How divine a sensation, how blessed a relief was it to my worn spirit to lounge aimlessly adown the crowded streets, and permit the novel units of the surging crowd to imprint themselves half mechanically upon my brain. Of all rests and solaces, surely none is greater, more efficacious, than the abiding for a season in a city of strangers, where no man bids you greeting, where none disturb the mystic peopled solitude in which the spirit bathes and revels.
The ordinary adjuncts of civilisation were to me an aspect fresh and fascinating beyond description.
The season was that of midsummer, often arid and desert-bare in Australia, but the showers which the sun distils from the clouds which flit across the broad bosom of the Pacific had refreshed the groves and gardens which line the shores and heights. The verdurous glades were emerald green between the flower thickets; the air was heavy with the perfumes of a thousand gardens and orange groves; and the nights, jewelled and bedecked with the lustrous stars that shine wide-glittering around the Southern Cross, were to me almost magically full of restful harmony from the measured rhythm of the surges which rolled their soft murmurous monotones beside my couch.
As a matter of strict business I transferred my funds to the head office of the Bank of New Holland, which amounted to fifty-three thousand some odd hundreds of pounds sterling. I also made arrangements for the periodical payments to the credit of my bank account of such moneys as might result from the periodical ‘washings-up’ of No. 4 and Greenstone Dyke. These were to be my last mining ventures. I was too loyal to the sentiment of my order to relinquish my interest in the good claims that had done so much for my partners and myself. But I did not intend to tempt fortune again, or, as far as I could control my destiny, have another hour’s work or anxiety about money as long as my life lasted.
Whatever might be my future course on the ocean of fate on which, after this pleasant island sojourn to refit, my barque was likely to drift so aimlessly, I intended to preserve myself from the sordid cares which eat up the heart of man—‘the rust and moth which corrupt’ but too often the best treasures of existence.
After a short but satisfactory interview with my banker, who, studiously affable and courteous, assured me that the whole civilised world of finance was deeply interested in the progress and prospects of the Oxley, I proceeded to attire myself once more in accordance with the family tradition of my order, and to that end placed myself unreservedly in the hands of Mr. Knolley, the Poole of Sydney.
He must have justified my confidence; for a week afterwards, as I took my afternoon stroll down George Street after a morning spent in some more pronounced exercise, I could hardly resist the conclusion that the well-dressed, hatted, booted, gloved individual whom I encountered suddenly in a gigantic mirror of Palmer’s palace of silken sheen, and drew back respectfully from, must be somebody else, certainly not Hereward Pole, late of No. 4.
By degrees I became accustomed to my long disused second self, the Hereward Pole who was wont to bow to and causer with ladies, to dine à la carte at good hotels or fashionable cafés, to mingle as of right only with persons of a certain rank and position, to be posted up in all the petite histoire and esoteric gossip of society, and to bear myself—so soon do use and wont effect a change—as if I had never known any other habitudes.
It is true that my face and neck were bronzed and tanned, burned deeply dark where exposed to the merciless sun of the interior wastes. And my hands were hardened and roughened out of all similarity to the delicate feminine extremities which ornament the non-manual toilers of the world. Still, I had always tended them after a fashion. Brown and muscular they might be, yet still I flattered myself that in shape and otherwise they still indicated gentle blood. I adopted gloves with much trouble and weariness of the flesh at first, but adhered to them religiously after I found they were working wonders in the complexion of my unconventional digits.
And the sea—oh! the sea—glorious, unbounded, freshly beautiful as each sun arose, lighting up the great sandstone battlements, the scarped bastions upon which ages of storm and the unresting surge had beaten vainly. How did I draw daily fresh health and inspiration of tangible joyousness from the ocean breath, from the ever-changing various wave beauty—‘from calm or storm, from rock or bay,’ all savoured of the airs of Paradise, to me so long habitans in sicco, sojourner in the monotoned wastes of the great Gold Desert. Ah! if but she, my ill-fated friend and companion, had been permitted by a tender Providence to have made this the first stage on her home-ward-bound path of love and duty. But it had been ordered otherwise. And though at times the terrible scene in which I had borne a part came as freshly back to my mind as if the whole occurrence was stereotyped amid the nerve tracks of my brain, yet the impression waxed feeble with each repetition—thanks to that very feebleness of our nature which so often acts as a safeguard from the persistent arrows of remorse, the undying bitterness of a haunting memory.
