I managed by the daily use of Hennessy’s well-known trotters and double buggy to return the calls; to show Ruth and the Squire by degrees pleasant homesteads and the great estates which lay outside of the auriferous region. Nothing could exceed the admiration and interest which each fresh experience evoked from both the emigrants. Ruth’s quiet high-bred manner, joined to the innocently joyous air which had of late become habitual to her, gained favour with all her Australian friends, while her genuine interest in the marvels of Nature which everywhere surrounded us in this new world, gratified her entertainers as a flattering tribute to the attractions of Australia.
Very much to my satisfaction, her tact—perhaps still more her unselfish kindness of disposition—enabled her to strike the fortunate medium between the indiscriminate heedless praise which colonists distrust and the supercilious disapproval which they disdain. She examined and compared everything of which she had former experience in Britain; in the great majority of instances giving warm unqualified praise to the product or custom of the new land.
Most of all, perhaps, did she please by her praise of the climate.
‘I have good cause to do so,’ she would say, ‘for it gave me new life. From the first moment that I breathed the faint odorous breezes on the Australian coast till now, when I am revelling in this beautiful, dry, pure atmosphere, an indescribable lightness of heart has possessed me. No! Hereward, it was not altogether the sight of you, miraculous as that appeared, it was the balmy nature of the atmosphere. At any rate I shall live and die in that conviction.’
The Squire on this point was hardly less optimistic.
‘How much we lose,’ he said, ‘by not travelling, by not being acquainted with our own empire! Here I see England over again, only under more hopeful conditions. Never saw finer meadow land in my life, finer grain, finer cattle and sheep, while as for the horses, our friend’s four-in-hand, beautifully matched, turned out and driven, would take high rank in the Four-in-hand or the Coaching Clubs. Wonderful country, most wonderful! And to think that it used to abide in my mind as a sandy waste, very hot and bare—a kind of second-hand Sahara.’
The days wore on, and as we rode or drove through the great estates, some inherited through more than one generation from the original founders, more thoroughly gratified was the Squire with his experiences, more deep in his denunciations of people who lived at home at ease, and talked ignorantly of the labours and successes of colonists.
‘How little we know at home,’ he was wont to say at the day’s close, when we were chatting over our claret in some of the well-appointed mansions of the district; ‘how little we dream of the empire which is being built up here at the other end of the world, upon the true old English foundations. And the people, too, regular Englishmen to the backbone; that’s what delights me; couldn’t tell ’em from Kent or Devonshire men, except that they’re bigger, better fed, better taught, and consequently more alive to their own interests and what’s going on in the world. Look at those teamsters we saw to-day, all native-born Australians, I’m informed, not a man of them under six feet high, broad shouldered, light flanked, as poor old Maxwell used to say, and as upright and well set up as if they’d lodged with a drill sergeant. We have plenty of good fellows among our farming men, and the breed’s not to be beat, but these are finer men, sir, finer men, though I never thought I should live to say so.’
No wonder the Squire became so popular with all the gentry of the neighbourhood. He was enabled abundantly to gratify his desire to become practically acquainted with all the ins and outs of the semi-pastoral, semi-agricultural life which surrounded him. He was taken over and through great farm-steadings, where were hundreds of acres of grain and hay crops, single fields as large as an English farm, where droves of high-bred Shorthorns, Herefords, or Devons dotted the meadows. He saw the woolsheds where fifty thousand high-caste merinoes come annually to be shorn, and grieved much that he could not witness the operation. There were mills and forges, racehorse and training stables, shops and stores, butchers and bakers, all necessary for the needs of the large population of workers, which sometimes a single estate maintained. And in some of these large and complicated establishments there was not a nail wanting, a rail out of place, the smallest evidence of a day’s delay or neglect.
‘Another old-world delusion knocked on the head, Hereward, my boy,’ he would say. ‘Always understood that you colonists, particularly the Australian-born part of them, took life uncommonly easy, naturally disposed to be indolent and so on. What do I find to be the case? that for energy—not blind unreasoning force, but intelligent scientific persistence—they exceed us, if indeed they do not beat us hollow. The old country will last my time, Hereward; and there may be something for your children, please God; but old England’s going down, my boy, and these new Englands across the Atlantic and Pacific are going up.’
