My heart should have bounded with delight at the idea of once more treading the soil of my native land, of mixing with my equals, beholding my kindred, enjoying the thousand and one luxuries of which the faint echo only reached us occasionally through books and newspapers, or a stray denizen of those unknown far lands who appeared without notice and departed as suddenly as he came.
But though I could not give a logical denial to this chain of reasoning, the spring of my nature had been overstrained by my late misfortunes, so that no prospective pleasure of any kind seemed to me possible. What might happen when I had fairly cut adrift from my present surroundings I could only dimly conjecture. I was willing, nay, languidly eager to change the scene, but entirely reckless as to the consequences.
To all my other griefs were added the crowning misery that I had not heard one single word from Ruth since the last letter upon which I had founded so large a superstructure of hope and gladness. What was I to think of this continued silence? I could not believe that the whole family had cast me off without another word. The Squire, choleric as he occasionally showed himself, was far too high-bred to have omitted to acknowledge the circumstantial narrative which I had so patiently compiled in my defence.
But if not so, how was this persistent protracted silence to be accounted for; what could have happened? I knew, or thought I knew, the unwavering loyalty of my darling’s nature, not less firm than gentle, though loyal to parental sway. Had long-borne anguish of mind proved too harsh a trial for that delicate frame, fit casket for the ethereal spirit which it clothed? Had she passed from earth? And had her parents, agonised with hopeless grief, been too careless of forms and ceremonies to put upon record the unutterable sorrow to which they dwelt ever a prey and a sacrifice?
Or had absence and doubt, with parental pressure added, sufficed, as in hundreds of cases which I had known or heard of, to sway the girlish determination; to invest a newly accredited suitor with the charm and glamour which once were the privilege of one alone; who could say? All things were possible during absence and misconstruction. I deemed that I had good cause to be aweary of my life—to loathe the sight of the sun.
Sadly resigned to the approaching fete in my honour, I took but little heed of the great preparations, which were proceeding at a rate which interested Mrs. Yorke deeply and caused quite a sensation in the immediate neighbourhood of our claim. That worthy matron had just been up to town to make some purchases at Mrs. Mangrove’s store, and had brought back the most astounding rumour. The Commissioner was to take the chair at the dinner; all the magistrates were to be there; all the legal gentlemen, among whom Dr. Bellair and Mr. Markham would allegorically couch together, even as the lion and the lamb. Nearly all the business men and every miner of mark on the field had taken tickets. There had been nothing like it since the great Sunday-school gathering in Verjill’s paddock last Michaelmas day. Everybody was talking about it, and Mrs. Mangrove said she was going to listen to the speeches, and she, Mrs. Yorke, would do so too.
Kind-hearted Mrs. Yorke’s prattlings did not particularly raise my spirits, and I shrank from a festive gathering and the after-dinner florid eloquence, which I did not doubt would take place. Nevertheless, I would go through with it. And, after all, was it not as well to have a permanent record of the universal good-will and confidence of the most respectable inhabitants of the district, showing their entire belief in my innocence of the charge laid at my door?
I had strolled down a mile or two towards the lower end of the ‘lead,’ on the upper part of which we were working, and was calming my mind with the contemplation of the far-off pearly sky-line with its crimson shafts and quivering lances of tremulous flame, when, as I passed along a narrow street, my attention was aroused by a small crowd. Angry voices, one a woman’s, rose in tones of alteration.
I felt more than half inclined to retreat, but the old feeling which always impelled me forward in such cases was still strong within me, and I obeyed it.
To my very great surprise I saw that the disputants were Algernon Malgrade and Dolores. Both were excited beyond all bounds of restraint which ordinarily could have controlled such temperaments. Her nature was, I know, passionate and tempestuous, uncontrollable as that of the roused tigress. He, to do him justice, would not have committed himself to an unseemly brawl in the open streets, but he had been drinking—his face was darkly flushed, and his utterance thick. There was no want of steadiness in his movements, but I knew that he must indeed have been drinking hard, and not for one day only, to have brought himself to this condition. He was savage and reckless in consequence, and having had, as he thought, some occasion of complaint against Dolores, had given rein to his brutal nature and beaten her.
