Noon had long passed. The ocean breeze came sighing over the burnished wavelets, the yellow shore, the silent groves. All nature hasted to revive and revel in the approach of eve. I had strolled out to my station on the end of the stone pier, and mechanically gazed at one of the ocean liners which had arrived that day from Europe, and was anchored at no great distance.
I fell to speculating idly upon the intentions and probable projects of the passengers, who were even now commencing the long, and perchance wearisome, sojourn of colonisation. Were they doubting and fearing, or hoping all things, even as I had done in the same long past period which I could so distinctly remember. Then I saw a boat put off from the ship and row towards the shore.
It was an eve superb in tropical beauty—such a one surely that, if placed with absolute correctness upon canvas, would provoke the taunts of those critics who condemn all apparent richness of colouring as unnaturally heightened, and thus false to nature. The numberless tiny headlands, wooded or greenswarded, with shining waveless bays nestled between, harbours for fairy fleets, the long incline of groves and gardens, the lawns and terraces of which in so many instances seemed crowded, as in old Italian pictures, to the sea rim, presenting in their half-wild, half-cultured condition the effective contrasts of a new land. The tall araucarias stood columnar on every height, giving dignity and ordered beauty to the landscape. The white walls of stately mansions and trim villas gleamed freshly bright among the dim woods, shining like Grecian temples in the olden days of earth’s glory; while, as the western sky beame gradually empurpled and aflame with the gorgeous pageantry of the dying sun, an unearthly brilliancy appeared to illumine the scene, more akin to theatrical effects of light and colour than the mere summer splendour of the hour.
As the boat was rowed, a fairy bark through a gold-empurpled sea, to the shore, being steered, as it seemed to me, on a course that would bring her nearer than I at first thought to the solitary disused pier, I arose and prepared to retire, a growing dislike to strangers having become with me intensified of late.
An inexplicable feeling restrained me. I remained. I looked earnestly, fixedly, at the occupants of the boat. Besides the crew and an officer of the ship, who steered, there were two ladies and a gentleman, an elderly man I conjectured from his way of sitting.
Whether it were fancy or not I could not tell, but they appeared to be likely to land upon the pier, my pier. After spending some time, with stationary boat, in looking long and with interest at Charlotte Bay House, the boat moved swiftly up to the stone steps, and the man whom I had correctly taken to be an officer of the newly-arrived vessel leaped ashore and fastened the rope in the boat’s stem to an iron ring affixed to the largest block.
‘This is the place,’ he said. ‘This is Charlotte Bay, I think the most beautiful spot in all our beautiful harbour. The pilot said it was for sale; but if it has not been sold, we shall be able to look over it. We have just time to see the house and garden, Miss Allerton, before it gets dark. Perhaps this gentleman can tell us if we are trespassing?’
At the sound of that name, of her name, I drew myself up with a sudden impulse, and gazed eagerly at the individuals composing the little party. An old lady, a gray-haired elderly man of distinguished air, and a young lady walking feebly and closely veiled. Gracious Lord! Could it be? Had the God of infinite mercy and wisdom heard my prayers, and did I again behold my lost love in this half-enchanted wild, on the strange far land on which I never dreamed that her foot should press?
‘No one will prevent you,’ said I, quietly, to the sailor, a bright-eyed, stalwart youngster, one of those gallant offshoots of the old Norse brood, whom the Motherland sends out yearly on the decks of her still increasing fleet to plant her standard and win new empires on the furthest bounds of the round world.
‘The young lady wishes to see the house—a fancy of hers puts her in mind of home,’ he said in explanation to me, as of a matter in which he scarcely, but for courtesy’s sake, sympathised. ‘Perhaps you know the paths hereabouts—they are not quite plain sailing?’
I bowed and walked ahead, closely followed by the whole party. I had felt too deeply agitated to think of making myself known as yet. I could not see her face, but I fastened my eyes on the form, the outlines of which I so well knew.
‘What a beautiful house!’ said the young lady, for the first time drawing up her veil. ‘What a delicately-coloured stone; and oh, what a fairy land of a garden. How glad I am that we came to this country, darling mother, though I am afraid you and my father do not share all my rapture. I feel as if I must soon get well now. I am ever so much better already.’
‘My darling,’ said dear old Mrs. Allerton, ‘your father and I live only for you. You do not need to be told that. And this certainly is a most beautiful place, and the climate deliciously mild when it is not too hot. But what made you take such a fancy to come and see this particular house? There seem to be many beautiful ones on the shores of the harbour.’
