NOT ONLY on that next day, but for several days following, did Estelle wend her way to Number Six soon after breakfast was concluded at Mrs. Delfs very punctual establishment. During this repast, and for some minutes afterwards, it generally happened that she found herself conversing with Mr. Stirling. That gentleman took so deep an interest in each and every question connected with Lance Trevanion, that, as she more than once owned to herself, his own brother—had he one in this strange land—could not have done more or appeared more anxiously considerate. He caused Mr. Hastings to be sent for, and that gentleman appeared dressed in a habit of the period, and by no means resembling the picturesque miner of fiction. He also exhibited a keen sympathetic interest in all Estelle’s plans and prospects. He recounted his first introduction to Lance, and amused her by picturing himself as a hunted fugitive pursued by the minions of the law, finally captured and manacled. ‘Nothing that mortal man could do,’ he repeated with emphasis, ‘was too much for him and his friends to do for Lance, a gentleman at all points—brave, generous—only too confiding; the victim of an unjust sentence—if ever a man was in this world.’
‘You can’t tell how grateful I am to you and Mr. Stirling for the way you have spoken of him,’ she answered. ‘If only the poor Squire could have heard you. Thank God! that he was spared the knowledge of his son’s disgrace; danger, or indeed death, he feared might have been his portion; but imprisonment—a felon’s doom and sentence—that!—oh, that! he would not have survived a week.’
‘Stirling and I are his friends, Miss Chaloner,’ he answered calmly. ‘There is no more to be said. We are neither of us given to forming friendships lightly, or changing them afterwards—we may not be able to do all we wish—but what is in our power shall not be spared. Will you permit me at this stage to ask whether you propose to go in search of him, and how you are going to set about it?’
‘There seems no doubt that when poor Lance left Melbourne—escaped from the hulks—he travelled into the interior. There is no one—no one that I know or can think of—who could give me further information. But I shall go to Melbourne. It is one stage on my journey; it may be that I may discover the next one while there.’
‘I can give you positively no advice as to your movements, for the moment,’ returned Hastings thoughtfully. ‘I can only counsel you to remain here a few days longer, when, between Stirling and myself, some plan of action may be arrived at.’
‘I am not restless,’ she made answer, ‘though I do not wish to lose time. Anxiety and trouble in the end may be saved by not being too hasty. I will therefore stay a few days longer than I at first intended. But on Monday next I must return to Ballarat, en route for Melbourne.’
‘And after that?’ queried Hastings, almost unconsciously. For he could not help pitying from his heart this high-souled maiden, so utterly alien in every thought and feeling to the people by whom she must of necessity be surrounded. He saw her quitting the comparative security of even this humble retreat for a doubtful, even dangerous, succession of journeys in quest of what—of whom? An outlaw and a felon! Guilty by his country’s laws, and self-convicted now by his breach of prison regulations. Doubtless he had received hard measure and unjust sentence, but had he been true to himself and the traditions of his race, he needed never to have placed himself in peril of the law. ‘However,’ he continued in mental converse, ‘she will never be persuaded—woman like—that he has descended from her ideal. She must “dree her weird,” as our Scottish friends say.’
So for the next few days Estelle amused herself by studying the ordinary miner’s life, partly in company with Mr. Stirling, who generally found her quietly seated in Mrs. Polwarth’s cottage in the afternoon after bank hours, and partly from information derived from that worthy dame, who was far from averse to diffusing her information.
‘I don’t see but what it’s as good a country as the one we’ve left, Miss,’ said the shrewd matron; ‘anyhow it’s better for the likes of Jack and me. There’s a deal of rough ways and drinking, it’s true, but no one’s bound to take part in it if they don’t like. Jack, he’s steady and sober,—I’m thankful to the Lord for it,—and we’re putting by more cash every washing-up than we ever heard talk of in the Duchy. When Tottie’s a year or two older we’ll send her to school in Melbourne. There’s good schools there, I’m told. There’s no reason why she shouldn’t have the learning as we never had. We’ll make a lady of her, please God.’
