‘WHERE are ye thinking of going, boss, when we get to Bairnsdale? Twofold Bay’s a terrible long way off to go prospectin”. I’d a deal sooner chance Omeo. It’s only twenty miles farther on.’
‘Omeo, Omeo!’ repeated Lance. ‘Why should I go to Omeo?’
‘Haven’t ye heard? There’s a big show struck close by the old township. They say they’re leaving Ballarat, lots of ’em, to go there. It’s the richest find yet, by all accounts; shallow ground too!’
‘Omeo, Omeo!’ Lance again repeated half unconsciously to himself. Had not Tessie made reference to it in the coach from Ballarat? Had she not said that Lawrence Trevenna was there, the man to whose baleful shadow he owed ruin and dishonour, the ineradicable disgrace which would always be associated with his name? He had a heavy account to settle with him. When they met all scores would be cleared off. This much he had vowed to himself in the prison cell at Ballarat, in the hulk President in the silence of midnight, in that fœtid hold of the prison-ship, where he could scarcely breathe the polluted atmosphere, laden with crime, heavy with curses. There, in that time of horror and dread, again and again had he sworn to take his enemy’s life—that one or other should die when next they met, be it where it might.
And then again, as he hoped to efface himself, to feel secure from the pursuit which he heard in every breeze and feared in every echoing hoof, where could he find so safe and unsuspected a refuge as this new digging—wild, rough, isolated as Omeo must necessarily be? Far from civilisation of any kind, on a lone mountain plateau, snow-covered in winter, only to be reached by paths so devious and precipitous that wheels could not be employed, where every pound of merchandise or machinery was fain to be carried on pack-horses. There could be no better place for a hunted man to disappear, to obliterate himself. There he could remain for the present,—unknown, invisible to all who had known the former Lance Trevanion,—until he matured his plans and could make his way to a foreign shore.
Here, as he recovered health and strength under the influence of the mountain breezes and the wild woodlands which lay so near the river-sources and the snow summits, it would be comparatively easy to transmit his share of the Number Six washings, still safe in the Joint-Stock Bank in the custody of Charlie Stirling. Here, once located and established as Dick, Tom, or Harry—surnames were in the nature of superfluities at goldfields of the class which Omeo was pretty sure to be—he could make arrangements for selling out to Jack Polwarth. Quietly and without suspicion he could arrange to have the whole of his property transferred to him in cash, and some fine morning, under cover of a trip to Melbourne on business or pleasure, he would show Australia a clean pair of heels, and in America, North or South, in some far land where his name was never heard, would live out the rest of a life with such solace as he might, might even—when Time, the healer, should have dulled the heart-pangs which now throbbed and agonised so mordantly—might even reach some degree of contentment, if not of happiness.
And Estelle! Estelle! There was the sharpest sting—the bitterest grief the direst pang of all. Could he ever look again into those lovely, trusting eyes, having undergone what he had done? Could he ask her—angel of purity that she was; the embodiment of the refinement of generations of stainless ancestors; sheltered, as she had been, by the conditions of her birth and education from all knowledge of the evil that there is in the world,—could he ask her to lay her head upon a felon’s breast?—to take his hand in life-long pledge of happiness, when at any time, in any land where this long arm of extradition could reach, the hand of justice might seize him? No! Such companionship, such love, could never be his in the future. He had lost them for ever. On the lower level to which he had sunk he must remain. To its privations he must accustom himself; the surroundings he must endure. There was no help for it. If Tessie Lawless chose to share his lot he might not deny her. She knew the whole of his story. She loved him. She had been faithful and true. She deserved any poor recompense, such as the damaged future of his life, that of a nameless man, could offer, if she chose to accept it. For Trevanion of Wychwood was dead, and his early love, with all his high hopes and noble aspirations, lay deep in the grave of his buried honour.
