MORE than once—many times, in fact—Lance Trevanion revolved in his mind the strange mysterious warning which he had received from Tessie Lawless. Careless, indeed reckless, as he had become lately in the gratification of his caprices; safe in the possession of wealth hitherto undreamed of and daily increasing; basking in a local splendour of reputation based on the broad pedestal of success, there was yet something in the girl’s earnest tones and candour of mien which awed and impressed him. Did she—could she—know anything really important? What could there be behind the scenes likely to operate prejudicially as far as he was concerned? Why should he not go to this place which Kate had named, stating playfully that it was rather an out-of-the-way hole, but one which, as he was always praising up the beauties of English scenery, he might like to see? ‘ She couldn’t talk that sort of rubbish, but there was a big dark mountain, a running river, not like this ditch of a creek, and a flat beside it, like a small plain; snow, too, in the winter. He’d better come up and see. It would be a change after this beastly hot, dusty diggings.’ So between idleness, irresolution, and the lure of womanly wiles not weakened in witchery, in a latter day and a newer world, Lance Trevanion finally decided to go to Balooka. ‘He had given his word,’ he told himself, ‘and what a man says he should stand by, in great things or small. Such, at least, has always been the wont of the Trevanions of Wychwood.’
So next morning he sent for and saddled his horse—an upstanding, well-bred bay, with a star and two white hind legs, which he had bought a mouth or two since from Ned Lawless. There was no finer horse on the goldfield. More than once he had been asked from whom he had purchased him, where he was bred, what his brand was, by inquiring admirers, after a fashion which he was apt to dispose of hastily, if not rudely, as betraying the ignorance and bad form of colonists.
He had intended to make a very early start, but it so chanced that there had been an unusually rich washing-up the night before, and Jack Polwarth, honest but unlettered, was most urgent that he should make the deposit in the bank himself, receive the receipt, and see the amount duly divided and paid in to their separate accounts. To this, after some grumbling, he agreed, though not without declaring that Jack could do it just as well himself, for Mr. Stirling, the manager of the branch of the Australian Joint Stock Bank, then doing the chief business at “Growlers’,” was smart, straight, and plucky enough to run the Bank of England, if that time-honoured institution had rated at its true value the growing gold-crop of Australia, and opened there.
It may be here explained that the gentleman placed in charge of a branch bank on a leading goldfield in Australia differs widely from the portly, white -waistcoated, decorous potentate generally cast for the character in the metropolis or the large towns of the settled districts. He must be young, in order to undergo easily the shifts and privations of goldfield life. High-couraged the man needs to be, who sleeps with one revolver under his pillow and another at his right hand; himself, perhaps, and his assistant, the sole custodians of a hundred thousand pounds in gold and specie, within a barkwalled, barkroofed shanty, surrounded by an unscrupulous population, among whom, though not disproportionately so, are some of the most reckless desperadoes, refugees, and unhung murderers anywhere to be procured. He must be free of speech and open of manner, so as in a general way to commend himself to the miner of the period; a man, as a rule, who, while respecting and preferring a gentleman in matters of business, abhors formality. It is by no means to his detriment if, in his hours of ease, he demonstrates his ability to give points at billiards or euchre to nearly all comers, or to‘knock out in six rounds’ the leading talent in the glove tournaments periodically held. In addition to these various gifts and graces he must have a cool and strong head, a firm will, and a resolute determination to do his duty to his employers at whatever hazard, and finally, while not holding aloof from the amusements of the hour, to remain well governed, sober and temperate in all things, amid the manifold and subtle temptations of the ‘field.’
Oftener than not when the General Manager looks around among his more promising juniors for the possessor of these qualities, he finds him among the scions of the aristocratic families (for there are these in all British Colonies, and recognised as such), the heads of whom, holding Imperial official appointments, or having received grants in the old colonial days, have failed to follow any of the numerous paths to fortune trodden by their humbler comrades. In many instances the unsuccessful colonist of this class—often a retired military or naval officer—had anxiously desired to imbue his sons with that mercantile knowledge in which he himself stood confessedly deficient. And the youngsters, shrewdly observant of the weak point in the paternal career, in a large number of instances, have developed an aptitude for business which has regained for the family the status lost in the past. Furthermore, in the occasional adventures of a more or less dangerous nature, inseparable from a transitional state of society, the pioneer financier has more than once exhibited an amount of courage and coolness, including steadiness under fire, which has proved him a worthy descendant of the grizzled veteran who, with clasps and medals for half the battles in the Peninsular War, had never mastered the difference between principal and interest, much less the mystery of debit and credit balances.