‘I see no objection, Mrs Polwarth, to her having the best education possible,’ replied Estelle thoughtfully. ‘At home we are apt to disapprove of children being educated above their station, as it is called. But in a new country every one has a chance to rise in life, if they prove worthy of it, and there is no reason why my pretty little Tottie shouldn’t be as much a lady, in mind and manners, as any one else.’
‘Do you really think so, Miss?’ asked Mrs Polwarth, anxiously. ‘I’ve known girls that were spoiled in the old country by being sent to boarding-schools, and come back neither one thing nor the other. Spoiled for farm lasses, and not quite up to being ladies, in spite of their fal-lals and piano music. I’d break my heart if Tottie came to be like that.’
‘I think you may put as much learning into this pretty little head as it will hold,’ said Estelle, stroking the child’s clustering ringlets. ‘You’ll always be a good girl, won’t you, Tottie?’
‘Tottie’s mother’s good girl,’ said the small damsel, dimly conscious that she was under discussion, and then reading the tenderness aright in her visitor’s—face that visitor so munificent in sugar plums and dolls—‘and Miss Chaloner’s good girl too.’
‘I really believe you will, Tottie dear,’ she said, lifting up the child and kissing her. ‘May God bless all this prosperity to her, and to you and John also. Some people deserve their good fortune, and I am sure you both do.’
The days passed on—the final Saturday came, and still no course had shaped itself in the minds of her ‘friends in council.’ Tessie Lawless certainly might have furnished information, but no one knew her address. They were not even sure whether she would feel justified in disclosing Lance’s retreat. Stirling was still in much doubt—more than he cared to show—with regard to Miss Chaloner setting forth on a hopeless quest, when the daily mail arrived from Ballarat. Glancing through his letters, he stopped suddenly, arrested by the handwriting of an unopened letter. ‘Lance Trevanion, by heaven!’ he exclaimed, half aloud; ‘just in time, too.’ He tore it open. The fateful scroll commenced thus—
OMEO, 10th June 185—.
‘Here I am, my dear Charlie, so far restored to my old feelings that I can put pen to paper again, at the very idea of which I have shuddered till now. But the fresh mountain air—we had snow for breakfast this morning—has made a man of me again; that is, as much of a man as I ever shall be till I quit Australia for good.
‘After I left my last place, I made tracks for this digging. The most out-of-the-way, rough, rowdy hole among the mountains that ever gold was found in. It’s a hard place to get to, harder still to get safely out of, populated, as it is, by all the scum of the colonies, and the rascaldom of half the world. Very different from Ballarat or poor old Growlers’, though I have no reason to say so.
‘How about the gold? you will say. There is no mistake about that. I have no mates. I am a “hatter,” and have worked on my own hook—partly for occupation and partly for a blind. I have just made up my mind to prospect a reef which has been discovered near Mount Gibbo by a stockrider called Caleb Coke. He is an ex-convict, “an old-hand,” as they say here, and there are queer stories told about him, as indeed about most of the people in Omeo; but if the reef is rich and they say nothing like it has been struck yet—I intend to have a shot at it.
‘You would laugh to see my hut; it is as neat as a sailor’s cabin. I lock my door when I go out, and no one has “cracked the crib” yet. I bought a sea-chest, brass-bound and copperfastened, which found its way up here on a pack-horse, and am supposed to have gold and jewels and all sorts of valuables therein. Henry Johnson is my purser’s name, but the fellows, finding that I know Ballarat, have christened me “Ballarat Harry.”
‘To turn to business, I think the time has come for my getting over by degrees, and very quietly, as much of my credit balance with your bank as can be safely forwarded. My plan is, of course, to clear out for the most handy port, and put the sea between me and Australia. But there’s time to think of that. If you can manage it without risk, send me the portmanteau I left with Jack. It contained letters, and a good many home souvenirs that I should like to see again. My watch and rings are in a small drawer; you can send the key in a letter. If you forward a draft for a thousand, payable at a Melbourne bank to H. Johnson, or bearer, I can get it cashed here and buy gold at a heavy discount. It will be as good a way as any to transfer my share of Number Six hither, till I can transfer myself for good.
