‘SIR—Circumstances have recently been brought to my knowledge connected with your present mode of life in Australia which have entirely changed my opinion of your character.
‘Without further alluding to facts, with which I have been made acquainted through the correspondence of a resident at the Oxley diggings and former acquaintance (I enclose the communication), I may state here that I feel myself precluded from all future friendship or association with you.
‘Deeply painful as it has been to me and others to decide thus irrevocably, you must be aware that your conduct leaves me no alternative as a father, as a gentleman. May God forgive you. I should be false to my heart’s truest feelings if I could add that I did.—Yours obediently.
‘GEOFFRY ALLERTON.‘Hereward Pole, Esq..
‘The Oxley, N. S. Wales, Australia.’
More than once had I turned and re-turned this fatal scroll, like one who doubts and fears of doom irrevocable, spirit-crushing, eternal.
‘What foulest slander, what devilish falsehood could have led to this astounding change in the warm-hearted old squire? And if he and his trusting charitable wife believed—as they must have done—the hateful lying slander, what would be the feelings of my pure, gentle, true-hearted Ruth?
And could she desert me at the first whisper of the breath of calumny, she whom I had known to be not less gentle than steadfast? Did I not remember with the vividness of yesterday our walk near the upland terrace along the beech avenue, our youthful sympathy with the Master of Ravenswood, and her scorn of the too easily-swayed Lucy Ashton?
As I sat staring at vacancy, rigid with despair and hate of my enemy—for who but Algernon Malgrade had, through some emissary near his old abode, worked all this misery and ruin—I could yet see Ruth’s calm eye and severe features as she expressed her belief in the fond faith and clinging adherence to an absent lover, noblest, most exalted attributes of womanhood. Covering my face in an agony too deep for words, well-nigh too great for human endurance, I took comfort from the recollection.
Again and again I re-read the serpent-like scroll which had been cast into my Eden of love and faith, whence I was now, it would appear, for ever cast forth. It was addressed to an erstwhile companion and fellow-reprobate, sharer in Malgrade’s darkest iniquities, but who, more astute or more fortunate than he, had never been actually convicted of dishonourable conduct, and was therefore still in the enjoyment of his social position. The poisonous extract ran thus—
|‘I daresay you remember something about that fellow Pole, who migrated to this strange quarter of the globe just before I did. I never liked the confounded prig, but did him the justice to think that he was hard-working and what the world calls respectable. Still I think poor old Allerton, who was ass enough to allow that nice daughter of his to become engaged to him, ought to know that he has been living in the most open manner with a woman named Morsley, who left her husband to nurse him when he received a wound in the escort robbery, and has remained with him ever since. She was said to have been a tendresse of his when he was playing at farming with her father, old Mangold, in Kent. People don’t mind that sort of thing here, and I am not straightlaced, as you know, but I never was a sanctimonious hypocrite, and I can’t stand fellows who sail under false colours.’|
This artfully concocted missile had not failed of its effect. Like the frail dart, the keen point of which has been steeped in the festering relics of the charnel house, the merest scratch was sufficient to rankle and inflame into a mortal wound. ‘The death of hope, love, friendship, all that is, except mere breath,’ had followed. Should I ever be able to refute the calumny? Should I ever be afforded an opportunity to clear myself of this subtle, deadliest accusation? For the arch-assassin and conspirator in the matter was difficult to reach. We were already known to be sworn enemies. To charge him with the villainy, to assail him with reproaches, would serve no good end. He would probably reply with his polished, imperturbable sneer, well gratified to find that the barbed arrow had gone home. For an actual hand to hand conflict the time and place were not fitting. Men did not carry arms at our diggings, and though I felt as if I could have crushed every bone in his body, yet I knew that he was an adept at every kind of athletic exercise, and that an attack by me could only end in an unseemly scuffle and a separation by the adjoining bystanders, with an ultimate appeal to the police-office. Satisfaction was not to be obtained in that way. I must bide my time. He might yet be incriminated in the escort robbery. Merlin was following up the trail like a sleuth-hound. I should yet see him in the dock, thence to receive the full measure of his deserts.
