I WAS young—that is, twenty-three—healthy, active, well-bred, and well-taught—if it comes to that. I had been carefully educated. Almost too well, in a partial great-aunt’s opinion—there hardly being a sphere in the colonies (as she remarked) for a girl of so high an order of culture. I thought her singularly wrong, but did not say so. I plume myself on my tact—a nicely balanced faculty which I try not to let degenerate into dissimulation. There are so many disagreeable things you need not say, or indeed do. But, on reflection, I partly agreed with her. I was, apparently, of the nature of a superfluity. Nobody wanted me, it would seem, for I was not sought in marriage with any amount of eagerness. I was not bad-looking either, though equally far—perhaps a little farther—from being a beauty. I had a well-set- up, well-developed figure. I could ride well, and walk too, if necessary. And I always found it necessary in cold weather, or indeed in any weather, when there was not much to do. It helps the general tone, and improves—yes—the temper, mightily. People with thick boots, and the sense to wear them, generally have even tempers. If they get into a pet, as the best of people do sometimes, there is no such complete way of getting rid of the uncomfortable, unchristian mood as by walking it off. No matter how hot, how cold, how wet, how windy, go out and half-tire yourself before you turn homeward. You can change your chaussure, you can hang up your waterproof; then you will find yourself in a calm, tolerant, forgiving mood, unknown to people who stick in the house.
From this slight digression it might be inferred that I am fond of exertion. So I am. I like real downright hard work, or exercise of any kind. But I dislike worry, or that kind of half-and-half maddening, unending struggle which some people contrive to spread more or less thickly over their whole lives. Muddle is neither one thing nor the other; it degrades the woman and infuriates the man. I like work, as I said before. I also like repose. I appreciate to the depths of my being the luxurious feeling of the day’s work, or the week’s work, being put away and done with until a specified and regulated time. I like to be free to read or think, write letters, or do ridiculous fancy work. I can’t quite justify that, but I suppose it’s an inherited tendency from the days when we used to weave shells and feathers into chaplets, aprons, and such like primitive precursors of millinery. Yes! I like to be free to follow my bent, or do nothing at all, when the day’s work is over. If there’s anything I detest, it’s being asked to do something useful out of working hours. At the same time, let me not be misunderstood; I must have work, hardish work, bordering on self-sacrifice, amounting to mortification of the flesh. Sheer idleness I simply abhor. Now, all my life I have found a difficulty in choosing the kind of work that was most morally healthful to me. To do without work altogether, I can honestly say, never occurred to me in this twenty-three-year-old life of mine.
Most people are obliged to work. I always think it settles the question so nicely for them—saves a world of indecision and trouble, which last is another word for distilled misery. I, unluckily, am not in any way obliged to work, otherwise than by this restless nature of mine, backed up by a ruthless conscience which seldom lets me alone for long. I wonder if everybody is driven about in the same fashion?
Ever since I can remember it has been my lot. I find myself appealing, too, against what are called the ‘dictates of conscience,’ which makes matters worse.
If I had been an advanced ritualist, all this would have been practically settled for me. I should have been told, more or less paternally, ‘Dear child, you are to do this, or abstain from that, to believe this, to condemn that’; and, after a certain number of acts and deeds, recitals and repetitions, said more or less sleepily or hysterically, I should have been absolved and set finally right. But by whom? By my fellow-man, who tells me that he has power to loose and to bind, to save and to condemn—to wield, in fact, all the dread powers inextricably mingled with our mysterious human existence.
No! thrice no! I have been gifted, happily for me or otherwise, with an intellect. That intellect has been, perhaps imprudently, cultivated from childhood. I have inherited a tendency to weigh evidence, with the obligation to abide by logical proof, though I am a woman. So I distrust mere assertion, and am prone to deny conclusions which do not proceed from the grounds stated.
If I am to hand myself over hand and foot to a belief, it must possess the sanction of my own freely exercised judgment, and not the mere sounding threat of ‘authority.’
We—that is, our family is—no, that won’t do; the Middletons are so comfortably off, that there is but little inducement to ‘work and labour truly,’ as says the dear old Catechism.
‘Our own living’ was got for us a generation or two back by a grandfather, whom, unhappily, I only of all the brothers and sisters appear to resemble. His unresting energy caused him to despise his own land and home, brought him out to Australia, and drove him over land and sea in search of the fortune which he captured, and we enjoy, or at least possess.
There is now no need of making any more fortune, and indeed father grumbles much at times at the labour cast upon him in merely keeping what we have got. On that, or on a variety of small cares and trifling tastes, the most serious of which is connected with the menu, he occupies his life. Mother’s responsibility is even greater, with reference to the dinner; certainly more than half her waking thoughts are connected with cooks and relate to dinners, which she has come to hate, as less calculated to nourish than to rack and torment the human frame. She, good, easy soul, would like to spend all her days in reading, sleeping, and the established family tasks. A six-o’clock tea, with her share of the children’s dinner, would be her ideal of happiness here below. This she is not permitted to dream of, and possibly never will enjoy. It is wicked, I know, but I think if anything happened to father, she would make some excuse of economy, and send away the professed cook at once. We should have a series of picnic lunches and tea-dinners for a year to come.
I have three brothers and two sisters. The boys are in banks and offices, or making believe to learn to be squatters. They require no aid. My sisters are not imperfect variations of what dear mother must have been at their age. Both pretty and soft-looking, easy-tempered, and unambitious, not to say lazy, but in a graceful and lady-like way. They are perfectly satisfied with their lives.
They think everything ‘so nice,’ and wonder that dear Portia should worry herself so about things which really do not matter. What were such questions to them? They had everything they wanted, and really it seemed ungrateful to Providence to be dissatisfied.
They felt and acted according to their natures. I was impelled by mine almost from my birth, for there were nursery traditions of my revolutionary tendencies. I ought to have been the eldest son; then I should have had scope for the wildest vagaries, for any at least that tended towards money-making.
But with girls, once threaten departure from the beaten way, and you are driven back by the word and the idea, ‘improper, unfeminine,’ thrown at you like a stone at a dog that enters a forbidden avenue. It does seem hard that, with the utmost cleanliness of purpose, a woman should be always liable to have her robe smudged or calumny-spotted directly her feet move out of the beaten path—the dusty, prosaic highway of society.
However, in spite of disapproval and the deadweight of family remonstrance, I held to my determination to seek out some sort of work under the sun whereby I might do good to others, or even to myself. I must say I thought myself and my own character perfectly legitimate objects of sympathy. I wanted experience—knowledge of the good and evil of life,—much the same, I suppose, as men often wish for, and of course contrive to procure—so unfair is the measure of criticism meted out to either sex. I had no family duties to neglect; that was one good thing. My mother’s health was excellent. My father had no hour of the day unoccupied in his solemn round of trivialities. My sisters supplied the exact kind of sympathy, assistance, and conversation that was needed. Our household possessed the unvarying comfort, not to say luxury, of a club. There was nothing to desire, nothing to complain of, nothing to wish changed, nothing, in my mind, to fill the heart, to satisfy the soul.
Ere my teens were passed I had resolved to find work, and to grind down my unrest upon it, if such could be.
I tried the poor, whom we are told we shall have always with us. There were years in Melbourne when the poor, in any true sense of the word, were wondrous hard to find. The sick, being continuous and plentiful, were more satisfactory subjects.
I generally found that the poverty, if admitted, which was rarely the case, was of a temporary and ephemeral nature, mostly brought on by the dissipation of the head of the family, who was, at that moment perhaps, concluding a bout of revelry which had cost as much as his bread and meat bill for a quarter.
Then came a week or two of repentance and starvation, the culprit performing the repentance, and his wife and children the starvation, after which he resumed highly paid labour, and his family was floated out into wasteful plenty and forgetfulness of benefits.
I commenced finally to perceive that I was acting as a kind of Inebriate Assurance Company, my benefactions merely enabling my infirm clients to afford another bout or more yearly, inasmuch as they could rely on my support of the family when in extremis.
As for the sick, I tended them in their homes, truly and loyally, through many a hot summer day and sleety winter eve. Then I brought home an infectious fever, which imperilled not only my own life but those of others, upon which my father aroused himself and, using his tardily-executed authority, forbade visitations. ‘There are asylums and institutions to which I subscribe,’ he said, ’as did my father before me. They take in, not only everybody who is sick, but everybody who is worn out or troubled with unconquerable dislike to labour. Every kind of comfort, medical and otherwise, is lavished on them. Hospital nurses, often young ladies who, like you, are tired of their lives and disdainful of their families, wait upon them to their heart’s content. I am not going to have my house turned into a fever ward, and I think I have reason for what I say.’
I didn’t think it was in him. I went over and kissed father with more tenderness than I remember feeling for years.
We people who talk a good deal and demonstrate our feelings freely forget, perhaps, that other people think and feel not less intensely.
‘You are quite right, father,’ said I. ‘I submit, and beg pardon for anything in my conduct that may have appeared unkind. It really was not in my heart; now, could it have been, my dear old daddy?’
‘I’m sure it wasn’t, my darling; but, dear me, why any daughter of mine should have so much superfluous energy I can’t think. What’s the use of it, except to drive themselves and other people distracted. Can’t you keep still and enjoy all your home comforts? You are fond of reading—order a box of new books from Mullen’s once a week if you like. I’ll buy you a pair of ponies and a phaeton, a new hackney; anything in the wide world, if you’ll only keep still and let other people rest in peace and quietness.’
‘If I’ll only sit on a stool all day and be a good child, you mean, father?’
‘And that you never could do in your life, I’ll answer for it,’ said mother, arousing herself and shutting up her novel; ‘though really why you shouldn’t have taken after me, or your dear father, I can’t think. Still, my dear, there are plenty of things to do, which a young lady might, with perfect correctness, devote herself to.’
‘I don’t seem to find them,’ I answer wearily. ‘I have tried many things, and they don’t satisfy me or you either. I suppose you wouldn’t like me to become a lay sister like Martha Fletcher?’
‘These sisterhoods do a great deal of good,’ my mother said reflectively, as if the question had but that moment suggested itself, ‘but I cannot say that I approve of young girls separating themselves completely from their natural counsellors, their parents and relatives; any work of charity can be equally well performed with the sanction of their best earthly friends.’
‘But I seem to have no place or use in life,’ I said. ‘I am sick to death of the daily routine, and feel at times like the French stage- driver, who blew out his brains because he saw himself driving along the same road every day for years to come. Oh, if I could only do some real good!’ Here—it was unphilosophical, I confess, but—I began to cry.
Mother got up, drew me over to her, and put her arms round me, and took me tenderly to her comforting bosom.
‘You are only out of sorts, my child,’ she said. ‘I do not think you ever got over that nasty fever; you want a change, don’t you think so, dear father? She takes after you a little, you know, and can’t bear too much sameness’ (I trust that pious—white whatsyname—tarradiddle will never endanger dear mother’s future bliss). ‘You must take a nice trip somewhere—and—dear me! only think now’ (this was mother’s strongest asseveration), ‘this very day I had a letter from poor Jane Quartzman, full of complaints and despair and rather hinting about help.’
‘What does she want?’ I say cynically; ‘hasn’t she got a husband and family, a home, and all the rest of it? She must have plenty of occupation.’
‘You seem to dwell upon occupation as an alderman does upon appetite,’ said my father, rather neatly for him. (I suspect father occasionally of resembling the sailor’s monkey, who won’t talk lest he should be made to work.) ‘Do you suppose there are no people who have not too much occupation and too little rest?’
‘Can’t imagine it,’ I say. ‘But what about Jane?’
‘She has seven children,’ he said, ‘the eldest a girl of fifteen. Quartzman lost his money in a justifiable but unlucky speculation. They cannot afford a governess, so, as she says, the children are growing up in ignorance. She herself has wretched health, and with all the wish for exertion breaks down miserably every now and then. Quartzman is a good fellow and clever, but bad luck and hard work have left him worse off than he was twenty years ago; he has a store now somewhere near Waronga.’
‘Poor thing—poor thing!’ mother says mechanically, looking round at our extremely comfortable, not to say luxurious apartment,—papa’s easy-chair, with the week’s papers beside it in a species of portfolio, his reading-lamp and table arranged to the inch, and graduated to his eyesight; mother’s lovely general repository, out of which she constructs the needlework web which represents her life; the girls’ ottomans, print-stands, china-shelves, fern-baskets—everything perfect in taste and harmonious in grouping.
‘Yes, very dreadful, isn’t it?’ says father, reaching for the Australasian, and turning his lamp up with exactitude. ‘I always wonder why people will marry with insufficient means.’
‘I often wonder why they marry at all,’ I say, ‘judging from the limited measure of happiness it seems to secure; but that is hardly the question, is it? There will always be the poor, the Bible says, even if our relations did not impress that fact upon us. The problem is, how to help them?’
‘It’s no use sending them money,’ says father, with decision. ‘Quartzman gets to the end of it somehow, and in six months is as badly off as ever.’
‘I didn’t mean that,’ I said. ‘It’s the worst kind of help I know, though no other will do at times. What they want is some one to organise the household, who isn’t sick or nervous, like Cousin Jane, or worried with bills and worn out with work, like her husband,—a kind of benevolent free-lance. I really think I shall go and teach their children for a year, and if that does not mortify the flesh to some purpose, I am a Maori girl.’
My mother ran her needle into her finger, thus accentuating her next remark. ‘Portia, love, you are not going deranged!—are you sure, dear child?’
Father dropped the newspaper and stared at me. The other girls jumped up and said, ‘Oh, Portia, you don’t say so! Just like a regular governess! And fancy—think what people will say!’
‘My darling,’ said mother, again; ‘you cannot have considered what you are saying; leaving your family and going among comparative strangers; such a distance too!’
‘And to think of going into the bush—the horrid, rough, far-away bush!’ said Jessie.
‘I daresay they dine in the middle of the day and have a general servant,’ remarked Isabella.
Father had been kept so long waiting—indeed prevented from making his remark, which from its rarity was always listened to with respect, that he must have become nettled, for he said—
‘I see nothing whatever to be astonished at. After all, Quartzman is a gentleman, and his wife was as nice a creature as I ever saw in her early days; so pretty too! He has had bad luck—some one must have their share of that in this world. I think Portia’s proposal rather Quixotic, but it’s no worse than strumming a piano all day, or turning oneself into a sewing-machine, or playing at nuns and nunneries with an Anglican curate for director. As for being a governess, not so many people have the pluck, patience, and brains required for that sort of fancy-work. I see nothing to be astonished at. Portia can go to Waronga by rail in eight or nine hours. And the bush is by no means bad in its way or the people either. So, there now!’