‘Remember me to Jack and his wife, and kiss Tottie for me. I wonder if I shall ever see her again.
‘For the present, adieu.—Yours ever, L. T.
Here was a discovery!—a revelation! Stirling barely suffered himself to finish it before rushing over to Miss Chaloner with the astounding news. At first he dreaded the effect which it might have upon her, hopeless as she had been of late as to the whereabouts of the lost Lance. Still, he had noted and admired her self-control when he divulged the sad intelligence of his imprisonment. He felt unable to withhold it from her.
Leaving the bank entirely to the control of his junior,—a young man to whom goldfield experience had imparted a discretion beyond his years,—he hastened over to Mrs. Delfs, where he met Estelle just about to start for her daily visit to Mrs. Polwarth.
She looked up suddenly. ‘You have news?’ she said. ‘I am sure it is not bad tidings. Oh! can it be? Lance found? Is he safe? Does he know I am here?’
‘My news is not quite so comprehensive as all that,’ he answered, looking admiringly at her fine features, so suddenly illumined with a glow of tenderness, ‘but I can say with truth that the good element prevails.’
‘You have heard from him then?’
‘Yes,’ he answered; ‘by this morning’s post. I have the letter here.’
‘And is there—oh! is there anything in it which I should not read? May I—ought I to ask you to show it to me?’ she cried.
Stirling, inwardly congratulating himself that his correspondent had refrained from mention of any member of the Lawless family, or indeed from any chance allusion which might have shocked the innocent trusting girl who now looked so imploringly at him, produced the precious missive promptly.
‘Here is his letter; let him speak for himself, Miss Chaloner. There is no earthly reason why you should not see it. It will give you all the information you need. You will please excuse me until dinner-time.’
‘I am for ever grateful to you,’ she said, with the tears fast flowing from her shining eyes. ‘I will walk down to the claim. I always feel at home there. I shall be able to think over my plans calmly if this letter changes them, as perhaps it may do.’
Thus they parted, he returning to his treasure-house just in time to see two rival parties of diggers, literally laden with gold, who were making good time in a race for the bank door, each desiring to ensure a division of the precious metal before the establishment closed. Estelle, holding fast her coveted letter, which she pressed closely to her bosom, walked slowly along the track across the flat which led to Number Six, as one that hoards yet delays the savouring of a joy too sweet and precious for hasty possession.
Passing through the shaft-riddled portion of the creek meadow, where a rich but shallow deposit had caused every yard of ground to be pierced and tunnelled, she paused upon a grassy knoll where the outcrop of basaltic rock had checked the miners’ search. Here the timber had been spared, and beneath a widespreading angophera Estelle Chaloner seated herself, and on a basaltic monolith, first folding her hands and making mute appeal to Heaven, commenced with hungry eyes to devour the invaluable missive.
She read and re-read—read again—word by word, and sighed over the closing lines, then folding it carefully and placing it in her bosom, walked thoughtfully forward.
So he was at Omeo (such were her thoughts), a distant, rude, isolated region as she had heard—indeed his letter so described it. But what of that; he was safe, he was well, in recovered health and spirits—thank an all-merciful God for this much. He had even hope—the expectation of escape—of a life of happiness in England, or in some land beyond the reach of this strange country’s harsh unequal laws.
Once safely at Wychwood, who would recognise in the proud heir of this historical estate the erstwhile miner, the unjustly treated prisoner? Then what would be her part in his future life? True, he made no reference to her; perhaps in a letter to a friend, chiefly on business matters, such were hardly likely. Still, to such a friend as Mr. Stirling, so nobly steadfast and true-hearted, he might have said a word about his poor Estelle in the lonely manor-house, as he would picture her. But he was safe, free, almost happy in the enjoyment of his lately acquired liberty. That was happiness sufficient for the present. It would be time enough in the future to cherish other thoughts. Then walking forward with cleared brow and a resolved air she soon reached Mrs. Polwarth’s cottage, before the door of which Tottie, evidently expectant, descried her and ran in to report.
