MUCH to Estelle’s surprise, the journey, strange and unfamiliar as were all things to the English maiden of a country family, was far from unpleasant. The rapid rate of travelling, the speed and stoutness of the horses, the astonishing dexterity of the American stage-driver, were alike novel and interesting; and these were matters as to which she was qualified to judge. Like many English girls brought up in a great country-house, she rode well and fearlessly—had, indeed, for more than one season, ere the shadow fell upon Wychwood, followed the hounds with decided credit. Beginning with a pony carriage, she had in later years amused herself with driving her uncle in a pair-horse phaeton, with a groom in the back seat of course. She was therefore intelligently interested in the ease and accuracy with which the laconic Mr. Levi piloted his team alike adown crooked stump-guarded sidelings, through dense primeval forests, and over unbridged creeks, for under such perilous conditions the road to Ballarat in the early ‘fifties’ pursued its devious course. The driver, in whose charge she had been placed, with strong recommendations and a liberal douceur, by Mr. Vernon, though saturnine and sparing of speech, as was customary with that ‘spoiled child of fortune,’ the stage-driver of the period, was, in his way, courteous and respectful. He indicated from time to time points of interest in the landscape. He even answered her questions civilly and with a show of attention. Concerning the coach and harness, the leather springs and the formidable brake, so diverse from all English experience, he was explanatory and gracious. The day was fine, the air clear and fresh, while from the close-ranked eucalyptus exuded balsamic odours, which, to her aroused fancy and eager appreciation of the new nature which encircled her, savoured of strange health-giving powers. The flitting birds, the occasional forest cries, the great flocks of sheep, the absence of enclosures, the droves of cattle and horses with their equally wild-looking attendants, the long trains of bullock-drays and waggons—were not these the wonders and portents of the land of gold? In despite of forebodings and the sense of isolation with which Estelle Chaloner had commenced this most eventful enterprise of her life, the natural fearlessness of her race asserted itself, and, true to the instincts of youth, her spirits rose perceptibly. When at the close of the day the coach rattled along the macadamised road which prepared the passengers for the lighted streets, the clanking engines, and yawning shafts of Ballarat, she had confessed to herself that Australia was by no means so dreadful a place as she had expected.
The team was now pulled up nervously close to the doorstep of a large well-lighted hotel, thus at once exhibiting the proverbial skill of Mr. Levi, and scattering the group of loungers which surrounded the entrance. Then a man’s voice hailed the driver cheerfully, and demanded of him whether Miss Chaloner from Melbourne was on the coach.
‘Right you are, Commissioner,’ was the response. ‘If you’ll help the young lady down, reckon I’ve delivered her into the protection of Her Majesty’s Government. Her luggage is in the rack. Joe’ll have it near out by this. Good-night, Miss. The Commissioner’ll take care of you.’
‘Good-night, and thank you very much,’ said Estelle, as, stopping downwards cautiously from the high box-seat, she found herself almost in the arms of a tall man, who half-assisted, halflifted her down.
‘Permit me to introduce myself, Miss Chaloner,’ he said, ‘as Mr. Dalton and Her Majesty’s Commissioner of this goldfield. I had a note from a friend and brother officer in Melbourne advising me of your coming. I have arranged with Mrs. M‘Alpine, the wife of the Police Magistrate, who will be most happy to receive you. You will find her cottage more comfortable than an hotel. Trust yourself to my escort and we shall be there in a few minutes.’
‘This is some of Mrs. Vernon’s kindness, I am sure,’ said Estelle. ‘Really I seem to have friends everywhere in this land of strangers.’
‘May you always find it so, Miss Chaloner. Please to honour me by enrolling me among the number. This is our vehicle, and your luggage is safely packed.’
A nondescript trap with four high wheels and disproportionately large lamps stood near. Into this her companion helped her, and taking the reins dashed away into the darkness, as it seemed to Estelle, at a reckless and extravagant pace. After threading several side streets, however, and ascending a slight elevation without loss or damage, Mr. Dalton drew up beside a garden gate, out of which issued a lady, who, taking both her hands in hers, welcomed her guest with effusive warmth.