Such a fortunate and not unusual combination was Charles—generally known as Charlie Stirling. Him the miners on more than one ‘rush’ were wont to pronounce emphatically ‘a dashed good all-round man, if ever there was one.’ Australian born, and in right of such privilege, standing six feet in his stocking soles, strong, lithe, sinewy, a fine horseman, and a sure shot, courteous ever, yet, in business matters, cautious if liberal, Charlie Stirling—one of a large family, in which all the brothers were ‘men and gentlemen,’ and the sisters handsome and intellectual—was, at that day, perhaps, the most popular and widely trusted bank manager out of Melbourne.
It was with this personage that Lance determined, as he expressed it, ‘to waste the morning’ in delivering Trevanion and party’s gold, watching the same being weighed and the proceeds calculated at the rate of three pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence per ounce, duly paid to the credit of the accounts of Lancelot Trevanion and John Polwarth, respectively.
Then, as he anticipated being absent a week or two—the weather was getting very hot and he thought a change to a cooler climate would be enjoyable—the idea suddenly occurred to him that he might as well leave his brass-bound trunk containing all his English souvenirs and valuables, including letters and papers, in Mr. Stirling’s care. ‘The tent might be burned down or robbed in his absence,’ he bethought himself, ‘and Stirling is such a brick that if I came back in ten years instead of ten days, it would be as safe as when I left it. There are not so many men I’d say the same of, but if there’s any man to whom the old boast “you can trust your life to him” applies, that man is Charlie Stirling!’
Between business and pleasure the day was pretty nearly disposed of. His valise had been packed in the morning. The bright bay horse was faring well in the stable of the ‘Prospector’s Arms’ hard by the bank—where all hands went to lunch at Mr. Stirling’s invitation. He and his clerk lodged there, as far as meals went, though they took care—as, indeed, was strictly necessary—to sleep at the bank. Mrs. Delf, the smart and proverbially energetic landlady, was instructed to prepare a more than usually recherché collation. Champagne ornamented the festive board, of which a local magnate—the opulent squatter of the vicinity—was invited to partake, and all things being fittingly concluded, Lance Trevanion made his adieus.
‘Well, good-bye, Stirling!’ he said, as he mounted the resolute bay, who arched his neck and gave a playful plunge. ‘You’ll honour my drafts, I suppose? and, by the bye’—here he drew a rather large envelope from his shooting-coat pocket—‘keep this till I return. I had a fit of the blues last week, and scribbled what you’ll find inside. Good-bye, Jack’—here he shook hands with Polwarth—‘I’ll ride by the claim, and say good-bye to Tottie and her mother.’
Half an hour’s fairly fast riding brought him to the claim, alongside of which stood the rude canvas shelter which had for so many weeks, even months, filled the place of ‘home’ for all the party. A true home in the best sense had it been. There had the little party enjoyed, so far, peace, security, warmth and shelter, sound sleep and wholesome meals. Near it was the shaft through whose incursion into Mother Earth’s interior the esse, to be so much more noble in posse, had been reft by hard and honest toil. Even such a dwelling is not quitted wholly without regret.
‘Well, good-bye, Mrs. Polwarth!’ he cried as he rode up to where that worthy matron—having placed a gigantic loaf in the hot ashes of the recent fire in the open chimney—was washing and cleaning up all her belongings. ‘I’m going away for a week.’
‘Where to, sir?,’ she queried, ‘if I may make bold to.ask.’
‘Well, up the country a bit. Ned Lawless wants me to join him at a new diggings, more than a hundred miles from here.’
‘Ned Lawless!’ the good woman echoed in a tone of voice by no means expressive of satisfaction. ‘And what call have you, Mr. Lance, to go making free with the likes of him? I don’t like none of the breed—men nor women, if you ask me, and what I’ve heard is a deal worse than what I’ve seen. They’re most like a lot of gipsies, to my thinking, as a cousin of mother’s went away with, and never was heard of no more. Don’t have no truck with them, Mr. Trevanion. What ’ud the squire say?’