‘Why, you’re quite late to-day, Miss,’ said the good woman. ‘I began to think you were never coming, and Tottie’s been along the track as far as I’d let her. Sit ye down and rest. Is there anything fresh? We heard as the Ballarat men was talking of “rolling up” if the licenses wasn’t lowered.’
‘Yes, Mrs. Polwarth, there is news, but not about licenses; a letter has come by the mail to-day—this very day only, think of that!—from—from him.’
‘Not from Mr. Lance; you don’t say so, Miss? Who’d iver have thought on it? And is he well, has he gotten oot o’ the country? The Lord bless and keep him, wherever he is.’
‘I trust He will, in His great goodness and mercy. It seems so wonderful, after all these weary months, that I should actually have his letter—his own letter written to Mr. Stirling—this week here—here!’ and she drew forth the priceless treasure, as it seemed in her eyes, and again devoured it with hungry regard.
Then, half replying to Mrs. Polwarth’s questions, half giving vent to long-pent-up feelings which, in the presence of a tried friend of her own sex, humble in social station as she might be, flowed freely and unrestrainedly, Estelle Chaloner poured her heart out. After which she experienced a feeling of intense relief, and was enabled to confer rationally with Mrs. Polwarth about her course of action.
‘I had fully intended, as you know, to go into Ballarat on Monday,’ she said, ‘and therefore there will be no change of plan. The difference will only be that before this dear letter came’—here she gazed earnestly at the well-known handwriting—‘I had no earthly idea in what direction I should go after leaving Melbourne. Now I do know, and oh, how differently I feel!’
‘Yes, I daresay,’ said Mrs. Polwarth doubtfully; ‘but then, Miss, how are you to get to Omeo? It’s a mighty rough place, everybody says, a dreadful bad road, and worse a’most when you get there. Don’t you think it would be more prudent-like to wait a bit and let Mr. Stirling write to him as you’re here?’
‘And allow him to think that I am afraid to come to any place where he lives? Perhaps induce him to leave his retreat for my sake and risk recapture? No! a hundred times no! I have not come so far to falter now.’
‘But, my dear young lady, how will you get there? Jack heard some of the diggers talking about it, and they said all the tools and provisions and camp things had to be took up on pack-horses. Nothing on wheels could get there. And what will you do then? you can’t walk.’
‘I should not like to walk, certainly,’ said Miss Chaloner, with a smile. ‘I wonder what some of my friends would say if they saw me trudging along with a knapsack on my back. Not but what I would do that if need were. But I can ride, fairly well too, so I will not let the want of a coach stop me, I promise you.’
‘And you have friends in Melbourne, and you’ll see them first, now won’t you, Miss?’ said the kind soul, devoutly hoping that such personages, if possessed of ordinary prudence, would interpose and prevent further romantic enterprises, of the success of which she in her own mind felt deeply distrustful.
‘I shall see them, of course, particularly Mrs. Vernon, who was like a mother to me; but,’ continued this headstrong and imperious young woman, ‘all the Mrs. Vernons and Mrs. Grundys in Melbourne will not keep me from Omeo—from any place where he is.’
As she spoke she raised her head, her dark eyes flashed with sudden light, and her whole frame appeared instinct with defiance of difficulties and obstacles, how numerous soever.
Mrs. Polwarth seemed to recognise a familiar trait as she sighed and merely replied, ‘It runs in the family, Miss. I see you won’t be said. I could fancy as Mr. Lance was standin’ before me this minute. Maybe you’ll get through safe, please the Lord’s mercy. There’ll be some as’ll pray for ye night and day.’