It was ‘there now’ indeed. Very rarely did father so far commit the indiscretion of getting into a decent pet. Of course, like women, we admired him all the more for it. I saw that my project was secure. It was far too much trouble to father to make up his mind, for him to think of changing it again. Mother and the girls looked awe-stricken.
I clinched the opportunity by saying, ‘Mother dear, it will be a real charity to help the poor, overworked, feeble soul, will it not? Then the work and change will do me good. I was seriously thinking of going for a nurse’s place at the new infirmary. This will serve instead. I shall do something more erratic if I stay at home. You had better give me your blessing and let me go. A year soon passes.’
‘But a year is so dreadfully long,’ pleaded poor mother.
‘Nonsense, my dear!’ said father, who now began to take all the credit to himself for the proposal: ‘Portia is not bound to stay a month if she doesn’t wish. You can go up and see her and take one of the girls any time. Why, I could go up myself if that was all!’
We all laughed at this. Father had gradually given up visiting any of his properties that lay more than fifty miles away from Melbourne, and had not slept a night away from home for years; but he evidently thirsted to distinguish himself in that way again. Enterprise is contagious. We were clearly to be partners in this wild adventure.
‘To be sure you could, daddy! Why not go up with me?’
When father got to that stage, I could generally get anything I wanted. So I made my preparations accordingly. I packed up a carefully picked general assortment of utility wearables, including some unapproachable walking-boots. I commanded mother to write to Cousin Jane, telling her that I was coming up for a year for change of air; that town life had undermined my health; that if she would give me room and bread and butter, I would teach the children and help her generally with her house and needle-work. But that it was a crotchet of mine that I was to be styled and known as Miss Middleton the new governess, and not as a relation. That unless she fully and solemnly acceded to this, I would not come. ‘Tell her I’m a little eccentric in some things—mad, if you like, mother,’ said I. ‘That will account for any girl choosing to be rated as governess rather than visitor. And tell her to reply by telegram. I can’t endure suspense just now.’
Next day came the message—‘Come by all means—delighted. John meet you Redgum.—JANE QUARTZMAN.’
So that was settled; nothing remained but to say good-bye. Nothing more than that. To bid farewell to the kind hearts that had loved and cherished me all my life; that had borne with my fancies and freaks; had watched fondly over the growth and what they deemed the improvement of body and mind; wept at my childish ailments and agonised over serious illness; that had never consciously done me wrong or injustice since the day of my birth! Where should I find better friends than these? Yet I was going to make the attempt far away, among comparative strangers! No wonder that I found it hard to say good-bye, and nearly broke down ignominiously, to the amazement of my sisters, who believed implicitly in Portia’s adamantine firmness and pitiless resolution.
‘She must be ill, very ill, Jessie!’ said Isabella, the youngest. ‘I saw the tears in her eyes. Do you think her mind is going? That is what makes her so restless, perhaps?’
Partings are got over somehow. I respected my dear easy-going mother more in that five minutes of love and grief than I had done for years previously. ‘Work as hard as you like, dear,’ she said, ‘consistently with health, but, mind, I trust my girl to avoid anything unconventional. A man may do what he likes’ (’I have heard that before,’ I said through my tears, ’and don’t believe it’), ‘but a woman is bound by every principle of honour and feeling of delicacy to do nothing that may raise a question as to her character for modesty,—I do not say may injure, but may cause gossip or sneering comment. The bare supposition of indiscretion is of itself an evil which a whole future life may be powerless to repair.’
‘And a great shame it is,’ sobbed I, ‘that every woman should have a millstone round her neck in the way of a ridiculously over-weighted Theory of Propriety, that a slip from a stepping-stone in the shallowest brook may drown her; while men float luxuriously over seas of delightful mystery and danger. But you may trust my father’s daughter and yours, mother,’ I said, throwing my arms round her neck, ‘to do you no discredit in word and deed; though she may have ideas that seem advanced, her conduct will be as prudent as Mrs. Hannah More herself could desire. Till I return, of course, that is understood; then I may choose to go in for a few well-earned imprudences.’
RAILWAY journeyings are supposed to be much alike. But when father and I were fairly off, the smooth steady rush of the iron steed over hill and dale, forest and plain, calmed my excited nerves and swelling heart. Once in a way it is delicious to get clean away from your old life—to make a fresh departure. You leave behind Tradition and Routine, and are charmed to behold the faint but grand outlines of Adventure and Romance. To me, change had always been another name for enjoyment. Even my ordinarily placid parent was roused into a congenial mood. He commenced to tell of half-forgotten feats and successes of his youth, ere a fatal plenitude of the world’s goods had fixed the doom of indolence and unreadiness upon his after life. The day passed pleasantly enough. The sun was gradually, wearily westering, as if even he felt it tedious in the provinces, when the train commenced to slow down and finally stopped at a terminus, the whole aspect of which was so palpably characteristic that I involuntarily murmured ‘Sleepy Hollow!’
Everything was unmistakably countrified, from the men and women who came confessedly to stare at arriving strangers, to the horses, buggies, and other vehicles which awaited guests and travellers; I could not help smiling at the sudden incongruity with the sternly fashionable metropolis I had left but eight hours before.
‘I hope Quartzman has come to meet us,’ said my father. ‘Likely enough to mistake the day. Oh, here he is; how are you, old fellow?’
This unusually florid greeting, for father, was addressed to a tallish, dark, spare man, who hastily advanced through the crowding people, having on his face that look of concentrated welcome with which a dweller in the wilderness greets a guest from the city. Why metropolitan visitors should be considered especially valuable I can’t say. I don’t know that their intrinsic worth is so stupendous. But such is the case. Probably novelty of form and idea is the exciting cause. When the guest is wealthy, the welcome is intensified; even the best of men and women add fervour to the glance or handclasp with which the pecuniarily fortunate individual is welcomed.
I looked narrowly at my cousin’s husband, whom I had not seen since childhood. The face was kindly and intelligent, though worn with anxiety; the man a gentleman too, beyond doubt, in spite of old-fashioned garments and a shabby hat. ‘So this is Portia?’ he said, shaking me warmly by the hand. ‘You are the best of girls for coming, though what you can see in a household crowded with children, in an out-of-the-way part of the world, I can’t imagine.’
‘A pleasant change of scene and occupation,’ said I hastily. ‘But we shall find out all about each other before you get rid of me.’
‘Well, we shan’t starve you, and we have plenty of fresh air; I can promise so much. But have you turned romantic, Godfrey? You haven’t been across the Campaspe for ages, have you now? Give me your portmanteau, there stands the buggy.’
Packed into a faded elderly vehicle, which looked as if it should not have claimed kinship with anything American, we departed along a dusty track. The horses, however rough in coat and high in bone, were better than they looked, for we rattled briskly over the four miles which intervened between the terminus and the township of Waronga.
It was dusk when we drove down the main street of the bush township, halting at a gate which led through a small garden to a plain weatherboard cottage. The noise of the wheels brought out the mistress of the house; she stood in the verandah with a baby in her arms, half a dozen children crowded through the gate for close inspection of the new arrivals.
‘Harriet, this is Miss Middleton,’ said Mr. Quartzman to a tall untidy girl of sixteen in a print dress. ‘Show her at once to her room, she is tired after the journey. Charlie, take the horses and let them go.’ The boy drove off with the buggy, while we followed our host inside, father wearing a half-distrustful expression, as if prepared for whatever might happen. Wicked old parent! did I not know that there was in his heart an unholy joy, in that he would be compelled to leave on the next day, or, at farthest, the day following?
Cousin Jane apologised for not coming farther than the verandah, on the score of dear baby’s teething, which necessitated caution as to taking cold. But that she was unaffectedly glad to see me was evident from the childishly pleased tone of her voice. At the same time she partly distrusted me as an inhabitant of cities, whose habitudes might lead me to be contemptuous of provincial ways. From the babe in her arms to the unformed girl who stood staring placidly, there seemed to be a graduated scale of continuous childhood, all in a state of eager curiosity. Their maternal parent was in complexion fair and an erstwhile pretty woman. But long years of warfare with indifferent servants or muddling with none at all, of contracted or rude lodging, of anxiety about matters of money, with total denial of social advantages, had written their record in enduring characters upon every feature. It was not so much an expression of suffering as the ever—present necessity to ‘take heed for the morrow,’ to obey some household summons ringing in her ears, that gave a painful tone to the facial expression. She was well millinered, but evidently for the occasion. Her silk dress had seen service, but was still effective. An extra ribbon or two, with a scrap of good lace, had completed her preparation. Had the look of unrest been absent from her face, she would still have been fair to look upon. But she was evidently incapable of abstracting her mind from the catalogue of household ills, one or another of which momentarily assailed her.
‘Delighted to see you, Miss Middleton,’ said she, with a meaning look. ‘I hardly thought we should be so fortunate as to get you after all. You will have to put up with all kinds of things, and excuse our bush ways, but we will do our best to make you comfortable and happy too, though I feel one is as little in our power as the other in this terrible out-of-the-way place.
‘Ethel! do go into the kitchen and see if Mary is ready to send up tea, and Susan—where’s Susan, that she has not come to put you little ones to bed? John, you might have taken Mr. Middleton to his room before this; I am sure he must be awfully tired. There will be just time for him to wash his hands before the bell rings, and when I’m to get this baby out of my hands I really don’t know. It seems to me that I’m expected to do half my servants’ work in every department.’
All this was said in a sweet-toned, monotonous, complaining voice. Before I had done speculating as to whether, under any circumstances of marriage, however disastrous, I should publish such an official catalogue of my household exigencies, a rapid dispersion of the family took place. The baby was captured, all unwilling, and carried off by a servant. Father was judiciously provided by his host with a glass of brandy-and-water, which acted in a strictly medicinal sense after the toils of the day, enabling him to dress with comparative comfort. In my room, which was very neat, there was a vase with lovely flowers on the table, and when we came in to tea, that meal was served in an appetising and generous fashion, which caused us both some little surprise.
Ushered into a small but by no means uncomfortable dining-room, the tea-dinner was certainly good of its kind. We did ample justice to it. Travelling sharpens the appetite as well as the wits. The chickens were tender and well cooked; the sweets were Jane’s own composition; a bottle of light wine, from a celebrated vineyard hard by, soothed and satisfied father. The tea was excellent, which soothed me. The whole thing being such a success, I began to ask myself why such people are called unfortunate, and have to be pitied.
After the pangs were allayed, and the observing faculty got into range again, I thought I descried a reason. We were assisting at an effort. I could see in the anxious face of my hostess a score of struggles, small and great, which the entertainment had cost her. I tracked the cause of inward disquiet, from the first start she gave when the parlour-maid appeared with a message and without the soup, to the stony despair which commenced to settle on her face when the second course hung fire a few minutes, and, for all she knew, might never make its appearance at all.
Mr. Quartzman talked amusingly, producing literary and other materials for conversation, which interested father and me. But ever and again would come a look upon his face, as if his thoughts had taken unbidden flight to a region of sordid cares, with bills and promissory notes hovering vulture-like over the peace of home. I had been only too closely enwrapt in security and repose. These people scarcely knew what it was to have an hour free from care—from the galling pressure of poverty.
Next day father made a shameless excuse and went away, so I was left alone with my new friends and new duties. He and Mr. Quartzman had a longish talk before Charlie drove him over to the station, and I could not help fancying that some of the lines of that thoughtful countenance were temporarily smoothed out.
Breakfast over, I proposed to have a serious talk with Mrs. Quartzman, as I resolved to call her forthwith, lest our relationship might leak out through the incautious use of Christian names. There is nothing like having a clear, rigidly-defined understanding at first. Why will not people accept this most obvious truth? What a world of losses and crosses, failures and recriminations, it would save!
Dressed in a dark, close-fitting stuff, with the plainest of cuffs and collars, I flatter myself that I looked like what I meant—work in its most uncompromising aspect.
I had prepared myself for the important interview by rehearsing my part. My cousin looked gratified when I entered her sitting-room (it would have been a mockery to call it a drawing-room, though they had the comfort, not invariable in Australian country dwellings of the smaller sort, of a separate apartment for feeding purposes). She raised herself from the sofa on which she was reclining, in company with a large basket filled with stockings of all sizes, colours, and degrees of continuity.
‘Oh, my dear Portia! I am so glad to have the chance of a good talk with you, now that John has gone out for the day. I never can get him to enter into things with me, and there is so much for me to think about, or else I don’t know really what would become of the place and the poor children. Isn’t it a curious thing that men don’t take an interest in what ought to concern them quite as much as it does women? Now we are always ready to talk about household matters day or night, and why shouldn’t they be? But no; though I don’t say that John isn’t a good husband, and does all he can, poor fellow, for his family, yet he’s more interested in something that goes on at the other end of the world, or in these bothering politics that always seem to me to be exactly the same whoever is in or whoever is out. Indeed, when he comes home at night he often seems tired and worn out, and yet gets quite cross if I begin to tell him anything about the servants or the children, or ask him how we are to manage for the next month’s butcher’s and baker’s bills. I always tell him that if he’d give his mind to these little matters when he came home at night, instead of reading useless books and smoking, it would make a wonderful difference in the way we have to live.’
While my distressed relative was running on with these somewhat disjointed remarks, I was prevented from stopping her and commencing the clear-cut statement which I had prepared for her benefit.
My mind would revert to a passage in my very early life, when the worn matron before me, with her faded apparel and mental attributes similarly threadbare—it appeared to me—had been our guest for a short time. Such a pretty, sweet young woman, bright with the freshness and high spirits of early youth. I still retained a vivid mental picture of her. How I stood with childish envy admiring her dressed for a ball!—a vision of loveliness, with her fairy-like, floating dress, her dazzling ornaments, her snowy neck and arms. And was this—could this be really the same human creature—this faded, feeble, querulous woman, nearly as empty of all but the most primitive ideas as a sawdust doll; who had so nearly lost all trace of beauty, and who gently whined because her ill-fated husband, at the end of the day’s conflict with care and customers, revolted from her catalogue of broken plates and domestic shortcomings?
I remembered mother’s saying that ‘poor Jane had been a bit of a flirt’ in her ephemeral butterfly span. Full permission to have indulged in that agreeable, if hazardous pastime, had she from me, when I thought of her long after years of struggle and privation. ‘Doubtless,’ mused I, ‘she was the unthinking, uncultivated flirt of the period, graceful of mien and winning of manner, as are often the outward presentments of the “fair woman without discretion,” whom so few, wisely prescient, are found to condemn. And now that I am brought face to face with results, I can peer over the moral grave into which, in after life, the woman wholly devoid of intellectual culture must perforce descend.’
