She had revisited the bank and refreshed her memory anew with the sight of the heavy masses of gold dust which lay darkly red in the metal shovels which were used to weigh and apportion them. She tried to lift again, with wondering exclamations, the mass of retorted gold which had come in from the quartz reef—one, indeed, the heaviest of all, from the last crushing of the Columbia and Undaunted Company Amalgamated. She smiled afresh at the old goldfield’s joke, wherein the courteous manager made a present to her of a bag containing a hundredweight and a half of the root of all evil if she could carry it away. She had paid special and exhaustive visits to Mrs. Yorke and Mrs. Mangrove, leaving with each of these representative matrons delicately-devised tokens of her goodwill or souvenirs in the time to come. Mrs. Yorke, indeed, parted from her with tears in her eyes, and averred that she never had taken to any one in her life so much since a certain lady who lived in the vicinity of her old home at Campbelltown used to have her in and teach her on Sundays and hear her read the Bible when she was a little girl, ‘and a deal of good it did me, if you’ll believe me, Miss Allerton,’ she said. ‘I’ve seen some rough people and rough doings since I’ve followed the diggings, but many a time when I’ve been tempted to turn on poor Cyrus that’s gone, or do something foolish, the thought of Mrs. Blundell’s kind, gentle, beautiful face would come before me just like the face of an angel, and I’d hear her sweet voice reasoning with me for my good, just as plain as I did in the happy old days. I never could do anything to displease her, and though it is twenty years ago, and she in her grave, the very thought of her makes me feel like a little child again. Yes, you’re like her, Miss Allerton. You have the same voice, and you’re the only living soul that ever reminded me of her.’
The term of our pilgrimage was completed. It had passed over even more satisfactorily than I had anticipated. Nothing save the last harsh flapping of the wing of fate had occurred in the least degree to mar Ruth’s enjoyment, to subtract ought from the kindly interest which she had from the first taken in the gold hive and its working bees.
No social duty, no farewell ceremony had been left unperformed by us. Everything had been scrupulously carried out, as with a tender fidelity, towards a spot we should neither of us revisit on earth.
Together had we stood again beside the grave of poor Jane Mangold, on which now the roses were blooming and the turf was green with the first autumn showers. Ruth’s tears fell fast as she recalled how she had nursed me with unfaltering care and vigilance during the long weary days and nights when I was delirious after my wound, when (as she afterwards told me) I used to make the room echo with the name of Ruth, believing her to have forsaken and renounced me.
‘But for her you might never have been spared to meet my eye again, Hereward, and I might have died, doubting, or at least not fully convinced of your love and truth, and to think that she, to whom we owe this, lies here beneath our feet, under this turf, dumb, voiceless, darkly blind to all beneath the sun. Ah me! what a tremulous, fearful joy is this life of ours. May God give us grace to live aright, and so order our lives that we may not fear the death summons that seems so perilous near at hand. Oh Hereward, “the pity of it!” if she could but have returned to the Leys, as you hoped and intended for her, what a joy it would have been to me to help to make the rest of her life happy. Poor, dear, ill-fated Jane! we must bid thee farewell on this earth for evermore, but you will not be forgotten or unmourned.’ Here she stooped, and plucked one of the pale roses from the well-cared-for grave, and sighing, placed it in her bosom as we slowly left the spot.
It had somehow leaked out that we were to leave the Oxley ‘for good and all’ on the morning after. Long before our breakfast was concluded the Squire noticed that the streets seemed unusually crowded in the vicinity of Hennessy’s corner. He inquired if there was a public holiday, or if any ukase of the Commissioner had gone forth proclaiming such to be lawful and of due force and weight.
‘Not that I know of,’ replied the Major, who was our companion at the morning meal, being indeed necessitated to bear us company even to the metropolis.
‘Surely they can’t be intending to say good-bye publicly and officially to us all?’ asked the Squire. ‘Who is it that is so popular? They can’t have formed a profound admiration for an elderly country gentleman whom capricious fate has whisked away from his paternal acres. Hereward they know of old. It must be YOU, Ruth! What is your “charm,” as a Frenchman would say?’
‘A case of mutual admiration, love at first sight of the most pronounced type,’ said Ruth, her whole face lighting up with enthusiasm. ‘I really have taken an extraordinary fancy to Hereward’s fellow-miners; I suppose they are gallant enough to return the compliment. I really believe they are gathering to see us off.’
This appeared to be the correct reading of the demonstration. As soon as the light American coach with its four well-matched well-conditioned greys drew up to the hotel door with our baggage carefully packed in the rack—a precautionary task I had supervised at an early hour—the street was seen to be crowded on both sides down to the farther angles. As I led Ruth towards the vehicle, a man stepped out of the densely-packed array, and raising his hat with a gesture of greeting essayed to speak. We arrested our steps. It was Mark Thursby.
