The new schoolmaster was a tall, gaunt, angular man, with a mop of black hair, large bony hands, and black melancholy eyes. He arrived by the night coach with no more property than a small bag sufficed to carry, and asked Flash Harry if the schoolmaster’s house was anywhere near. Harry pointed with his whip to the little hut which, embowered in creepers, stood on the hill, and the new comer at once tramped away to it, ignoring with provoking complacency the great business of “liquoring up” which was the commercial pursuit of Bullocktown.
Nor was he more sociable next day. Maggie Burns, who was “keeping” the schoolhouse, deposed that Mr. Hardy had asked her for a light, opened his bag, produced a small book, and read till daylight. At daylight he had gone for a walk, and returned laden with plants and ferns, just in time to open school. School being over, he went for another walk, and did not come back till 10 o’clock. This process of self-abstraction from the joys of Bullocktown was at first resented. It was the custom that every stranger should be made free of the place—receive the liberty of the city, so to speak—by at least one glorious bout of brandy. Intoxication in Bullocktown had become elevated into an art, and, as with other delights of a sensual character, connoisseurs studied to protract its enjoyment as long as possible. Rumours were afloat that Mr. Hardy was a scholar of eminence, a man of much erudition, whom “circumstances” had compelled to accept the appointment of a common schoolmaster. A report filtered through the common layers of society, as such reports mysteriously do filter, that Mr. Hardy had been a man well known in Melbourne, and that his name was not really Hardy, but something else. Now, Bullocktown, the best hearted place in the universe, was ready to receive this unfortunate victim of unknown circumstances with open arms—was ready to clasp him to its manly bosom, and to initiate him into all the art and mystery of its profession of drinking. For the proper reception of such a stranger, Bullocktown was prepared to risk a present of insensibility and a future of trembling delirium. Had it been possible to set the kennels running with red wine, and have the fountain in the square spouting particular sherries, Bullocktown would have done it; but it was quite impossible for there were no kennels, no fountain, no square, and no red wine or sherries (worth mentioning), in Bullocktown. There was no lack of brandy, however: Henessy, Otard, and “Three Star” were all at command, and brandy would have flowed like water had the stranger wished it. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that when Mr. Hardy declared that “he did not drink,” Bullocktown considered itself slighted.
A sort of consultation was held at Coppinger’s as to the course to be pursued with this extremely unsociable schoolmaster. Fighting Fitz said that not only had Mr. Hardy refused to drink with him, but that he had mildly but decidedly withdrawn from his company. Archy Cameron said that if he got “Good day,” it was as much as he did get; for all that his three children were regular attendants at the schoolhouse; and Coppinger topped the chorus of complaints by relating that Mr. Hardy had not only declined to partake of the gentle stimulant afforded by brandy and bitters at 9 a.m., but that he had expressed himself astonished at the inordinate consumption of grog by the men, women, and children of the district.
“He flew into a tearing rage,” said Coppinger, “and declared that drink was the curse of the country. I don’t say that it isn’t, boys, but I’m d——d if I’ll allow any man to say so in my bar!”
So it was agreed that Mr. Hardy should be sent to Coventry. Strange to say, he did not seem to mind this decision in the least; in fact, his punishment seemed rather to amuse him.
One creature in the township, however, did not partake of the general feeling. Rose Melliship, the daughter of old Melliship, of the Sawpits, openly said that the conduct of Bullocktown was “mean and ridiculous.” Now, had anyone but Rose said this, Bullocktown, with its Widow Grip at the head of it, would have arisen like one woman, and torn her to pieces; but Rose was privileged. It was known in Bullocktown that old Melliship had “married a lady,” and this fact constituted the pale, quiet girl the constitutional sovereign of the little State. Nothing that Rose Mellishop did could be anything but right; anything she said was received with the respect due to a Queen’s speech ere yet Prime Ministers had acquired the art of writing. Rose Mellishop herself did not disdain this humble homage. Whatever her parentage may have been, it was certain she owned a large share of that grace and intelligence which are presumed to belong entirely to the aristocracy. Rose Mellishop, taught at a common school, with a few books, with no companions of similar tastes to her own, grown to womanhood among vulgar sights and sounds, was—well, let me put it plainly at once—the one woman for whom John Hardy felt he had all his life been seeking.
I do not know how their courtship began;—I fancy at some accidental meeting, at which a word or two on either side gave token to each of sympathy with the other; but no one ever knew. They met, talked, and parted. Rose, with feminine instinct of such things, knew the middle-aged man loved her, though he had never expressed to her his love as lovers in books were wont to express it. He was often absent-minded, always sad, sometimes impatient.