She, as before, was most wildly excited, shrieking aloud, calling down the vengeance of heaven upon him for his cruelty and injustice, and upon herself for her weakness in ever attaching herself to so detestable a villain, cursing with dreadful intensity the hour she was born and that in which she had first set eyes upon him.
All this was uttered rapidly and emphatically in a loud voice, with the excited gestures and vehement action which belonged of right to her hot southern blood. A crowd had gathered, evidently sympathising with her wrongs. Anything more distasteful to all the instincts of a man like Malgrade, low as he had fallen, dulled and deteriorated as was even now his every moral sense, could not have been imagined.
‘Stand out of the way, you fools,’ he said, in a voice trembling with rage, and with a look which caused those nearest to him to draw back rapidly without further warning; ‘and you, you jade, come home if you don’t wish me to knock your brains out where you stand. Can’t we have a few words without your calling all the field to share it, and making as much noise as if you’d hired the bellman for a roll-up? Come home, I say.’
His words were more or less jocular as he advanced towards her; but whether the miserable woman distrusted him, or feared a repetition of his unmanly violence, or whether, thoroughly exasperated, she had become utterly reckless, no one can tell.
‘Don’t come near me,’ she said, in a strange and lowered tone. ‘I made a vow before, but this one I’ll keep. If you lay a hand on me, you never were in such peril of your life since—since—you—’
Seemingly anxious to stop her mouth, fearful that she might repeat something dangerously near the truth, Malgrade was apparently incapable of further restraining himself. He muttered something and rushed towards her as if with some violent intention. As he approached she drew backward, still facing him, until she reached the open door of the shop—that of a butcher—opposite to which, in the long street which traversed that suburb, the altercation had commenced. In retreating she was arrested by the large butcher’s block which stood just inside the doorway. She glanced at it with lightning-like rapidity. On it lay several knives. She snatched up the largest, sharply pointed and keen edged, and, making one desperate lunge at her pursuer, buried it to the hilt in his body. He threw up his arms; one spasm contorted his features; his eyes stared, widely opened but unconscious. Then he fell forward, prone and motionless, at the very feet of the angry woman. The jaw dropped. Algernon Malgrade was a dead man.
Casting off my lethargy, I bounded to the spot. The features had resumed their habitual calm. Blood was flowing from a deep small wound immediately under the right ribs. He who but a minute before was my enemy, her oppressor, was now a lump of lifeless clay.
With all the inconsistency of her sex, Dolores, the moment the deed was done, and he whom with all his faults she—ay, so many women—had loved, lay dead before her eyes—slain by her own hand; she threw down the blood-stained weapon and, with a curdling shriek, cast herself on her knees by his side, imploring him to speak but one word, and calling him by every fond and endearing name.
The crowd which had closed around the corpse here opened to make a passage for Dr. Bolton, who being in the neighbourhood had been skilfully captured by an active young constable on duty and brought to the spot.
He looked calmly and all unmoved upon the frantic woman, the curious crowd, and the calm face of the dead man.
‘Why, Pole,’ he said, ‘you and I appear to come in for more than our fair share of tragedies. Deep incised wound, ex-act-ly above the region of the liver; couldn’t have been more accurate in her anatomy if she had tried. Subject dead; not the least use in remaining. Death must have been instantaneous. Constable Dickson, have the goodness to inform the coroner that I shall be at his service at three o’clock P.M. Better lock up that poor Dolores, or she’ll do herself an injury. Nervous twitching of the muscles of the face, incipient dementia. Good-morning.’
This terribly tragic occurrence almost again unhinged my nervous system, although at the proceedings which necessarily followed I was fortunately spared personal reference. There was a cloud of witnesses beside me; so that at the coroner’s inquest, which terminated in a verdict of manslaughter as against the miserable woman whom Malgrade had driven by his ill-treatment to the rash deed, I was not called. She was of course committed to take her trial at the next assizes, her fate being in some inscrutable way destined to be again mixed up with my name. For she had unwittingly been the instrument of vengeance against the man who of all others had set himself most deliberately to work me evil. He had succeeded in part, as one’s enemies often do in this world. But his punishment—was it the lottery of fortune or retribution?—had come upon him swiftly and irrevocably. How strangely ordered apparently that Morsley should be lying in gaol charged with the murder of his wife, while his principal ally, coadjutor in many an evil deed, lay dead by the hand of a wronged and insulted woman. I believe now that Malgrade was in some form or other connected with the murder of poor Jane. Either that he had supplied the information as to the exact time of her starting in the coach to Sydney, or that he had known that Morsley came up to the hotel that night with murder in his heart. Cautious as Malgrade was ordinarily, I believe that he would have dissuaded his more savage companion from open outrage, but his intensely malignant feeling towards me, deepened since our conflict, held him back from interfering.