Before I commenced my siege operations I made a leisurely reconnaissance, and calculated my range, so to speak. With all her emptiness and inconsequence of talk, I thought I could perceive that the even temper, which had been one of her early attractions, had not wholly deserted her. It may be a small matter in the eye of the moral analyst this half-instinctive, chiefly material endowment, yet is it a wondrous factor in domestic happiness. Sorrow, poverty, care, had rubbed off the gloss—no doubt had imparted an occasional acerbity—but the half-childish power of frank acknowledgment of error, of generous sympathy with the good fortune of others, was still there—still capable of shining brightly with judicious burnishing. Better again, there were some poor remnants of the girlish graces of long ago in the attenuated face and form. Could any human care and skill renovate the worn outlines, ‘the light of those eyes relume’? It would be a good deed, an exciting task. It was well worth a trial, and success in such a case would outweigh, in my eyes, the conversion of all the heathen from Natal to the source of the Umbelitza.
The deck being thus mentally clear for action, I grappled, and, so to speak, boarded at once. ‘Mrs. Quartzman,’ I said. ‘Now, don’t look hurt or surprised, because it’s part of my plan, and I am not going to call you anything else, for reasons of my own, while I am here. Just answer me a few questions, after which I will explain myself fully. Do you think your children need teaching?’
‘They are growing up in positive ignorance—I always tell John so,’ she said. ‘Harriet can hardly play the simplest tunes; Charlie is beginning to like bad companions; the little ones know nothing more than their letters. I try to teach them, indeed I do. But you see what making and mending I have to do. When I look at Harriet, and think what mamma and papa had paid for me at her age, I often cry by the hour over it.’
‘That answers my question,’ I said; ‘now, can you afford to pay a qualified governess?’
‘We can hardly pay Mary Anne’s and Susan’s wages as it is,’ said she piteously; ‘how then could we afford a good governess’s salary?’
‘Very well answered,’ I said; ‘now for number three—if I teach the children English, French, and music, with a little Latin for Charlie, keep them out of harm’s way, and help you with your mending and dressmaking for a year, would that be an advantage to you?’
‘If you can do this, and live contentedly in our poor house, with our dull ways, you will be to us as an angel from heaven,’ sobbed poor Jane, with her handkerchief to her eyes. ‘It’s too good to be true.’
‘I will guarantee to do this and more without fee or reward, chiefly because you are my relation, whom I think it is a duty and pleasure to help,’ said I, with an unsmiling face, ‘but on conditions, and these you and your husband must pledge yourself to observe.’
‘I was going to say we would promise anything,’ she said, ‘but I know John likes to look before he leaps, and will want to hear what they are, so I can only promise and vow on my own account, and declare that you shall have the utmost respect paid you in all ways, and will be to us as a daughter of the house.’
‘That is just what I should prefer not to be, Mrs. Quartzman,’ said I, ‘so let me at once, and for ever, give you my opinions and price list. In the first place, I wish to be known to your visitors only as Miss Middleton, the governess engaged for a year. These facts are literally true, you need only suppress the information that I am your relative, and do not receive a salary.’
‘But why object to let the real facts be known, my dear, when they are all to your credit?’
‘That is my affair, Cousin Jane,’ said I; ‘one of my reasons is that I prefer only to appear in connection with my work—and, between you and me, I foresee plenty of it before me. I don’t think you will find fault, but I wish to do everything my own way. I am well-meaning, but rather obstinate. However, you must take the good with the bad. You can spare me the lumber-room to teach in. Harriet might share my bedroom, it will be a mutual advantage. And now, will you kindly call in the children and solemnly hand them over, with the injunction that I am to be strictly obeyed in everything, whether in school tasks or otherwise.’
This was done; much emphasis being laid on the fact that Miss Middleton would ‘bring them on’ in a surprising manner, if they were only sensible enough to be guided for their good, and that she had been kind enough to take full charge of them, both in and out of school.
The children looked astonished at this, but the novelty of the situation had charms for them, and they retired with gratification visible on their countenances. Charlie alone lingered, and presently said, ‘Miss Middleton, do you know Latin and Euclid?’
‘Yes, Charlie, a little of both; if you work steadily with me, I promise you that you will not be called a dunce when you go to school.’
‘I am so glad of that. You are a regular brick, I believe, Miss Middleton.’
After this day I took ‘full charge,’ as Cousin Jane expressed it, of my young kinsfolk, and addressed myself to my arduous task with great earnestness of purpose. My work was ‘cut out for me,’ as Charlie said in his boyish slang.
‘My word, Miss Middleton! it will give you fits; I hope you’ll be strong enough for the place, for I like the look of you awfully.’
‘And I like you, Charlie,’ said I; ‘so I trust you to give me all the help you can in dealing with your brothers and sisters, and performing the task that you say is so difficult.’
‘Difficult!’ he said; ‘it’s next door to impossible—only you’re not like some governesses—girls are such donkeys generally. But just think of all you’ll have to do; why, there’s Harriet first of all—she’s not a bad sort of girl, only awfully lazy and untidy; wants ever so much watching to make her do her own work, let alone getting the little ones to do theirs. You’ll have to bully her to keep her room right, to come down to breakfast, to learn her lessons, and do her practising on the piano, which she never does, right on to the end, unless when I’ve got a headache. Then the little ones, careless little monkeys! Just like white Indians. I used to make them climb up a tree and sit there, and tell them I’d masthead them into a sense of their duty.’
‘You’ve been reading one of Marryat’s novels, Charlie,’ said I; ‘which was it?’
‘How in the world did you guess that? Yes, Peter Simple—what a jolly story it is! I never enjoyed a book half so much before.’
‘You are quite right, Charlie; have you read Mr. Midshipman Easy?’
‘No; is that as good?’
‘Better, and ever so much more fun, my brothers thought.’
‘By George! you don’t say so. Oh! how I should like to get it, but we never get new books here; father says he can’t afford them.’
‘Then listen to me; if you are a good boy, learn your Latin well, and set a good example to your brothers and sisters, I’ll send to Melbourne for it for you.’
‘Will you? you are a regular trump, Miss Middleton. But when? I shall be longing to read it.’
‘Boys who are to grow up successful men ought to learn self-control,’ say I gravely; ‘suppose a month, or, perhaps’—noticing the unconscious elongation of his countenance—‘the last day of this month, that’s about three weeks. But, mind, not a line wrong with the Latin, and the arithmetic perfect.’
‘Oh, Miss Middleton! oh, Miss Middleton! I’ll work like a horse,’ gasped out the boy, ‘you see if I don’t, and I’ll coach the kids up too; I never thought I should like a governess so much.’
I had suggested to Cousin Jane that Harriet and I might share a room. I like comfort as much as most people, but was not sufficiently elderly to make a fuss about a bedroom to myself, in a manifestly small house. Besides, I intended to gain control over the eldest daughter, knowing how much of the family well-doing depended upon her training at this critical juncture. Her mother was immensely relieved by this suggestion.
‘Oh! if you only would,’ she said, ‘it would be such a good thing for Harriet; but her room is never fit to be seen, and how ever you, who are so orderly, will bear with her, I don’t know.’
‘I hope she will bear with me,’ I said, ‘for I shall have to make myself disagreeable at first. But we shall be good friends in the long run.’
‘Harriet is a good girl, you know—in her way, that is,’ said the mother, ‘but between my not being strong enough to look after her, and her father being so fond of her, she has been a little spoiled. I cannot get her to keep her chest of drawers, or her dress, or indeed anything, tidy. Then, though she’s very quick, she will only learn what she likes, and spends too much of her time in useless reading. I can do nothing with her, I’ve given her up.’
‘I think I see a way to effect a change,’ said I, wondering much how the querulous woman beside me expected to work beneficially upon the mind of youth, or to inculcate qualities, none of which she exhibited the faintest symptom of possessing in her own person.
THAT afternoon I devoted to a complete rearrangement of the humble apartment which was, jointly with my youthful cousin, to be my chief nightly abode. I sent off Charlie to buy me a hammer and a packet of tacks; with these and a few nails I made a strong alteration in the carrying capacity of the room.
I enlisted Harriet as a volunteer assistant in the great task of unpacking and arranging my things, and, in the process, softened that young person’s heart by the opportune gift of a few ribbons and a winter hat, which I had brought with me for the purpose. When all was completed, I glanced round approvingly and said—
‘What a nice room! I’m sure we shall be so happy and comfortable in it. What do you say, Harriet?’
‘I never thought it half so pretty before. These pictures of yours give it quite a new expression. It looked so dull and pokey always.’
‘The expression of a room, as you happily put it, my dear, is in nearly all cases derived from the tastes and habits of the occupants. I hope this room will always express cleanliness, order, and industry. Harriet, won’t you try and keep up our reputation?
‘I see what you mean,’ she said, kissing me impulsively. ‘But, indeed, everything seemed so hopeless that I had not the heart to try to be tidy or anything.’
‘To-morrow morning, Harriet,’ said I, with a look of mock severity, ‘work commences, and Miss Middleton will meet her young friends at nine o’clock precisely. You see this travelling clock of mine is going well. I am a great stickler for punctuality in all things. I am afraid the one in the dining-room is not to be trusted; it must be seen to.’
‘Nine o’clock! is not that very early? We shall hardly have finished breakfast.’
‘Your mother told me that you breakfasted at eight, which gives a whole hour, quite sufficient for that meal and family prayers to be concluded in. Besides, everything will be ready in the schoolroom, so that not a moment need be wasted.’
‘Who is to do that?’
‘You will, I hope,’ I said, looking at her steadily. ‘I shall ask you to get up with me at six o’clock in the summer, and seven in winter. There will then be ample time for your piano practice before breakfast and the arrangement of the schoolroom.’
‘But I hate getting up early, and there is so little to do before breakfast.’
‘If you study or practise you will find the time pass quickly enough; you will have three hours and a half for steady work in the forenoon, and then, the day’s work being nearly completed, as it always is if people save every minute of their mornings, we can enjoy ourselves a little in the afternoon.’
‘Enjoy ourselves! Miss Middleton, how can any one do that at Waronga?’
‘You will see. There are many pleasures even in the country if people earn them by honest work, and take a little trouble to organise properly. Pleasure needs thought and perseverance to develop it, though it is not generally allowed.’
‘I shouldn’t have thought it for one,’ said Harriet. ‘I always supposed that half the battle was having nothing to do, and that pleasure came of itself, or next thing to it.’
‘You will find that is a view not much carried out in real life. But I feel rather tired. I shall sleep well to-night, and that will be one pleasure at any rate.’
My anticipation was verified. The sun was up next morning when I was awakened from a sound slumber. I arose at once, and, opening the window, looked out across the dim, gray-green, far-stretching forest, which monopolised the foreground, to the sombre purple mountain range, which the level sun-rays scarce irradiated. ‘Get up, Harriet, at once,’ said I, ‘remember your good resolutions; don’t parley with this enemy, but be ready to follow suit when I return from the bathroom.’
‘Oh, oh dear!’ said the unwilling girl, ‘it’s so frightfully early, but I promised, so I must; I suppose the water will be desperately cold. Oh, I wish I was energetic like you!’
I had urged an early retirement the night before, so the young, growing creature had received her full allowance of sleep.
Between the excitement of a new departure in her stereotyped life, and her desire to act up to her word, Harriet made a praiseworthy effort, and the giant was slain—for that day, for that day only, alas! He takes an awful amount of slaying, that most ancient giant, Sloth, whose joints, unlike his brothers of the Pilgrim’s Progress, are by no means rusty.
When we were dressed and equipped for the day, on leaving our room (for upon that point I insisted) neatly arranged, so that little remained for the servant to do, I felt that we had commenced the week’s work hopefully. There was just time for Harriet to superintend the breakfast table, to adjust a few flowers, to see that her father’s favourite dish had not been forgotten, for me to glance over and note that everything was in order in the schoolroom, when eight o’clock sounded, and the breakfast was served.
I must here explain that between my senior pupils and the baby there were four intermediate elves calculated to alarm the timid instructor. Harold, a strong, resolute boy of twelve, with a preternaturally acute sense for all woodland sights and sounds, denizens, and products. Jenny, a mischievous romp of ten, in a permanent state of torn frock and dishevelled hair. Ethel, aged seven, was shy and quiet, but averse to control, it was stated; while Jack and Jill, as two bright-eyed, curly-pated outlaws had by common consent come to be called, owed no allegiance to any one, it seemed. They passed their lives in repeating the traditional performance of their namesakes, and crying lustily in and out of season; dressed, washed, cuffed or lectured by any of the elder children to whom such tending might chance to be convenient. The baby was good-tempered, and so far a non-combatant.
These were, then, the raw material of the small regiment which I had guaranteed to bring into order and discipline. I did not despair. Indeed, strengthened by the pure, bright, bracing atmosphere, I felt eager to begin my task. Method was the one thing needful. And patience, what a mine of it I should require!
Still, when I thought of the alteration I could mentally foreshadow in the household, I seemed to hold on to my project with yet more tenacious grasp.
The first morning passed by no means tardily. The children, pleased with the unwonted excitement, worked steadily—the younger ones, receiving timely, encouragement and explanation, were not too difficult. Fortunately for me, they were all highly intelligent, which quickness of apprehension made their tasks less irksome on both sides. As the hands of the clock moved towards half-past twelve, however, there was a universal feeling of relief and satisfaction. Jack and Jill had been consigned to the housemaid, who appeared on the scene at twelve precisely, to be washed and dressed for dinner, as also to enjoy pardonable recreation, that young woman informing the company of her conviction that they had never been so quiet and well behaved for three hours consecutively during their whole previous existence.
When I rejoined Cousin Jane, a few minutes before dinner, in company with Harriet, both of us specially prepared in dress for that repast, she cried out, ‘Oh, my dear Miss Middleton! there has been quite a heavenly peace pervading the house this morning. The servants have gone about their work without being called off every minute. I’ve had a little time to sew and consider things; altogether, I feel as I haven’t done for years.’
‘Glad you like my government,’ I said. ‘I see my way to helping you more yet if you humour me by letting me have my own way in all things. If I am autocratic it will all be for a good end.’
‘You may do and say anything in the wide world that you like in this house, if you can only go on as you have begun. John will think me a helpless dawdle—that is all. But I don’t care as long as things move so delightfully. Now I wonder why I could not manage things like this?’
‘Don’t think me so awfully superior,’ said I, touched by poor Jane’s humility. ‘I haven’t half a dozen children and a weak back to pull me down. It is easy to do things when people feel as strong as I do now.’
‘You are very good to say so; and nobody ever will know to my dying day what I’ve suffered with my back. Ach, ach, ach,—all day and all night for weeks. Men really don’t consider women when they’re ill half as much as they ought. I know John often thinks I make too much of my ailments. But if you knew all my feelings.’
‘Never mind, my dear, you will have all your aches and pains coming back if you talk of them. There’s the dinner bell, I feel quite a wonderful appetite.’
