who was of a contemplative and studious disposition. Here she was accustomed to take her sketch-book or a volume, and spend many a glad spring morning or still summer afternoon under the shade of the ancestral oaks. Half instinctively I wended my steps thither, when I heard that the Squire and Mrs. Allerton had driven over to Ollendean.
‘You find me here all alone,’ said she, ‘and I am not sorry. I have been reading the Bride of Lammermoor over again, and making myself low-spirited over the woes of that most unlucky Lucy Ashton. Yet, I cannot but think, if she had acted with more firmness, and been true to her better nature, the tragedy need never have taken place. She was a victim of indecision.’
‘What, in spite of her mother, that terribly despotic matron?’ said I, ‘and the prophecy?—
‘“When the last Laird of Ravenswood to Ravenswood shall ride.|
And woo a dead maiden to be his bride.
He shall stable his steed in the Kelpie’s flow.
And his name shall be lost for evermoe!”
What girl could stand against such a rhythmical doom, even leaving out the inexorable parent?’
‘Some girls would—most of them, I hope,’ she said, looking dreamily across the far wide landscape, over the greater part of which her ancestors had once held lordship. ‘It might have rent her heart well nigh to resist her parents, but there was no other course to pursue.’
‘Do you think you would have had strength of mind and constancy enough to have kept faith with the ruined, ill-fated Ravenswood?’ asked I, with a sudden impulse; ‘think of the superior claims of a smooth, safe marriage with the prosperous Laird of Bucklaw.’
Her cheek flushed for a moment, but her eye met mine with an artless candour, which showed how little she realised the analogy.
‘It’s hard to go at once from romance to reality,’ she said, ‘and I can hardly imagine the situation occurring to any one in these modern days; but, surely, if she had ever loved him, she must have clung to him more for his poverty and his banishment. As for agreeing to her mother’s hateful project, she must have been mad, poor thing, as she afterwards proved to be, when she permitted them to speak of it to her. But suppose we leave Sir Walter here,’ putting the book on the seat, ‘and walk down the beech avenue this lovely morning. Have you had any sport lately? I don’t think you have been over for a week.’
For a while, as we walked along the well-known avenue which followed the brow of the eminence, through the opening of which the hills, the valleys, with their woods of hazel and Spanish chestnut contrasted strangely with the dreary marshes, a momentary forgetfulness of my plans and purpose possessed me. We talked as usual upon the hundred and one subjects which were common ground between us. The state of the county politics, the new clergyman in a neighbouring parish credited with advanced views, the box of new books from Mudie’s, the grand run from Staplehurst, in which the Squire had been well up with the hounds, a great dinner party which was to take place next week and to which I was to come and practise a part in a charade. A string of half-sisterly confidences which had always, since our first meeting, been open to me, and of which neither of us had ever thought, except as trifles, which might pass between ordinary friends or relatives of similar ages. My heart had only now undeceived itself. Hers was as yet strong and unfaltering, with the unspecting confidence of innocent girlhood.
I have often thought since that Ruth Allerton was a very uncommon type of womanhood, singularly unversed in the lore of the affections, in which knowledge girls of her age so often discover a premature shrewdness. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she was indisposed to the amusements befitting her age. The Squire abhorred London, and rarely went except when he could not avoid it. To Mrs. Allerton there was no happiness where her husband was not. And so it came to pass that Ruth had lived a life practically isolated from the gay world, fully absorbed in her own pursuits and resources.
When I recall the subjects upon which our long talks chiefly turned—such unusual ones, for instance, as what was the happiest state of life, whether to live for oneself or for others? This we decided very strongly in favour of the unselfish line, as who at our ages would not? A great and often resolved scheme for hers was, how to do the greatest good to the poor in this or any other neighbourhood, without destroying their independence and self-respect. How many plots against capitalists did we hatch in this behalf—as lawyers say.
What was the exact proportion of mental and bodily labour most fitted to produce true health of sense and spirit. Whether voluntary or involuntary labour was most beneficial.
Since then, how many different women of every creed and clime, rank and degree, have I known, only to confirm my fixed opinion, that she was a choice floweret of the rarest type of womanhood. For, old or young, rich or poor, wise or vain, homely or fair, I have never met with any woman like her.
Surely, there never was one more unconscious of her personal attractions. They were sufficiently visible to the ordinary gaze, yet she rarely troubled herself to heighten them in the slightest degree, never alluded to her form or face, hardly to those of others, and never but as illustrations of a fact. Plainness of apparel, except on occasions when she could not escape adornment, invariably characterised her, though she, perhaps, was a little exigeante as to material. I used laughingly to tell her that she would make an excellent Quakeress, but that her muslin would always be wonderfully fine, and cost more than any one else’s.