‘Happen ye’ll stop, Miss,’ he said, swaying his stalwart frame slightly, as though to accentuate the words, which with some difficulty he appropriated for the occasion, ‘while I mak shift to give ye my respects, and the o-pinion o’ the miners on this field, as they’ve bidden me to do. They reckon as Harry Pole was allers a right-down, plucky, good-hearted chap, as worked like a man, and allers went straight, come fair weather or foul—a man as the miners was proud of, and a credit to the field. They wish him luck, and you too, Miss, and the Squire, wherever you go. They’ve made bold to ask you to accept of this here bit of a wedding present, a trifle of gold that’ll make up into ornaments like, to remember the miners of the Oxley by when you’re far away i’ th’ old country.’
Here the strong man bent his head in token of obeisance, and almost timidly presented Ruth with an assortment of metallic fragments, enclosed in a wash-leather bag. As she took them in her hand she knew by their weight the value of the offering, and also by the touch that one was a nugget of somewhat uncommon size.
She looked for one moment at the grand simple face of the miner, showing a power and dignity of its own, born of the consciousness of vast strength, calm courage, and unswerving honesty—the cardinal virtues of manhood. The light came to her eyes and a flush to her cheek—less rare in these days of returning health. Then the colour faded and her eyes filled as she said with a child’s sweet unconscious pathos, tremulously resolved, as she tried to keep her voice steady: ‘I thank you sincerely, Mark Thursby, and my future husband’s comrades, for your rich and rare gift, which I shall wear on my wedding day. I am even more deeply grateful for the message of good-will to me and mine. I came here for the purpose of seeing the place and the people among whom Hereward had worked so long, and who had been so true to him in good and evil fortune. I shall be glad all my life that I have done so, and I now say farewell, and pray from my innermost heart that God may bless you all.’
I lifted her into the carriage. The Squire and the Major were already on the box seat. The high-conditioned leaders reared as the driver not unwillingly let them have their heads, when such a storm of cheers rent the air as caused the team to take the southern road, fortunately level, open, and well gravelled, at such a pace as freed the driver from any anxiety about being ‘on time’ for the mid-day stage. As we passed the camp we saw the whole force turned out in full uniform. Ruth raised her tear-dimmed eyes in time to view the majestic figure of the sergeant, whose ample beard seemed even more voluminous and imposing than usual; to mark Mr. Merlin on his gray charger; to recognise and return the military salute of the whole troop; and thus we bade adjeu to the Oxley for ever. Hill and dale succeeded each other as quickly as the shifting scene of a panorama; plain and woodland came into view and receded beneath the tireless rattling hoofs of the game impatient team, which now rushed excitedly at their collars, and taxed the muscle of the driver’s arm, even, with occasional aid from the brake. The Squire was the first to break silence.
‘A twenty-mile stage to be run out from end to end at this pace, and no gruel thought of! What would they say in England, Major? We shall have to send here yet for our carriage horses, I foresee.’
‘Is this Sydney, or, by any pardonable mistake, Paradise?’ murmured the Major, as we disembarked from our hansom at Batty’s, Ruth and the Squire having preceded per four-wheeler from the Redfern terminus to Mrs. Pemberton’s. ‘It was very rash of me to come down before I was in a position to cut the whole thing, eh, Pole? Do you know I feel inclined now to toss up whether I shall go back at all. Write a line to the Bulders, telling them to take the claim themselves and send my share after me.’
‘Why not? you and I have enough. What’s the use of making oneself miserable for more? A few thousands more or less are “neither here nor there,” as Cyrus used to say.’
‘H—m!’ meditatively replied the Major. ‘I must consider that part of the case during the next fortnight. Try how the half-pay business works; haven’t had any previous experience. This is almost too awfully jolly, I must say. Wonderful thing the sea, when you come to think of it, isn’t it? as that brown-bearded stock-rider said, do you remember, who confessed that he saw it for the first time. Ha! ha! a breakfast under these circumstances isn’t a breakfast, is it? No; always assuming that garfish are in season, it is a feast for the gods!’
Mrs. Allerton duly expressed and reiterated her extreme and unaffected surprise at the appearance of her daughter, whom she and Mrs. Pemberton asserted to have returned from her sojourn in the wilds of the interior in positively rude health.
Sydney appeared to have agreed passably well with Mrs. Allerton, maugre the heat and mosquitos, these latter beasts of prey being kept at bay by the integrity of Mrs. Pemberton’s curtains, while a daily walk in the Domain and the entrée to the Botanical Gardens had quite compensated for the minor inconveniences.