From the day of Lance Trevanion’s arrest at Balooka, no word, by letter or otherwise, had reached Wychwood of the fortunes of its heir. Days, weeks, months succeeded each other in the uneventful round into which country life in England has a tendency to settle when ordinary interests are withdrawn or unduly concentrated. It was pitiable to note the squire’s anxiety when the Australian mail was due. For him, as for Estelle, there seemed to be but one man whose fortunes were worth following in the whole world—from whom letters were as the breath of life. And now these tidings from a far land, regular, if brief and sententious, up to this time, were suddenly withheld.
With the failing health of the Squire—for he suffered from one of the mysterious class of complaints before which strong men go down like feeble children—passed away much of his fierce obstinacy, his pride and arrogance. He thought of his son as he had last seen him,—haughty, tameless, defiant, with all his faults a true Trevanion,—and now, when he hoped to have seen him once again, grown and developed, though bronzed and possibly roughened by the rude life of a colony, when he had schooled himself to recall rash, words and to make the amende as far as his nature would permit, here he was thwarted, bewildered, maddened by this sudden arrest of all knowledge of his fate.
‘The boy has had the best of the fight,’ he groaned out.
Ever at his side, at this crisis chief counsellor and consoler, Estelle here rose to her true position in the house. Awakened to the necessity of taking a leading part in the family fortunes, the added weight of responsibility appeared to nerve and mould her to a loftier resolve, to a more sublimely unselfish purpose. She it was who suggested to the desponding father every shade of excuse for the stoppage of the letters which were as the lifeblood to his failing constitution. She it was who ransacked the newspapers for reports, meagre as they mostly were, of the great Australian goldfields. She it was who looked up maps and authorities upon the colonies, until she even acquired the recondite knowledge, granted to so few Britons, that Victoria is not situated in New South Wales, nor Tasmania the capital of Western Australia.
Torn and rent as was her own heart when she allowed herself to think of her lover,—lost to her in the wilds of a far country, perishing in the wilderness for all she knew, exposed to dangers among savages and outlaws even more ruthless,—she yet braced up her courage. She nerved herself to bear the worst, if only she might soften the pain and anxiety which began increasingly to sap the strength of the failing head of the ancient house.
More than once had she interviewed the passengers in vessels returning from Melbourne, hungrily eager for any shred of news from Ballarat. Did they know a miner named Trevanion, or even Polwarth? How long was it since they had seen him, and what were his present circumstances? But these inquiries were vain. Few of the returning adventurers had troubled themselves to remember the names of their chance acquaintances. Others indeed had heard of the untoward fate of the young Englishman, but thought it no kindness to tell his friends. They could not possibly aid him or alleviate his condition. Better to let the bad news unfold itself in due time.
So the weary days went on. Spring glided into summer. The ancient oaks and ‘immemorial elms’ of Wychwood Chase were clothed anew with tender greenery. The glad, brief life of the northern summer burst into joyous fulness, then paled and waned. Autumn, with slow pace but ruthless hand, despoiled the glares and strewed the forest aisles with withered leaves and fallen chaplets. Ere the blasts of winter had commenced to herald the doom of the dying year, it became generally known that the Squire of Wychwood was failing fast—would, indeed, hardly last over the coming Christmastide. It was observed that he buried himself in his library, that he had given up all habitual modes of exercise. No guests were invited to the house, and Miss Estelle more often dined by herself than not in the great, lonely dining-room which had so often echoed with festive mirth, or, in older days, still rang with ruthless revelry.
As the Squire’s health declined his affections seemed to concentrate themselves upon his niece. She had in all respects borne herself as a daughter to him—had shown even more than a daughter’s sympathy and constant, watchful care.