‘Don’t you know, mother dearest; surely you must see,’ she said. ‘Why, that part of the southern wing is just like the one at Allerton Court. It has a tiny rose garden and lawn just like the one the new gardener made for me the year he left England. Oh, I cannot tell why, but the feeling came over me at once as I saw it from the ship that in some sort of way connected Hereward with this house—the one I saw in my dream the week before we left England.’
‘But, Ruth dearest, you said just now that this house put you in mind of the old Court,’ said the Squire.
I thought the frank face changed, the form aged, the bold, undoubting, fearless regard altered, and my heart sank as an in ward monitor suggested that I was not wholly without responsibility for the decadence.
‘Oh, but I told you at the time, my own good daddy, that the house I saw in my dream, where we should hear of or meet with Hereward, was like Allerton Court. Indeed, I never expected to see any house half so beautiful as this at the other side of the world. I feel convinced that this is the very place. My hope is renewed now that we may see him shortly; then all doubt will be explained and disappear.’
‘God grant it,’ said the Squire fervently. ‘But for your health’s sake, my darling, we should never have taken this long voyage, which now seems to me the wisest thing we could have done. But the stars are coming out. How large and bright they are. We must get back to our good ship. We shall be all sorry to leave her to-morrow.’
During this conversation I stood like a being of another planet. I felt as might the fabled possessor of the ring of Gyges, as though, myself invisible, I was privileged to see the acts and hear the speech of those who were to me at present the most important personages on the earth’s surface.
They knew me not. How should they in that dim half-shadowy atmosphere connect the tall bronzed muscular man with the fair-faced English stripling who had quitted England nearly seven years since.
And now my prayers had been granted, though in a way that in my blindness I had never for one moment thought of, deeming it a thing impossible that the Squire and Mrs. Allerton, representatives of those English families which seem firmly rooted as their ancestral oaks, should ever set foot upon Australian soil. Yet, though I felt a well-nigh irresistible impulse to declare myself at the first moment when the well-known voice fell like long-remembered music upon my ears—the face which to me was as that of a seraph’s was again presented to my astonished gaze—yet another feeling equally strong caused me, inexplicable as it may seem, to hesitate and finally to refrain.
When Ruth’s veil was lifted it was at once apparent to me that the almost transparently delicate features, the pathetic expression of the bright wistful eyes, the too slender though still graceful form, betokened but too surely the recent inroad of disease. Without doubt a happier period of change and improvement had set in, most probably with the voyage. Still I read but too plainly in the undisguised anxiety with which both the Squire and his wife regarded their charge and her every movement that but a short period must have elapsed since the most torturing phase of fear and doubt had existed for them with regard to her very life. And dared I now hazard, in whatever slight degree, that precious, that inestimable gift of heaven, the health of this fragile maiden? Had I said impulsively, ‘I am Hereward Pole,’ what nervous injury to an already weakened frame might not the sudden shock have produced?’
No—patience and self-command must still be mine. They were to leave the vessel to-morrow, and I should have no difficulty in discovering their hotel, if indeed they did not come to Batty’s and locate themselves beneath the same roof as myself.
In a few moments the plash of oars told me that they had sought the protection of the noble ship which had brought them across the ocean in safety. As favoured passengers they had been made welcome to stay during their convenience after their arrival in port. To-morrow I gathered that they had decided to establish themselves for a season in Sydney.
They had departed. I was left alone to determine upon my course. Wonderful and astonishing as were the events which had now manifested themselves, they had not confused my brain; rather I had felt more cool and composed than at any time since the commencement of my misfortunes.
I could see it all now. Part of the history I read aright in the face of my own beloved Ruth when I had the first brief glance of her countenance at Charlotte Bay. There was graved the whole tale of my unanswered letter, of the silence and uncertainty under which I had languished so long.
This was the key to the mystery. Strong in her immortal love she had borne all too patiently, and with mute inward struggling against the gnawing worm of grief, the pangs of doubt and fear, her brave pure spirit had been loath to succumb. Then her health had suffered, nearer and nearer still to the dark bourne had her fragile frame, the tremulous casket of the love-lamp, drifted.
The Squire had suddenly decided as the most direct and satisfactory method by which the mystery could be solved to set sail for Australia. Once there it would be comparatively easy to find out the rights of the matter. My character, my acts would be then manifested clearly. If my career had been stainless, then my name and fame would for ever be established. If not, for her sake, for all our sakes, it were better that no further doubt or hope should exist.