The early dinner was announced—the regulation solid repast of the middle classes, not too well provided with the good things of this life. In a general way I had been accustomed to a late dinner, and enjoyed it as a restorative at the end of the day. One’s spirit seemed loosened from its shackles, and was free to roam through the fair domain of fancy.
Then whatever there was of novelty, social or other experience, among the assembled guests, was displayed for the general enlivenment.
Far otherwise was the mid-day meal to which we were now bidden. Still, I could not but observe its perfect suitability to the circumstances of a large, indifferently provided family. The children made a hearty and wholesome repast—eating with appetite, and disposing of soup, meat, vegetables, and pudding with full and natural enjoyment; while their elders, ourselves, were secured against any serious injury for want of food for, I should say, the next twenty-four hours.
At two o’clock school was resumed and carried on, with more or less success, till four. I was surprised to find that the day scholastic had come to an end, by no means wearily, as far as I was concerned, either. But until every book and slate, pencil and pen was carefully bestowed in their various receptacles, the impatient children were not suffered to depart. I had discovered that method was the particular faculty wanting in the household, and this vitally necessary quality I was determined they should acquire, if I died for it.
Just before tea-time, when the autumn day was closing in, Mr. Quartzman made his appearance from his store, looking, I thought, worn and fagged. However, after making some slight change in his dress, he appeared at the tea-table much brightened up, and apparently disposed to comport himself in a sociable manner, striving to throw off, if possible, a portion of the burden of care which, like Christian in the Pilgrim’s Progress, he bore about with him alway.
‘What do you suppose has happened, Miss Middleton?’ he said, making a commencement upon the cold beef which chiefly represented his dinner. ‘We have just heard by telegram that the Ministry have resigned. They were supposed to be so safe too. This will give our side a chance. We have suffered many things during their reign; far too long for the good of the country.’
Before I could make answer, and declare my distrust of the party referred to, Cousin Jane broke in, not having caught the political announcement, amid her Martha-like preoccupation.
‘My dear John, do you know that I am afraid the children are going to get measles or some horrid thing, and what to do, now that Dr. Jones has gone to Charters Towers, I can’t think. I noticed dear baby had a kind of rash last week, and that’s just the way, I know, that measles commence, for Mrs. Stayathome told me that when her children had chicken-pox——’
‘Now, really, my dear Jane,’ said her husband, with a slight but distinct expression of annoyance, ‘don’t you think you could find some more appropriate topic of conversation?’
‘Oh, of course! if you don’t care about the children’s health, and would rather talk about these absurd Government people, who will never help you, at any rate, well and good. But I must say that I think it very extraordinary that you should prefer nonsense of that kind to your children’s welfare.’
‘My children’s welfare is very dear to me, as you well know, Jane,’ he replied, and again the wrinkles upon his brow, in process of smoothing before, began to corrugate afresh. ‘Still, I do not think any harm would result from leaving the consideration of possible measles until to-morrow morning; do you, Miss Middleton?’
‘All depends upon whether the danger is imminent,’ said I; ‘in this case I may almost pronounce it not so, as I was present at a consultation with a lady of experience about an hour ago. But, Mrs. Quartzman,’ said I insidiously, ‘do you remember promising me that I should have my own way in everything?’
‘Yes, certainly I do; and, John, if you had only been lying on the sofa this day instead of me, in the house, and seen the beautiful quiet way in which Miss Middleton got all the children to work with her in school, and how even Jack and Jill obeyed her, you would have promised her anything.’
‘I am sure you have my full permission, wife,’ said he, gratefully. ‘We cannot do enough for such a friend in need as she has been to us.’
‘Well, then, Mrs. Quartzman,’ said I, ‘I warned you that I was eccentric. One of my peculiarities is that I can’t bear to hear household matters spoken of, or the slightest discussion raised upon what are called practical subjects during the time set apart for meals, more particularly in the evening. The mere hint of such a thing gives me indigestion, which produces a feeling of irritability, almost like derangement. Would you mind then omitting all reference to such topics on account of my state of health? I am asking too much, I feel, but I have always been indulged in this respect.’
‘Dearest Miss Middleton!’ she replied enthusiastically, ‘your wishes shall be a law to us hence-forward; neither I nor John will ever’ (here I observed a slight, perhaps involuntary, contraction of that gentleman’s left eyelid) ‘offend in that way in future; I daresay you will be sure to have a book or something of that kind in your head. But don’t despair, you will take to domestic concerns quite kindly by and by, I feel sure. Let me see, have you been reading any new books lately?’
‘Only Herbert Hazelmere by Mrs. Geoffrey Watch. It is very thoughtful and rather brilliant. They say she is to get seven thousand pounds for it.’
‘Seven thousand pounds!’ echoed Cousin Jane, ‘for a book written by a woman too! I can hardly believe it. I never thought women had such fair play shown them. John, why don’t you write a book? You used to be fond of scribbling in the newspapers; you might easily do that instead of reading or smoking all the evening.’
‘The writing which people pay you for doing is not so easy as you seem to think, my dear, though I daresay I might make a few pounds that way now and then, if you would look up authorities, and take some of the “plain work,” as you say in sewing, off my hands. Is it a bargain?’
‘I should really be delighted to do it, if you can make it pay, and you think me clever enough,’ said poor Jane. ‘I really had no idea that novel-writing was much more than an idle amusement, hardly better than novel-reading.’
‘There are novels and novels; you and I must think of a few subjects,’ I said to her. ‘If two women put their heads together, they can surely discover something that will interest mankind, not to mention their own sex. If Mr. Quartzman will promise to work out our ideas he will distinguish himself, I feel sure. Shall we begin to-morrow?’
‘I am ready to begin now,’ she said eagerly; ‘but truly now, John dear, do you think I can help you, or are you laughing at my ignorance?’
John replied suitably, so that was arranged, as I thought, to the general benefit of the household. I took care to keep Jane up to her engagement.
At first she was sure she had no time. I proved to her that, after working all the morning, it was economy in the widest sense to stop her needle precisely at half-past twelve, and take up a book or newspaper. I also secured another half-hour in the afternoon. These intervals of leisure served to arouse her long-dormant intellect. She gradually began to take an interest in the books and magazines I chose for her. By using a little forethought, she effected even greater results in her needlework department than (She confessed) she had ever managed before. We were lucky in our first selection of a subject, and Mr. Quartzman, who had a ready pen, was happy in his treatment of it. So he was rewarded, by a newspaper proprietor, with a compliment and a cheque. Never was there a more fortunate remittance. Mr. Quartzman handed it gallantly to his wife for a pressing household need, and she, sobbing out her thanks, from that day abandoned her objection in favour of the subjective conversational method, and ever afterwards confined her crockery and cooking reports strictly to business hours.
Meanwhile, day be day, the moulding of this life-study grew under my hands. My pupils were affectionate, and, after a while, reasonable and obedient, though to such an extent were they deficient of all comprehension of order that I almost doubted whether it was not an incurable hereditary defect. However, I was determined to subdue them in this particular, cost what it might. Did I mention before that I was of a tenacious, and what superficial people might call obstinate, disposition? Never mind! everybody worth a straw is obstinate. I was determined to drill my youthful recruits to the verge of oppression rather than fail. Of course in the end I conquered. I used to cover the walls of the schoolroom with mottoes, printed in large type, on cardboard, such as this—‘A place for everything, and everything in its place,’ ‘Never delay business,’ ‘Thrift makes rich,’ ‘Order is heaven’s first law,’ ‘Self-control is the flower of civilisation.’ I instituted a system of prizes for those who chose to compete in the good-conduct line, by means of which I stimulated my younger charges, notably. Occasionally I made speeches, not too long, such as: ‘My dear children! I only punish you for want of punctuality, industry, and order to save you from harder punishments in that much more severe school—the World—which you will all enter some day. No mercy will be shown you there for these faults, the punishments—of which you will have no warning—may break your hearts, or ruin your lives. Don’t you think it real kindness of me now to try and break you all in beforehand?’
‘Then we shall be steady in harness when our time comes, Miss Middleton,’ said Charlie, appreciating the bush simile. ‘But I wish people weren’t born careless and lazy, though. It would make work, and doing things properly ever so much easier.’
‘People are nearly all alike in that way, Charlie, it is only that some try harder than others to do what is right.’
‘Oh! but they’re not,’ objected the young casuist. ‘That’s where it’s unfair. Some coves at the State school were quite fond of their lessons; always knew them and never got into scrapes, but then, they didn’t know games, couldn’t fight, and were just like great girls.’
‘Well, but there are other fellows, Charlie, at school and in the world (I think I asked you not to make use of the word “coves” again, as it is vulgar and not even slang of a good kind) who are clever at their books, also at games, and even fighting—what you would call “good all-round fellows.” Don’t you think it worth while to try and be like that? Think how it would please your mother and father, besides it might give you the means of doing ever so much for your brothers and sisters.’
‘And I suppose it would please you too, Miss Middleton, wouldn’t it? You’ll see—I’ll work at my Latin and Euclid like a horse; I never thought I could tackle them as weel as I’ve done lately.’
Harriet was open to influence through her music lessons. With a strong natural taste for music, though backward for want of teaching, she had arrived at the ambitious stage when she grudged no labour to excel. I spared no trouble, in school and out of school, as long as she was patient with her other tasks and duties. If she showed indolence with these I discontinued the music lesson.
Having discovered the power of this lever, I did not fail to work it for her mental advantage.
My pupils soon came to understand that, although from the moment I entered the schoolroom I overlooked no fault and received no excuse for nonperformance of tasks, my transformation into the friend and playmate, once the lessons were over, was thorough and complete. I shared their games, I took them long walks, and extemporised picnics for them on holidays. I saw that their comforts were attended to in all lawful ways, constituting myself their advocate whenever they received less than their due. Having a liberal home allowance for dress, I contrived to purchase for them little luxuries and toys which further cemented our mutual confidence.
Gradually, therefore, I succeeded, like a sort of benevolent Jesuit, in controlling the habits and moulding the characters of the different members of the family with which I was domiciled. The head of the house thanked me in his heart, I could see, for the change wrought in his wife’s mental proclivities by my artful charity in weaning her from the eternal treadmill round of mechanically performed household tasks, to the occasional contemplation of the glorious universe of art and literature. She, poor hard-worked matron, thanked me with the tears in her eyes, for the invaluable benefit of education which, through me alone, her children were enjoying, and for the joy and peace of the household which had resulted from my successful administration.
‘One would think I had rescued them all from slavery,’ said I to myself, one day. ‘And yet, if one comes to consider, it may be that I have after a fashion. I hope I am not growing vain. I certainly am an enthusiast. It is a bore, with that temperament, if one goes wrong. Like an engine running off the rails, the more steam on, the farther it gets from the line.
‘But in a good cause, the more enthusiastic one is the better. And this is a righteous cause, Portia Middleton,’ said I fiercely to myself, ‘if ever there was one; a good deed in every sense. So I shall go on with it to the very end.’
Even in the kitchen I did not disdain to exhibit my powers of reasonable suasion. The maid-servants were very good indeed, as domestics go. They were hard-working, neat-handed, and intelligent, as indeed are many of the Australian-born house-servants. But they are not always easy to manage, because of their extreme independence of character. Cousin Jane humoured them too much, being afraid of speaking in tones of disapproval, and more afraid of the dreary time of ‘home rule’ which generally succeeded an exodus. One of these high-contracting personages, the cook and laundress, had for some reason taken in bad part remarks made by me on my first arrival. In a passive fashion, she contrived to annoy me in many ways. She was frequently unpunctual in serving up the meals, particularly of the early dinner, and as she declined to take orders from me, Mrs. Quartzman was in despair as to our future relations. She always fell back on the fact that ‘Mary Anne was a good girl.’
‘I am aware of that,’ I said; ‘but I could suggest some improvement on her management, if she would let me, by which better results would be attained with increased economy.’
‘Oh! for goodness sake,’ said Cousin Jane, ‘don’t think of that; both of them would give warning on the spot, and then whatever should I do?’
‘I will ensure their not giving warning,’ said I; ‘but I must have my own way for all that; I will bide my time, and wait for an opportunity.’
This latter re-arrangement was not long in coming. One Saturday morning Harriet came to me with a face of less concern than annoyance, saying, ‘Oh, Miss Middleton! isn’t it a nuisance, Mary Anne has got one of her headaches, and says she is so dreadfully ill she is sure she can’t cook the dinner; it’s Susan’s day for scrubbing the floors, and mother doesn’t know what to do. Isn’t it provoking of Mary Anne?’
‘My dear Harriet,’ said I, ‘you don’t suppose Mary Anne would have a bilious headache if she could help it? I know from experience what a wretched feeling it is. Surely you pity her; do not let a trifling inconvenience prevent you from showing mercy to your humbler and poorer fellow-creatures.’
‘Mary Anne is not a bit humble, nor half as poor as we are, if it comes to that,’ said the girl; ‘but I suppose, as you say, Miss Middleton, that she didn’t half kill herself with a headache on purpose. She’s as pale as a ghost; what can we do?’
‘It is luckily Saturday, and a holiday,’ I said. ‘Now wouldn’t you like, Harriet, to put on your brown holland apron and help me to do a day’s cooking? I think we could manage dinner, and your father’s tea. Then poor Mary Anne can lay her throbbing head upon her pillow, and recover herself just as if she were a lady.’
Harriet opened her eyes—‘Oh, Miss Middleton! can you cook? Why, I believe you know everything. Wherever did you learn?’
‘I was a kind of lay Sister of Mercy,’ I said, ‘once for a whole winter. We used to cook and wash for the poor women whom we visited in our district. I have sometimes thought it was a winter well employed.’
‘Dear me! and do you really think it is our duty to do such things for these kind of people, Miss Middleton?’
I whispered, ‘Who was it that said, “If ye have done it for the least of these little ones ye have done it unto Me.” Tell your mother not to fret herself, and leave me to talk to Mary Anne.’
I found the young woman alluded to, having braced up her courage after a fashion worthy of a higher sphere, attempting with a pale face to peel the vegetables for the day’s dinner, and ever and anon putting a trembling hand to her burning brow.
‘Mary Anne!’ I said; ‘you are not fit for work to-day. Your headache must be very bad.’
‘It’s that bad that I feel as if I should fall down dead every minute; but who’s to cook the dinner if I give in? Thank you all the same, miss.’
‘I will, and Miss Harriet will help me—this is a school holiday, you know, and it’s not the first time I have done a little cooking.’
I SPOKE to Mary Anne persuasively, assuring her that Miss Harriet and I could easily do the cooking, and give her the rest she so badly needed for her aching head.
‘So if you will go to bed, like a good girl, everything will go right till to-morrow morning.’