“You have some great trouble,” said Rose once to him. “Tell it to me; I will try and comfort you.”
But he angrily put by the question, and she said no more.
There was not much love-making at these interviews. It was enough for her to listen, to know that her thoughts were understood, that those speculations which she had imagined tremblingly were hers only, were common to many; that there was by her side a strong soul upon which she could lean and rest.
It seemed enough for him to have near him a tender-eyed woman, with soft voice, and bright perceptions, who comprehended without explanation, and read his griefs before he could utter them. It was to both of them, as though their souls, long divided, had mysteriously met. There was harmony between them.
Yet they had been many months acquainted before John Hardy spoke of marriage.
Old Melliship had a shrewd notion of the progress of affairs, and desired, in his worldly wisdom—which is, we know, so much superior to anything else in this world—to bring the schoolmaster to book. He told Rose he was going to send her to Melbourne on a visit to her uncle, the cooper. Rose told this to Hardy, and Hardy called on Melliship next day to try and dissuade him.
“You had better leave your daughter here, Mr. Melliship. She is just at an age when she should remain at home; and—we are reading French together.”
“Look ye here, Mr. Hardy,” returned old Melliship, “I think you read French a deal too much together, that’s a fact.”
“Sir,” stammered Hardy.
“Oh, I don’t think you mean no harm. You are a gentleman, I believe, and I can trust my girl anywhere; but—she’d better go to town a bit.”
John Hardy slept less than ever that night, if Mrs. Burns is to be believed. According to her account, he walked up and down his schoolroom, as one in violent agitation, for some hours, and then dashed out of the house, hatless, into the bush. When the school opened, however, he was at his place, as quiet, through perhaps paler than usual, and after school he walked straight to the Sawpits.
“I have come to ask you to marry me, Rose.”
She blushed a little—a very little—and looked away across the hills without ansering.
“Do you love me enough to do so?” he asked, after a pause.
“I was thinking,” said she, frankly, turning her head; and then—giving him both her hands—“Yes, I do. I will marry you.”
It was his turn to look away and to keep silence. By-and-by he spoke in a laboriously controlled voice. “I have no fortune to offer you, no hopes of future grandeur to hold out to you. If we marry we must live here, or in some place like this, poor and obscure, until we die. Are you content?”
“Yes, dear, I am content.”
He turned—suddenly and passionately—catching her in his arms, and devouring her face with his great eyes.
“Rose, do you love me enough, knowing me only as you do, to keep faith for me, to think always well of me, to remember that whatever happens—whatever has happened—I loved you, and will love you always?”
For reply, she gently unwound his arms, and took his hot hands in her cool ones.
“There is some mystery in your life. If you choose to tell it to me, tell it. But I do not seek to know, saving that I may comfort you. It is idle to promise that we will always love. How can we tell? I love you now, and you only, dear, of all men on earth. What does it matter to me what you have done, or may do?”
There was no passion in the tones, though, perhaps a taste of high-flown sentiment might not have seemed misplaced in a reply to such a wild appeal as his; but the simple truthfulness of the grave, sweet voice soothed and convinced the questioner.
“You are a woman who would meet death for one you loved, my rose!”
“Death is the least of human ills,” said Rose, smiling at him, “if your philosophy is to be believed. Ah, my love, my love, you need not doubt me.”
The little Church by the river bank was crowded, and when Rose came out with her husband the cheers deafened her. Tears stood in her eyes. “How ungenerous she had been to despite these people. They had good hearts and loved her.”
As the thought crossed her mind she looked up to John Hardy to compare him proudly with the others, and was astonished at his paleness. His mouth was firmly shut, but the lips quivered, and from time to time the muscles of the face relaxed as though weary with the strain put upon them. It was evident that the schoolmaster suffered strong emotion.
The Quartzborough and Seven Creeks coach, which passed through Bullocktown at noonday, made its appearance in a cloud of red dust from over the hill and swung heavily towards the Church. Flash Harry seeing the locked mass of buggies, carts, and horsemen which hung upon the tail of the bridal party, checked his unicorn team, and waved a hasty order to clear the way.
Fighting Fitz, spurring his buck-jumping ginger-coloured nag beside the wheel, urged a parley.
“Curse ye man,” cried Harry, savagely, “let me pass. Are they married?”
“Yes,” says Fitz, “as fast as old Spottleboy can do it.”
“God help him then! I’ll break every bone in his body.”
“His!” returned Flash Harry, pointing to the bridegroom. “Let me pass I tell ye, man; we don’t want a scene here.”