‘I know that,’ she said, taking the toil-worn hands in hers. ‘No girl in a strange country ever found truer friends; I wonder at it sometimes by myself. But you know Heaven helps those that help themselves, and though I am a weak woman I feel that in my difficult path I must chiefly rely on myself. I have his happiness and safety to think of as well as my own.’
The more worldly-wise matron could only press the delicate hand in hers, while the tears came to her eyes. ‘If he had only thought as much about her!’ she said inwardly.
But she held her peace as they walked together adown the track which led to the township.
At a conversation which took place on the Sunday evening preceding Estelle’s departure, she repeated her thanks to Stirling and Hastings for their kindness to herself and their unswerving friendship for Lance.
‘I wish our companionship had been more effectual to protect him,’ said the latter; ‘but, speaking among friends, I may say that he was wilful—too much so for his own good. So have been many men, however, who have never paid such a heavy penalty. After this last news, however, the question is, how we are to help him ?’
‘I shall travel at once to this to—where he is,’; said Estelle quickly. ‘You did not expect me to do anything else, did you?’
‘I am afraid that I did not,’ he said, smiling; though he added gravely, ‘None the less, both Stirling and I think it imprudent for you to take such a journey by yourself.’
‘Yet I came here safely—even pleasantly.’
‘Omeo is a very different place. It has the worst reputation of any goldfield yet discovered. The outlaws of all the colonies are gathered there. Police protection is a mockery; they have no “Launceston Mac” to regulate them, and the road is impracticable for wheels—well-nigh impassable, indeed.’
‘All this sounds bad,’ said Estelle, ‘and, if I could be intimidated, might prevent my wishing to go. But I am past all that feeling. I must have one more talk with you and Mr. Stirling. But on Monday I sleep in Ballarat.’
‘Of course Mrs. M‘Alpine will be most happy to receive you again,’ he said, rather ruefully; ‘and next day the coach will take you to Melbourne. I wish the rest of the journey was as plain sailing. If you would accept me as your escort to Omeo, and I could go, nothing would give me greater pleasure. But I am in honour bound to stay with my mate here and see our claim worked out, or I would leave to-morrow.’
‘It is a great pity that Mr. Stirling can’t shut up his bank and come too,’ she replied, smiling. ‘But I know enough now about mining matters to judge of the impossibility of your departing at a moment’s notice. I have been wonderfully helped so far. It really appears miraculous. And I have the fullest faith that I shall not fall short of that aid which a merciful God provides for His helpless creatures in the future. I will write to you both, and hereby constitute Mr. Stirling as my banker and guardian while I remain in Australia.’
In this fashion it came to pass that on the Monday morning Estelle carried out her purpose of making the start—that all-important premier pas which is so often the insuperable difficulty in life.
The Growlers’ Gully coach, departing with American punctuality at the appointed minute, bore her away again as box-seat passenger, and, not having more than two others besides the driver, went round by Mr. M‘Alpine’s cottage and deposited her at the remembered garden gate.
Before leaving she had a long and earnest conversation with Charles Stirling, whom she had grown to regard almost as a brother. His uniform gentleness of manner, his chivalrous courtesy and studious consideration for her in every possible particular, joined with a certain firmness in maintaining his opinion in matters of importance, had insensibly won upon her regard. She would have been no true woman had it not been so. Nor could she, from time to time, refrain from involuntarily drawing mental comparisons between her fiancé and his friend.
Their circumstances and surroundings being similar, why could not Lance have conducted himself with the prudence and self-respect which characterised Mr. Stirling, and indeed Mr. Hastings also? Perhaps the former, from holding a responsible position, was necessarily more guarded by the proprieties; but there was Mr. Hastings, whom she had seen working with his mate Bob, dressed like an ordinary miner, more roughly living and lodging even than Jack Polwarth. Yet she could see that he bore himself in all respects as a gentleman, and that such rank by others was cheerfully accorded to him. Why could not Lance——? and then she sighed deeply and turned her thoughts abruptly into another channel.