A month passed. How I bore up under my burden I cannot tell. None can ever know. I was fortunate in having the inestimable distraction of full and exhausting bodily toil, which to the strong man, whose muscular power will bear the strain, supplies an anodyne to which none other is comparable. To the Major, who shared all my secrets, though I had not been put into full possession of his, I confided my griefs. He was less sardonic than I had ever known him.
‘If I were weak enough to make an exception in favour of any daughter of Eve, which I don’t say I do,’ he answered musingly, ‘I should do so in the case of Miss Allerton. She is, perhaps, one of the rare feminine flowerets which a certain consensus of persons of experience have decided to bloom once in a century. Were I in love, like you, which God forbid, I should hope against hope.’
Did the Major sigh? I could not tell. It would be too wonderful were it so. But after delivering himself of this most unusual sentiment, he departed abruptly.
I was approaching a phase of stony despair, which, apparently, no outward occurrences had power to change, when a letter was brought to me on which I instantly descried the long-loved, long-lamented characters of my love.
Had I been sick and like to die? Even in this hour of sanity and security, I fully believe so. That dull, darksome despair of life, the denial of all worth and value in existence, had set in, which kills in some races even as surely as the sword, though silently as the fatal cup. The Lascar casts himself down, saying I shall die, and by the simple exercise of will—hereditarily so directed—even thus does die. Why not the hopeless lover?
Never before had I opened one of her dear letters without being pervaded by a feeling of joy and serenity, which seemed as with some supernal influence to dispel the mists of doubt and danger by which my life was environed. Fearing, as I had good reason now to do, lest the Argosy, with all my freight of happiness, had hopelessly foundered, I yet had an instinctive reminiscent sensation of the well-remembered gracious influence. Nor was it illusory. Opening the letter with the obstinately-resolved feeling of one who knows that his charter of life or death, the release or the death warrant, lies between those delicate sheets, I read no farther than ‘My darling Hereward,’ when I threw myself on my knees and kissed the letter again and again in an agony of love and gratitude, as though it bore the pardon of a soul ransomed from the Inferno.
When my throbbing heart and whirling brain would permit me, I addressed myself more collectedly to the closely-written pages, which ran thus—
‘I could not send you this before, though I grieved. They tell me all through the delirium of my illness that you would be left in doubt of your own Ruth, and of her love towards you, even after the wicked slander which has so injured you in papa’s estimation. For I have been ill, very ill, my darling, and my poor brain is still weak and troubled with the dreadful imaginings which passed through it during the fever.
‘But they tell me I am recovering now, and after the change of air which my dearest mother and I are about to take, I feel that I shall be quite well again and able to act with firmness. How much strength of purpose shall I need to cling to my love through good and evil report.
‘Oh, what a dreadful thing it is that wicked people should be permitted to work such woe to those who have never injured them. I have barely heard of this Algernon Malgrade, whose fiendish letter has done all this evil to us. I was merely told that he was a man whom his friends had long cast off, and whose name was infamous in his own neighbourhood. That he could never have been a friend of yours, and is now a deadly enemy, I can well understand. And the deadliest foe he has proved himself to be.
‘Before I go further I MUST tell you that, though I never believed the wicked invention, yet from papa’s anger, from dear mother’s sorrow, and my own vexation that any act of yours should have been capable of such a construction, combined to harass me with doubts and to produce the illness from which I have just arisen. It was also most unfortunate that you did not tell me in your letters after you were wounded that the nurse, to whom I felt so grateful, was Jane Mangold. Every one knew her here as a handsome flighty girl before she left England, and all were ready to believe the worst of her after the circumstantial falsehood which Mr. Malgrade’s friend, whom I shall always consider as bad as himself, circulated.
‘But oh, my own Hereward—long loved, only loved that you are, as from the first—I believed in your truth with all my heart and soul; so I do now. My father’s bitter anger and disappointment at what he terms your ingratitude must yield to time and proof of your innocence. Dear mother is again on my side, and thinks he was over hasty in condemning you unheard. As for me, I am yours, in love and faith, as long as life lasts; and nothing that I can imagine would tear you from my heart, though I might die in the effort to sever myself from you.
‘Write at once, calmly and prudently, to dear father and set yourself right, as you must be able to do, with as little delay as possible. When I think that but for this terrible escort robbery you might even now have been on your way home, I can hardly bear to think of the wretches who planned it, and are responsible for all the evils which have since flowed from the crime.