‘You, miss!’ said she incredulously. ‘You cook the dinner, and wash up and leave everything tidy—however could you manage it? Why you’d spoil them teeny little hands of yours—and the dinner too, like enough! No, I’ll manage it somehow. Oh! oh!’
Here an acute spasm of pain seemed to rack the girl’s very temples; brave as she was, she could not repress a groan, which went to my heart. ‘Here,’ thought I, ‘is the same degree of courage displayed, which, under favourable circumstances, makes the heroine of high life in fiction. Now, poor Mary Anne, whatever her constancy under torture, can hardly rise above the position of a good plain cook. Certainly it is a valuable diploma in Australia!’
‘Don’t be a goose, Mary Anne,’ said I good-humouredly. ‘If you half kill yourself, and have to go to bed, that will be worse for Mrs. Quartzman and the family than a spoiled meal—but I’ll bet you a neck-ribbon that I give them all a good dinner, and if good cooks were not so scarce, I might deprive you of your place. I’ve sent Miss Harriet to tell her mother; so go and lie down at once, and I’ll come and see you by and by. Take this eau-de-cologne with you and bathe your forehead.’
‘You’re too good to me, Miss Middleton,’ said the poor girl, overcome both with pain and remorse. ‘I’ll go now. I’m quite ashamed to take your kindness after all my rudeness to you; but I’m that bad, I really can’t hold up a minute longer.’
We accomplished that dinner; we covered ourselves with glory. After all, there are worse ways of spending a day than producing certain results, with given materials, in a quiet, clean kitchen. I had taken the trouble to learn thoroughly how to roast and boil, cook vegetables, and make jellies and puddings for the sick, at the St. Martha Charitable Home, or, as unpleasant people persisted in calling it, the High Church Nunnery. Convent, or not, we learned many useful things there, though I came ultimately to doubt whether it could be wise to devote the whole of my expensively trained entity to acting as cookmaid for people who, but for extravagance or dissipation, might have been as rich and as occupationless as ourselves.
The charitable ‘craze,’ as father called it, waned and disappeared finally, but the cooking remained. Hence I was able to show Harriet, to the great increase of her respect for me, how to make pastry, as well as to play on the piano; to comprehend French dishes, in a small way, as well as French exercises.
‘Why, Miss Middleton, you’re a female Crichton!’ she said; ‘I daresay you could wash and iron and get up fine linen on a pinch.’
‘Yes,’ I replied, in a matter-of-fact way, ‘I can do that fairly well, for which I have to thank the Sister of Mercy period. We did the laundry work in turn; it was especially necessary to be able to assist our poor families in that department. Want of soap sets in long before want of bread becomes imminent.’
‘I would give all the world to be like you,’ said she, with enthusiasm. ‘What shall I do when you go away? We shall be lost in a sea of muddle, as we used to be.’
‘Not if you show your love for me, Harriet, by carrying out my wishes. I shall be quite contented if I hear that you have striven earnestly to take my place, as the eldest daughter should, at the head of the household. Think how you could help your mother, how you could comfort your father, and mould the minds of your younger brothers and sisters, now so likely to follow your example. You will try, will you not?’
‘Indeed, indeed I will, Miss Middleton! I shall not be able to come near your standard, but I will try, for we shall never see any one like you again. Mother will never, never, as long as she lives, get such another governess.’
‘I don’t think she will,’ said I, sotto voce; and perhaps I may be pardoned this morsel of vanity.
Having concluded our cooking, washed our dishes and plates, and left everything clean and orderly for Mary Anne to return to, we arranged the tea-table, parading our clear soup and a successful curry, as a treat for Mr. Quartzman, besides a mould of calf’s foot jelly, by way of still greater surprise.
That gentleman was late, and entering the sitting-room just before the usual hour of serving, rather hurriedly, was greeted with the news from his wife that ‘Mary Anne was ill with one of her terrible headaches, and had been obliged to go to bed, and——’
‘My dear,’ said he, somewhat impatiently, ‘I thought that you had relinquished this style of entertaining conversation; only I hope to goodness there is something to eat, as I have brought Hugh Wharfedale home with me, and he is at this moment in my dressing-room.’
‘Good gracious! Mr. Wharfedale!’ said Cousin Jane. ‘You don’t say so. Why, he has not been here for ages.’
‘All the more reason why he should have some dinner now. It’s too bad; I really believe——’
What Mr. Quartzman really believed, now that the conversation had reached this, for him, appalling point of denunciation, cannot with certainty be known, because Cousin Jane at this juncture wisely threw her arms round his neck and whispered something which caused his countenance to clear, and his voice to undergo perceptible modulation.
‘Oh! if that is the case,’ he exclaimed, ‘well and good.’
‘You must pardon me, my dear.’ This to me. ‘Really, it appears as if we were to owe you everything we have in the world.’
‘Allow me to introduce Mr. Wharfedale.’
At this proposal, a tall man entered the room, greeting Cousin Jane with the freedom of an old acquaintance, sure of his welcome. ‘Ah, Harrie,’ said he to my eldest pupil, ‘how you’ve grown! Long frock, too. Forgotten how to run, I daresay; capital time you used to make, you know; lost any sheep lately?’
We were introduced, and bowed gravely. Part of the conversation with Harriet was hieroglyphic, but it was explained by the young lady herself.
‘It’s too bad of you, Mr. Wharfedale, teasing me about that unlucky visit of yours, when we lived at Back Creek. We had no butcher within twenty miles, Miss Middleton, and father used to buy a sheep at a time. One poor thing, shut up in the stable, managed to get out. We saw the week’s dinner making off, so Charlie and I and all the children had to run after it. I was first up, and stooping to catch the creature’s leg, fell down, still holding on, till Charlie came and secured it. Mr. Wharfedale was wicked enough to come up just then.’
‘Never mind, Harrie, it was a most exciting chase. I saw the whole run. The way you made play down the hill was splendid. I burned to join the hunt but I had a young horse. I hope Miss Middleton doesn’t discourage outdoor exercise?’
‘Quite the contrary,’ I said. ‘But Harriet is nearly a young woman now, so we have to modify our games. Society is exacting where girls are concerned.’
‘It’s a pity, too,’ he said, ‘that so much restraint should be thought necessary. I suppose there’s a reason for it.’
‘There’s also a reason for having tea when the bell rings—especially when one’s been bothered with small vexations all day,’ said Mr. Quartzman. ‘If Hugh hadn’t turned up, I was coming home in a real bad temper.’
‘Nobody would believe him, would they, Mrs. Quartzman?’ said the guest, offering her his arm, and making for the dining-room door, as if he knew the way perfectly, while I followed with the host. He took occasion to whisper to me—
‘Capital fellow Wharfedale; old friend of ours, knew us when we lived at Holmhurst—rather in a different way, certainly. I’m so glad we have a decent dinner to give him. Puts me in mind of old times; ah! what pleasant days they were, and—bless me! what a grand spread!’
Nothing could have turned out more fortunately. Cousin Jane and I having dressed the modest tea-table with as much ornament in the shape of flowers as we dared, had ventured upon a bottle of Albury Reisling for the delectation of the head of the house and to do honour to a dinner of my cooking, and lo! enters to us unexpectedly the favoured guest, in whose praise she (as well as her husband, Harriet, and Charlie) was unable to say enough.
‘Squatter, of course,’ thought I to myself. ‘No other man in a colony has such an air of mingled complacency and self-possession. When things are looking well, the squatter on leave has a manner that is a sort of mixture of a sailor, a soldier, and a country gentleman, with the best traits of each in solution.’
I always liked squatters, I must say; and this particular specimen of the genus was handsome and stately-looking, with the air of a man of the world.
To do him justice, it did not seem to occur to him to concern himself about my approval or otherwise. He and his old friends were too happy together to think of any one less intimately acquainted, so relinquishing all expectation of notice by the lion of the evening, I devoted myself to the duties of the tea-table, and somewhat unselfishly amused myself by noting the mutual pleasure which the meeting afforded to my cousin, her husband, and his guest.
They certainly revelled in reminiscences of that pleasant time long past, when they lived near a mining metropolis, with a by no means contracted society of which she was the belle, and he a leading and prosperous mine-owner. How they went to Melbourne by rail whenever they had a week to spare! How balls, picnics, and vice-regal entertainments were as common as Sunday school feasts! How even a trip to Europe was contemplated, if the shares in the ‘Great Intended’ had kept up. Ah me! even the memory of past joys is something. The light came to poor Jane’s eyes—those soft blue eyes which had long since ‘forgotten to shine’—the colour to her faded cheek, the very tone of her voice changed in ‘timbre and sweetness, as the days of her triumph came back. Her husband was almost equally transfigured, as old stories, allusions, and well-remembered jests came forth from their laughing lips. And in him I commenced to notice an air of dignity, a marked distinction of manner, which I had never observed before.
As for Mr. Wharfedale, his stern features relaxed, his dark eye glowed and glittered in a way I should never have thought possible, as, lying back in his chair, he laughed and gesticulated at so many of the crowding old-world memories.
His unconscious bearing interested me in spite of myself. Those who had seen him in everyday society could never, I felt certain, have believed that so much benevolence, affectionate friendship, and delicate sympathy could be expressed by the haughty features only seen in repose. It was a revelation most rare, but accurate and complete for the benefit of whom it might concern. I ought, perhaps, under other circumstances, to have felt a tinge of disappointment that my efforts in the culinary line, after the first compliments, seemed unrecognised. They appreciated the clear soup, they feasted on the curry with evident appetite, they praised the flowers, emptied and replaced the flask of Reisling; but all the time they spoke and acted as if they had been dining together à la carte in that bon vieux temps when entrées and entremets were matters of course, and iced champagne habitual as table beer.
‘Never mind,’ thought I to myself, as the two friends adjourned to the verandah to smoke and Cousin Jane to the nursery, leaving Harriet and me to clear away and, with the help of the housemaid, conduct that most prosaic occupation known as ‘washing up.’ ‘I have done my duty at any rate. This is a change and a study as well. On Sunday we shall have some rest, thank goodness! when perhaps Mr. Wharfedale may have leisure for general society.’
Of course this had not been my first experience of social intercourse other than with my cousin and her husband, since I had arrived. Only it was one decidedly new to our habit of life. Waronga was not devoid of the ordinary component parts of provincial society in Australia. But, carrying out my intention of being merely known as ‘Miss Middleton, the governess,’ I was studiously let alone, when not treated with contemptuous toleration by that moderately large section of ordinary people who seem to consider that a girl with sufficient intelligence to teach her youthful fellow-creatures, must be below, rather than above, the general feminine average; also, that if the pecuniary circumstances of her family, for which she is never responsible, render a salary indispensable, that fact should also be reckoned to her demerit. By these good people, I was, therefore, much to my amusement, either mildly patronised, or quietly ignored in any conversation which took place in my presence. Certain male members of the local families appeared not disinclined to relax these austere tenets in my favour, but a studied indifference in my manner caused them, after a while, to relinquish any small attentions. I was gradually set down as ‘a girl they could not quite make out,’ and so permitted to possess my soul in peace.
But here was a specimen wholly distinct from the ordinary class of visitors whom Mrs. Quartzman, partly from her husband’s business connection, and partly from the intellectual barrenness of the land, was compelled chiefly to receive. He was not altogether unknown to me by name, for I had heard of Hugh Wharfedale in Melbourne, which metropolis he visited at intervals, although his stations lay principally within the colonies of New South Wales and Queensland.
Rich, unmarried, inclined to be eccentric, he was one of those exceptional persons who, by some means or other, have power to awaken special interest in the female breast. I had heard more than one girl of my acquaintance in town speak with great decision of his general ‘niceness,’ to use the rather absurd phrase which, with them, characterised Hugh Wharfedale. He was accused of being difficile, cynical in his ideas, and by no means too amiable in female society. If they only knew it, men are far more valued who thus hold themselves out of reach of the ordinary female blandishments. So whether it was because of his wealth, his talents—for he was said to be clever—or his averseness to gaiety of the ordinary pattern, he was over-valued rather than otherwise, and as certain acidulated critics phrased it, ‘run after’ accordingly.
So here was this phoenix, like an eagle newly alighted in a farmyard, walking about with folded wings among the commonplace Gallinae of Waronga, comporting himself as meekly as though he had never known more romantic surroundings. Certainly he was in an atmosphere of intense appreciation—the bienvenu most unmistakable. Every one delighted to do him honour.
Mr. Quartzman was boyishly enthusiastic about him—splendid fellow, firm friend, clever, shrewd, generous, full of fun underneath, ‘and I don’t know what all,’ as my nurse used to say. Cousin Jane had never met any man like him (except John of course), he had been so good to them, and the truest friend to poor John in time of need. He was associated, too, with all the pleasantest time of their married life. Charlie reverenced him—‘what horses he always rode and drove!’ Harriet looked upon him as a demi-god. Had any rash mortal dared to question the right of Mr. Wharfedale to be invariably associated with the superlative degree, it would have gone hard with him at Waronga.
Sunday was truly a fine day. Not simply free from rain or storm, but one of those visions of Paradise proper to the almost perfect winter climate of the north-east corner of Victoria. We all went to the little church in the village, where the tall figure and conspicuously foreign aspect of our guest created much natural curiosity. In the afternoon, we strolled along the bank of the Murray, towards a favourite colour-study of mine, where a rivulet ran below in a lofty red bluff, and a noble reach of the river was visible. The elder children were wild to come; Mr. Quartzman and his friend, as usual, brought up the rear.
Apparently they had an interminable number of subjects of great mutual interest still undiscussed, for they kept on talking with undiminished eagerness, while we others scrambled on in front. The spot where the brooklet came rushing over its rocky steep was reached, the ferns gathered and bepraised, before a word was interchanged between the stranger knight and me. Suddenly, without preface, he addressed himself to me; Mr. Quartzman had been dragged off to gather ferns.
‘You must allow me to compliment you, Miss Middleton, on the improvement you have effected in my young friends; I could hardly have believed it possible. Don’t I remember them a few years since? Always affectionate, fine-natured children, but wild as hawks. However did you gain such perfect control over them in so short a time?’
‘Partly by kindness, partly by firmness,’ I made answer; ‘a good share of patience was needed, you may be sure.’
‘I can quite understand that,’ he said. ‘My astonishment is how you could ever make up your mind to such a mode of life. Personally, I would rather starve than act as a tutor.’
‘People take it for granted that teaching is intolerably tedious. It is really not so bad in reality; besides the results are often gratifying.’
‘In this instance doubly so, I feel sure,’ he said, coming back to his first idea. ‘And, pardon me, your influence appears to have been felt in the household as well. With the warmest friendship for my old friend Jack Quartzman and his kind-hearted loyal wife, I used to laugh at their housekeeping a good deal.’