I had selected for my residence a well-known principal hotel, situated in what was once a fashionable portion of the city proper, but long since abandoned to wharves, warehouses, and strictly mercantile purposes. In the good old days when Sydney was a green-swarded town, with a growing coast and island trade, and about thirty thousand inhabitants, here dwelt some of the leading colonists and merchants. Here they built themselves handsome freestone houses, with noble verandahs and balconies and Moorish-looking high-walled gardens, within which grew the banana and the orange, the loquat and the guava, in tropical luxuriance and profusion. These pleasantly-secluded retreats were towered over by the great fronds of the Araucaria excelsa, and often in the clear summer nights, lights and music, graceful flitting shapes and rippling laughter mingled effects with the gleaming waters of the bay and the murmuring wave.
But all these things had passed away with the bon vieux temps that is bewailed everywhere and which returns no more. The merchants had become too rich to live among the haunts of commerce; they had migrated to more newly fashionable suburbs, or sailed away across the sea to lose themselves in older agglomerations of realised wealth and restless hyper-civilisation. The gardens had become too valuable as town allotments to be devoted longer to bananas and araucarias. So the walls—old, true, massive walls, such as we see in Italian and Spanish cities, behind which dark-eyed damsels wait languorous and expectant for the soft-hued eve—were pulled down. The glorious spreading trees were ruthlessly felled or rooted up—the Southern Dryads notwithstanding—and the sacred soil auctioned at per foot to make way for a mushroom eruption of stucco terraces and panel-gilt villas.
One of these fine old lofty, many-roomed, double-verandahed mansions, carefully constructed of great freestone blocks, when labour was cheap and leisure abundant, had been utilised for the use of strangers and pilgrims, and was known as Batty’s Hotel. It enjoyed a wide free view over the bay and islets of Sydney Harbour, while from the upper balconies were visible the grand and towering masses of the North and South Heads—frowning lofty sandstone capes, through which, by an entrance comparatively narrow and apparently more so than in reality, the great liners, the huge ocean steamers, the white-sailed fleet of coasters and seagull-fashioned yachts, could be seen threading their way into the noblest, safest, most picturesque harbour in the southern hemisphere, in the British possessions, in the known world.
This was one of my favourite bits of amusement and occupation when I was not sitting or lying on the short thick doub grass turf which lined the paved but disused streets which led down to the old wharf and to the water’s edge generally. Here I would lie by the hour gazing at the moss-grown steps, with heavy iron rings rusting and unused, wherever the light pleasure boats, the gondolas of the South, were wont to be moored. In this new land, the necessary scarcity of ruins make all edifices that savour of decay or vanished greatness inexpressibly touching to the contemplative wayfarer. In imagination I wove romances which fitted the circumstance of their crumbling porticoes and trade-encumbered apartments, far otherwise occupied in the past. I felt myself cast for the part henceforth of a dreamer, a spectator only in the theatre of life. My career as an actor, as a probable jeune premier, was past—irrecoverably past. Henceforth I should sit mute, anonymous, in an unnoticed back seat, listening all unamused to dialogue, the music, the oft-repeated dénouement, until eyes grew dim and hearing dulled with age.
It was a dreary prospect, but what other could I hope to realise? Mine was not the spirit of tireless philanthropy, which could go on toiling for the benefit of the race without enthusiasm yet without cessation—ohne Haste, ohne Raste—till the worn frame and wearied mind lapsed simultaneously.
No! I had not so learned the gospel of life, neither had I practically come to believe that human beings were in a general way much the better for being helped. The world was full of shams and impostors as it was. A large indiscriminating charity only created its own environment of beggars and almsrecipients, as in old times the abbey produced its crop of sturdy beggars, as the mushroom springs up from the suddenly enriched and newly watered soil. When I felt aweary of the purely sensuous, harmless, convalescent existence that I was at present leading, I could put myself on board a mail steamer, and perhaps brace myself to active virtue in the sterner clime of the historic North.