‘Do not lose a moment in calming the fears about yourself which I constantly entertain, and in proclaiming your justification before my parents and all the world. But, whatever may be their opinion—and I pray that I may not be deemed wicked for opposing it,—I am and shall be always, your own
I carefully folded up and put away among my hoarded treasures this the most rare and precious of them all—the assurance of a pure and loving woman’s devotion. Encompassed as she was by apparently well-founded fears and anxieties, by the opposition of her parents and friends, and the opinion of the society in which she lived, what courage did she display! A difficult measure of antagonism for one so gentle and tender to withstand. Yet, for my sake, she repressed her natural desire to conform in all respects to the will of those tender parents with whom her life had been spent in willing obedience, choosing rather to trust in the fealty of one who, like me, was living in a strange land, the sport of wild adventure, of untoward fate, the undefended victim of calumny.
Whatever love mortal man could give, had ever given to woman, was her due; and if ever man had loved truly and with all the strength of his being, I, Hereward Pole, was that man. Why could I not at once take steps and in person defy my maligners and for ever put to flight all doubt of my good faith? I could almost do it. If I sold out now and quitted the goldfields I should leave with a fair fortune, a respectable competence sufficient to provide moderately for all my wants in days to come. But just now, at the crowning point of fortune, when everything, in a miner’s point of view, was in our favour, it seemed too hard to quit the still running golden stream and leave to others the garnering of the wondrous treasures which were within our grasp. No! I had sworn to return to the land of my forefathers with such a portion of the golden store of this new world as should suffice to equip their descendant with something of the old splendour of the ancient house. I had wrested so much from the dragons which guarded the Hesperides of the south. I would reappear, laden with what would disarm the sneers and purchase for evermore the smiles of the fawning crowd we dignify as society.
Yes! in despite of the weary load of overworn patience, of the crushing sorrow, never more sharply mordant than now, the machination of fiends, falsely called men, I would adhere to my first resolution, never departed from, and fight out my life-battle to the close. The stubborn pride which compelled my expatriation forbade a premature return.
Meanwhile, all that I could do should be done. I would write both to the Squire and to my own unfaltering high-souled love, placing before them the fullest details, the most minute facts. My exculpation I would leave to a just and merciful God, to my Ruth’s tender trust, to her father’s honour and plighted word.
And yet, how was I to bear myself towards the ill-fated woman who was so closely, so ominously linked with my fortunes? Was I, with selfish dread of damage, to cast her off at the first storm summons of wave and gathering blast, as seamen, mad with fear or reckless in despair, cast forth the weaker comrade from an overladen skiff? Not for even her dear love’s sake, not for the risk of withering up the life that remained to me, as a flame-scorched scroll, would I so far dishonour my manhood by the desertion of a trust.
This late-stricken victim, this forlorn creature, alone in a world which was thronged with foes and oppressors, had crept to my feet to die or to be succoured in sore need in the name of the old pure friendship of our joyous charmed youth, and was I to cast her off with calculating cowardice because her name had been used to forge a false indictment?
No! by heaven! some men might do this thing, might hug themselves with the belief that the seeming cruelty of prudence was but the duty to themselves and their stainless reputation which all men owe. But might the Lord do so to me, and more, in the words of the ancient record of man’s earliest tragedies, if I, Hereward Pole, stooped to so base a shelter from the storm of calumny which bade fair to whelm me.
I stated finally that she was about to sail for England shortly, that I had pledged myself to carry out arrangements to that effect, from which, of course, he would see that I could not now draw back, and that as she was returning to her father’s home he might, if he pleased, and I earnestly besought him to do so, visit her at the Leys, and hear from her own mouth the true facts of the case. When face to face with her, I could trust to his clear head and knowledge of the world to unravel any apparent mystery.
My task over, my despatches sealed and posted, somewhat of my burning anxiety was allayed. Some portion of the load was lifted from my soul. I felt nerved to attempt the completion of my errand to this fair land, abstracted as it had been hitherto, as by all the evil genii of an eastern tale, and yet I had so lately yearned but to cease from penitent, aimless struggling against fate, to sleep the sleep of the tired wayfarer, to lie down and die!
Thus I sought out Jane; told her—for I thought it well to do so—of the coward shaft that had been aimed against two lives. Her old fiery nature blazed fiercely out at Malgrade’s treachery.