‘So glad to see you, my dear Miss Chaloner. Mrs. Vernon was afraid you would get lost in our dreadful goldfield. We trust you will find us not quite such barbarians as the Melbourne people think us, Mr. Dalton, you’ll stay and have tea? No? Don’t say you’ve got business; I know what that means—loo or poker at that wicked camp. Perhaps you’ll look in to-morrow evening? You may? That’s very good of you. We’ll manage a whist party and a chat, at any rate. Good-night. Now, my dear, we’ll have a “small and early” all to ourselves. It’s just as well Dalton didn’t come in. He suspected you were tired, I dare say.’
After a few more disjointed, but all hospitable and sympathetic utterances, Mrs. M‘Alpine inducted Estelle into an extremely neat and comfortable bedroom, and bidding her not to trouble herself to make any change in her attire, for tea was quite ready, left her to consider the situation.
No sooner had this kindly acquaintance left the room than the strangeness of the situation appeared to force itself upon Estelle. She looked out through the open window—a hinged casement overhung with a trailing creeper, the glossy leaves of which partly obscured, partly diverted into glittering fragments of rays, the gleaming moonlight. It was a still evening. The half-audible murmur of a large population, confused and inarticulate, came faintly on her ear. There was a softness in the air which soothed her somewhat excited brain. Thinking over the strangely-varied experience of the past week, she could not help owning to herself that so far everything had been rendered easy through the kindness of these newly-found friends in a far land.
‘Who knows,’ she asked herself, ‘whether I may not find similar aid and guidance throughout my quest? May Heaven grant it! My errand is one of sacred necessity, pledged as I am to this by my vow to the memory of the dead. As God shall help me, I will remain faithful to the end. I begin to feel that though far from dear England’s shores I am still surrounded by English hearts and English homes—changed in form, and in form alone, as the latter may be. “Onward” must be my motto.’
Thus concluding her meditations, Estelle bathed her eyes, somewhat sensitised after the day’s exposure, and then making some slight but befitting change in her attire, joined her hostess in the pleasant sitting-room, now devoted to the exigencies of the evening meal. Over the tea-table, and within the influence of a cheerful wood fire, the younger woman became insensibly more unreserved and confiding as to her place and purpose. Mr. M‘Alpine had not returned to his home, presumably detained by business of importance. It may be surmised that neither of the ladies was deeply grieved at his absence, under the circumstances.
Being in full possession of facts, as far as Estelle had resolved to furnish them to Australian friends, Mrs. M‘Alpine strongly recommended her guest to remain with her for the present, and await the coming of Mr. Stirling, who would be certain to arrive on the morrow or the day after, on being notified of her presence in Ballarat ‘Our town looks uncivilised, my dear, but Growlers’ Gully (fancy such a name) is, of course, only a rude caricature of it. I don’t think you could possibly exist there, though there is an hotel of some sort.’
Very gently and quietly, but firmly, Estelle made it apparent to her hostess that she was not to be shaken in her purpose. She had formed her plans carefully before leaving Melbourne, indeed during the voyage, and she had determined to see with her own eyes the very claim, as they called it, where he, the loved, the lost Lance Trevanion had worked. She must see John Polwarth, with whose name she was familiar, and his honest-hearted wife. She would never be able to rest without full and complete explanation from Mr. Stirling of all things connected with Lance’s mysterious disappearance. Of course she could imagine that in Australia people often moved away to new diggings at great distances, and, she supposed, left off writing to their friends, though she could hardly account for it in her cousin’s case. ‘Poor thing! poor thing!’ said Mrs. M‘Alpine to herself, ‘she will have to hear the wretched truth some time or other. I can’t venture upon it, but I don’t know a man who is more likely to break it to her gently than Charlie Stirling, and so, as she is bent upon it, the sooner she gets safely out to “Growlers’” the better.’
So it came to pass that, as Mr. M‘Alpine was still absent on outpost duty, a trusty messenger was despatched next day for the Commissioner, who regretfully saw Estelle safely into the coach which, leaving daily for Growlers’ at the convenient hour of 10 A.M., was the recognised mode of communication with that rising goldfield and township.