‘I have a turn for arranging other people’s business,’ I said; ‘it is not always thought to be a pleasant trait; but where everything is surrendered to one, as in this case, the temptation is great, you must own.’
‘I have always cherished a prejudice against the esprits forts of your sex,’ he said, half reflectively, ‘yet I suppose energy and foresight—horrid idea—are needed by women as well as men.’
‘When they do not exist, the results are sometimes disastrous.’
‘But what becomes of that beautiful fancy, the soft and clinging nature of woman, her dependence upon man, the ivy and the oak; in fact, the grand central idea of chivalry?’
‘If it ever had any real existence, you may depend upon it,’ I answered, ‘that the affairs of mediaeval society were managed after some prosaic fashion that did not appear on the surface.’
‘Possibly,’ he assented reluctantly; ‘still it is a fair dream vanished—an ideal shattered—unless one can believe that the softer feminine qualities, such as one observes in the useless graceful individuals of your sex, are retained unimpaired.’
‘Really, I cannot say,’ I replied, finding the conversation a little awkward. ‘It is one of those problems which can only be solved by experience.’
‘A ruinously expensive plan,’ he said musingly.
‘Oh! what lovely ferns these are,’ cried Harriet, now coming up with her father, full of girlish delight, and bearing an armful of great delicate fronds. ‘We found them near such a wonderful cave, with the water trickling down over moss like green velvet. Do you think we can find out the botanical names when we get home?’
‘I daresay,’ said I, knowing them perfectly well, but not choosing to be oppressively well informed. ‘How beautifully green they are; I see you have three different sorts.’
‘And I saw a platypus,’ called out Charlie, ‘worth all your bothering ferns. If I’d had a gun, I could have shot him easily. He had such a jolly bill, just like a duck.’
‘Or a tailor,’ said Mr. Wharfedale; ‘“a beast with a bill,” though the same definition applies to other tradesmen we can’t do without. Do you know, Quartzman, we ought to turn homeward, it’s a longish walk? Won’t you be tired after it, Miss Middleton?’
‘Only reasonably so. Harriet and I walk a good deal. I suppose I ought to be ashamed of my want of feminine delicacy, but I can’t do without my walks abroad, and this is an enticing neighbourhood when you know, what Charlie used to call, the “lay of the country.”’
Ere we saw the cottage, the stars had commenced to shine out—first one or two, then more, lastly a gathering host in the deep blue southern sky. Faint fire-points were they at first, then lambent, scintillating, flame-brilliant, wondrous company! The half-seen silver sheets of the broad stream reflected them irregularly, through ebon shadows cast by swaying river oaks gleaming in the hushed eve. The preceding week had been dry, so that the winding woodpaths were firm to the footstep, while the night air was deliciously cool, pure, and even exhilarating.
When we reached home, Cousin Jane was important and cheerful, drawing attention to the fact that she had laid the tea-table, Mary Anne being out on a recreational visit to her friends, and Susan, as usual, engaged with the children. ‘I really thought you were lost,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t remedy the matter, but thought the next best thing was to take care you had something to eat when you did return. Miss Middleton, you look rather pale. Harriet, did you put the comforter round your neck that I gave you? I think you had better go to bed a little earlier, and put your feet in hot water.’
Our distinguished guest remained for about a week, during which time Cousin Jane and I saw very little of him in the daytime, as he regularly ‘took himself off,’ as she expressed it, with Mr. Quartzman, having, he explained, correspondence to get through, accounts, etc., which he could manage more easily at the little office at the township.
‘He can smoke more comfortably there too,’ said Jane plaintively. ‘Dear me, I wonder what men can find in those nasty pipes—cigars are worse, though they look more refined—that they spend so much time in burning tobacco and breathing it?’
‘There is a reason,’ I said, ‘or millions would not be of one opinion on the subject. Men say that it calms the nerves, assists meditation, and tends generally to a satisfactory condition of mind, even when circumstances are most adverse. I must say I have met a good many men, and nearly all women, who would be improved by smoking—metaphorically, of course.’
‘But the scent is so dreadful.’
‘Not worse than others which we have to put up with in our households, and cannot complain of. The odour of tobacco is acrid and pungent, not in any sense noisome, but simply disagreeable. We make a mighty pother about it, and, I think, unreasonably. It’s a habit to which we ought to accustom ourselves. It cannot be wise to drive men from home to indulge it with greater freedom abroad.’
‘Well, I daresay there is something in that. I must say I never could break John off it. The most I could do was to prevent it growing upon him, by never letting him smoke in peace in the house, if I could help it.’
‘Then you have not reasoned the subject out, Mrs. Quartzman, but have started with a prejudice, and followed it up all your life. When I am married—that is, if ever I do such a commonplace thing—my husband shall smoke in the drawing-room if he likes, and I will light his pipe for him.’
‘In the drawing-room! But it’s such a dirty habit.’
‘I assume that my husband, like yours, will be a gentleman. How, then, can any of his habits be such as you describe? If he be delicately clean in his person, as all gentlemen are, and smokes good tobacco in a nice pipe or a cigar, what can there be dirty about the matter? However, the girl of the period—though I don’t approve of that—is smoking cigarettes herself in society. That will soon settle the question.’
‘How dreadful! how very dreadful! It makes one almost thankful to live in the bush. But I was going to say that Mr. Wharfedale is such a nice man, and so really good in every way that I shouldn’t so much mind his smoking. Just suppose he should take a fancy to you, Portia,—I mean Miss Middleton.’
‘That doesn’t come out of the cross-examination, as I once heard Judge Carteret say to father,’ I answered. ‘Why suppose anything so absurd? It is time for afternoon school.’
Some days after this conversation Mr. Wharfedale departed, sincerely regretted, as the papers say, and unaffectedly bewailed by the younger members of the family. In spite of the daily absence at Waronga, there was ample time for talk in the evenings, and occasionally during walks before breakfast. Strangely, however, we nearly always disagreed in argument. He strongly objected to didactic utterances on the part of our sex; and I am afraid, from my habit of thinking out questions for myself, I had acquired, unconsciously, a tendency that way.
‘If there is anything,’ he used to say, ‘calculated to make a man behave like a savage, it is to hear a woman lay down the law in an authoritative manner. It is so alien to all true theories of the sex, that one is tempted to wish she, if otherwise nice, had never learned to read or write. One might love a belle sauvage, but a blue stocking, never! not if she were Hypatia herself.’
‘One doesn’t defend pedantic women,’ I mildly pleaded; ‘but surely a cultured intellect, with the power of imparting knowledge, was a good thing in either sex. It refined society, was beneficial to the young,’—here he gave a gruff token of assent—‘besides,’ I went on to say, ‘if culture were universal with both sexes, there would be no occasion for conceit in the possessors.’
‘Very likely there was sound argument in what I said, but (present company, of course, specially excepted) where there was a combination of the utile et dulce to a degree he had hitherto deemed impossible’ (this was his first, last, and only compliment, I beg to state), ‘he never did like strong-minded women, and he never should.’
In this unsatisfactory state of mind he departed for Queensland or Patagonia, or some other inconceivably remote region, whence he might return next year or nevermore.
So uncertain were his movements that the Quartzmans, I could see, calmly made up their minds never to set eyes on him again.
Somehow the school duties did not go on so satisfactorily as before. I did not know why. A kind of chronic dulness, a lack of hopefulness, seemed to oppress every one. I caught myself wondering whether, after all, the game was worth the candle, this wearing-out life in the wilderness, teaching a commonplace ‘decayed family’—they were not that,—but I was in a froward humour. A kind of Quixotic enterprise, which no one else could have dreamed of. Why should I have immolated myself to it? And what would be my reward? How pale and void my present life, still more my future, seemed! I was weak enough to cry myself to sleep that night. But I awoke before dawn, and getting out of bed prayed penitently and contritely; after which my heart was lightened, and I soon wore myself into the old path of daily care and daily gratification at the results of my humble labours.
Charlie, about this time, was sent to Melbourne to the Church of England Grammar School. And a very good thing for him. He was a fine, honest, affectionate lad, but getting beyond the age when a healthy boy can be successfully instructed by women.
It seems that Mr. ‘Monte Cristo’ Wharfedale had insisted upon this step being taken forthwith, and had charged himself with his maintenance, until he should be old enough to go into bush or bank life, whichever might be thought suitable for him.
‘Good-bye, dear old Mammie Middleton; you are such an old grannie, you know (I told Mr. Wharfedale so one day, and he laughed, and said you were not so very old, and very nice-looking besides); but I should have been a shocking dunce when I went to school, if it hadn’t been for you. Now I shall have a show at Latin, and History, and Euclid; you see if I don’t; and I intend to work and let them see a fellow isn’t such a muff if he has lived at Waronga. And I’m to choose in two years whether I’ll go into a bank or on to a station. None of your stuffy banks for me though, if I know it. I’m an open-air man.’
I kissed the frank, hopeful boy, rich with the possibilities of youth’s untouched exchequer, and felt thankful that I had been able to rescue him from the state of comparative ignorance in which I had found him. ‘This, at any rate, has been a good deed,’ I said to myself, ‘so I ought to be contented and self-sustained by the thought.’
The season wore on. Soon the self-imposed term of my labours would arrive. Then I should be free to resume my place among my social equals. Once more I should be permitted to taste the sweets of gaiety, of congenial companionship, with new books, new ideas, all the thousand-and-one glories which go to compose civilisation, so richly to be enjoyed in companionship with a full purse. Yet as the month approached I did not feel the joy at my expected emancipation which I expected. No one alluded to the separation now so imminent. The children said little, but they all looked, poor dears! as though the prospect was a melancholy one.
For myself, I felt that though, of course, perfectly free to carry out my original compact, having but made a promise for a fixed period, yet there would be a certain violation of the spirit of it if I relinquished my task for at least another half-year.
After that time Harriet, who had been lately developing fast and showing a gratifying desire to walk in the paths I had laid down for her, would be able to take upon herself the education of the younger children and the management of the household.
I should then be assured that the work I had with so much care initiated would be followed up. I might hereafter comfort myself with the assurance that I had at least been the light of one home, and had gladdened the hearts of my necessitous kindred with such as I had to give.
When the actual week came, I made up my mind. I had thought over the condition of the children, of the household, when I arrived, as contrasted with the present state of matters. Progress had been made; improvement in every respect was visible. Was it entirely owing to me and to my exertions? I could honestly say that it was.
Then came another question to be as honestly answered.
If I left them finally now, would the state of matters last? I hoped it would; I trusted it would. But, probing my innermost heart, I could not with sincerity believe that such would be the case. Harriet was promising now, and eager to take my place in the management of the household, the teaching of the children. But her self-control could not as yet be confidently relied on. Her experience was brief, her education not sufficiently advanced, while any recurrence of the old worry and fatigue of housekeeping might cause an alteration for the worse in Jane’s improved health, by which the fruit of a year’s labour might be lost. Mr. Quartzman’s face came before me as I thought over this, his air of security and peace when he returned from work in the evening, so different from the look he wore when I first saw him. No! Finally I told myself, ‘I cannot risk the fall of the edifice I have built up. It is the work of my hands. I will return after a month’s holiday and bestow another year of my life to complete what I have begun. Then I may rest secure that all has been done that could be done. I shall then have every hope that my work will be enduring and “not in vain in the Lord.”’
When I communicated this determination to Cousin Jane and her family the day before that fixed for my departure, their emotion was unaffectedly deep and genuinely expressed. None of us could say a word for some minutes, but wept in unison. I thought myself fully repaid for any sacrifice I might have made.
Harriet threw her arms round my neck in an ecstasy of joy. Jane wept silently on her sofa. Jack and Jill danced a lively measure, as more appropriate to their feelings, and even the little toddler said, ‘I so glad oo not doin’ ’way, Miss Midditon.’
Mr. Quartzman returned at night, and being promptly informed of the important news made as though he would have embraced me, and taking both my hands in his, held them until I thought he never intended to let them go again. He then said, ‘My dearest Portia, no words of mine can express the joy I feel at the prospect of your return. You have been our guardian angel. You have done for this house what I scarcely deemed it was in the power of a mortal to do. If you had left us, and we dared not hope otherwise, we should have mourned you as a heavenly visitant fled away to a happier sphere. I do not exaggerate. But you will return, to be our hearth fairy! to brighten our lot again, and we shall be happy as heretofore. God bless you, my dear girl, and reward you for your good works!’
To all this I could say nothing. Too much was made of my paltry sacrifice. What had I given? only of the time which was to me a superfluity, of the energy which caused me unrest and pain, of the educated faculties for which I had before found no use. But my eyes were again full, and my voice of no present avail as an interpreter of feeling. So I discreetly retired till we were all summoned to tea, when greater cheerfulness, not to say jollity, prevailed than had been known since the passing of Mr. Wharfedale.
I took care that there should not be any tearfulness at my departure. ‘Write me a letter once a week, Harriet,’ I said, ‘and tell me everything that goes on—down to the speckled hen that Harold is going to set. He is to get on with his spelling, holidays notwithstanding, otherwise he will never get on in the world, and I shall have him sent to school when I come back.
‘Such a ten-bladed knife as I am going to buy him in Melbourne, if he is good! Jack and Jill are to have a Chinese kite that sings and a doll that can walk—always supposing they are good and obey Harriet. I will send Jenny and Ethel a parasol and a bangle. I think that must be all now; the rest I will say in a letter. Good-bye, Mrs. Quartzman. Good-bye! don’t starve yourself in my absence, whatever you do.’
‘Starve myself?’ she inquired.
‘Yes, starve yourself! I don’t mean the pink and white part of you, but the immortal, imperishable, divine Jane, endowed with an intellect, Mrs. Quartzman! Don’t settle down to the stocking basket and darn yourself into a nonentity. Think of your poor husband, when he comes home “weary with the work of life.”’
‘Oh!’ said she, much relieved, ‘is that all? What a strange girl you are! Of course I will not, if it’s only to please you. But, really, I am fond of reading now, and John thinks I am quite clever. I fished out an article on “Hereditary Transmission” the other day, which interested him ever so much.’
‘That’s the way to distinguish yourself. If women would oftener—Never mind. I’ll send you up a box of books from Mullen’s. Good-bye, dear!’
When I met dear father at the Spencer Street terminus that evening, what a Babylon Melbourne appeared, with its wide, crowded streets and busy population, after the distant outpost of the Empire I had left, with its meagre unchanging garrison!
As he folded me in a loving embrace, before about a thousand people, I failed to realise that a year had passed since he had convoyed a discontented, ennuyée damsel on the outward-bound journey.
‘Welcome back, my darling Portia!’ he gasped out. He was so plump-looking after Mr. Quartzman, who was lean, and Mr. Wharfedale, who was muscular. ‘But you don’t mean to say it’s a year since you went away? And how well you are looking! wonderfully well; such a complexion! and stouter—certainly stouter than you were. Mother herself will hardly know you. I think we must send up Bell in your place. She looks older than you, I tell her. But come along. They’re all dying of impatience to see you.’