Now, all this pleasant companionship must perforce come to an end. No more arguments when, with the pure light of truth shining from her earnest eyes, she would combat my utilitarian views, often adopted to arouse opposition, and to evoke the enthusiasm in which I delighted.
I did not, excited as I was with the idea, realise within myself the completeness of disruption which would be caused from all my old ties and life moorings.
‘Ruth,’ said I, ‘do you know that a sense of mournful foreboding is creeping over me, lovely as is the day and perfect the scene. I have bad news which I must tell you. I am about to leave Dibblestowe Leys, and, and, indeed, England, perhaps for some years.’
‘Leave England,’ she said, with such a sudden, sharp intonation, almost a cry of pain, that I looked up amazed. ‘Oh, you are not speaking in earnest, Hereward; tell me you are not.’
‘I must go away from this place, happy as I have been here,’ I said. ‘And as I have no fortune, nor the slightest hope of making money here, I must go to some part of the world where I may, if I have luck, make it quickly.’
She had looked at me for one moment with a wild, piteous gaze of incredulity. Then she sank down on a rustic seat bench, and, turning away her head, sobbed unrestrainedly.
‘Ruth,’ said I, ‘dearest, darling Ruth! do not grieve so. I may, after all, only be a short time absent. Besides, most men have to leave their homes in youth. Why should I expect a better fate? If I had dreamed that you would feel it thus, I might have—’
She interrupted me with a wave of her hand, as if forbidding me to continue my explanation. I sat down beside her and permitted her to give free course to her grief.
After awhile she turned her face towards me,—that sweet face I so often see in my dreams. It was calm and still, but with the strange unnatural look which comes when all hope has passed away.
‘Why did you tell me so suddenly, Hereward?’ she said, softly. ‘You see you have made me confess to caring so very much for your departure. If I had had more warning, I might have behaved like a young lady of the period, and hid my heart behind a cheerful farewell. Are you not sorry for your hastiness?’
‘I am more glad than I ever was at anything in the world since I was born,’ I said, throwing myself on my knees before her, and kissing her cold hands, until they seemed to burn with the wild fever of my own blood. ‘But I feel as if I had treated the Squire and your mother dishonourably, in winning their daughter’s heart, under what they will consider false pretences.’
‘We have both been to blame,’ she said, sorrowfully, ‘if people are to be blamed for loving each other fondly, without a thought of evil or deceit. But we could not help it, I suppose. And I can certainly declare, that I did not think I cared more for you than for a dear friend whose tastes and feelings seemed much to harmonise with and elevate my own. And now you are going away—for ever, perhaps; must you go away? Does love always begin by making people utterly wretched?’
‘I must go away,’ I said, ‘unless I am to ask the Squire to please to support me for the love of his child, or unless I am to content myself with a position of sordid penury, as hateful to myself as it would be dishonouring to you. No, dearest; there is but one path to me now—that of honour and adventure. The die is cast. But what are we to say for ourselves at the Court?’
‘We must tell the truth, of course,’ she said, proudly. ‘There need be no concealment. I am not ashamed of my choice, my own Hereward—are you? Then let us go boldly to my dearest mother. I will tell her, as I have always told her, everything from a little girl. You are to dine here to-night, so you will have to tell my dear old father.’
‘And what will he say, Ruth, do you think, when I mention my very handsome expectations?’
‘He may be angry or grieved at first, but you must not mind that. The worst will soon be over. And he is so generous and just in all his thoughts—he will consider my happiness before everything. Tell him what you hope to do in—in—this far country; and that in a few years you will come to claim me. There is no more to be said. It is the truth, and the truth, he is fond of saying, always prevails.’
All this was very well, and as my darling looked into my face with her tender, honest eyes, I felt it to be in a way reassuring; but the truth was, in the present case, that I was most horribly frightened, and having a clearer view than my unworldly love, of the extremely inadequate grounds upon which I had sought her affection, dreaded the dinner referred to, as if it had been a feast to precede dissolution.
Having made up our minds to dare the dreadful alternative of facing the Squire, Ruth and I, with the happy rashness of youth, commenced to look upon our joint future as a thing assured, in some form or other, and to make plans with the cheerful confidence of birds in a premature spring.
After dinner, during which Ruth had been very quiet, even distraite,—but as she was often so, less notice was taken of her mood than would have been the case with a girl whose spirits were ordinarily lighter,—I opened the trenches.
‘I am afraid I shall have to say good-bye, soon, to this neighbourhood, and to all my pleasant visits to Allerton Court, Squire,’ said I, gulping it out.
‘How is that?’ said the Squire, ‘leave the country side! why, we couldn’t do without you—who is to drive Mrs. Allerton, and get ferns for Ruth, and sketch ruins for Dame Ermentrude?’