There were two horses instead of four. The coach was smaller, and by no means so well appointed. The driver was less distinguished in air and manner, but capable and civil, particularly after receiving the Commissioner’s strict injunction to take great care of his lady passenger. The road was more than novel, indeed exciting, to Estelle’s untravelled mind, winding amid fallen trees, bounded on either side by yawning darkmouthed shafts of unknown depth—some desolate and deserted, with unused windlass and dangling rope; others in work, with full-laden buckets which, as they came to the surface, Estelle believed to be partly filled with gold—now crossing a rushing water-race upon a rustic bridge of most temporary nature, and finally plunging through a creek which flowed level with the feet of the inside passengers. On the farther bank of this much celebrated watercourse stood a scattered collection of huts, tents, and cottages, threading which by no particular roadway the coach dashed ostentatiously into a more closely occupied thoroughfare, in which some dozen edifices of superior pretensions denoted the business centre of the township.
Here the minor peculiarities of a goldfield, somewhat shaded oft” in the civilisation of Ballarat, commenced to present themselves. The ‘Reefers’ Arms’ was an enlarged cottage, the front of which boasted the more expensive and, in goldfields architecture, more correct material of ‘sawn stuff,’ disposed weatherboard fashion, while the side walls, the roof, and rear of the building were composed of large sheets of stringy bark. It was wholly unlike any building which Estelle had ever imagined—certainly with a view to lodging therein. However, this was not the time to falter or hesitate; she had chosen her course and must follow it out.
Carrying her smaller property in each hand, and following the driver, who walked through a group of loiterers or still unsated revellers who encumbered the entrance, Estelle found herself in a painfully clean sitting-room, in which her guide deposited her portmanteau, merely saying, ‘I’ll call Mrs. Delf to see you, Miss,’ and departed.
He had probably explained that the young lady was a friend of the Police Magistrate and the Commissioner. Nothing further was necessary to ensure her the utmost respect and attention which Growlers’ could afford. Both functionaries were men in authority, and as such to be held in awe. Though it is probable that even without these valuable introductions any girl, though wholly unprotected, who was conventionally correct of conduct would have met with similar attention. As to the peculiarity of a young lady, apparently of position, electing to abide temporarily in such a queer locality as Growlers’, the hostess was not likely to disquiet herself. So many strange things and strange people were constantly in the habit of passing across the orbit of any given goldfield that surprise was of all the emotions the most rare and difficult to arouse.
Mrs. Delf shortly presented herself: a neat, alert personage, shrewd of aspect and decisive of speech. She anticipated any inquiry of Estelle by remarking, ‘Ned tells me, Miss Chaloner, as you want to stop here for a while. Well, you know Growlers’ always was a rough shop, and I can’t say as it’s altogether Al now, but I’ll do what I can for you while you’re here, Miss.’
‘Thank you very much,’ said Estelle. ‘I may stay a few days, or even longer. Would you kindly tell me if you remember a Mr. Trevanion who was mining here more than a year ago?’
‘Trevanion—Lance Trevanion? Of course I do. Belonged to Number Six. He and Jack Polwarth were mates and a stunning claim it is this very day. Know him? Why, he stayed here the very last night he was on the field—poor fellow!’
‘Then he has gone away—left this part of the country?’ asked Estelle, with such anxiety depicted on her countenance that the quick-witted matron at once divined that the real truth was as yet unknown to her. ‘And why do you say “poor fellow “? Has anything happened to him?’
‘Oh no! Not at all, Miss—that is, not that I’ve heard of’ (‘and that’s a banger, if ever there was one,’ ejaculated the good woman inwardly); ‘it’s a manner of speaking, that’s all—we were all fond of him, and sorry to lose him, you see. Is there any one else here you know, Miss? Oh! Mr. Stirling of the Bank opposite will be here to dinner at one o’clock; has his meals here regular, though of course he sleeps at the Bank. He’ll tell you all about Mr. Trevanion. Bless you, they was like brothers. As for Mr. Stirling, he’s that quiet—why, whatever’s up at the Bank? Not a fight, surely?’
This exclamatory query was apparently caused by a simultaneous rush of all the unoccupied portion of the population, with the exception of three men who stood up in a cart, across to the comparatively pretentious building with corrugated iron roof, legended on the front as the Joint-Stock Bank of Australia. Mrs. Delfs experienced eye had noted the formation of a ring, simultaneously with the sudden precipitation on his head of an able-bodied miner through the Bank’s portal.
‘It’s that “Geordie” Billy, sure as I live; he’s been cheekin’ Mr. Stirling about his gold and got chucked out. He’s a rough chap when he’s had a drop. There’s bound to be a row now.’