But it was too late. The scene was over. There was no box-passenger on the coach that day, but it seemed that the bulging leathern curtains concealed somebody. They were parted with a wrench, and from them tumbled something that looked like a bundle of parti-coloured clothes, surmounted by a horse’s tail. This object lying, groaning feeble oaths, at the very feet of the advancing pair, Coppinger caught hold of it, and dragging it upwards, discovered a being with tangled hair and dirty hands, and bloated lips murmuring blasphemy—a being that was obscene, drunk, and a woman.
The party paused, disgusted at this hideous intrusion into their midst, and Flash Harry felt constrained to say, “Come, get in again, mum, get in; I knew that last nobbler at the Cross Reefs would set yer off. Get in.”
But the bemuzzled poor wretch, striking some frowsy hair out of her eyes, made reply by suddenly plunging at the bridegroom.
“Wha’s all this, John?” said she, supported by Coppinger. “Don’ ye know me?”
The face and attitude of the miserable schoolmaster answered more decidedly than words.
He had loosed hold of the bride’s arm, and stood apart, haggard, wild, despairing. Presently he raised his head, and taking a step forward, indicated with a gesture, the drunken woman, and said, with a deliberate, level accent of disgust and despair on each syllable—“This is my wife.”
Old Melliship clenched his fist, and stepped out to fell the man to the earth, but his daughter laid her light touch upon his arm, and restraining him by that single gesture, stood motionless, tearless, speechless,—looking at the hideous thing which had come to blight her life. The drunken woman, her intellects roused by the dramatic force of the scene, suddenly seemed to comprehend her husband’s offence, and, breaking from Coppinger, rushed forward to pour forth a torrent of blasphemous reproach, until exhausted with her own violence, she fell prone before them all upon the Church steps, a spectacle to shudder at and to pity. Her husband raised her from the ground and placed her inside the porch. Then, averting his face, he seemed to wait until he should be left alone with her, and so standing, became conscious of a hand on his whose electric touch thrilled him. It was Rose. “How you must have suffered,” she said, and kissed the hand she held.
There is much delicacy in the minds of the poor, and those who are forced to live face to face with nature. The rovers of the bush and the sea are seldom vulgar, for in the forests and on the ocean, are no meanness, no vulgarities. Bullocktown felt that at a moment like this it was an intruder. Flash Harry flogged his horses, Fitz struck spurs to his pony, Coppinger made for his buggy, and in a few seconds the space in front of the Church was empty.
“I intended no wrong, sir; believe me. She will understand me, if you do not. But I was weak. You do not know, perhaps, what it is to have a drunken wife. Pray god you never may. Pray God you may never know what it is to come home, and find the mother of your children—oh, my God!—how can I picture what I have suffered! Night after night, sir,—for my business took me out—have I found her there,”—(pointing with both hands to the floor)—“drunk, drunk, drunk! I have been rich; she has made me poor. I have had a good name; she dragged it through the dirt. I have had children; she let them die. I have been much to blame—of course, where is there a case of wrong in which one only is blameworthy? But I am passionate; have tastes incompatible with dirt and shame; am cursed with too keen a memory, too feeble hope. I despaired.”
The girl had drawn closer to him, and was now almost on his heart. Yet her father did not chide her. In the frightful incongruity of all things around them, it seemed natural only that she should be there.
“At last I left her. I had money, which I assigned for her. I thought I would seek peace in some harmless way of life, in some quiet place like this. I came here, and—and, for the first time met a woman whom I could love. Do not frown, sir. I do not think you understand your daughter nor me! That I have done wrong, I admit. I was weak, weary, suffering, alone; and love is very sweet to those who can taste it first in middle age. I thought myself so far removed from chance of discovery that no shame could come to your daughter by my act; and my way of thought led me to see for her no sin where there was no shame. Enough—I have been punished. Good-bye my Rose; this is the calamity I feared.”
The old man made in silence for the door. Turning then for his daughter, he saw her clinging to John Hardy’s breast, and heard her last farewell to him. “Good-bye, my love, my love! When first I knew you, I used to think it no desert in me to love a man so worthy, and have wished, in foolish dreaming, you might do some terrible act for which all the world would spurn you, and so make my love of value. Good-bye, my——. You must go back—you must! Good-bye. Nay, I have nothing to forgive, nor you to regret. Time may cripple us with sorrow, or with suffering, but it cannot change our loves—cannot, at least, destroy the memory, that we have known each other. Good-bye!”
So she left him, and his last look of her showed him a sweet face, smiling sad hope, and streaming with silent tears.
The next morning he returned to Melbourne and fate, with his unhappy wife.