This was an old aunt, a special patroness of mine, who lived in what was called the Old Dower House, and who petted me for want of much other kin to waste her loving heart upon.
‘Why, we shall be altogether moped and desolated. I wanted you to ride that new horse for me this next season. Why not stay another year at the Leys? You won’t know too much farming then, I’ll be bound.’
‘And what am I to do afterwards?’ said I. ‘No, Squire, the long and the short of it is, that I have made up my mind to strike out a new path for myself, if not in this country, in some other.’
Here Mrs. Allerton and Ruth left us, and I continued with a boldness akin to recklessness.
‘And I have something more to tell you, Squire,’ said I, looking him full in the face, ‘something, I am afraid, that you will not approve of, but it cannot be helped.’
‘What the deuce is the matter?’ said the old man, ‘you haven’t married Miss Mangold? I should consider that imprudent, I must say, but not my affair.’
‘Never mind poor Jane Mangold, Squire,’ said I. ‘It is no laughing matter. Your daughter and I have discovered that we love one another, and have this day plighted our troth. You will not suspect me of making dishonourable use of the confidence with which you have always treated me, but, the fact is, I believe we neither of us suspected the state of our feelings, and the avowal of them to-day was the purest accident.’
‘What?’ said the Squire, jumping off his chair with alarm and astonishment, ‘do you mean to tell me that you two young fools have engaged yourselves to be married without asking any one’s leave in the matter? What in the name of everything imprudent have you to marry upon, Master Hereward? What geese—idiots—deaf-and-dumb blind incurables, have Mrs. Allerton and I been, and, Ruth, too, the last girl I should have ever thought would have dreamed of such folly. My poor Ruth!’
‘Squire,’ said I, ‘I will say good-bye, and get back to the Leys. I see you are too excited to hear what I have to say tonight.’
‘No, no, boy,’ he said, motioning me back to my chair. ‘Mustn’t turn you out like that. You’ve always been a good lad, and one after my own heart. But the inconceivable folly of two children like you wishing to be married. Why, it will be time enough for you to be thinking of it this day ten years, and not then, if you haven’t a home to offer her. And to think of my folly! I am the person most to blame in the matter.’
‘But, Squire,’ said I, ‘suppose I make a fair thing, as fortunes go, in five years, I shall then be six and twenty, and not so unpardonably young. Ruth is not eighteen, so she could afford to wait till she was three or four and twenty, without wasting her bloom.’
‘Wait be hanged!’ said the choleric old gentleman, ‘she would wait for twenty years. I know her nature; but do you think I want to see my girl shrivelling up into an angular old maid, with her temper and her health both soured together, her good looks gone, and her life wasted for the sake of a fellow who is, as like as not, racketting on the other side of the globe, and taking the matter very coolly? And what is this wonderful plan, may I ask, for making a fortune in five years?’
‘I am going to Australia to try my luck at these goldfields we hear so much about. There is no doubt they are wonderful places, and the yields are enormous.’
‘All lies, I dare say,’ said the distrustful senior. ‘Anyhow, I have no great opinion of colonies; lots of people go there, who are no great good when they leave, and they come back a great deal worse.’
‘Look at the paper,’ I said, and I unfolded the Forest Creek Herald, which I had kept and read and re-read till I knew the names of all the people on the diggings as well as if I had lived there.
‘People write queer things in newspapers, even in England,’ he said, reaching out his hand for the journal in question. ‘I hardly think they can be very trustworthy in a colony.’
‘Read for yourself,’ said I. ‘I think the internal evidence shows intelligence and respectability. There are chapter and verse for the many wonderful things recorded.’
‘Certainly, it is well printed and got up,’ he said, relenting somewhat as he glanced over it; ‘and really, it does seem all very wonderful and enticing. If I were a young man, I think I should take a run there myself. What does this mean? “We are gratified to learn that the shareholders in the Welcome Home Reef, who have been for more than a year hoping against hope, have struck good gold in their three hundred and fifty feet level. This at once sends up the shares to seventy-five and eighty. They were offered at seven ten last week. One gentleman whom we could name has realised twenty thousand pounds, in addition to his Sandy Creek profits, within the last fortnight.” ‘
‘It means,’ said I, ‘that a few energetic workers have been rewarded for their pluck and patience,—and after a fashion which would need half the years of a man’s life to develop in England.’
‘I must say,’ he continued, looking over the alluring announcements, ‘that such enterprises wear a very feasible appearance, as described here.’
And he began to quote afresh.