It had been decided in council that Miss Chaloner should be suffered to pursue her journey towards Omeo, at any rate as far as Melbourne, when she would again place herself under the guardianship of Mrs. Vernon. After much difficulty, the friends prevailed upon her to promise that she would not commence the journey to Omeo until Mr. Vernon had arranged for, in his opinion, a suitable escort. Thus reassured, she was permitted to depart, being seen off by Mrs. Polwarth and Mrs. Delf, besides a score or two of casual spectators and miners off work. These worthy fellows had gradually come to the conclusion that a young lady who was known to the Commissioner, and treated with such high consideration by Mr. Stirling, must be a person of rank and title. Indeed such a report gained common credence, and Estelle was long referred to in the chronicle of Growlers’ as ‘the lady in her own right as had come from England to see after poor Trevanion of Number Six.’
Before leaving, Estelle had volunteered to take charge of the portmanteau which Lance had mentioned in his letter as containing some of his much-cherished souvenirs and other possessions. But Stirling had doubted the propriety of her burdening herself with a heavy and presumably valuable package. It would be sure to cause her anxiety, and from its very appearance might stimulate the cupidity of members of the lawless class, at that time by no means easy to evade while travelling. Both in her interest and Lance’s he preferred to forward it by gold escort to an agent in Melbourne, who again would await the opportunity of police protection to send it on to Omeo. He would be in possession of Lance’s receipt for it before she had readied Omeo; perhaps even before she had left Melbourne.
It was finally decided by the friends that Lance should not be informed of Estelle’s arrival. ‘It would only unsettle him,’ she said. ‘He might even come to Melbourne, and so run the risk of recapture. It will not be long before I rejoin him at Omeo, or the North Pole,’ she added, with a smile, ‘if he roams so far.’
The intervening stages were necessarily identical with those previously encountered. Mrs. M‘Alpine was still hospitably eager to receive this wandering princess, as she evidently considered her to be. She would not hear of her going on to Melbourne the following day, and Estelle, fearful of the appearance of insufficiently appreciating her unusual kindness, gracefully, though reluctantly, consented. Her hostess then arranged so that a discreet selection of the officials then resident at Ballarat should arrive in the evening. These were mostly young men, among whom Estelle was pleased to greet her first Ballarat acquaintance, Mr. Sub-Commissioner Dalton. Ladies were few and far between at that period of ‘the field,’ but those who accepted Mrs. M‘Alpine’s invitation showed that the exceptional circumstances amid which they lived and moved had wrought no change in manner or mental habitudes. As for the men, Estelle found them distinctly above the average in appearance, bearing, and accomplishments. These last Mrs. M‘Alpine unobtrusively brought forward. Then it appeared that this one was well known as an artist; another sang ‘like an angel,’ as one of his feminine admirers expressed it, playing his own accompaniments on the piano; a third was a distinguished performer in private theatricals, while all talked well and amusingly. A rather extended course of travel, continental and otherwise, joined with army and navy reminiscences, seemed to be common to all. Mr. M’Alpiue had arrived too, from some mining town with an aboriginal name, and, much to Estelle’a surprise, was a punctiliously courteous and chivalrous elderly personage, mild and almost deferential in manner to ladies, and possessing a vein of quiet humour which aroused unexpected merriment from time to time,—very different, indeed, from the stern, inflexible Rhadamanthus whom she had pictured in her imaginings of the terrible ‘Launceston Mac.’
When the evening came to an end—not particularly early, it must be confessed—and the piano and whist table were succeeded by a modest but very cheerful supper, Estelle came to the conclusion that she had never seen so many entertaining, cultured, and, in a sense, distinguished people gathered together in one small room in her life. That it should be her experience in this curious corner of the remote antipodes was the crowning marvel of the whole.
Melbourne again! which—so accommodating is our mental to our bodily vision—seemed quite a small London after Ball.irat and Growlers’.