Yes, I had been avenged on mine enemies. Swiftly, too, had the wheel of destiny turned, far more so than is often given to wondering man to witness with awe-stricken submission. One lay within prison walls, whence the chance was slight that he should ever again see the blue vault of heaven, save on the day when he was brought forth to die. And Algernon Malgrade, whom but a few short hours since I had seen serene, smiling, scornful as of old, apparently defiant of all men as of the Lord on high, lay dead by a woman’s hand in a street brawl.
And this was the end of the handsome, well-born, cultured aristocrat, whom I well remembered meeting for the first time at Woolwich, when, as a military cadet, he was the pride of his family, the idol of doting relatives. Clever, brave, accomplished, popular, there lacked nothing apparently which goes to make one of the most successful men of the age.
Lacked there nothing? Yes, one thing might have been wanting. The key-stone of the arch, supporting the fair edifice which now lay prone and ruined. Algernon Malgrade had never possessed a heart. Callous to the claims of others, and habitually self-indulgent from boyhood, the moral sense, originally feeble, had been by degrees totally obliterated. He had lived for long years a life utterly devoted to sensual gratifications, stoically indifferent to the feelings, the interests, the lives even, of all who might cross his path.
And now, the victim of his own base passions had perished by the hand of a companion in evil, whose soul he had dragged down into even deeper degradation than her own reckless courses might have sought out.
Dolores had spoken truly at the time of our encounter when she said it would be better for both of them if they never again met. She was his fate, though then he knew it not. And his death was virtually hers. For upon the trial her manner so obviously told of a mind diseased that by direction of the jury she was sent to a lunatic asylum, where the sad remnants of humanity, once known in their perfection as the beautiful Dolores Lusada, passed from mortal ken.
In conjunction with a natural regret at the departure of a comrade, there was no doubt a widely-felt desire to convince me that the popular sympathy was wholly with me in the matter of my trial and unjust incarceration. And in this sentiment all classes, all orders and conditions of men, appeared to share, from the Commissioner to the bellman.
At a certain hour, late in the afternoon, I walked up to the long room at Hennessy’s, the very apartment indeed in which Jack Bulder had transacted his delirium. That worthy and energetic personage now accompanied me, as also the Major, Olivera, and my true follower and henchman Joe. They formed a sort of bodyguard on the present occasion, as did the sons of Torquil of the Oak to the youthful and lucklessly irresolute chieftain of the Clan Quhele.
In the room above referred to were about a hundred and fifty persons assembled, while the gallery was filled with the feminine contingent, who had mustered in great force, in order to witness the ceremonial and hear the speeches.
It would be easy and apparently natural to say that all this kind of thing is a bore and an infliction that people would decline thankfully were the opportunity afforded. But few men are so constituted as to be totally indifferent to the nature of the feeling with which they are regarded by any community in which they have long resided. And when, in spontaneous unbought goodwill, an attempt is made to formulate the silent opinion of character and conduct which has grown up in the course of years, cold must be the heart, and strangely impervious to the strongest natural impulses of humanity, that is not stirred to sympathetic appreciation and manly gratefulness.
Calmly, well nigh indifferently, as I had schooled myself to regard this demonstration from a distance, when I looked around the room and saw the stalwart forms of the representative miners from many a well-known locality, men of worth among their fellows and of trans-Australian celebrity—I saw the officials, the lawyers, the magistrates, the tradespeople, even some of the lowest members of the community, brought there by approval and pure good-will alone—my heart swelled and seemed for a moment nigh bursting when I thought I should see their faces no more.