A tall brown-bearded man, decidedly in undress uniform, but effectively attired for service, had by this time appeared at the door. He wore a coloured Crimean shirt, to which, however, was attached a white linen collar. His coat was off, and his sleeves had been rolled up. He watched with a smile the burly miner recover himself, and standing upright glare around him with the silent fury of the bull-dog in his small black eye.
‘Are ye game to come out of your box there and stand up to a man?’ he growled out. ‘I’ll show ye what it is to put your hands on me!’
The banker’s answer to the challenge was to walk calmly forward, while the spectators, with cheerful expectancy, closed around, in confident trust that one of the principal excitements of their monotonous existence would not fail them.
‘I’d rather see you go home, Billy, and sleep off your sulk. It’s the grog that always makes a fool of you; but if you must have a licking, come on.’
‘Oh dear me!’ cried Estelle, who, with the most liberal allowance for the free and lawless life which colonists are believed to lead, had scarcely expected this. ‘Are they really going to fight? How dreadful! That gentleman may be killed.’
‘Not he, Miss. Mr. Stirling’s a hard man to mark; not but what the “Geordie’s” as strong as a bull, and can fight too. Come to this window, Miss; we can see it first-rate from here. They’ll only have two or three rounds, and his mates’ll take away Billy.’
‘And is that Mr. Stirling?” asked Estelle, with deepest amazement. ‘I thought you said he was so quiet?’
‘So he is, Miss, till he’s put upon. I expect Geordie said he was weighing the gold wrong, and Mr. Stirling won’t likely stand that from a digger, and put him out. That’s about the size of it. Oh, do look, Miss; they’re going at it.’
Estelle was much minded to turn her head away. In her own country she would doubtless have thought shame to have looked on at any such spectacle. But somehow the anxiety to see how the aristocrat fared in conflict with the man of the people overpowered her scruples, so she gazed eagerly at the conflict, as might her ancestress at a tournament where her badge was worn by a knightly aspirant.
‘Geordie’ Billy, belonging to a section of miners who hailed from ‘canny Newcassel,’ was a low-set, broad-chested, unusually powerful man. Long in the reach, and in the pink of condition from severe daily labour, his enormous strength and dogged courage, independently of science, made him a dangerous antagonist. Mr. Stirling was held to be the most finished performer with the gloves on the field. It was therefore a contest of champions, and as such awaited by the crowd with keen and pleasurable expectation; and a very ugly customer indeed did Mr. Billy Corve appear, as he came forward with an activity which the various ‘nips’ he had indulged in that morning had but slightly impaired. Had one of those sledgehammer blows which he delivered with fierce rapidity taken effect, Mr. Stirling would have had some difficulty in ‘coming to time.’ But stepping back from one, eluding another by what appeared to be the slightest side movement of his head, and stopping a third neatly, he caught his advancing foe such a left-handed facer as staggered him, leaving him a prey to the body blow that followed, and which, getting ‘home’ to some purpose, sent him very decidedly to grass.
‘Oh dear, how dreadful!’ said Estelle, pale with apprehension. ‘Surely they won’t let them kill one another? That poor man must be badly hurt.’
‘Not a bit of it, Miss. You couldn’t kill Billy with an axe. He’ll be all the steadier for it next round. Oh! look out, Mr. Stirling.’
This friendly admonition, which in the ardour of her partisanship Mrs. Delf screamed out at the top of her voice, was justified by the apparent success of the very ugly rush which Mr. Corve made, with the evident intention of getting to close quarters. He broke through Stirling’s guard, and nearly succeeded in getting his head ‘into chancery,’ as that peculiar feat of the combat is designated. Once enfolded with that mighty arm, and the enormous fist left free to pound away at discretion, the classical outline of Charlie Stirling’s features would have been sadly marred, perhaps permanently altered. But dîa aliter visum. Countering with lightning quickness through the ‘halfarm rally,’ Stirling managed, by the exercise of desperate agility, to keep clear of the octopus-like hug, in which science would have been vain. Finally, springing backward, he evaded a final lunge, and darting in from the side administered a rattling hit on the ‘point,’ which for the moment completely discomfited his antagonist.
A ringing cheer went up from the discriminating crowd, while a friendly bystander, moved to apprehensive sympathy, earnestly exclaimed, ‘Keep your head, Mr. Stirling; for God’s sake, sir, keep your head.’