There was one of these anachronistic mansions which I particularly affected, appealing as it did in the character and beauty of its architecture and surroundings at once to my surviving aesthetic tastes and to the loneliness of my present circumstances; built upon the natural terrace which sloped upward from a lovely and secluded bay, and girt by a larger area of grounds, in which a small portion of the primeval wilderness, left wholly undisturbed, had been most artistically blended with every horticultural device which could heighten the beauties of nature.
Much attached to the sight from early association and other reasons, the proprietors, colonists of high consideration and great wealth, had long resisted the encroaching tide of mere commercial enhancement of values which had threatened to swallow up their cherished heritage.
At length, however, the golden flood could be dammed back no longer, an enormous price had been accepted for the property. The mansion had been cleared of furniture and now lay untenanted. The grounds were no longer ‘kept up,’ and though no actual outrage upon the long sacred privacy of the demesne had taken place, the sentence had gone forth and Charlotte Bay was doomed.
There was something in the façade of the house—a noble mansion in the Elizabethan style, built of pale, pink-veined, creamy freestone—that strangely reminded me of Allerton Court. Otherwise there were no characteristic features in common. But memory has a thousand strange ever-recurring links and tentacles which cause the heart to stir and tremble at the merest chance symbols, to others meaningless as the mid-day sun, the evening breeze.
In this particular instance, I had no sooner set eyes upon the imposing, almost feudal-seeming pile, standing in lonely grandeur amid the strange semi-tropical woodlands, than the memories of Allerton Court flashed before me with such suddenness and strength that I could scarce control the impulse that urged me to passionate exclamation. So vividly before me
‘The old mansion and the accustomed hall.|
And the remembered chambers and the place.
The day, the hour, the sunshine, and the shade.
And she, who was his destiny, came back,’
that I sank down upon one of the carved stone benches beneath the gloom-greenery of a vast wild fig-tree, which had power to eclipse the bright noonday sun; sat down and groaned aloud in freshly-summoned agony of spirit.
Long did I sit there, half reclining in the deep shade and solitude well nigh as perfect as when, in the previous century, the pre-Adamite savage crept through the interlaced boughs in pursuit of the wild-wood game. Long hours passed ere my throbbing heart commenced to be at rest, and the paroxysms of my keen-edged regretful memories to be lulled. When I arose the sun was sinking, the westward flame-pageants visible in dimly burning gold behind the waving spires of the tall feathery-stemmed Indian bamboo. Birds were calling to each other from haunts deep in these rarely disturbed solitudes, curiously near as they were to the hum and bustle of a large city. Slowly I moved homewards. The waters of the bay, seen over the parapet of a low stone wall, without intervening break of fence or building, seemed magically mirrored into silver, gem flashing with the sunset cloud pageant. Sullenly frowning down upon the placid glories of sea and sky, reared itself Titan-like the great North Head. I paced along a winding avenue leading to the outer gate. It was a garden of Armida. Above, below, around were masses of brightly-flowering tropical shrubs. Palm trees were mingled with the strange pale-foliaged trees, the eucalyptus, casuarina, and banksia. The earliest discoverers had found and named the very spot. A stone bridge, itself almost venerable with age, and clasped with close lianas, spanned a narrow creek which ran under great fern fronds and evergreen moss-velvet bars plashingly to the sea. Insensibly the beauty of the hour, the fairy-like strangeness and charm of the surroundings, acted as an anodyne to my tortured spirit, and when I debouched from these sacred groves, as they seemed to me, on to the red gravelled undulating highway, I felt like one who had been redeemed from his appointed sojourn in Elfland, and from whose eyes the glamour had fled for aye.