This last appeal, like many well-meaning deterrents, signally failed of its effect. With a frowning brow, such as Mrs. Polwarth had rarely if ever seen, Lance turned his horse’s head, muttering, ‘Don’t talk nonsense, Mrs. Polwarth; things are very different from Cornwall, and the Lawlesses are my friends. I’ll trouble you not to——’
At that moment, when, perhaps, something of the fierce nature of the man—of late subjected to wholesome influences—might have broken forth, a voice was heard saying, ‘Kiss Tottie, Lance,’ and that rosy little innocent, bright-haired and blue-eyed, like one of Guide’s angels, ran forward from the tent almost up to the horse’s shoulder. ‘Keep away, Tot,’ he called out, springing down. ‘You little puss, do you want Pendragon to tread on your naughty toes?’ The child ran to him, as if secure of welcome, and throwing her arms round his neck, kissed him on brow and eye, with all the loving abandon of childhood. ‘Come back soon to Tottie,’ she cried. ‘Naughty Lance, to go away.’
‘Lance come back soon,’ he said, and his face softened as he looked at the child, in a way which showed how the finer chords in that mysterious mechanism, the human heart, may be stirred by one touch of simple nature. ‘And I’ll bring a bag of sugarplums twice as big as this,’ diving into his pocket and throwing towards her a large paper receptacle of sweets. ‘Bye-bye, Tottie. Good-bye, sweetheart, good-bye,’ he carolled forth, as he struck spurs into his horse, and disappeared round a turn of the winding, tree-girdled forest-road. ‘May the Lord keep him from all evil, and from the Adversary,’ said Mrs. Polwarth, a sound disciple of Wesley. ‘His heart is that good, if his head’s a bit wrong set.’
Lunch had been, perhaps, slightly protracted owing to the accompanying champagne, one consequence of which was that after going back to the claim, and saying good-bye to Mrs. Polwarth, not to speak of putting a few of his personal possessions in order at the tent, Lance Trevanion found on reference to the sun’s height above the horizon that it was much later in the day than he supposed. It would not be possible without hard riding to make the stage he had proposed. There was nothing to be gained that he knew of by saving a day in the expedition; he therefore decided to stay quietly in the township that night, stable his horse at the hotel stables, retire early, and make a ‘daylight start.’ An apparently trivial disturbance of his original plan, yet upon such diminutive difference in action what enormous consequences frequently depend.
Day had scarce broken as Lance Trevanion rode down the slope and across the creek flat, which so lately the Lawless encampment had occupied and rendered homelike, where he had passed so many a pleasant hour. Empty and deserted, it wore to him, now, a forlorn and melancholy aspect. The boy had evidently packed the tents and removed the remaining chattels according to instructions. Tessie was, of course, also gone. She had indeed been seen on the Melbourne coach.
The day promised to be perfect. The sun stealing through the eastern woods was slowly irradiating the sombre slumberous landscape. Mists were rising from the lower levels, forming lakelets of white vapour, into which capes and promontories ran, and islands floated. The birds awakened by the sun-rays commenced with note of carol to welcome the golden azure day. The well-bred hackney stepped out gaily, shaking his head and making his curb-chain ring in a fast and easy walk. ‘What a glorious climate! What a grand country this is!’ thought he. ‘How free is every man’s life here, untrammelled by the vexatious restraints of a narrow society. The very air is intoxicating. Joyous, indeed, is this life in a new world!’
The journey was much longer, besides being rougher as to wayfaring, than Lance had expected. Following the directions given to him and the straggling tracks which the earlier digging parties had made, he began to approach the celebrated Balooka ‘Rush.’ He had noticed that he was gradually quitting the open forest country. All suddenly, after toiling up one range after another, he found himself upon a mountain plateau. Beneath this, and beside a rushing, brawling, snow-fed river, wholly unlike any stream which Lance had yet seen in Australia, lay, far adown a deep glen, the already populous mining camp.