‘Liar and coward that he is!’ she cried. ‘I could stab him with my own hand. He knew it was a lie—none better, but he hates me’ (here she blushed painfully) ‘not less than he does you. He thought he would ruin us both with the same miserable slander. If I was a man I would tear his false heart out. And yet’—here the whole expression of her face softened and changed—‘I only am to blame that my name could ever be used to injure yours, to cause you unhappiness and bring sorrow into your life and of those whom you love. I am indeed a most unhappy creature, born to do evil to my best friends, to those I love best; and I have at times a foreboding—oh! so dark and fearful, when I am long alone—that I shall yet work misery to you, Hereward Pole—my friend, my only friend! Why was I born? Why does God make such women as I have been—oh! why, why?’
Here her whole frame was shaken by a fit of passionate weeping which lasted for some time before I could interfere to comfort her and counsel a calm consideration of her future course. At length she controlled herself by a painful effort so piteously visible through every movement of her limbs and features that the hardest, coldest heart must then have permitted mercy to temper justice.
Raising her tear-stained face, and essaying at first vainly to speak, like a child who attempts to do so after abandonment to passionate grief, she again addressed me—
‘I declare, as God hears me, that I would go away this moment where you would never hear of me more and no tongue could pierce this poor bleeding heart afresh, but for one reason, and one only.’
‘Do not do anything so rash or foolish, my dear Jane. The worst has been said, no further harm can be done—that is one, if a small comfort. I will hasten my trip to Sydney. What I promised you nothing shall induce me to forego. Keep up your spirits, then. A few weeks will see you on your way to Dibblestowe Leys, bless the old place! Once there you can plead my cause, and clear yourself more effectively than all the letters in the world.’
‘It is a glimpse of heaven,’ she said, ‘and do you not think I have been looking forward to it all these weary months as my only reason for living? But for that, as I said, I would start away for Victoria or New Zealand, change my name, and disappear from your life and all that ever heard the name of Jane Mangold. How I wish I had never borne another. But I shall stay, because—because—I am afraid.’
Here so strange and terrible an expression of fear, of mortal fear, passed over her countenance that a half thought her brain had given way under the strain of her sufferings crossed my mind.
‘Jane, Jane,’ I said almost harshly, ‘what nonsense is this, what are you afraid of, or of whom?’
‘I do not know of whom,’ she said in a strange low voice, with her eyes fixed on vacancy as one who peers into thick darkness; ‘but I have a horrible dread, a kind of waking dream, of being murdered. And oh! how unspeakably awful, how fearful it must be to be killed in a second, in some cruel, painful way—sent to judgment with all one’s sins upon one’s head.’
‘And who is there to kill you?’ I said, trying but in vain to assume a cheerful tone. ‘Of course—well—’ here I hesitated; ‘but why talk of impossibilities, these sort of things are never done.’
‘They are done,’ she said, still in the same low, murmuring, unnatural tone. ‘Don’t you remember that case of Clara Denver, poor thing? I saw her laughing carelessly the very day before. Still I don’t think he would do it, though I used to think so once. Twice I dreamed of a man in a dark cloak, a sort of poncho. I could not see his face, but he had a knife, a horrid knife!’ Here she shuddered and almost gasped for breath. ‘I felt its sharp edge across my throat. Then I woke, screaming out. Twice I dreamed this. Do you think dreams are ever sent to warn people?’
‘You have been terrifying yourself with fancies and imagining, my poor Jane,’ I said, ‘until you begin to see visions. Look at the clear sky and the bright sunshine. Where is the need for all this gloom and sadness? You and I are still alive and well in spite of the misery which others have caused us. Let us look facts in the face, do our duty, and trust in God. I must tell Mrs. Yorke to make you walk a little more—you shut yourself up too much.’
‘You know I can’t go walking about like other people,’ she said; ‘but you are always good and kind, and I feel better already. I will try and think of nothing—nothing—till you are ready to start for Sydney; and then God may pardon me and give me another chance for happiness in this life. Goodbye!’
She held out her hand instinctively, and then half shyly withdrew it, as if she recognised some additional reason why not even the minor greetings of life should be exchanged between us; then, as I grasped hers, said timidly, ‘I suppose we may shake hands, mayn’t we?’