The younger son was at college. He would be the heir to Wychwood in case the adventurer on the far Australian goldfield never returned to claim his inheritance. Amiable, well conducted, of respectable ability and fair attainments, he had never (such is the perversity of the human heart) been a favourite of his father’s. The stern old man—bitterly as he had quarrelled with the disobedient elder brother, whose nature was in so many respects a reflex of his own, yet in his heart owned him for the higher nature—recognised in him the befitting heir to his ancient demesne, to the hall in which nobles had sat and princes feasted. Now to his gloomy and brooding soul all hope was lost. Some dire misfortune, even a fatal accident, had doubtless happened—must have occurred, indeed, or Lance’s chronicle of his life and adventures, meagre as to detail, but of regular recurrence, would have continued. If only he could have set eyes on Lance before he died! Could he but have told him how he had regretted the rash words and bitter speech, the prayers he had prayed for his safe return; ay, the tears he had shed in the agony of his remorse—he, the proud, inexorable Trevanion of Wychwood! It was well-nigh incredible. None of his old-time comrades and fellow-roysterers could have believed it of the Dark Squire, as the villagers then named him, with lowered tones and bated breath. But in the days of sorrow and failing strength,—when the strong man is brought low; when those hours, so long approaching, so long menacing, have come; when death seems no longer a strange visitant but a familiar friend, more welcome in truth than the sad alternation of sorrow and unrest,—the haughtiest pride of man is lowered. In those hours of lonely grief and dark despair many a recantation is made—many a vow recorded undreamed of in life’s festal season.
The death-day came at last. He lingered on past the season fixed by general expectancy; but ere the first bud of the swelling leaflet had been set free by the breath of spring in his ancestral glades, the Squire lay with his warrior forefathers in the historic vault, which had not been opened since the last Lady of Wychwood had been carried there, long ere her beauty had faded. The retainers of the house, and not a few of the notables of the county, assembled to pay the last form of respect to one whom, in despite of his latter-day life of seclusion, they recognised as one of the born leaders of the land. As the long procession passed slowly along the winding road, which at one point skirted the sea-cliff, to the venerable chapel which had seen so many solemn ceremonies celebrated connected with the family, more than one inquiry was made for the absent heir, and uniform regret expressed that he should not have returned from the far south land to claim his own and assume his rights.
When the last sad duties had been paid to him whom, in spite of his stormy outbursts of temper, Estelle could not help holding in love and pity, a strong resolve appeared to actuate the once timid girl, shrinking, as carefully-nurtured women do, from independent action and strange surroundings. The estate would go, of course, to the heir-at-law, strictly entailed as it had been for many generations. But it had been in the old man’s power to dispose as he pleased of the large amount accruing from the savings of late years, and from the sale of an estate which was not included in the entail. This bequest, which had been made while the testator was of perfectly sound mind and body, was of such amount as to render Estelle perfectly independent for the rest of her life indeed, to exalt her somewhat to the position of an heiress.
In the long conversations held in his latter days of decadence, between the Squire and his niece, it had been definitely agreed that Estelle should proceed to Australia and there seek out the errant heir—should bring him back if possible by force of entreaty or persuasion to the land of his forefathers, to the rank and position handed down from the fierce warriors and splendid courtiers whose presentments frowned or smiled down upon their descendants in the old hall.
‘I have such faith in you, my darling Estelle,’ said the Squire, in one of his later confidences, ‘that I shall die more peacefully knowing that you will search this far country for my lost unhappy boy. You have sense and courage in a degree rarely bestowed upon women. Your heart has been true to him during his long absence—this more than anxious period of doubt and dread. If he be in the neighbourhood of the place from which we last heard from him, you will be sure to gain some tidings of him. If you see him, your influence over him, powerful for good, always for good, as in the past, will save him, and once more the old ancient race, which has never yet failed of a male heir in the direct line, will he fittingly represented. If Lance, the son of whom I was so proud, returns no more from that far country, the estate will of course pass into the hands of his brother. But you are in any case well provided for. May God bless and reward you, my darling Estelle, for your forbearing kindness to a broken-spirited man. And now, kiss me, darling; I think I could sleep.’
He slept the sleep which knows no awakening on earth.