The Commissioner stepped forward on my entrance with his usual prompt initiative, and thus spoke—
‘Mr. Hereward Pole, I have been deputed by the gentlemen here assembled, representing, I am pleased to see, all classes of residents upon the goldfield and its vicinity, to present you with an address, in which sincere regret is expressed for your approaching departure, approbation of your conduct as a miner, a man, and a citizen, during the years of your residence among us, coupled with the fullest sympathy in the matter of the late unhappy occurrences to which I will not further allude. This address concludes with an earnest hope that your visit to Europe may be productive of lasting happiness, and that all good fortune may be in store for you which your sincere friends on this goldfield can desire.’
Then the address, handsomely engrossed and illuminated upon vellum, and containing more than a thousand signatures, was handed to me by Captain Blake.
I read my reply, in which I thanked all my very good and true friends of the Oxley for the warm-hearted and encouraging manner in which they had supported me in the days of my adversity. I could hardly express my sense of the delicacy which they had shown in arranging that I should leave the Oxley fresh from receiving evidence of their kindness and goodwill. This token and expression of their faith in me, I should treasure and value to my life’s end. On the goldfields, working among them, I had always, despite of adverse circumstances, been happy and contented, and I assuredly should recall with pleasure all the days of my life the manly character of the miners of the Oxley and Yatala. I again thanked them for thus ending my sojourn among them in a manner so honourable and satisfactory.
I really had great difficulty in reading my humble composition. In spite of all attempts at steady self-control, my voice would falter as I thought how I had been forgotten by my friends and kindred, renounced by my plighted love, and cast off by her parents; how I had been apparently abandoned by God and man—left to the tender mercies of my enemies. Yet the men around me, merely comrades in toil and privation, many of them rude of speech, and such as at one time I should have thought shame to have associated with, had stood by me staunchly, and had nobly, delicately, considerately thus assured me of their firm faith in manhood and in my innocence. Such are truly periods in men’s lives far beyond the reach of ordinary words, ordinary emotion. One of these supreme moments I felt this to be, and my heart welled over with genuine gratitude as it tremulously responded to the appeal.
Host Hennessy, according to the Beacon, displayed his well-known administrative powers which, combined with an exceptionally recherché cuisine, had raised his establishment to its well-deserved intercolonial pre-eminence. However that may have been, there was a very creditable display of matters edible and potable, particularly the latter. Wild and tame turkeys were plentiful at the Oxley, and the highly respectable wild fowl known as the wild duck—the ‘canvas-back’ of Australia—were as the sands of the sea-shore. Barons of beef and saddles of mutton preserved the British flavour of the entertainment. Kangaroo-tail and ox-tail soup disputed pre-eminence; but according to Merlin and the Major, who were both authorities, the dinner was extremely well cooked and well served. The claret and hock, sauterne and champagne, with the other wines in ordinary use, had been specially selected by the committee, and were such as no reasonable gourmet, especially in such hot weather, could find a word to say against. After a fair amount of law had been granted for the exercise of the knife and fork, the chairman, Commissioner Blake, arose and requested attention to the usual loyal and formal toasts to which are granted precedence in all gatherings of Britons. In due time he requested all glasses to be filled, as he was about to propose the health of the guest of the evening.
‘When I mention the name of Hereward Pole,’ he said, ‘you will agree with me, gentlemen, that we are met to-night to do honour to no unknown man. He has dwelt among us for years, and as a man, a miner, a citizen, and a gentleman, he has fully entitled himself to our genuine respect and cordial liking. He has shown by his consistent behaviour on this goldfield that it is possible, while working like a man, to live like a gentleman. (Loud cheers.) He has, as you know, staunchly performed his daily labour in the mine. He has never in any way declined association with the respectable and intelligent miners of the goldfield. Yet he has lived in all essentials as truly the life of a gentleman as if he had occupied chambers in the Albanyand had taken his daily promenade in the parks of Rotten Row—ay, more so, far more so, if honourable labour be placed before indolent self-indulgence, the soldier in the camp before the courtier in the palace. That there are others I am aware, many others, equally well born, well educated, well conducted, among the great army of industry, which I am proud after a fashion to rule over. Such men, as long as they are true to themselves, will always be treated with all proper respect by their fellow-miners who have not had the same early advantages. They were indeed more popular for being gentlemen by birth than otherwise. A manly workman, no matter what his occupation might be, was always proud and pleased to associate with a comrade better instructed than himself. The benefit was mutual and mutually recognised. Turning from these considerations, which, however, had impressed themselves upon his mind during a lengthened experience, he would call upon the gentlemen assembled, residents of all classes upon the goldfield, to confirm his statement, that no miner more respected and generally popular than their guest had ever bade them farewell. He remembered him when he and his friends, Major Treseder and Mr. Joseph Bulder, and the late Mr. Cyrus Yorke, commenced mining at Yatala. Their conduct had always been honourable, straightforward, and manly. One and all in the claim had made good their title to be so esteemed. And no one grudged them the remarkable, the well-deserved success they had attained. (Loud cheers.) He would allude, and but lightly, to a subject which would always have a thrilling interest for their guest. It would be painful, but he had a reason for speaking. A grave criminal charge had been brought against Mr. Pole. Circumstances had led to his being arrested and tried on that charge. He had been discharged, having been thoroughly cleared from all suspicion, even the slightest. They were here to-night representing every class in the community—official, commercial, and industrial—and as one man it would now go forth that they affirmed the perfect blamelessness of Mr. Pole throughout the whole affair. He had acted with an unselfish generosity and pure friendliness which was not often paralleled, and they—men of the world as most of them were—were proud, for the honour of human nature, to testify to their admiration of Mr. Pole’s manly conduct throughout the whole affair.’