My modest belongings were hoisted into a cab, and as father and I entered our very comfortable close carriage, I could not help temporarily considering myself in the light of a country cousin, all unused to so much magnificence. That feeling might be trusted to wear off. But what went along with it, and which was worth any sum of money, was the delicious, real, schoolgirl sensation of unalloyed delight in the world of novelty, which now surrounded me and which I, city-bred as I was, had never before realised. Then the genuine, loving welcome of dear mother, the girls, and my brother Bob, who was at home on a visit, went to my heart. When I thought that all these luxuries and novelties were the direct results of my originality and daring, I was in danger of being puffed up. But I repressed all feeling, save that of gratitude to Him who had granted my prayer for a sphere of usefulness and brought me safely home.
How delightful everything was! How charming was this crowded earnest metropolis, after the quiet country town from which I had been translated. Every breath I drew henceforth was a pleasure; every walk down the street was a luxury; every drive in the carriage a sensation; every dinner-party as one of childhood’s feasts; every picnic was a Paradise peep; every dance a delirious revelry; every friend’s house was a palace; every shop was an exhibition. If this state of mind was created by a year’s voluntary exile, never was time better bestowed.
It was fairyland for the first month. Father and mother were touchingly affectionate, the dear girls quite faultless. I wondered that I had blamed them ever so slightly in my heart. Yet after a month—I was to stay two, during the great heat of January and February—I began to recall that little flock in the wilderness, and to catch myself in the afternoons thinking of the tasks that made the hours pass so quickly till the sun was low.
How were they getting on? Did they miss me? Was Jill’s frock regularly mended, and was her honest little dark-eyed face as merry as ever—as suddenly o’ercast with tears? Did Harriet steadfastly uphold the weight of the task I had committed to her? And was Cousin Jane cheerful, or had her manifold duties ‘collapsed her’ utterly, as in the days before my despotism?
As I said before, I suppose I must be of a restless and unsatisfactory temperament—no sooner having realised happiness than desirous of the contrary sensation, by way of a change. I cannot account for my desire to return to Waronga gradually gaining force in any other way.
When I mentioned it during the first month, the girls were in despair, mother hysterical, and father really—that is not quite seriously—but what another man would have called vexed. Then I judiciously let the question drop. At the beginning of the eighth week I observed, smiling a little to myself, that there was not the same violent opposition to my departure. How few are the people in this world of whom one does not—or others, as the case may be, do not—get just a little tired! Certainly, I was not a visitor or a dependant. But I had—for imperfect sympathy with my own flesh and blood, and for generally flourishing about a purpose of some kind—got to be voted a trifle too prononcée for the family club. You see they were such very comfortable, methodical, regular folk, that the merest trifle of non-complaisance put them out—‘got on their nerves,’ as they expressed it. I am afraid I did so a little, latterly, as I used to rouse the girls with questions as to whether they ever thought of any one’s well-being but their own, and if they would be satisfied with doing ‘more nothing’ to the end of their days?
They replied to me with great sweetness and politeness, but I could see they did not quite like it.
When the day (the second time of parting) came we were all softly resigned. I had promised mother to return ‘for good,’ at the ensuing Christmas; and that being the case, I received absolution. She had listened with much interest, good kind soul, to my description of the change I had wrought in Jane’s household, and the help and benefit I honestly believed I had been to her. All this Jane herself had confirmed in a letter overflowing with gratitude, which she had written to the old lady.
‘Well, my dear Portia,’ she said finally, ‘we are told that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” and I cannot complain of your putting in practice—unusual as it appears—the lesson you have been taught in your childhood; I have been thinking much over your present occupation and I believe you are acting unselfishly, and that your work will have a blessing on it. God send you safe back to us at Christmas time!’
Poor old daddy was really sorry to lose me, I think. We used to have nice long talks, and I don’t think I contradicted him as much as I used to do. He did not go up with me this time, but handed me over to an old squatter friend of his, whose sheep station was on the other side of the Murray. The whistle sounded, cutting our last kiss rather short, and I was literally going back to school after the holidays.
We had come early, however, on purpose to have a good quiet talk, and towards the end of it father said—
‘Now, my dear Portia, you’re no longer a girl——’
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said; ‘daddy, are you quite sure?’
‘I mean you’re a young woman, my dear. In another year you’ll be five-and-twenty.’
‘Dreadful to think of,’ I interposed, ‘what then?’
‘Well, my dear, you know you’ve all a little money of your own—and, in a general way, there’s plenty of it in the family, thank God! so what I wanted to tell you was that if for any purpose, at any time, you wanted three or four hundred pounds—good investments are often met with in the country and Quartzman might see a chance now and then—why, you can draw on me for it.’
‘I shall never want all that money. My hundred a year does a good deal more than dress me, I know, and very handy I find it.’
‘I only said if, my dear,’ said father, mildly astonished at my failing to see the advantage of being able to ‘draw at sight.’ ‘Never mind! I hope you may never want money all your life more than you do now.’
I kept thinking of this strange idea of daddy’s as we went along. What could I do with five hundred pounds? ‘It would not set Charlie up in a station, would it?’ I asked Mr. Grizzley, and he said ‘Not at this time of day; though the time had been when five hundred pounds’ worth of stock, and a good block of country (to be had for the taking up and ten pounds a year rent) would start a man well, ay, and had done so with many that held their heads high enough now.’
I took courage to ask, ‘How much then?’
‘Nothing under two or three thousand pounds; say three thousand at the very least—and that will only buy a partnership in a far-out district, which, after all, was the best way for a youngster to begin.’
When we arrived at Redgum terminus—so called from its being originally a sawmill, with a tiny township tacked on to it—nearly the whole family had come to meet me. Poor things! how delighted they were! The tears came into my eyes also, rather to Mr. Grizzley’s astonishment, as he delivered me over. He told Cousin Jane that he thought I was quite a different sort of girl.
Charlie had borrowed a double buggy, and came up in all the glory of a pair of fresh horses looking nice and sleek—the grass on the riverside common being good. It held his mother, with Harriet and the baby, Jack and Jill, with continuous smiles all over their pretty faces, which deepened into wonder as my unreasonable quantity of luggage, with so many parcels and bandboxes, was put out.
However, all were finally stowed in, and we drove off triumphantly before a crowd of at least twenty Waronga people.
The faithful Mary Anne, who had not given warning or got married, or done anything dreadful in my absence, had impressed herself as to the tea prepared in my honour. Mr. Quartzman returned shortly afterwards, and we sat down, a most joyous family party. I was, of course, incited to pour forth my narrative of adventures; on the other hand, I was speedily informed of the wonderful things that had happened at Waronga in my absence. One thing was certain, that they had not been very lonely without me, though everybody had been ‘good’ in my absence, and could not sufficiently express their delight at having me back again.
As is usual with travellers, it cost me some consideration to get my mental focus duly accommodated to the landscape; but in a week or two all was much as usual, and I was drilling and denouncing during the day; walking by the river bank with Harriet in the evenings, much as though I had never quitted Waronga. Such creatures of habit are we all!
My presents—of which I had been careful to bring back a varied assortment—kept up a sustained interest for a full month after my arrival. Among these was the last sweet thing in bonnets, with which I recalled to Jane her lost Paradise, after having had her assertion that she had carefully read every book I had sent her, confirmed by Mr. Quartzman. He, I thought, scarcely looked as well as the rest of the family. I recognised the old careworn expression deepening into depression. When I taxed him with it, he admitted that times were bad, money scarce; he had an annoying bad debt of greater amount than usual; still, nothing of any moment or likely to cause serious inconvenience.
What really had troubled him was a letter from an old friend with whom he had held mining shares and interests in days gone by at Sandhurst. This friend, a clever man of business, and thoroughly acquainted with mining property (a good deal to say of a man, he laughingly observed), had sent him valuable information. Among the initiated it was known that a revival of the quartz-reefs of Sandhurst was imminent. He mentioned several which were about to be worked by companies, and of which the shares were at present low and unnoticed. ‘I am behind the scenes, Jack,’ was his concluding paragraph, ‘as in the old days—and I say, buy into the “Southern Cross” or the “Right Hand Pocket” for every shilling you can raise. If you don’t, you’ll repent it all your life, or my name isn’t Frank Ferretter.’
‘And why are you cast down, Mr. Quartzman?’ said I, with the careless courage of youth. ‘It ought to raise your spirits, I should say.’
‘Because I am miserably undecided. I ought to back Frank up. He is a man of strict honour, an old friend, and so shrewd and clear-headed that I have never found him wrong. But I look round on these children, and haven’t the heart to do anything that might imperil their well-being or the roof above their heads, poor as it is. But I ought. I ought to put five hundred pounds into one of these reefs, and I may be missing a chance now, perhaps a fortune, never to be offered to me again as long as I live.’
‘Why not talk it over with your wife?’ I asked.
‘I have spoken of it to her,’ he said, with a grave smile, ‘but she has such a prejudice against mining speculations (I lost heavily by my last investment in that way) that she will hardly bear the subject mentioned. She conjured me, as I valued the welfare of my children, to have nothing whatever to do with it.’
‘Let us have a council of war, then,’ I suggested, ‘and go warily over the whole plan of campaign.’
He assented, but without enthusiasm. However, after breakfast next morning, we had our talk. Cousin Jane was, of course, present. I had been thinking over the matter since sunrise. A hard look came over her face when Sandhurst was casually referred to.
‘I have had enough of mining ventures to last me all my lifetime, and I should think that you had too, John, unless you wish to be without a roof and a dinner again.’
‘My dear Jane,’ he answered, ‘if you reflect for a moment you will see that we were never quite so hard up as that, though I will own that the “Great Intended” cleared me out in 186—, when the lower levels were flooded by those “Hand over Hand” ruffians.’
‘I hate the very name of mining—shares and reefs and companies, they are all alike,’ she said, more passionately than I had ever heard her speak, ’and shall do so to my dying day.’
‘But won’t you hear reason?’ he said. ‘Suppose a few hundreds would be sufficient to buy an interest in a real good thing, and we get back the twenty thousand pounds I lost, what then?’
‘Why will you talk in that way, John, and break my heart? If it be a good thing, you will be sure to be out of it. You know you are unlucky in mining matters, and did nothing but lose in every venture you tried—since I knew you, at any rate. I can’t think, for my part, how you ever did make any money.’
A pained look came over his face, then, with the old weary smile, he said sadly, ‘Men spoke differently of John Quartzman once upon a time, and for many a year too. I don’t like my wife to lose all faith in my business capacity. The fact appears patent to me that shares in mining companies never were so low as now. A rise is certain, consequently this is the time to invest.’
‘I have heard it said,’ I interposed, before Cousin Jane had time to denounce the fiend of the mine and all his works, ‘that more men are ruined by letting previous failures confuse their calculations than by imprudence. The player distrusts his system just when he should back it. The rise and fall of values must be calculable. It is we women, I fancy, who, over sanguine in success, mistake despondency in adversity for prudence.’
‘Why, you are as bad as John,’ said Cousin Jane. ‘The world must surely be coming to an end when you advise him to gamble in mining shares.’
‘I do not advise anything of the kind; but I wish him and you too to consider what may be the most important act of your life with calmness and without prejudice. Do what you will, accept or refuse, but decide upon reasonable grounds.’
‘Well, John, you and Portia had better settle it between you. I wash my hands of it. However, I will say I never knew her wrong in anything, and all may come right this time.’
‘Very well. Now, Mr. Quartzman, is your information really good?’
‘I can trust Frank Ferretter as if he were my brother. I have proved his friendship in fair weather and foul.’
‘Utterly trustworthy man—not likely to be taken in?’
‘There does not live a miner from San Francisco to Hokitiki, and that’s a wide word, that can teach him anything.’
‘And the reef will either make the shareholders rich, or they lose every penny they invest?’
‘That, of course. Limited liability, though. We are not liable for more than we put in.’
‘Have you five hundred pounds available?’
‘Yes; could just manage, with great scraping together, to lay my hand on that sum.’
‘Then I advise you to buy in at once and I will invest the same sum. Draw on father for the amount in my name; he will honour it, I know. Then Jane, if I win, it will be all the better for Charlie.’
Mr. Quartzman looked half puzzled, half delighted. Jane regarded me evidently as a philanthropist whose intellect voluntary teaching had overthrown. We stared at each other, and finally burst out laughing. ‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘I am as sane as usual, my dear Mrs. Quartzman.’ We had been rather careless about Christian names lately. I then explained father’s parting words.
‘I’ll wire Ferretter to buy in for the whole amount,’ said Mr. Quartzman, who was the first to recover his faculties permanently. ‘I am so delighted I can hardly speak. I feel quite another man again. I have a presentiment we shall win this time, wife! If we do, we shall be only adding a trifle to the national debt which we owe to St. Portia here.’
He kissed his wife, who stood half amazed, with a wondering smile on her face, and was gone.
Next day came a letter, such a kind one, from daddy, saying that he sent a draft enclosed for the money, and that he believed the old Bendigo Deep Leads were going to have their turn at last, in which case the obsolete tradition of fortunes made in Victoria by mining would be revived. Except that mother and the girls felt the heat lately, their health was pretty good.
‘Felt the heat, did they? I wonder what they would have thought of my low-roofed schoolroom?’
One evening I had kept in the children pour cause later in the day than I did generally. It was the last hot month. In the interior of Australia the languor of the whole summer, unrelieved by sea breezes, seems to culminate in the lingering pre-autumnal days. My pupils had been, perhaps, rather inattentive, so I had persevered past the usual time, and was still quietly, but unyieldingly, working up the irregular French verbs.
‘There now, you may all go,’ I said; ‘you have given me a headache, I know. Do you think you know them well enough to say to-morrow?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Jenny, now a slender, fast-growing girl. ‘I really do know them now, tiresome things; but does it always give you a headache when we are stupid, Miss Middleton?’
‘Sometimes,’ I said; ‘and you’ll try not to give me another this week.’
‘I promise,’ shouted Harold.
‘So will I,’ said Ethel. ‘We all will. I feel lazy this hot weather, but I never will again if it’s cruel.’
‘Come and walk by the river, Miss Middleton,’ said Harold. ‘It’s so cool there, and there’s beautiful green moss and shady ferns, and I know a woodduck’s nest up a tree. The young ones are gone now; I think she must have carried them away on her back.’
‘Help me up, then,’ I said. ‘Oh, how tired I am! I shall be glad when the cool weather sets in.’