Mrs. Vernon, who was just about organising one of her regular winter parties, hailed Estelle’s arrival with unaffected joy. This was rather dashed when she understood her guest’s intention to depart for Omeo at the earliest possible moment. If the truth must be told, she considered the discovery of Lance’s abiding-place at Omeo to be an unalloyed misfortune. This view of the case was of course unexpressed, out of deference to Estelle’s feelings, who made it—the announcement—with such unfeigned pleasure that her hostess could not, for pity’s sake, forbear the conventional words of sympathy.
‘But, my dear, you cannot possibly go to that dreadful Omeo at present, if indeed at all. It was only yesterday that I heard Mr. Vernon telling some young man (a young man, my dear!) that he advised him to wait till the winter was nearly over before he started for Omeo, as the roads were positively dangerous.’
‘I will wait any reasonable time, and I shall certainly be guided by Mr. Vernon’s kind advice,’ the girl said; ‘but I am resolved to reach Omeo before the spring.’
‘“A wilful woman,” quoted the old lady, ‘“must, I suppose, have her way,” like a wilful man, but I am charmed to see that you recognise the propriety of consulting Mr. Vernon. He has business relations with Omeo—what they are I have not the faintest idea—mining requisites, I presume—everything from picks and shovels to pianos and cornopeans—so that he will know how to manage the transport service for you. And now, my dear, come and see your room.’
Mrs. Vernon’s home was enticing. A roomy, well-furnished modern house, the upper windows of which commanded a far-reaching view of the waters of the harbour and the bluffs and headlands trending easterly towards a dim and mighty forest world, beyond which again rose mountain peaks. A broad verandah protected it equally from winter rain and summer heat. The gardens, filled with exotics of every land, sloped down, with winding walks amid trim grass lawns and thickets of ornamental shrubs, to the waters of the Yarra. Exclusive enough for meditation and rambling walks, beautiful also with the carefully-guarded flowers which the half-tropical summer and mild winter of the south permit to develop in rarest beauty, had Estelle desired a restful retreat wherein to stay her pilgrim feet for a season, no pleasanter spot, no more alluring bower, could she have found. But such loitering in the path of duty, synonymous in her case with the passion around which the tendrils of her heart—the heart of a self-controlled, habitually reserved woman—entwined, was not for Estelle Chaloner. Pleased and grateful as she could not fail to be with Mrs. Vernon’s motherly warmth and kindly tendance, she told herself that she would rather have been in a stagecoach, rumbling along the roughest road towards Omeo, the goal of all her thoughts and aspirations, than playing her part mechanically among the pleasant society people seated around Mr. Vernon’s handsomely appointed dinner-table.
As for that gentleman himself, he vied with his wife in welcoming his prodigal daughter, as he persisted in calling her.
‘We have adopted you, my dear Miss Chaloner; ask Mrs. Vernon if we haven’t. We wept till bedtime after your departure, didn’t we, Mary? and now that our daughter that we lost is found, what do I hear about her going away again? It can’t be done. It’s against Scripture; ask Mr. Chasuble here if it isn’t. The fatted calf is doomed, and she must stay for the feast.’
‘I daresay you won’t find me an undutiful daughter,’ she replied smilingly, ‘but you must wait till I have returned from the wilderness before feasting will be appropriate. I have seen little or nothing, so far, of the rude and lawless waste I was led to expect—on the contrary, refinement and courtesy seem indigenous to Australia.’
‘Oh! that’s all very fine,’ laughed back Mrs. Vernon; ‘you’ve been spoiled at Ballarat, but you mustn’t expect to find the country full of handsome Goldfields Commissioners, six feet high, and crammed full of accomplishments—like Mr. Dalton, or even Mr. Annesley, whom you saw here. There are places so different.’
‘Which we won’t describe to-night, shall we, my dear?’ Mr. Vernou interpolated, appealing to his wife. ‘Miss Chaloner shall do as she likes, as the daughter of the house, while here and afterwards. If she wants to go to the South Pole, John Vernon & Co. will charter a ship for her, or a camel train; if Fort Bourke requires her presence, only give us a little time—that is all I ask.’