The parting words of her uncle had for Estelle almost the sacredness of a dying command. She had vowed, kneeling by his bedside, to leave no region unexplored, to carry through the search with the completeness which characterised all her proceedings. The high courage and resolute will which were hers by inheritance from the Trevanions stood her now in good stead. With an air of quiet resolve she arranged all her personal affairs without parade or hesitation; within a fortnight her passage had been taken, a few letters of introduction procured, also a very moderate outfit suitable for a young lady travelling, if not incognito, in a very unobtrusive way. And at the appointed day and hour Estelle found herself speeding away over the waters blue in company with a stranger crowd of enforced acquaintances, borne over an unknown sea on a wild and desperate quest. Before her, in imagination, she pictured the rude solitudes of an unknown land—even the fancied perils of a lawless goldfield.
The low coast of the island-continent line, irregular and faint, appearing from out the southern sky, so long unbroken. A new land—a new city. Melbourne at last! The land how strange! The city how new! The people how foreign-appearing and bizarre to the voyager from the region of tradition and settled form. Estelle looked and moved like a strayed princess amid a horde of nomads. She had schooled herself into the belief that in her quest she would be called upon to suffer all kinds of privations, and to mingle with every variety of ‘rough colonists.’ She resolved to make a trial essay. In pursuance of this heroic resolution she preferred to go to an hotel upon her own responsibility, before delivering the letters of introduction with which she had armed herself. She was not exactly fortunate in her choice, as indeed was to be expected. However, she was agreeably surprised at the civility with which she was treated, as well as by the absence of ‘roughness,’ as displayed by the habitués, many of whom were patently uneducated. Still Estelle made the discovery shortly, that even so recently constructed a city as Melbourne, in the fret of a gold-fever, was not essentially unlike an English town—that a handsome young woman was more or less an object of attraction and curiosity. Tolerably well veiled, doubtless; nevertheless an inquiring tone displayed itself unmistakably. And, in spite of her resolve to brave all the social inclemencies of her novel surroundings, Estelle Chaloner shrank from the implied doubtfulness to which her unprotected condition led up. Escape was easy. She smiled as she thought of her boasted independence; how soon it had failed her! Being a sensible girl, however, in the least restricted sense of the word, she capitulated forthwith, resolving to present one of the letters of introduction without delay.
Having packed up her belongings,—not too extensive,—paid her bill, and arranged all things ready for departure, Estelle picked out a ‘nice’ looking letter, and resolved to abide the hazard of the die. The address was, ‘Mrs. Vernon, Toorak, South Yarra, near Melbourne.’ The aboriginal sounding names gave no information as to distance. ‘Near’ might mean two miles or twenty. A man’s next-door neighbour in Australia was sometimes fifty miles distant, she had heard. Happily she bethought herself of asking information of the landlady of her hotel.
‘Toorak, Toorak!’ said that important personage. ‘Oh yes; I know it well enough, and a nice place it is all the swell people live there! Mrs. Vernon’s place is one of the best there. A grand house, and everything in style. You’d better have a cab called; they’ll take you there for ten shillings, luggage and all.’
‘I may not be asked to stay,’ replied Estelle diffidently, ‘and if I am, I am not sure that I ——’
‘Oh yes you will,’ interposed the hostess. ‘Don’t talk that way. Wait till you see what sort of a place it is. And Mrs. Vernon’s a lady that won’t let you go, I’ll answer for it.’
A short half-hour’s drive across Princes’ Bridge, through or around the maze of Canvastown, past the Botanic Gardens, and along a newly made and recently metalled road, brought Estelle to a pair of massive ornate iron gates, on the northern side of the road leading along an avenue of some length.
‘This is Charlton Lodge,’ said the driver. ‘Shall I drive to the front?’