But Charlie Stirling had already seen the necessity for caution, for though his gray eyes glowed and his chest heaved as he regained his corner, he seemed to fall mechanically into the attitude of calm watchfulness with which he had commenced the encounter.
‘Wasn’t that grand, Miss?’ exclaimed Mrs. Delf. ‘Mr. Stirling’s as quick on his pins as a wallaroo. I was most afeard the “Geordie” had him then. This round will settle it. Don’t go in, Miss. Maybe you’ll never have a chance to see a rightout good mill so comfortable again. Two to one on Mr. Stirling.’
For her life Estelle could not have moved away then, though she had turned her head a minute before, deeming that for shame’s sake she could no longer look on at such a sight. But the ancient fire which glowed in the breasts of the patrician dames of Rome’s proudest day, though stifled and repressed for centuries, has never quite died out of the female heart. After all, no one would be killed, or perhaps mortally wounded. Mr. Stirling was Lance’s friend, thus necessarily hers. She could not bear to leave the arena ignorant of the fate of their champion.
She had not long to wait. And now that her blood was slightly warmed by the excitement of a real battle, a combat not quite à l’outrance, but as near to it as is permitted in these degenerate days, she confessed to herself that there was something not wholly inglorious in this ordeal by combat
The tall athletic form of Charlie Stirling showed to great advantage as he advanced, with head erect and elastic step, towards his truculent antagonist, whose countenance, with a splash of blood from brow to bare neck, wore a savagely stern expression. Furious at his late failure, he made a rush, with every intention of ending the fight then and there. Forcing the fighting, and compelling Stirling to use his utmost skill in warding off or evading his terrific blows, each one of which was sufficient to disable an ordinary man, he appeared at one time to have mastered his adversary. But Charlie Stirling, the hero of a hundred glove-fights, was too clever, in the language of the lanista. Feinting suddenly, he drew the blow, of which he had thoroughly mastered an infallible guard, at the same time getting home with his right in a terrific body blow, the effect of which brought his man forward, to be shot backward by a lightning left-hander on the temple, which stretched the brawny gladiator senseless, putting the possibility of ‘coming to time’ entirely out of the question.
‘Great work, Mr. Stirling! You gave him “London” that time,’ shouted a man who hailed from Bow Bells; and amid congratulatory cheers, in which Estelle felt a sudden impulse to join, the discomfited champion, after recovering his valuable intellects, was led off—resisting manfully, to do him justice. But his crowd was decidedly against him, and by force of numbers, in despite of oaths and protestations, he was borne off to a rival hostelry, there to drown his mortification in beer, and finish the day in a manner worthy of its auspicious commencement.
As for Mr. Stirling, he ‘retired into his kingdom’ (like the king in Hans Andersen), ‘and shut the door after him’—presumably for ablution, for he emerged in half an hour, at the sound of Mrs. Delfs dinner bell, arrayed in conventional garments, and, save a slightly flushed countenance and a forehead bruise, unscathed from his recent encounter.
Meanwhile Estelle proceeded to Mrs. Delfs dining-room—not without natural misgivings as to the composition of the table d’hôte. These, however, were set at rest by observing that only six guests were provided for. They proved to be Mr. Stirling and the manager of another bank, a commercial traveller, a gold-buyer, and a stranger unclassified, all of whom were scrupulously correct and deferential of manner. Later on she became aware that, according to the highly commendable custom of Australian hotels, even on the most recent goldfields and out-of-the-way country towns, there are two tables, corresponding to first and second class in railways. At the first those who may be considered gentle-folk are entertained, while to the second the rougher and less manageable guests are relegated.
‘Miss Chaloner,’ said Mr. Stirling, bowing deferentially upon entering, ‘perhaps you will permit me to introduce myself, while expressing my deep regret that you should have been an involuntary spectator of such a disgraceful occurrence. We are not generally so badly behaved, though you are the only lady that has so far honoured Growlers’ with a visit. We have no police to keep order, so we are obliged to protect ourselves.’
Estelle faintly smiled as she replied, ‘You seem to be able to do so pretty well, if I may judge from appearances. I hope no one is severely hurt. Ought I to congratulate you on your victory?’