Lance gazed with astonishment at the novel and picturesque landscape. ‘Am I in North Wales again?’ he could not help asking himself. ‘Who would have thought to have seen such a river? Such richly green meadowlands? Such a stupendous glen? And oh!’ he thought, as he passed round a cape of volcanic traprock which impinged upon the smooth upland, ‘what magic and enchantment is this?’ Yes, truly, as a loftier line of summit of the great Alpine mountain chain which bisects the continent came into view. So sudden was the surprise, so strangely contrasted with all his preconceived ideas of Australian scenery was the presentment of the wondrous white battlements upreared against a cloudless azure sky, that he was constrained to rein in his horse and gaze, silent and spellbound, at the supernal splendour of the apparition. ‘If Estelle were by my side! If she could but behold this entrancing prospect,’ he thought. ‘She, whom the view of a far blue range of hills, of a peaceful lakelet, would send into ecstasies of admiration! How often had they stood together in the fading summer eve and gazed at the wide and wondrous landscape, as they then deemed it, which extended for some twenty or thirty miles around Wychwood.’ Here, with a new world unfolding to his gaze, what crowds of ideas and half-formed projects coursed through the adventurous brain of the gazer. Born of the class and moulded of the race which had produced the immortal voyagers, the unconquered warriors, the dauntless adventurers of Elizabeth’s reign, Lance Trevanion needed but the stimulus of his present surroundings to be inspired with lofty and enterprising ideas. His original intention of returning home and settling down to the monotonous and luxurious stagnation of an English country gentleman’s life became hateful to him. Far rather, if Estelle would join him here, would he invest in these half-tamed Australian wilds, acquire a principality along with the colossal herds and countless flocks of the typical squatter, which magnates he had seen and heard tell of. Eventually, he would embark with a capital sufficient to buy up half the Duchy, to restore the House of Trevanion to its ancient grandeur, and go down to posterity as the Trevanion, the latter-day champion of the race, who had redeemed the once regal name from the mediocrity which had oppressed and disfigured it. But these momentous plans and enterprises could by no means be carried out without the companionship and solace of ‘one sweet spirit to be his minister,’ and in that hour of exultation and unfaltering confidence there came to him, like the strain of distant music, the low, sweet tones—the gentle chidings of his queenly Estelle. She would, unless he misjudged her, follow him to the ends of the earth. Why, then, should he wait to linger here amid rude surroundings—even ruder society? His business could be quite as well managed in his absence by the faithful Jack Polwarth. How suddenly the idea struck him! Why, he could take his passage in the Red Jacket—she was to sail in a fortnight; he had seen the advertisement in the Port Phillip Patriot of the day before he left Growlers’ Gully—and be in England in six weeks! A month or two in England, a honeymoon trip on the continent, and they could be easily back here before next winter. Miners had done it, even in his experience. The great thing was to make a start. He would not lose time. He had lost too much already. He had half a mind to turn now, and get back as far as the Weather-board Inn he had seen about ten miles distant. What was the use, after all, of seeing this new field, Balooka—or the Lawlesses—which meant Kate? What good could come of it? Perhaps the reverse, indeed. Was there really anything hidden, at which Tessie had clearly hinted? So sharply and clearly did this new view of his plans and prospects strike him. May there not be moments when the voice of a man’s guardianangel sounds with a strangely solemn and distinct warning in his ears, for the moment drowning, as with a harp of no earthly tone, the fiend-voice which ever seeks to lure him to his doom? It would appear so. For even as Lance Trevanion turned his horse’s head, and paced slowly, but resolvedly, in the opposite direction by which he had advanced, a woman rode at half-speed from out one of the forest tracks—leading a saddled horse—and reined up with practised ease in the main road, almost beside him. It was Kate Lawless.
For the moment he could scarce believe his eyes. He awoke from his day-dream with a half sense of disloyalty to his promise, as the startled’ gaze of the girl rested upon him. Their eyes met. In hers he thought he recognised a surprised and doubtful expression, unlike her usual fearless regard. She looked athwart the track adown which she had come, and along the main road into which she had entered. At the first clattering sound of her horse’s hoofs Lance had turned his horse’s head in the direction of Balooka, so that she had not the awkward admission to make that he had been retracing his steps.