The Squire might not have been so patient and persevering in his research into the very roots of Australian institutions had it not been that the climate so entirely suited Ruth’s constitution, that her rapid restoration to perfect health was almost daily visible to both of us. The drier air of the interior, perhaps the most pure, light, and invigorating in the known world, joined to the subtle penetrating aroma of the vast forests of eucalyptus, completed the cure which the voyage had commenced. Her light form regained its exquisite proportions, her eyes the rare brilliancy which a pathetic incident, or a touch of true humour in the old days ever evoked. Even at times a riante and sportive tendency, which I had never before noticed, told truly of the marvellous change wrought by the soft airs and bright skies of the charmed south.
‘We must get back to Sydney, young people,’ said the Squire, with a half sigh one morning as we sat in the breakfast-room of one of our kindest hosts, looking adown the course of the winding river, the red bluffs of which marked its course in contrast with the great meadows which, dotted with sheep and cattle in their various enclosures, stretched away to the spur of a volcanic range of hills. ‘If we had that land in Kent what hops we could turn out—eh, Ruth?’
‘It is wicked to covet, Pappy. I am afraid you are growing avaricious.’
‘Perhaps so, but apropos to our return I really have noticed a shade of mild inquiry in your dear mother’s letters of late. I have been obliged to put it all on the score of your surprising improvement in health. And truly, darling, the bush air or the hospitality of our kind friends, or the gum leaves, or the diggings, have made a new girl of you. They won’t know you when we get back to Allerton Court, positively they won’t.’
‘And I feel quite grieved to go away,’ said Ruth. ‘Indeed, if Hereward here had not disappointed me by getting so alarmingly rich, just as I came out, I should have enjoyed keeping house for him at Greenstone Dyke, I should indeed. Mrs. Yorke would have taught me how to bake bread in a camp oven, and I should have been perfectly happy.’
‘H—m!’ say I. ‘It’s very good of you, my dear Ruth, but things are just as well as they are.’
‘Very much better,’ said our hostess smiling—a wise approving smile. ‘Miss Allerton is a true woman, and we all pine for self-sacrifice secretly now and then, but les agréments are not to be despised in the long run.’
When we returned to the Oxley, where we proposed to stay only two or three days, en route for Sydney, we found all our friends ready to receive us. To them was added Mr. Bright, who had been absent on leave. This gentleman had long been an object of deep interest to Ruth on account of his association with me in the terrible affair of the escort robbery—a fellow combatant as well as a fellow sufferer.
The gallant banker was not at all averse to the rôle of first soldier, and presently gave Ruth, at her request, all the details of that memorable engagement, describing circumstantially the death of the sergeant in command, and the almost fatal nature of my wound, with attendant incidents.
Ruth’s newly acquired roses paled during the recital, to which she listened with subdued earnestness, arising with the conviction that Mr. Bright was a modern Bayard, and that my life was mainly due to his valour and promptitude.
‘What has become of Bagstock?’ I said. ‘The Squire promised to take home some curios for his friends?’
‘He has gone out to Back Creek on official business, I believe,’ said the Commissioner. ‘Started before daylight.’
‘Energetic young man,’ said the Squire, ‘nothing like attention to business—most praiseworthy.’
Here the members of the assembled group exchanged smiles.
‘It’s something about a coroner’s inquest, or an intestate,’ said Blake gravely. ‘You were sleeping in the next room at the camp, Olivera, what did you hear?’
‘I was awakened,’ said that gentleman, with his usual grave deliberation, ‘by Bagstock’s clerk, who came to the window about three o’clock. I just caught the words, “Glorious news, Mr. Bagstock, butcher at Back Creek got drowned going home drunk last night. No will they say—lots of money in the bank,” but probably there was no connection between the expressions.’
‘Probably not,’ said Blake, observing that Ruth looked deeply pained. ‘Careless young fellow that clerk. What did Bagstock do?’
‘He said, “Shocking occurrence, you mean, Bunce; order my horse to be saddled, and ask the sergeant to send a trooper to take charge of the effects.” I presume he started soon afterwards. I went to sleep.’
‘The butcher has three or four thousand pounds to his credit in our bank,’ said Bright. ‘Bagstock will get ten per cent as Curator of Intestate Estates.’
‘You don’t say so?’ said Olivera languidly. ‘As good as three or four hundred pounds legacy to our friend then. That accounts for, but does not excuse, Bunce’s reprehensible levity.’