‘You don’t know how relieved I feel at your forgiveness, Miss Chaloner,’ he replied. ‘As for Geordie (who really is a deserving individual when sober, and a capitalist besides), he is wholly unhurt, and to-morrow you will probably see him on the most friendly terms with me and all mankind.’
Before returning to business, Stirling found means to intimate to Estelle that he was aware from Mrs. M‘Alpine’s letter that she wished to have some private conversation with him; that he would do himself the honour of calling upon her later in the afternoon, when he would be most happy to afford her whatever information he was possessed of about her cousin.
‘Thank you very much,’ she said. ‘Oh, Mr. Stirling, if you knew how I have longed to find some one who could give me authentic news of his movements. And you knew him so well?’
‘Yes; very well I must go now, but you shall hear all that I can tell you.’
Easier said than done, thought he, as once more in the small inner room of his unostentatious edifice he lit his pipe and abandoned himself to fullest contemplation. ‘And what in the world shall I tell her? What a glorious girl she is. What an air of refinement, and yet with what courage and high resolve she has faced the difficulties of her position. Proud, cultured, aristocratic to the finger-tips, she has volunteered to expose herself to rough journeyings, rude associates—even ruder in her imagining than the reality. And for what? For the sake of a heedless, self-indulgent scamp like Lance Trevanion, who never was good enough to black her boots. God knows, I pity him from the very bottom of my heart; but I cannot help believing that it was his own selfish obstinacy in a great measure that brought about his ruin. And now I have to tell this sweet and noble creature that her lover was till lately a convicted felon—actually at present an escaped prisoner, at the mercy of the first police trooper that falls across him. The bare idea is frightful.; And then Mr. Charles Stirling filled his pipe again to the brim and smoked on for some considerable time, apparently in a most anxious, not to say despondent, frame of mind. The irruption of a party of diggers with a parcel of gold to be weighed and deposited here temporarily diverted his thoughts, but soon after four o’clock, having finished his day’s work and impressed upon his junior to keep close to the bank premises in his absence, he betook himself to Mrs. Delf’s hostelry. He found Estelle awaiting him in walking attire. He proposed that they should visit Number Six claim, where Jack Polwarth still lived and worked. It was barely a mile distant. On the way he would be able to give her all the information she desired.
‘Nothing would please her more. She was fond of walking, and should like above all things to see a real claim at work.’ So forth they fared through the crooked, straggling street, crowded on either side with the heterogeneous buildings of a goldfield town. Turning to the south, they trod a winding track through a labyrinth of shafts of all sizes and depths of sinking. Mounds of earth thrown up in every direction gave the scene a ghastly resemblance to the cemetery of a plague-stricken city. As if unwilling to enter upon the subject so unavoidably painful, Stirling directed her attention to the various novel features of the scene. When, suddenly turning towards him, she said in a low but distinct tone of voice: ‘And now, Mr. Stirling, please to tell me all you know of my unfortunate cousin. No one has said so in so many words, but I feel it’—here she laid her hand upon her heart—‘something dreadful has happened to him. Is it not so?’
‘I wish I could deny it,’ he answered, in a tone of the deepest feeling; ‘but I cannot. Your heart has warned you truly. He is a most unfortunate man.’
‘He has left the locality altogether then, and permanently?’ she asked.
‘Tell me all,’—here she clasped her hands and looked so imploringly in his face that Charlie Stirling, seeing but the misery in her pleading face, felt minded to kneel down and kiss the hem of her garment. ‘Oh that those eyes could so soften and glow for me,’ he thought. ‘And all this heavenly love and tenderness wasted. Alas!’
But he said only, ‘My dear Miss Chaloner, my heart bleeds for you; you must prepare to hear the worst.’
‘Is he dead?’ said she hoarsely, in a changed voice.
‘No, not dead. Better perhaps that he had been. Were he my brother, I should say the same.’
‘Thank God for that,’ she said. ‘If he is alive I may look upon his face again. Tell me tell me at once—and here,——’ oh marvellous and divine power of woman’s love! her face lit up with a glow of gratitude and hope, which to her admiring companion’s mind changed it into the presentment of a saint.
He motioned her to sit down upon one of tlie fallen forest trees which thickly, in places, encumbered the earth, and there told her as briefly as might be the whole miserable tale. He made but scant mention of the Lawless sisters, laying great stress upon the iniquitous nature of the trap into which Lance had fallen—the persistent hostility of Dayrell and his settled intention to secure a conviction.