‘Did you meet or pass any one on the road?’ she said, as soon as they had interchanged greetings. ‘I couldn’t hardly make out who you were when I came up. Sure you seen no one?’
‘Not a soul, except a Chinaman,’ he said; ‘but what does it matter? I’ve met you—and you have ever so much more colour than when I saw you last. How becoming it is!’ And, in truth, the girl’s cheeks showed a heightened hue, whether from emotion or exercise, which he had never observed before during their acquaintance.
For the rest, she looked handsomer than he had ever thought her. Her graceful figure swayed easily in the saddle as she steadied her impatient horse—an animal of high quality, and, unknown to Lance, as was also the thoroughbred she was leading. Her hair had become loosened at the back from the great knot in which it was mostly confined, and hung in bright luxuriance almost to her waist. Her eyes sparkled, her smile seemed the outcome of unaffected pleasure at meeting Lance again. The old witchery asserted itself—old as the birth of history, yet new and freshly fair as the dawning day. For the time Lance felt irresistibly impelled to follow where she might lead, to abide at all hazards in the light of her presence.
Where were now the high resolves—the lofty emprise of a short half-hour since? Où sont les neiges d’antan? Gone, gone, and for ever! Was there a low sigh breathed beside him as he rode close by her bridle-rein adown the long incline, in which they could see the diggers’ tents in thousands whitening the green valley beneath them?
‘So you have come to see us at last,’ she said archly. ‘I began to think Tessie had frightened you off it. I can’t tell what’s come to the girl. Billy told me she’d been pitching a lot to you: how bad we was, and all the rest of it.’
‘I said I would come, didn’t I? and here I am. And a grand country it seems to be. But what are you about, yourself, and whose horse, saddle, and bridle are they? You haven’t been “shaking” them? isn’t that the word?’
‘No fear,’ she answered half shyly, half angrily, as it appeared to him. ‘I suppose you think we haven’t got a decent horse. I rode out with Johnnie Kemp—one of our chaps that’s working a claim at Woolshed Creek, and brought back his horse for him.’
‘Johnnie Kemp knows a good horse when he sees him,’ he replied, as he looked at the well-bred animal. ‘You’d wonder how they got such a coat up here. And how is Ned? You left Growlers’ Gully rather suddenly, don’t you think?’
‘That was all Ned’s doing; he heard about this place being so good, and was afraid to wait. He and the boys have got a first-rate claim here; but he’s been buying a lot of horses lately, and talks of starting for Melbourne with a mob next week.’
‘That would suit me exactly,’ said Lance. ‘I should like to make one of the party, for I intend to be in Melbourne some time before the month is out.’
‘What makes you in such a hurry to get to Melbourne?’ the girl asked, and, as she spoke, she leaned across nearer to him and laid her hand on his horse’s mane, holding her bridle-rein and the led horse in her right hand. ‘Old Pendragon looks lovely, don’t he? You’d better stop and keep me company while Ned’s away. I shall be as miserable as a bandicoot, for the chaps are away more than half the time, and this is a roughish place—a deal worse than Growlers’; poor old Growlers’—I always liked the place myself.’
As she spoke, her voice became lower, with a softened, appealing tone in it which strangely stirred the pulses of the listener. The day was nearly done; the solemn summit of the snow range was becoming paler, and yet more pale, as the crimson and gold bars of the sunset sky faded out. There was a hush, almost an unbroken silence in the forest; far beneath, still, the mining camp appeared to be a mimic corps d’armée, from which one might expect to encounter sentinel and vedette. The girl’s gray eyes were fixed upon him with a pleading, almost childish intensity. It was one of those moments in the life of man—frail and unstable as it is his nature to be—when resolutions, principles, the experience of the past, the hopes of the future are swept away like leaves before the blast, like driftwood on the stream, like the bark upon the ocean when the storm-winds are unchained.
What an Enchantress is the Present; Ill fare the Past and the Absent! be they never so divine of mien, so spotless of soul. Lance Trevanion placed his hand on the girl’s shoulder as she looked up in his face with the smile of victory. ‘I shall have to take care of you, Kate, if Ned’s going to desert the camp,’ he said. ‘I suppose he won’t be wanting to settle in Melbourne.’