Matters being in such a highly satisfactory state, no valid reason could be adduced for deferring the ceremony which was to seal my long-deferred, now ofttimes despaired-of, happiness. The day was actually fixed, incredible as it may seem, and such perspective arrangements made as included the appointment of the Major as groomsman and such other necessary selections as befitted a very quiet wedding, where few but the actual personages and Ruth’s parents were likely to attend.
So the great, the glorious day being decided on, after such interval as was required absolutely by the not altogether unchronicled modistes of Sydney, the wedding raiment put in hands, nous autres had nothing to do but to wander about and enjoy ourselves, if possible, until my happiness could be transacted.
Somewhat to our surprise, the Squire joined us in all our excursions, and, like Dr. Johnson with Bennet Langton and Topham Beauclerk, professed himself keenly eager for the diversion of a ‘frisk’ in our company.
‘I shall regret Sydney and these pleasant rambles I know when I return,’ he would say. ‘I wish the South Head lay within hail of us elderly country fogies!’
‘Surely,’ pleaded the Major, ‘when you can run over to Paris in half-a-day, and have the capitals of Italy, Germany, Russia—what not—all within a week or so when you want a little change, and can pay for it, is there not enough to satisfy a reasonable Briton!’
‘You didn’t quite see my point, my dear Major. What is the advantage of Paris, Rome, Venice, half-a-score of capitals, with all the grandeur and glory of the world packed up among them, to me, Geoffrey Allerton, ætat. sixty? I’m too old to take pleasure in merely watching the parti-coloured stream of life flow by. “The brave days when we were twenty-one” have passed away with all that gave them joy and savour. I can’t stare at picture-galleries all day long or listen to music by the hour either.’
‘Then what do you want?’ quoth the Major, ‘for I can’t for the life of me divine.’
‘Does it not occur to you,’ queried the Squire, looking at him with the kind, wise smile I remembered so well, ‘that a man of my age and country tastes would much rather run across to a younger, a greater, and a newer England if he could do it by a week’s travel, than to any of the places you have named? There he would see the agricultural problems that he had studied all his life worked out—by his own countrymen too—under other and more favourable conditions.’
‘Now I begin to perceive,’ said the Major. ‘A light breaks in upon me. Hereward, the governor is a bigoted agriculturist; he has contracted the cockatoo complaint, I’m afraid; on the part of the “legitimate miner” I protest against him!’
‘Not at all,’ I say, coming to the rescue. ‘It’s the big grazing areas that have fetched him—hearing of Jimbour with a couple of hundred thousand sheep, and Boorooman with forty thousand head of cattle. Besides, we did see a hundred and fifty mares and foals in one paddock at Wendalong.’
‘And not a bad one among them,’ broke in the Squire. ‘Well, I confess I could spend the winter here with the greatest possible enjoyment. These are the things which would interest me, and I own it. Besides, all the great properties are in the hands of Englishmen, managed more or less in English fashion. I don’t take the same interest, I admit, in the operations of foreigners.’
‘I can sympathise with you, Squire,’ I said. ‘For many a day I used to watch the farmers at their ploughing near Buninyong on a fine spring morning and long to have the stilts in my hand again. It always put me in mind of the Leys.’
‘Australia has only to bide her time,’ continued the Squire, who had become serious; ‘but the march of events does not lag in these days of steam and telegraph. As the races swarmed westward in the old-world days when corn land and grass land became scarce, as the Norsemen later on took to their war galleys in search of free forage and brought home gold and captives, so now the surplus strength of Europe is passing over both oceans. Columbia will absorb one wing; but Australia, rich in minerals, soil, and sunshine, will bid high for the other. We are standing here in one of the great capitals of the world that is to be.’
‘How you will surprise your old neighbours at Allerton Court when you return, Squire,’ said I.
‘I have gained food for thought, my boy, which will last me for the remainder of my days,’ he answered earnestly, ‘besides some comprehension of the prospects of my fellow Britons in the south, and that is more than most country gentlemen can say. Besides, mark my words, both of you—we have nothing to do but talk for a day or two, you know—a great change is coming over the British farmer, and, through him, over the landlord. With cheap corn from America, live stock and meat from this country, an enormous trade, hardly yet thought of, but, it strikes me, feasible enough, how can farmer Giles pay the rent he does now? Answer me that. He and his son must emigrate, I say; and where can they come to with half the chance of doing well as to a country with kingdoms of cheap land like this? And they will come—they must come; I feel assured of it.’
‘It is a thousand pities, as you say, Squire, that Botany Heads are not within a week or ten days’ trip, like America. They get the pick of our English immigrants; the voyage is so short that they are safely landed in less time than would have served to make up their mind about starting for Australia.’