‘I see it all,’ she said, rising from her seat and walking excitedly onward. ‘I see it all. He has been the victim of a conspiracy among these wretches—poor poor Lance! Why did he insist upon coming to this unhappy land? But is he alive—alive? Justice will yet be done. I will see him if he is above ground in Australia, and together we must work, with the aid of his friends, for an honourable release. Oh! I cannot tell you how relieved I feel,’ continued Estelle. ‘I am glad; I thought that he was dead. It has given me strength to bear the dreadful thought of his imprisonment. And now tell me about it, tell me while I am strong.’
Stirling saw his opportunity. It was a hard, a most painful task; but now he would go through with it. He scarce hoped that she would have made it so easy for him. This ground had now become more open, and on the bank of the ravine, widening into a green and level meadow, he saw the windlass and shaft of Number Six, above which floated a red flag, the well-known signal, brought here by Californian miners, that the claim was ‘on gold.’ They had still some distance to go; her feet, that were so fleet and eager a while since, became slow and listless. Ere they reached the mound on the other side of which they saw the stalwart form and good-humoured countenance of John Polwarth, he had told and she had heard the sad finale to the high hopes and joyous aspirations of Lance Trevanion.
‘And now that he has escaped from these terrible hulks, I suppose there is not much chance of his being recaptured? This country is so wild and large that surely prisoners must nearly always escape?’
‘No doubt they do, but not so often as we might think. The country is wild, but those who pursue them are keen and fearless. However, the place that he has reached is inaccessible and distant’
‘Thank God for that,’ she said softly. ‘Perhaps he can travel safely through the wilderness and find a ship for England. Oh, if he were but once at home!—at home! Why did he ever leave? But I must not break down now. Is that John Polwarth?’
‘Yes, and yonder is Mrs. Polwarth at the door of that neat cottage, and Tottie standing by her. I think we may as well call upon her first, and have Jack in by and by. She is a good, kindly woman, and Lance’s misfortune was a bitter grief to her.’
‘He seems to have had such good friends around him,’ said Estelle sorrowfully; ‘why could they not save him? But I know that he was wilful and headstrong. Alas! alas!’
By this time they had reached Mrs. Polwarth’s cottage—a mansion in the estimation of all ‘Growlers’,’ inasmuch as it boasted of four rooms of medium size, a verandah, and a detached slab kitchen. Mrs. Polwarth, who was engaged in sweeping around her door,—a space in front of all miners’ habitations being scrupulously kept clear of sticks, leaves, and other untidinesses,—halted in her occupation and greeted Mr. Stirling warmly.
‘Why, whatever’s brought you over to-day, Mr. Stirling? I suppose this fine afternoon? Come inside and I’ll get you a cup of tea after your walk. Maybe the lady’s a little tired.’
‘We shall be glad of the chance, I am sure. Mrs. Polwarth, this lady is Miss Chaloner, a cousin of Lance Trevanion, our poor friend and Jack’s partner. She has come all the way from England, from his old home, to see about him.’
‘The Lord bless and keep us!’ said Mrs. Polwarth—a devout Wesleyan, as are mostly Cornish mining folk. ‘Only to think of that! It’s the doing of Providence, that’s what it is. Sit ye down, Miss. To think I should ever see you in my poor place. It’s clean and neat what there is of it, too. And to think of your being his cousin—poor Mr. Lance’s cousin. Many’s the tear I shed thinking o’er his sad fate. Oh dear! oh dear! I’m that glad to see this day.’
‘And I am very glad to see you, Mrs. Polwarth,’ said the English girl, softening at once at the sight of the genuine grief displayed by the good woman, for the tears were by this time running down her cheeks. ‘I have so often heard of you in my cousin’s letters that I seem to know you quite well. And is this Tottie? Come to me, my dear, and tell ine how old you are.’
Tottie, a pretty child, rather more carefully attired than usual, was not shy, and coming up to the pretty lady, as she ever afterwards described her, looked up wonderingly, with great blue eyes and a wistful smile.
‘Mother, is this Lance’s sister?’ she said, with the curious childish intuition which seems to suggest so many guesses at truth—some near enough in all conscience. ‘Is he coming back to Tottie?’