So strong, however, was the impression left upon me that on the morrow and each succeeding day I sought the same enchanted spot, and spent amid its shadowy lawns and sunless retreats the long bright hours of the summer day. The sultry eve which in that southern clime lengthens far into the silent, clear-hued, starry night often found me still unwilling to change the realm of fancy for the abode of men.
I had made myself known to the under gardener, who alone lived on the premises, chiefly as a watch against thieves and tramps. By a liberal douceur, I had fixed myself among his mental machinery as primarily a species of harmless lunatic prone to insensate wanderings, but secondarily as the possessor of good clothes and current coin, therefore well-intentioned and worthy of toleration.
Thus, though we seldom interchanged a word, an armistice, even an acquaintance, was arranged and ratified between us. I was suffered to roam unheeded through every secluded nook, every natural fastness, every artificial addendum and improvement to the grounds. I came to know at length every feature of the ample-seeming demesne, from the cave in the natural sandstone rock, the fishpond, and the fernery, the bath grotto, and the sea wall, to the lawns, where strange flowering bulbs grew among the close-shorn grass, appearing annually as regularly as the season, and yet with no record of their original introduction. I knew every banana tree, the broad, delicate, pale green fronds of which were alone to be seen unbroken and of perfect shape in that sheltered segment of Paradise. I knew the birds which dwelt amid the leafy thickets and darkly-shaded recesses; they built tame and unharmed as if on an uninhabited island in the South Seas. As I lay luxuriously day-dreaming in the mimic wilderness to which I had become so strangely attracted, deeper and yet more deep became the feeling daily that in some mysterious way this lonely romantic mansion, these picturesque fragments of a world foreign to all the prosaic realities of a sordid modern life, were connected with my destiny and that of her who had been during all these weary years a loadstone and a beaconlight to my heart—to my innermost soul.
Yes, Ruth, love and worship had alike centred in thee. Stormclouds might have obscured thy divinely clear effulgence, gross earthly vapours might have mingled with the ethereal essence of my spirit homage, but thine image and thine only has ever been shrined in this heart.
As the summer days drew on and the shadows lengthened, I made my way for the most part to the boat wharf or jetty, which, constructed of huge blocks of rough sandstone, had been run out into deep water over the shelving sands. This piece of simple engineering interested me greatly. I loved to lie at length upon the cool flags or sit upon the steps at the end and think of how long since the trim delicately-fashioned yachts lay at anchor close to it, while adown these very steps, now all unused and moss-grown, had light feet tripped, while musical voices and the gay converse of youth sounded where now alone the wavelets of the rising tide plashed mournfully, or the wheeling sea-bird shrilly screamed.
Hour after hour would I lie at length watching the sunset hues as they gradually paled, and the bright tints died out of the sky, as from a human face the warm tints when pain or grief has sapped the sources of the blood; the evening breeze as it stole whisperingly through the darkening shades, stirring the leaves which fell not the winter through, and fretting the silver surface of the great water-plain which lay so still and solemn under the star lamps as they gradually grew into golden fire from the pale shimmering lights which faintly trembled into being amid the azure depths.
Calmness, repose—soothing, consoling to a degree unutterable,—did I find there in the long vigils which I ever and anon kept, rousing myself with difficulty at midnight and pacing dreamily back to my hotel. As the days wore on and the year had entered upon its second month, that one which is esteemed of the highest in temperature, the most scorchingly severe even in the fierce summer of the South, I felt that my spirit had entered upon a fresh stage of existence, that I had acquired a new the strength and endurance of ill which would enable me to recreate the fragments of my long past trust in a beneficent Providence.
Gradually, in these day-dreams and midnight musings, there came to me an immeasurably deep and solemn conviction of the folly of resisting the immutable decrees of Fate. What was I—what was a nation of such atoms in the sight of the Omnipotent—that one should dare to complain of the preordained, eternally immutable course of events? Were the colossal forces of Nature, the dread laws of existence which governed the immensities and eternities, to be set aside that such an ephemeris as I should sport its hour in the sun? What were all the ills of life compared to the furies which were evolved from a man’s own conscience? These I could confront with clearest countenance. For the rest, let worse or better come. I was prepared for all.