‘Certainly,’ she replied, as she smiled at the question. The winding avenue was well gravelled, with a border of shaven grass, beyond which were beds filled with flowering shrubs, planted amid and underneath tall pines, with an admixture of elms, oaks, and Australian cedars. Everything exhibited careful tendance, demonstrating that although many of the best labourers had levanted to the goldfields there were still some few servitors who preferred comfort to independence. Estelle was beginning to wonder how long the preliminary approach was to last, when a velvet-piled lawn came into view, around which the carriage-drive took a sweep, her charioteer halting underneath a spacious portico of classical proportion and finish.
The cabman rang the bell, and receiving assurance from a neatly dressed parlour-maid that her mistress was at home, returned to his seat and awaited events, while Estelle was duly ushered into a handsomely furnished drawing-room of unquestionable modernity of tone.
After a reasonably short interval, employed by Estelle in a comprehensive survey of the apartment, which, indeed, bore tokens of intelligent and appreciative taste, a well-dressed elderly lady appeared.
‘Miss Chaloner!’ she exclaimed. ‘I am truly glad to see you at last. I have been wondering what had become of you. My dear friend, Mary Dacre, wrote to me to say that you were coming out by the mail, and that you had kindly brought a letter to me. I heard of the vessel’s arrival, and that you had left the vessel and gone to an hotel. I called at Scott’s and Menzies’s, but they had not heard of you.’
‘I went to the Criterion,’ said Estelle smilingly. ‘I rather regretted it afterwards.’
‘Of course you did, my dear, and permit me to say that it partly served you right. Why did you not come to me at once? Melbourne is such a queer place now since the diggings have broken out. There are all sorts of strange characters and curious people about. It is hardly a place for a young lady just now, unless under efficient chaperonage.’
Estelle gazed at the kindly old lady, whose eyes at that moment shone with maternal tenderness for an instant before she answered. Her voice softened as she said—
‘You must remember, as no doubt Miss Dacre told you, that I came to Australia for a special purpose; and that if I expect to be successful in my search I cannot afford to let small obstacles stand in my way.’
‘Small obstacles! That is very well, but surely you don’t intend to go up to the diggings and to horrid places in the bush all by yourself?’
‘That is just what I do intend, my dear Mrs. Vernon,—neither more nor less. I have thought over the matter scores—yes, hundreds of times—and I can see no other way. If I merely wished to see the country I might arrange things differently. But I have one important, principal, all-absorbing purpose in view. It is my star. I fix my eye on that, and all other things, even those which appear to be insuperable difficulties, must give way.’
‘Dangers and difficulties, traps and pitfalls, do all those count for nothing in your list of drawbacks?’
‘I must use a man’s argument. I see other women have done—are doing the same—why not I? Suppose I were a sempstress or a poor governess on her way to an engagement, should I not have to do the same?—to travel unattended; to take my chance of rough or uncongenial companionship? Why am I so much more precious than other girls of my age, that I have to be fenced round with so many precautions?’
‘All this is fine talking, my dear Miss Chaloner, and it’s very nice of you to say so; but a young lady of position and fortune cannot—must not—travel about by herself as if she were a barmaid or a music-hall singer. There is a difference beside that of age and sex—and the disagreeables—you have no idea of the nature of them.’
‘I don’t know much about them, though I may partly guess, my dear Mrs. Vernon, but we Chaloners and Trevanions are said in Cornwall to be an obstinate race. My mind is made up. I must take a seat in the Ballarat coach for next Monday.’
‘I am afraid you are an obstinate girl,’ said Mrs. Vernon good-naturedly. ‘Well, a wilful woman must, I suppose, have her own way. I have relieved my mind, at any rate. Now the next thing is to see how we can help you in your perilous adventure. Let me think. Do I know any Ballarat people? No, but Mr. Vernon does; if not, his friends do, which comes to the same thing.’
‘I hope that you won’t take all this trouble about me,’ said Estelle earnestly. ‘I know how to get there, with my own unaided intelligence. You would be surprised how much I know about Port Phillip from books and newspapers.’
‘And you are bent upon acquiring your own colonial experience? Well, my dear, it may be all for the best in the end; but if you were a daughter of mine I should not have one happy moment from the time I lost sight of you till you returned. Do you know any one at Ballarat, or have you letters to people there?’