‘“The Crinoline Claim washed up for four hundred loads on Saturday last; the dirt went well over two ounces to the load. Not so far off a thousand pounds a man for eight weeks’ work. The shareholders are comparatively new arrivals.” That sounds encouraging, I must say,’ said the partly mollified elder. ‘But there is no certainty, no certainty. Ah, here’s another. “All previous finds on the field have been reduced to insignificance by the great find of the Welcome Nugget, at Whipstick, by Happy Jack and the Fiddler. Its net weight was 170 lb. 6 oz. Its value is estimated by the manager of the Bank of New Holland as not less than £8000 sterling.” Ha! ha! we don’t pull them up in old England like that, Hereward, lad! I suppose there’ll be no keeping thee, I should go myself if I were young again.’
On the morning after the storm—the winds and waves having somewhat abated—a calmer consideration of matters ensued. Of course, Ruth had confessed all things to her mother, and with feminine perseverance and entreaty had fully enlisted that kindly matron on her side.
‘When I married your father, my dear,’ she said, ‘he never expected to succeed to this dear old place. Several lives lay between us and its possession, all of which were inscrutably removed. We had to undergo many things; but we never repented of the tie which had joined us before we came to our kingdom. Still, some provision is needed to be assured. I must say, I think Hereward very brave for resolving to go to such a horrid country, and not more adventurous than a young man should be.’
It was finally settled that our engagement, which could not be annulled without an amount of judicial cruelty which neither parent had the heart to inflict, should be conditionally ratified. I was to be permitted to seek my fortune in the far unknown land, concerning which they had such very slender information. Ruth would wait at home for five years, if that period should be consumed in the not always speedy process of making a fortune.
Have I before stated that the Squire and his wife were not average specimens of the upper classes of the day? Strange to say they elected to consult, the feelings of their child. They did not scoff, after the first natural outburst of the Squire, at youth and strength, high hope and honest determination. Nor secretly resolve to compel Ruth to accept the first middle-aged suitor of indifferent morals and unexceptionable fortune that presented himself. That such would have been the course pursued by a very large majority of parents occupying the same or a higher social position, my experience of life enables me to assert fearlessly. Thank Heaven, my darling had been blessed with a father and mother of wholly different ideas; otherwise she might not have been her sweet self, and the star which shone so brightly amid the storm-clouds which enveloped my career might have sunk for ever in darkness and despair.
We, happy and heedless children that we were, felt as transported with joy as if we had received permission to marry next month. Ruth was one of those maidens to whom watching and waiting have ever been nearly as suitable, indeed, quite as secretly satisfactory as the immediate fulfilment of their hopes, as affording scope for the self-sacrifice which constituted so large a portion of their nature. And I, on the other hand, felt moved with the natural passion of adventure, so strong in early youth, to kill my dragons and slay my enchanters in decent profusion, before I entered into the undisturbed possession of the fairy princess and the enchanted castle.
Of course, Mrs. Grundy outdid herself in protestations against the madness of the Squire for even sanctioning our engagement. A young man without a penny in the world, who was going to a rude wild country like Australia, from which he never would be heard of again. And really, it certainly was so difficult to believe—here they were permitting that nice, sweet girl—she had not much money to be sure, but she belonged to a county family—to engage herself to a penniless youngster, without money, profession, or expectation!
Fortunately for me, both the Squire and his wife treated such babble with supreme contempt. They were absurd enough to desire above all their daughter’s happiness. They knew her steadfast disposition too well to doubt her constancy—to think of coercing her will. The affair was—even the marriage which it foreshadowed—a fixed and settled thing, not to be gossiped about but to be made the best of.
The Squire made an attempt to prevent my emigration which, like most English people of assured position, he looked upon as more bitter than death. He offered me one of his own farms at a low rent, with a promise of a loan of money sufficient to stock it. But my pride was fully aroused. My determination to do something worthy of the inestimable treasure they had confided to me was unalterable. So, in despite of all obstacles and hindrances, a month saw my passage taken, and all preparations made for my voyage to the other end of the world.
My uncle did not attempt to alter my heroic determination; he acted sensibly, if not affectionately.
‘I observe in the papers,’ he said, ‘that very astonishing finds have been made by the adventurers who have crowded from all lands to the Australian goldfields. You are young and strong, and totally without occupation. All the better for you that you have good blood in your veins. Your sisters will need every farthing of what was left by my brother. Still, I can make shift to pay your passage, and find you a decent outfit. You may make a fortune. Many as broken a ship has come to land. Write now and then and say how you get on. We have not, perhaps, been the most affectionate of relatives. When you reach my age you may, perhaps, understand some of the feelings of a disappointed man. Sincerely I bid God to bless and speed you.’
He shook my hand more warmly than I thought it was in his nature to do. My sisters hung weeping around me. In a few minutes the dog-cart came to take me to the station, and I left the home of my boyhood—for ever. Joe Bulder joined me at the station. That evening we slept on board the grand clipper ship Marco Polo, Captain Driver, bound for Melbourne, in company with four hundred and fifty other passengers, of every conceivable age, profession, and variety of mankind.