I pressed her hand in mute disavowal of the tyranny of the idle or evil—speaking world to bind our every act and speech. As she turned and walked slowly, almost feebly away, I turned away my head, for I could not bear the sight of her altered mien and form, so changed from the bright womanly graces of old days.
It yet wanted some hours of sunset. There was no need for my returning to the claim. I had provided for my share of the work being efficiently performed in my absence. I shrunk from the idea of sitting or lying down aimlessly after the tumult of emotion which I had so recently experienced. I turned my steps towards the forest path which led outwards from the diggings, breasting the slope with rapid stride, and feeling the sunset breeze as it fanned my brow an indescribable relief to a fevered spirit.
I had crossed more than one crest of the slate-strewn ranges, and was threading the close shrubbery of a narrow grassy dell, when I saw the woman whom we knew as Dolores coming along the track. Bareheaded, with rapid pace and eager gesture, she turned at once towards me as her eyes lighted on my approaching figure.
Her head was thrown back; her black hair, which was loose, fell in great masses down her back. Her eyes were flashing, and her white even teeth were set closely with a resolved, almost cruel expression.
I thought of passing her without appearing to take notice of her altered mein, but dismissed the idea as I marked her evident distress and agitation.
‘Good evening, Mrs. Malgrade,’ I said; ‘what’s wrong with you? Has anything happened?’
‘Happened!’ she said, with fierce hate and scorn filling every line of her features, and blazing in her large dark eyes that seemed aglow with unearthly light. ‘What should happen to a woman that’s bound to Algernon Malgrade but wrong and ill-treatment. What have you to say of a man that strikes, that beats his wife. God help me! I am not THAT, but the miserable woman that bears his name; and here I swear before God that I will never do so more, or break bread, or live under the same roof with him, if I starve or work my fingers to the bone for it.’
Here the excited woman fell upon her knees and raised her hands and face to heaven. ‘I swear that I, Dolores Lusada, will never more live under the same roof with Algernon Malgrade, or take a morsel of meat or a piece of money from his hand, if I should starve; and if I do not keep this oath may my brain wither and this hand rot to the shoulder. Look here, Harry,’ said she, ‘do you see the pretty mark?’ here I saw that her face was bruised and cut as with a heavy blow. ‘And see here,’ she pulled up her sleeve, and on her white round arm was another livid mark that no light stroke ever made. ‘And now you despise me. I know you do. Oh, Lord God! that ever I should have come to this!’
Then she threw herself upon the green turf, and covering her face with her hands wept and lamented with so dreadful an agony of tears, as if (in the phrase of childish days) ‘her heart would break.’
It was not in my nature to abstain from offering such poor shreds of consolation as I had to bestow to any woman under such stress of circumstances. I certainly distrusted, and in a way disliked, Dolores as much as I could dislike a very beautiful woman, which was not, after all, a very active sentiment. I was fully aware that she might work me evil, and that to be seen with her would by no means conduce to my social reputation. For even on goldfields Mrs. Grundy is no obsolete puissance.
I calmed the frantic woman, and partly persuaded her to go to a respectable quiet lodging in Yatala, where she could remain until either she effected a reconciliation with Malgrade, which I knew was highly probable, constituted as women are, or made final arrangements for separation. Go back at present she would not, nor had I the heart to urge her.
I felt a grim half-bitter smile pass over my features as I said aloud—
‘It is Kismet. Surely I am doomed to be the champion of every distressed dame and damsel on the goldfield. I am Amadis de Gaul or some other mediaeval knight of romance, or perchance Don Quixote himself. If my heart is reflected in my face, there could scarce be a closer presentment of the knight of the sorrowful countenance. How the Major will oppress me!’
I had brought matters to this more or less satisfactory stage, and was departing on my own track, leaving her to follow the path to the township which she knew very well, when a figure crossed the crest of the hill which caused both of us to start instinctively.
It was Algernon Malgrade. I noted the exact moment when he recognised our figures. He checked his pace for an instant, then advanced with a slow indifferent step and studied air of lounging carelessness.
He halted within a yard, and gazed steadfastly in both faces as if to read our very souls. Then he laughed. Devils laugh so. I felt certain of it, though I had, of course, no means of verifying the fact.