‘There is one gentleman there whom I seem to know quite well through my cousin’s letters. He was never tired of praising him. He spoke of him as his best friend. His name was Charles Stirling. He was a banker. Then there was a Mr. Hastings, and John Polwarth, Lance’s partner,—both miners.’
‘A banker and two miners! Chiefly young and unmarried, I suppose. And are these all your introductions in a strange town, and that town Ballarat, you dear innocent lamb that you are? Well, well; we have five days before us. Mr. Vernon will be home to dinner at seven, and we can have a council of war. Here comes afternoon tea, after which we go for a drive if you are not tired.’
‘I am not in the least tired,’ replied Estelle. ‘And now that my departure is decided upon I am ready for anything.’
So the carriage was ordered out—a costly enough equipage in those days of unexampled enhancement of prices—the three-hundred-guinea pair of horses that consumed oats at twelve shillings a bushel and hay at seventy pounds a ton, driven by a coachman at three pounds a week. But Mr. Vernon was a merchant who had made one fortune by the lucky cargoes of mining necessaries, and was fast making another by gold-buying. Such an additional item of expense as a carriage for his wife was the merest bagatelle.
So the ladies drove to St. Kilda for a breath of sea air, taking the Botanic Gardens on their way back, where there was a flowershow patronised by His Excellency, Mr. Latrobe, and all the rank and fashion of the metropolis, chiefly represented by a few squatters and club men, with a sprinkling of gold commissioners on leave.
Mrs. Vernon was not averse to the company of so distinctly aristocratic-looking a damsel as Estelle Chaloner, whose appearance, quietly dressed as she was, elicited, in that day of matrimonial competition and proportional scarcity of young ladies, endless admiring comment
At dinner, for which they had barely time to dress, they were enlivened by the society of Mr. Vernon—a shrewd, good-humoured mercantile personage—and a gentleman whom he introduced as Mr. Annesley and described as a Goldfields Commissioner. This last was a very good-looking and correctly dressed young man, not long from England. He was in Melbourne, on leave after twelve months’ hard work on the diggings, according to his own account, and had some flavour of the high spirits and abounding cheerfulness of the naval officer on shore about him. His host ‘drew’ him judiciously about mining life and adventure, on which he was by no means loath to enlarge. He was evidently gratified by the intense interest with which Estelle listened to his amusing and justifiably egotistic rattle, and in the innocence of his heart essayed to complete her subjugation. But, to Estelle’s intense regret, he did not come from Ballarat—‘had been quartered in quite a different district.’ She was deeply interested in him, however, as marking a type with which Lance must necessarily have often come into contact, and she concluded an agreeable evening, widely different from her expectation of things Australian, with an assurance from Mr. Vernon that he would bring her a budget of definite information about Ballarat and its social condition on the morrow.
Had she. been in a position to listen to the conversation of her host and his guest when she and Mrs. Vernon had retired for the night, and the gentlemen had adjourned to the smokingroom, she would have scarce slept so soundly.
‘Lance Trevanion? of course I had heard of the beggar,’ said the Commissioner, as he threw himself back in a settee and lighted one of Mr. Vernon’s choice cigars. ‘We had a fellow from Ballarat staying at the camp at Morrison’s who had been at the trial and knew all about him. But how could I tell the poor thing? What a sweet girl she is, by the way! why, she’ll have half Melbourne pursuing her with proposals if she only lets them see her. Don’t know when I’ve seen such a girl since I left England. Why she should bother her head about Trevanion now, I can’t imagine.’
‘Well, he’s her cousin, my wife tells me, for one thing. They were engaged, it seems, too, before he left home. Sad pity that such a girl should spoil her chances here and throw herself away. But that’s their nature, we all know. Tell us the tale, Annesley; I never heard.’