Long and enthusiastic cheering resounded after Blake concluded his peroration, wherein he wished me all the gratification the Old World could furnish to the fresh powers of enjoyment which I should bear from the regions of the New. In which pleasure pursuit he heartily wished that he could accompany me.
If the amount of good feeling then and there existent in my case was to be measured by the heartiness of the applause which greeted the conclusion of the Captain’s speech, and the sincerity of the contempt with which heeltaps were avoided. I was that night one of the most popular and well-beloved individuals south of the line. It was some considerable time before it all came to an end—a large number of my quondam pick-and-shovel acquaintances being specially anxious to catch my eye before draining their glasses to my health and long life.
When matters had settled themselves somewhat I returned thanks as follows—
‘Friends and fellow-miners, I stand up with the feeling that it is most likely the last time that we shall look upon each other’s faces. Thus I feel impelled to speak out with perfect unreserve the feelings of my heart. Those among you who are miners—and it is as a miner only that I wish you to look upon me now—have had that opportunity of knowing me which years of association of similar labour done within each other’s sight can give, and alone can give. In such a life no man can hide his nature, his character, from his fellows. They know his manner of speech, his acts, almost his thoughts. His life is as a scroll spread out for their inspection. If they believe the record to be true, honest, manly—always making due allowance for the weaknesses of human nature—they will be good comrades to him. They will be friendly and courteous in prosperity, in adversity they will stand by him like brothers—ay, as a man’s own kindred often do not stand by him. It matters not whether his rearing or theirs may have been different, his former surroundings, his social position; if he has come up to their standard of manliness and honourable dealing during his career on a goldfield, the miners of Australia will yield him that respect, that cordial good-will, and that help in his sore need which is unknown, I believe, among any other body of men. I have lived to experience the truth of what I am saying in my own person and in my own circumstances, some of which have been, as you all know, painful and unfortunate to the last degree. But I wish you all now to believe, if it is any satisfaction to you, that I have been supported and encouraged more than I should have thought possible by the kindness and manly sympathy of the miners of the Oxley goldfield. When I leave, as I intend to do on the morrow, never to return, I shall carry away in my heart the undying remembrance of kindness received from all classes of the people among whom I have lived and toiled, on the whole happily. I thank my friend, and your friend, the Commissioner for the generous way in which he has been pleased to allude to my mining career and character; and I beg of you all to look upon Hereward Pole, wherever he may be, as a comrade and a friend.’
When I concluded it seemed as if everybody was more or less affected with the sadness of farewell sentiments. Mrs. Mangrove and Mrs. Yorke, with some of their acquaintances in the gallery, were all sobbing audibly, while even the guests, hardened as they might have been supposed to be against the softer influences, looked rather lugubrious. This was brought to a close by Mr. Bagstock who, perceiving a change of programme to be necessary, took occasion to rise and propose the health of ‘the unsuccessful Miners’—an idea which took immensely, and speedily restored hilarity. It was responded to by Olivera, who declared his belief in the ultimate good fortune of the class—say in twenty or thirty years—with such gravity that it produced fresh bursts of laughter.