Mr. Stirling ‘thought he would go and have a word with Jack,’ and, not sorry to leave the two women to open their hearts to each other, hastily departed.
There was no particular news about Number Six. ‘She was going on steady,’ Jack said. ‘Last week was as good as any washing-up they’d had for a month, and she wasn’t half worked out yet. So that was Mr. Lance’s cousin, her as had coomed with Mr. Stirling? All the way from England, too? It was her as used to write to him and tell him about the old place at home, and how his father, the Squire, was. And now the Squire was dead. And Lance, poor chap, had broke jail, and was gone nobody knew where. And this young lady was here all the way to Growlers’! It beats all. Wait till I run out this bucket and tidy myself a bit, Mr. Stirling, and I’ll come over and see the young lady. It’s a sight for sore eyes to see any one from the old country; no offence to you, sir, as never was there, more’s the pity. But it’ll do Gwenny and me to talk about for a year to come, I’ll warrant.’
Thus discoursing, they walked over to the cottage, where Stirling partook of the proffered cup of tea, and Polwarth, betaking himself to a back apartment, performed ablutions which caused his honest face to shine again, and, attired in his Sunday suit, presented himself after a while to Miss Chaloner. This young lady shook him warmly by the hand, and telling him that she had heard about him in every letter which Lance had written until—until—lately, expressed her sincere pleasure at seeing him and his wife.
‘You were Lance’s true friend, he always said. And many a time the poor Squire and I felt so happy that he had an honest English heart and a stout English arm to rely upon in this far country.’
‘Ah, Miss! Me and the wife had that feeling for him as we’d ha’ done anything i’ the world to keep him from harm, but there was them as he took to, against our liking, that drawed him down the wrong way. It was a bad day as he ever seed ’em. I was always at him to cut loose and quit their company. But it was all no use; he was that set and headstrong.’
‘We knew that well, his poor father and I,’ replied Estelle sadly; ‘that strange obstinacy of his, which runs in the family, they say, seems to have been his ruin. But I’ve come out here on purpose to find him, and if he lives in Australia I will find him before I leave.’
As Estelle pronounced the last words she raised her head proudly and gazed with a fixed and steady glance into the forest path, as if in her self-imposed task she could pierce their solitude and discover at whatever distance the object of her quest
Her expressive countenance, even more than her words, carried conviction to her hearers of a high resolve. Stirling regarded her with mingled feelings of respect and admiration, while Jack Polwarth, in rude but honest tones, broke out with, ‘And so ye shall, Miss, and we’ll help ye to the last drop of our blood; won’t we, Mr. Stirling? Ye have the old courage and the old spirit in ye, Miss Chaloner; I could fancy I heard Mr. Lance himself speaking, poor chap.’
‘I don’t wish to pose as a heroine, Mr. Stirling,’ she continued, blushing slightly at the momentary excitement into which she had been betrayed, ‘but I wish all my friends to understand that I have fully resolved, for several reasons, not the least of which is that so I promised his father on his deathbed, to go through with this task, and, Heaven helping me, will never abandon it while Lance is alive.’
‘I can quite appreciate your feeling in the matter, Miss Chaloner,’ said Stirling. ‘Nothing would give me more pleasure than to join you in the search for our unfortunate friend. But I am, so to speak, chained to this spot. In all other ways you may command me, and I have good warrant for saying Jack Polwarth here, as well as Mr. Hastings, who is our staunch ally also, will join in the enterprise, heart and soul.’
‘This is truly the land of warm and unselfish friendship,’ replied Estelle. ‘I have met with nothing else, for which I shall be grateful as long as I live. It will give me fresh confidence in my search. I never could have believed that the way would have been made so smooth for me. I feel more at home here than I have done since I left England. So I shall stay at Mrs. Delfs for a week longer, getting together all the information which I shall need.’
‘I think we had better be moving, Miss Chaloner, or Mrs. Delfs gong will be sounding an alarm for tea. She has many virtues, but punctuality and scrubbing she may be said to carry to excess.’
‘Amiable weaknesses, to my mind,’ said Estelle, rising from her chair. ‘I feel disposed to humour them, and Mrs. Polwarth, if you will have me to-morrow, I will come down after breakfast, now that I know the way to Number Six, and spend the day with you and Tottie.’