‘The butcher was bound to go soon anyhow,’ said the Major. ‘It is rather a windfall for Bagstock. If two or three more of the same sort occur, Mr. Allerton, he will be able to visit his friends in England soon.’
In despite of our pleasant round of country-house visits, when we returned to the Oxley, Ruth averred that she felt as if she were coming back to the society of old friends.
‘I must have an undeveloped tinge of Bohemianism in my nature, Hereward,’ she said, ‘or I never could feel such an interest in a community like this; perhaps it is a natural feeling of gratitude because of their staunch kindness to you. There seems to me such endless variety of character to classify, that if I lived in this neighbourhood I should never become ennuyée. Our dear old home is sacred and delightful, but I must own that there is a dead level in manners, customs, and conduct in an English village which rarely rises above the monotonous.’
‘You would make the same complaint here after a protracted experience of the life.’
‘Impossible,’ she answered. ‘Now look at that man walking towards us. A most picturesque figure, is he not? you would not meet any one like him at the Leys in a century.’
‘He is an old acquaintance of mine,’ I said. ‘How goes it, Marco?’
The miner, a stalwart Genoese, with a grand black beard and a tranquil pleasant countenance, carefully put down his pick and shovel, and lifted his hat, bowing low with the courtesy which seems natural to all foreigners. He then shook hands with me.
‘On the whole, well; but our last shaft has just proved a failure. We are now going to sink on a new level.’
‘How long were you at it?’ queried I.
‘Nearly four months, six in the party.’
‘And got nothing?’
‘Not so much as would pay the blacksmith.’
‘Oh, what a pity,’ said Ruth sympathetically, probably picturing Marco with a wife and family dependent, upon him for support. ‘It grieves me that such things can happen in a rich place like this.’
‘It is the fortune of war, madame,’ said the miner, with an air of philosophical resignation. ‘We must hope the luck will change. Meanwhile, permit me to say adieu, and thank you for your kindness.’
He bowed again to Ruth, shook hands with me, took up his tools, and strode onward.
‘Now, there is a tragedy in real life,’ she said, as he passed out of hearing. ‘I suppose such things daily occur here. What a grand-looking man, so clean and neatly dressed, too. How nobly he bears his misfortune. Could we help him in any way, Hereward? Perhaps he has children and a wife in distress.’
‘Marco Dorazzi is a bachelor, and is known to have several thousand pounds in the bank,’ I answered, smiling at Ruth’s impulsive charity. ‘A lost shaft, more or less, will not be the ruin of him.’
Bent upon making the best use of the short time now left to us, Ruth persuaded me to accompany her to the homes of many of the married miners, being most anxious to find out for herself, she said, how the domestic business was managed. She so completely avoided all appearance of condescension—sitting down and presently making herself at home with the children where there were any—that the hard-working matrons felt impelled to open their hearts to her on the spot. For the most part, cleanly well-dressed children met her view, the elder ones, perhaps, just returning from school, the younger ones, in all respects, well provided for. Often a neat vegetable garden with a few flowers and rose-bushes gave an air of comfort and slight embellishment to their humble abodes.
‘After all,’ Ruth would say to me, as we strolled homeward, not seldom meeting the man of the house returning from his ‘shift’ with the evidences of toil plainly visible, ‘these people live a much more enjoyable and natural life than our English peasantry. Their cottages, if not very substantial, are clean and suited to the country, such a summer land as it is. You don’t see those curiously-patched garments so common in England. The terrible grinding poverty, with the workhouse in the distance, that overshadows our poor is absent here. I could have been very happy here myself living in a hut just like that woman we just quitted. I am sure her rose-bushes were beautiful, and nothing will make me think otherwise.’
‘But the comforts of a home,’ I remonstrated.
‘What are the comforts of a home,’ she replied, almost impatiently for her, ‘to a woman whose heart is eaten away daily and hourly with torturing doubts or bitter griefs? She has a soft bed on which she cannot rest, delicate food which no longer nourishes her, the external shell of a life which is slowly perishing.’
‘But you could not have lived here,’ I persist. ‘How could I have asked or permitted you to come?’