‘As it was told to me, this was about it. This fellow Trevanion, a good-looking, well-set-up youngster, seems to have been a bad lot or a d—d fool, one can hardly say which. Anyhow, he was fond of play, and got mixed up with a crooked Sydney-side crowd. There was a girl in it, of course. They won from him, it was said. He, like a young fool, thought he might choose his own company at an Australian diggings, “all people out here being alike,” or some such rot. The end of it was that he was run in for horse-stealing, or having a stolen horse in his possession. Got two years. I’ve heard since that he was the wrong man, but the Sergeant—queer card and deuced dangerous, that Dayrell—wanted a case—the diggers had lost so many horses that they wanted a conviction. So poor Trevanion had to pay for all.’
‘What an infernal shame!’ said Mr. Vernon. ‘Couldn’t anything be done for him?’
‘Well (by Jove, this is a cigar, I must have another by and by), looks so, doesn’t it? But it’s necessary to be hard and sharp at the diggings or the country would go to the devil. Wrong man shopped now and then, like Tom Kattleton in California, but can’t be helped. Ever hear that yarn? No! Well, I’ll just light number two, and here goes: Tom, you must know, was a bit fastish before he left the paternal halls in another colony. After one of his escapades, a friend of the family, good fellow, observes one day, “Tom, it’s no use talking, you’ll come to be hanged.” “Thank you,” says Tom, “I think I’ll try San Francisco; this place is too confined for a man of my talents.” Gold at Suitor’s Mill had just been reported.’
‘And did he go?’
‘Like a bird, with lots of Australian “bloods,” as they used to call them. Had to work their way back before the mast, most of them. Tom had, anyhow. After the fatted calf had been duly potted, friend of the family arrives.
‘“Hulloa, Tom! home again? Proud to see you, my boy. Safe back to the old place, hey?”
‘“That is so,” answered Tom, putting on a little Yankee touch, “do you remember what you said to me as I was leaving? “
‘“No, my boy, what was it?” Friend didn’t like to own up, you see.
‘“Well, you said I’d come to be hanged, and, by Jove! I nearly was in ’Frisco. The rope was round my neck, sure as you’re there. Took me for a gambler who’d shot a man the night before. He turned up in time to be turned off, or I should have been—well, I shouldn’t have been here to-day.”
‘Friend turned quite pale, grasped his hand, and sloped. Affecting, wasn’t it?’
‘Good story, very,’ quoth the host. ‘Like Tom Rattleton. fleckless young beggar he always was—but turned out well afterwards. Experientia docet. Near thing, though. Now, touching this poor girl’s cousin. Nothing earthly will prevent her going to look for him.’
‘H—m! Does she know any one in Ballarat?’
‘Mr. Charles Stirling, a banker; Hastings and Polwarth, Trevanion’s mates.’
‘Charlie Stirling! I’ve heard of him. Awfully good sort, people say. Well, he’ll do all he can. If she goes up he’s the man to break it to her. Dalton’s Sub-Commissioner there. I’ll leave a line for him. Between them both they’ll see no harm come to her. Well, Number Two rivals his predecessor. It’s a fair thing, I suppose. Good-night.’
A couple of days were spent pleasantly enough in Melbourne. A few of the South Yarra notables dropped in, not quite accidentally, to Mrs. Vernon’s afternoon tea, whose manner and appearance rather altered Estelle’s preconceived notion of colonial society. They expressed the wildest astonishment at hearing that she was about to explore Ballarat, much as in London might a South Kensington coterie at hearing that a cherished classmate thought it necessary thus to satisfy her doubts about the Patagonians or the Modoc Indians, always ending their politest commiseration with an invitation.
Finally, all entreaties proving unavailing, Estelle was driven in before sunrise, and at 6 A.M. found herself on the box-seat of the Ballarat coach, specially commended to the care of Mr. Levi, the driver, who was waiting for the clock of the Melbourne postoffice to strike, preparatory to the customary sensational start of Cobb and Co.’s team of well-groomed, high-conditioned grays.