Their necessary preparations, though serious, were not complex or numerous. The family was small. Be sure that the Squire had the right kind of man as bailiff by whom the property could be managed, and rents handed over to his agent. The voyage of course was long, possibly tedious. But what were wind and wave or unaccustomed travel to the fact that health and happiness might again be the portion of their beloved daughter.
It should be well understood before we take these imprudent unconventional people to task for their incredulity and indulgent weakness that they had no other aim or project in life but to see the happiness of this child of their heart’s best love fully assured ere they themselves passed away. Strange as it may appear, and eccentric to the verge of lunacy, they did actually believe that mutual love, based upon simple natural predilection would, if circumstances permitted its fruition, result in perfect happiness, or as near to that ideal condition as mortals here below ever aspire to. Money, position, fashionable brevet, rank and consideration, they had the clearness of vision to regard as the trifles in the great tragedy of human destiny. They were prepared, even if they found in Hereward Pole a toiling unsuccessful man, discouraged by ill fortune, and despairing of the long-desired goal, yet straining onward as through the dashing wave and gathering storm the seaman gazes at the swaying symbol, to stand by the promise made to him. If they had found me thus toiling honourably, poor, yet loyal to the vow in making which I left England, they would have said—
‘Come back with us and be as a son in our old age; there is the love of your youth, in her eyes truth in absence is still shining. Come with us across the wandering sea. Let us see our children happy in this short life of ours, in the old home where your place is still vacant.’
So much of the end had now come. My eyes had seen the sight I had never imagined in wildest fantasy, the denizens of Allerton Court actually domiciled in the South. All was well. All was tending in the direction of my dearest hopes. On the morrow I should seek out their residence, and presenting myself before the Squire, invite him to search into the records of my goldfield life, and form his own conclusions as to the allegations made against me. I at least should not shrink from the closest scrutiny—my conscience was unclouded.
But apart from any doubt which might arise with reference to these considerations, a terrible and paralysing fear arose in my mind lest, after all, all plans and projects might come too late. What if the insidious wasting disease, the unseen foe that mocks the hues, the aspirations, the sanguine confidences of health, should prove inexorable? If death should claim his victim even in the arms of love?
I had seen the pallor of Ruth’s beloved face even in the few moments at Charlotte Bay; had noticed the slow weariness of her step—that step that was wont to be so light, so fairy-tripping adown the woodland paths of her home.
Was I doomed after all, when my earthly treasure had been borne to me across the waste of ocean, to stand sadly by and watch the gradual fading of this floweret of Paradise? What would be my agony were her pure spirit to exhale now, prematurely wafted to the realms of bliss? And what a pilgrimage would be ours were the sorrowing parents, with myself, to cross the ocean home ward-bound, with every mile of wave and foam increasing the distance between us and the grave which held all we loved or could ever again love on earth.
Then I reviewed my own prospects. Would my altered form and face have power to rekindle the torch of love, or would I find a foe in the ideal of my own personality which had so long been cherished in Ruth’s gentle breast. Had the sterner traits of manhood, the traces of toil, hard fortune, and anxiety worn away all the bright hues of youth, all the fabled graces of the halcyon time that memory unwillingly recalled? I knew not. But the very doubt caused me fresh pain.
I passed a sleepless night, and as the east slowly, almost imperceptibly, raised a bank of pearls amid the gray dim cloud wrack, I was pacing feverishly adown the balcony watching the gray plain of ocean gradually beam into life. As the long tremulous gold line gleamed in shimmering ripples across the pale wavelets of the slumbering main, no sign of that daily miracle, the marvellous birth of dawn from night and chaos escaped me. The life of the great city, as if painfully, awoke and stirred and laboured. Seabirds and light graceful boats with sails as white, and speed as free, swept over the enfranchised sea-plain. A huge steamer came through the harbour portals breasting the churning waves, and throbbing as if with pride throughout her mighty frame. Power, freedom, and volition seemed granted to all but me, as if by some magic spell, upon the folding of the trailing garments of the night. I alone felt aweary of the sun, sadly distrusting what the day had in store for me. I strolled down to one of the hermitages which once were piers and bath-houses, and casting myself recklessly into the briny water swam far out into the bay, only returning when forced to own to myself that the long swim had taxed even my practised muscles. But the tone of my nervous system was braced and renovated by the exercise, and I felt strengthened for the endurance of the day’s ordeal.