‘Why not?’ she again asked, with the same earnestness of tone, ‘because all the true woman is pared away, do you suppose, by the refining process of high civilisation till no longer faith, nor steadfast endeavour, nor patient endurance are possible to her for true love’s sake, unless under a lofty roof and amid crowds of servants? That would be to make a puppet and a butterfly of her who has the misfortune to be born among the higher ranks—not a loving woman,’ she added with ineffable tenderness. ‘No, Hereward,’ she continued, ‘it is all well ended I humbly trust. A merciful God be thanked for my present happiness; but I vow to you that I would a hundred times rather have lived in one of these huts and cooked and washed for you as that humble woman there does for the man we just saw returning, than have waited the weary solitary years which have passed.’
‘Why didn’t you take somebody else?’ I said. ‘A man’s heart more or less does not matter much in modern society. I have thought a thousand times that I had no right to keep you in pining uncertainty about my fate.’
‘That is possible to some people,’ she said softly, ‘and I do not think I should altogether blame a girl who did so. But not possible to me—not to me, darling. I feel now as I have never felt since the first year you went away. I suppose you cannot well be poor any more; but whatever happens we must never, never be separated again in this world. You will have to make the best of it.’
Probably the best man living is wholly unable to gauge the depth and tenderness, the ethereal pervading essence of her very nature which expresses itself in woman’s devotion. As I heard the soft chords of that beloved voice vibrating with unshed tears, eloquent with half-uttered tones, I was fully conscious that, deeply as I appreciated her love and truth, I had but too often resigned myself to an apathetic despair, while she, the solitary watcher in her far-off home, was hourly a prey to corroding fears, palpitating on the rack of mute un-utterable woe.
How unworthy was I of her heart’s best blood, of her purest affections, offered up on the altar of virgin love, for my sake, for my sake only!
I could only tremble and wonder at the priceless sacrifice—could only vow inwardly with a fervour which the uttered promise often lacks, to partly repay by the lavish dedication of my future life the soul’s treasure which was to be entrusted to my guardianship.
Ruth looked grave at this, and apparently to turn the conversation walked forward to an aboriginal woman, who with a small bright-eyed picaninny at her back and another by her side, was soliciting ‘tick pence’ in a dolorous whine.
‘What a thin dress, poor thing,’ said her compassionate sister on the side of Eve, ‘and a torn blanket, too.’
‘That’s all Bagstock’s fault,’ said Mr. Bright jocosely. ‘He has a bale of them at the police-office, sent up by the Government to be given to these dark predecessors of ours. You ask him, Maria.’
‘You gibbet blanket old Maria, Massa Bagtock?’ whined the gin, ‘all about blanket I believe you got long a Guv’ment.’
‘That one stealem blackfellow blanket, I believe, Maria,’ chuckled Mr. Bright mischievously, ‘big one sell ’em along a storekeeper, mine thinkit.’
To Maria, under the influence of more than one glass of grog, unfortunately, this appeared a very feasible suggestion. On the strength of it she immediately raised her voice and began to threaten Mr. Bagstock with condign punishment.
‘Me yabba Massa Commishner,’ she said, ‘put you long a logs, I b’leeve taken from blackfeller—me know, now, me tellum sargint—me tellum. Me seeum blankit along a courthouse.’
We all exploded with laughter. Bagstock looked annoyed, and Ruth rather terrified, as Maria began to perform a kind of war dance round the badgered C.P.S.
‘Hold y-y-y-your tongue, you s-s-sable storyteller. Bright, you ought to b-b-b-be ashamed of yourself. Of course I have the blankets. They are to be given out to the whole tribe on the Q-Q-Queen’s b-b-birthday.’
‘What a thoughtful act,’ said Ruth, ‘do they give all the poor creatures blankets once a year; and how many are in the tribe?’
‘Once a y-y-y-ear,’ said Bagstock, ‘and about a h-h-h-hundred in this tribe.’
‘How I should like to see them gathering,’ said Ruth. ‘I have hardly ever seen any of the Indians of the land. I think all savages most interesting.’
‘Then we’ll m-m-make it the Queen’s b-b-birthday, the day after to-morrow, Miss Allerton,’ said Bagstock, with decisive gallantry. ‘Tell ’em it’s because the winter’s s-s-setting in early.’
‘Oh, Mr. Bagstock, thank you,’ said Ruth, ‘how kind of you; but can you do it?’
‘Not the slightest d-d-difficulty,’ said he, ‘almanacs scarce on the g-g-goldfields.’
‘Bravo, Bagstock,’ said Mr. Bright, ‘and I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll give a picnic to the school children and let Miss Allerton see what Australian youngsters are like.’