Languidly I pace the winding path that leads to the river, Harold holding one hand, and Jill disputing the other with Jack—Ethel running in front shouting ‘River, river, flowing river!’ at the top of her voice, when some one says, ‘May I be of the party, if I am not too dusty and disagreeable?’
The children gave a shriek of delight, which informed me that Mr. Wharfedale had arrived, even before I turned and saw his bronzed face. He had been regarding us in a leisurely manner—it is impossible to say for how long—and upon my greeting him condescended to join us.
‘I have just come by the coach,’ he said, ‘and am looking a fright, I know, as girls say—horribly tired too. But though I have been jolted about all night, I think, Miss Middleton, that you look more fagged than I do.’
There was a kind inflection in his voice that nearly made the tears come into my eyes. But I resisted the tendency fiercely. What does Nature mean by letting women make fools of themselves, in season and out of season, over and above their manifest opportunities in that line?
‘You must have heard me lamenting my small woes,’ I answered. ‘It is a safety-valve we women make use of in private.’
‘I don’t wonder. Teaching must be atrociously trying this weather. Really it’s hard work to live, even when one has little or nothing to do. I find it so.’
Mr. Wharfedale underrated his occupation, his attainments, and his principles, always professing to do little, and to know nothing worth mentioning. He carried a dislike to egotism and pedantry to the opposite extreme.
‘It’s like all other work, I suppose,’ I said, while we strolled nearer the broad river, and the children ran shouting forward to the shingly shallows, dabbling in the swift-flowing clear water, and plucking bulrushes and willow streamers; ‘not half so bad when you’re in it. And then the after taste is good.’
‘I suppose nobody would be a governess, if they could help it,’ he said reflectively, ‘and yet, excepting those of artists or writers, there seems hardly any other occupation for gentlewomen whose parents are not rich or independent.’
‘They ought to be thankful for that,’ I said. ‘It is honourable work, and provides the means of living. That should suffice, ought it not? Women are so easily contented, you know—not like men.’
‘Now you are laughing, and I am serious. If you know how deeply I respect—how warmly I admire a woman whom I see unobtrusively doing her duty in the life which Fate has apportioned to her, you would not be sarcastic with me.’
‘Thank you for your compliments. But do you mean to tell me that you have the same feeling of respect for Mrs. Quartzman’s governess as you have for Marion Walsingham or the Clara Vere de Veres of Melbourne or Sydney?’
‘As much respect? Far more, a thousandfold, if you will believe me. What constitutes a woman’s patent of nobility, if culture of mind and refinement of nature do not? Self-denial for worthy ends is another factor in the sum. Who is more likely to possess these qualities—rare in both sexes—the spoiled child of fortune, who has never had a wish ungratified, or the patient worker, compelled to mould her will, and withstand her impulses?’
‘Would not such a paragon border upon the strong-minded woman, that too successful product from which men, “uncertain, coy, and hard to please,” instinctively flee.’
‘I confess to talking nonsense occasionally,’ he replied; ‘who does not? When I was here last I must have been airing some of my favourite affectations. However, I have been rather the prey of the gods lately. I have had a wearisome overland journey, some indifferent luck, with a touch of fever and ague thrown in. If you see me more humble-minded than usual, it is not to be wondered at.’
‘Mrs. Quartzman will wonder why we are so late for tea.’ I feel it necessary to interpose. ‘Children, come away from that island, directly. Do you hear, Harold? Never mind the kingfisher’s nest on the bank. It’s getting too late to see. Jack, don’t fall off that log! Jill, it’s naughty of you to wet your shoes and stockings! Ethel, look at the state of your frock!’ And we walk quickly homewards.
We were again a happy family party that night, around our humble tea-table. Mr. Quartzman produced an inspiriting telegram from Mr. Ferretter: ‘Just in time with your thou’ (thus he expressed that modest morsel of capital) ‘Etna and Vesuvius going up like smoke’ (code names he explained). The cooled Reisling had been produced, and in this he was about to drink my health, and make embarrassing statements, when I looked over at him so imploringly that he, being a person of quick apprehension—much as Cousin Jane doubted the fact—turned the conversation to a general congratulation of himself and his luck in this instance.
‘Why, Quartzman!’ said Mr. Wharfedale, ‘you are getting like your old self again. No longer “wasting in despair,” but with pluck enough to have a flying shot at good investments. Nothing like perseverance. Delighted to see your shares are up. Quite a flavour of old times, eh, Mrs. Quartzman?’
That matron looked first at her husband, then at me, and, finally, with a pleased, mysterious expression at Mr. Wharfedale, who could not think what it all meant.
‘Miss Middleton does not approve, perhaps, of such a bold venture in shares?’ he said smilingly; ‘but Mrs. Quartzman knows, none better, that seeming rashness in mining matters is often the truest wisdom.’
‘I can’t say John acted upon my advice this time,’ that lady said humbly. ‘I am delighted though, that it has turned out so well.’
‘Better and better,’ he said; ‘acted on his own judgment, with both the ladies against him—for I feel certain he asked Miss Middleton’s advice if she was in the house when he thought it over. I know his respect for her opinion. Now, didn’t he, Miss Middleton?’
‘He certainly did,’ I said, blushing, in spite of myself.
‘And then went and bought in with noble obstinacy after all. I really didn’t think him such a brilliant operator. I revere a man who believes in himself.’
‘Don’t you think the principle may be carried too far?’ I asked, suppressing a strong inclination to laugh at the ingenious self-mystification of my masterful acquaintance.
‘Hardly ever—excuse the slang,’ he said, ‘but it’s so hard to say anything without quoting Pinafore. I forgot, though, you haven’t had the opportunity of hearing that comic miracle.’
‘No, indeed!’ said Cousin Jane, boiling over with the sense of the injustice of my being thus ignored; ‘Miss Middleton is buried up here from year’s end to year’s end, and never has the chance of seeing anybody or hearing anything. I think it’s a great shame.’
‘So it is, when you come to think of it,’ said Mr. Wharfedale, rather wondering at this excessive consideration for ‘a young person,’ ‘but you must consider that you are also secluded from pleasures and palaces.’
‘That is of very little consequence,’ said Jane, with true humility. Long and hopelessly impoverished, therefore permanently doomed to Waronga, or other purgatorial provinces, she was past pitying herself, but felt at the same time exasperated that she could not wither up her guest’s indifferentism by suddenly disclosing my real virtues, or, what alike in kingdom and colony stands for the same thing, the wealth of my dear old daddy. Foiled, however, in this generous purpose by her promise to me, which I did not allow her to forget, she betook herself to bed rather suddenly. I was not sorry to retire at the same time, leaving Mr. Quartzman and his friend to their pipes and confidences.
Mr. Wharfedale only remained for a few days on this occasion, having affairs in Melbourne which interfered with the ‘lazy ally’ business he professed so deeply to appreciate. I could not help thinking there was a difference in his manner since he had left Waronga last. Something had occurred to soften him. He spoke more tolerantly of the shortcomings of others, less decisively of his own opinions. One day he paid me the compliment of making the same observation as far as I was concerned.
‘Perhaps you will permit me, Miss Middleton, to say that I see a difference in your style since last year. You are less fixed in your convictions—is it not so?—less warlike in your dislike of indifferentist tendencies.’
‘I am only like the rest of the world then,’ I answered. ‘I had a difficult task to perform when I arrived, and I braced myself for the occasion. I may have relaxed a little, now that the battle is over, who knows?’
‘If you only knew how doubt and diffidence increase the charm of womanhood, you would make fresh concessions.’
‘And lose my self-respect!’ I said; ‘not for a century of idle admiration, if, indeed, so unlikely an experience should come my way. When a man sees his duty clearly, and lets nothing interfere with its accomplishment, he is thought to have done something noble. Why not allow the same meed of praise to a woman?’
‘He is not told that he would be better loved if he were less true to his ideal. He would despise the speaker if he were. I have little patience with such half-contemptuous flatteries of women. It makes them the silly dolls or ineffective workers that half of them are.’
‘But yet the softer attributes,’ pleaded he, with a malicious twinkle in his eye, ‘have from time immemorial been sacred to the fairer half of creation.’
‘You are trying to provoke me, Mr. Wharfedale,’ said I, mortified at being placed in a false position, ‘but if good temper be considered a softer attribute, it is more frequently found among the cultured section of the sex than among the sweetly smiling simpletons by whom men say they are attracted.’
‘Please not to be angry, only hurt at my obtuseness,’ he said, with a peculiar air of gratification, as of one who is pacifying a child. ‘I am really on the road to conversion—obstinate as some people find me. I know you can keep counsel, Miss Middleton, for Quartzman told me. Shall I confess why I returned to Waronga, overland too—in this scorching summer?’ he continued, fixing his deep eye on me, now lighted by a warmer glow than I had ever seen there.
‘To see Mr. and Mrs. Quartzman. They are your true friends—glad to greet you and sad when you depart.’
‘We are more than friends in name,’ he said, ‘and for that reason I shall always be grateful to a benefactress who, in their children’s training and their household happiness, has done them an invaluable service. She may have regarded it as an ordinary contract, and as such to be compensated. Payment! nothing could recompense such benefits.’
‘You can’t mean that, Mr. Wharfedale,’ I gasped out. ‘Why, every governess undertakes——’
‘You must not—pardon me, Miss Middleton—undervalue gifts as rare as priceless, rare as the mind that designed the heart that offered them. Believe me, under a mocking manner, I have noticed your unselfish labours, your brave battling with discomfort from the first. You aroused a fresh interest in me (pray let me speak on) from the time of our first meeting, an interest which has since deepened into the love of Hugh Wharfedale, which he now offers you.’
I looked at him in amazement. I stood spellbound. I conscientiously declare that I was honestly surprised if ever a girl was under the circumstances. My head was so filled with education and abstract ideas that there was no room, I suppose, for the self-conscious, indolent, introspective pastime for an empty brain and an over-excited sensibility, commonly dignified by the name of love.
‘You surely will not tell me,’ he said, in softly reproachful accents, ‘that you never thought of me in this relation for one moment? You look as if the idea was untenable; or am I so unhappy as to have incurred your disapproval?’ Here the haughty face became set and rigid.
‘Oh! it’s not that,’ I said hastily, as I began to confess to myself that I had always admired, respected, placed him mentally on a pedestal, as the nearest available demi-god, and so on.
But it had so little occurred to me that he, the unapproachable Hugh Wharfedale, would ever be likely, as he was now actually doing, to propose to an unattractive girl like myself—a mere governess—that I was very nearly turning away and saying in the haste of instinctive feminine evasion, ‘it can never be,’ or some such untruthful denial of pure and honest liking. I swear I had no love for him then. But have I not now? Yes, enough for a conversazione of wives! Then a voice with low tones of reason, not emotion, kept on saying, ‘Why throw away happiness, power, success, the natural rank and position of wedded womanhood.’
I looked full in his face. Our eyes met. I saw in those dusky fires an indescribable expression of strong tenderness, manful kindness, kingly protection; I bowed my head in token of surrender, until it seemed quite natural, and by no means dreadful, that the said head was pillowed on his broad breast.
‘I must tell my dear mother,’ I said at length, ‘and father too. How wicked of me to have forgotten them!’
‘Ah! of course,’ he said, in the tone which showed me that he could not help thinking their consent a foregone conclusion.
‘Governesses have fathers and mothers, you know,’ I said, smiling at the surprise that was in store for him.
‘I shall always revere them,’ he said, and his voice really trembled, ‘as the wise and loving ones who made my treasure what she is.’
‘And you will never allow people to sneer at governesses before me?’ I said softly.
He smiled. ‘People will not sneer at my wife, darling!’
‘But surely you are above such small—such paltry prejudices.’
‘Now, suppose I told you a secret,’ I whispered, ‘that I am not a governess at all, though a teacher.’
‘I dislike mysteries,’ he said shortly, and I thereupon resolved not to be playful till I knew my ground. ‘And what are you, then?’ he continued.
‘I am not a governess,’ I replied, ‘I am a young lady.’
‘Permit me to remark,’ he said, still looking keenly at me, ‘that I am well satisfied of that fact, or our present relation would scarcely have existed. I presume you did not do anything very wicked, which necessitated your exile to Waronga?’
‘I only mean to say—and you are not to look at me like that, sir—that I came up here to live with Cousin Jane Quartzman of my own free will, and because she was poor—and—needed help—’ Here I disgracefully began to cry.
‘Great Heaven! and do you mean to tell me that you came voluntarily, chose to live in this hot, dull, out-of-the-way place; to share the privations of my poor friends here for nearly two years, all pour l’amour de Dieu and true womanly kindness? I, who believed so little in goodness, taking it for granted too, that you were merely working for pay like every other governess. I honoured you all the more for it. I will say that for myself. Thank heaven! I told you of my love before I knew all. But I will never forgive Mrs. Quartzman. Why didn’t she tell me?’
‘I had her promise not to do so. I had a foolish fancy for mortifying the flesh after that fashion, and keeping free from condolences by remaining incognita.’
There is little more to add. These jottings down of the small incidents of my uneventful career are nearly at an end.
Mr. Quartzman and Cousin Jane were transported with delight when they heard of my stupendous good fortune, as they evidently considered it to be. The former, apropos of another telegram received from the faithful Ferretter, in which the shares in the Right Hand Pocket were stated as having fabulously risen, insisted upon relating my share in the famous council of war. Again, in imagination, he and Cousin Jane saw themselves replaced in their former station of social rank and consideration, with a house in town, the boys at good schools, the girls provided with masters, music, and drawing-lessons—all the hardly-borne privations fading rapidly out of memory and regret. The unavoidable misfortune of losing Portia Middleton was swallowed up in an ocean of new hopes and pardonable fancies.
I shortly regained the family circle in Melbourne, to be welcomed as a sort of lost Pleiad, and to become the centre of a host of admiring friends and relatives; more particularly after Hugh—my Hugh—had undergone an indispensable interview in daddy’s study.
‘Who would have thought Portia would have made the match of the season?’ said Jessie; ‘all through insisting upon going to that frightful Waronga, and helping Cousin Jane, too! The idea of meeting that delightful Hugh Wharfedale there above all people! I never dreamed the Quartzmans had ever heard his name.’
‘The good things of this world are promised to those who do their duty,’ said mother reflectively. ‘Why should we wonder at what we have read in the Bible coming true? But we all of us read it a good deal, and practise it very little, I am afraid.’
‘And Hugh declared at Mrs. Hauton’s, last year,’ said Isabella, ‘that he hated governesses. You know you did,’ she added, as the individual referred to entered the room, ‘say you hated governesses—didn’t you?’
‘Once for all I plead guilty to having talked nonsense in my time. How could I know,’ he continued, possessing himself of my hand, ‘that Fate was even then arranging that my happiness should be placed in the safe charge of the “Governess of the Poets”—the ideal governess, if ever there was one.’