Long Odds

Chapter LVI

Five Years After

Marcus Clarke

BALLARA PLAINS is, as all the world knows, purchased land, most of it, and a very pretty property. Since the passing of the Land Bill of 18—, squatting property in Victoria has depreciated, and the wiseacres who laughed at old Calverly’s son investing his fortune in buying up his station from the Government were forced to confess that his bargain had turned out well for himself.

Two hundred thousand acres “purchased land!” The amount made newcomers open their eyes; made even travelling nobility “seeing the colonies” stare a little aghast. It was certainly a very fine property. So thought MacOssian, of Glen Ossian. So thought Tommy Lincoln—whilome shepherd, now Shepherd King, and owner of Lincoln’s Hurst, a huge stone house, with furniture sent out from England, and tesselated floors, and a snug little room in one corner for Tommy to smoke his pipe and drink his battleaxe-brand in comfort. So thought the Daltons, lords of the Wimmera and rulers over many a mile of scrub, and heath, and rolling pasture-land. So thought the Maxwells, kings of the westward, whose broad acres spread out, fertile and fair, from Mount Sturgeon to the new Kentish Weald that lies round Lake Burrumbeet. Whim and Shafto, the mining monarchs of golden Ballarat, envied Bob Calverly, and would have given some considerable portion of their shares in reef and mine, to hold the position which fortune accorded to the son of old Calverly of Sydney. Even Mr. Drury, owner of four theatres, proprietor of half Collins-street and nearly all Bourke-street, the great Drury, whose name withheld or given could float or sink a “company,” acknowledged that the tall, sunburnt young man was greater than he.

He had settled down now. The story of his Turf success had run from mouth to mouth in Sydney and Melbourne—as it had done in London— and had furnished much material for moralising. His friends had heard of him occasionally from some returned Australian, who had met him at Rome, or Paris, or Naples. He was spending his money fast, people said. Living hard, going the pace, and so on. But he had done with it now. He had settled down. Settled down with his English wife, in his native country, and had set to work to do good in his generation.

“Why don’t you go home, Bob?” Australian circles had said. “If I was in your place, I wouldn’t live anywhere out of Europe.”

“Well, I think a man ought to look after his property himself,” the other would say. “Besides, my wife doesn’t like England.”

And the questioner, who had heard, like all others, some version, more or less correct, of the crime which had blighted four lives, confessed that the reason was a sufficient one.

But the story was dying out from men’s minds now. It had been the topic of a week, the wonder of a year; but, as the days rolled on and no fresh circumstance arose to recall the memory of the deed, it began to fade from men’s minds—began even to lose its power over the immediate spectators of the tragedy.

Poor old Saville slept beneath his heavy grave-stone in Matcham churchyard, and his pride slept with him. Lady Loughborough was in Paris; and Mr. Horace Chatteris, of the Austrian legation—a lean man, with a consumptive wife and three hectic daughters—reigned at Matcham. Bob had put his fortune to the test in Lady Loughborough’s house in Bryanstone-square on his return from Norway, and had won it. He knew that the sad memory of the guilty man weighed sometimes on his wife’s heart, but, strong in his own love, he hoped that other scenes and a new life, would weaken its influence; but he was never fully satisfied until one day.

Coming home one evening, riding slowly through the timbered levels that surrounded the long low house, with its broad verandah, and clustering grapes, he saw four men carrying something on their shoulders. They had already reached the back porch, and set down their burden reverently.

Spurring his horse, he topped the hill, and reined up beside the group. “What is it?” he asked.

“A swagman, sir,” said one of the men. “Harry found him in the flat by the creek, and we brought him up to the house, sir. He seems nigh dead.”

The man was slightly made, bearded, and dirty. He was in the last stage of exhaustion, and lay back on the hurdle where they had placed him, motionless.

“Harry thinks he’s mad, sir,” said the man, as Bob dismounted. “He’s been wandering about in the bush, I expect.”

Tender-hearted Kate, to whom the news of the strange accident had been borne, came out hastily, with her three year-old child clinging to her dress. At the sound of her voice the miserable creature on the hurdle raised his touzel’d head suddenly, and with the motion his hat fell off. Kate gave a cry, and then slowly into the white face rose a crimson flush, and the wild eyes softened. Bob drew back in sudden terror. It seemed to him that the face before him was changing into another face—into a face that he had known well in old days—a face that had been effeminate and handsome, and admired. A name was on his lips; he would have spoken it in his sudden terror, but in another instant the light in the eyes had died out—the momentary glory that some gleam of returning reason, or memory of lost love, had caused to shine from those haggard features, paled, and the eyes set into a look of horror, as though at some hideous picture which had suddenly presented itself to the wretch’s vision; and then, with a quick, upward motion of the hand, as if to ward off a blow, the ragged figure fell back upon the hurdle, and was in an instant nothing more than the sordid corpse of some nameless swagman.

Bob turned to his wife. The child, frightened by the sudden fall of the body, had run to his mother and buried his face in the folds of her white dress. At his first cry, without a look at the hideous thing that had once been the man she loved, Kate caught the boy in her arms, as if to shield him from contamination.

“You know him, darling?” asked Bob, in a low tone.

She shuddered in bending over the child that lay in her arms.

And as she raised her fair head from that pure kiss, the evening sun, which cast her shadow on the dead man, seemed to shed a glory on her face.

“But what of Binns and Bland? What of Carry?”

There is a little figure that is known well in sick rooms, in hospital wards, in prison cells. A quiet, slight figure, with soft brown hair, and large, brown eyes. She is very tender, and very gentle. They call her “Sister Caroline.”

Binns and Bland? what can I tell you more about them? Shall I tinker at the unfinished window in Aladdin’s tower, and strive to picture what might have been? Looking forward into the future, I might affect to see many things,—might tell you how virtue triumphed, and love was rewarded, in the good old storybook fashion; how, after lapse of years, poor Binns reaped the reward of his constancy and plebeian valour; how he did finally make for himself name and place, though not of the poetical sort he had longed for; and how poor old Bland, sitting by the cheerful fireside, with his friend’s youngest child upon his knee, would see, in the growing happiness of his friend’s useful though humble life, some sort of recompense for his own wasted youth and lonely middle age; might, perhaps, sometimes fancy that he discovered, somewhere in the clouds of his trusty meerschaum, the events of the past shaping themseves dimly into some sort of pictured allegory, showing how intellectual sin, though supported by all the advantages of rank and station and worldly honour, is not always first in the race against simple faith, and honesty, and truth; how each act, each word, has an effect either for good or ill upon our future, and will bring forth its own punishment or its own reward. All this and more I might affect to know, and from it point the moral which no good book should lack; but I like not to linger on the stage, a tiresome chorus, now that the actors have retired.

Poor Binns! Poor Bland!

But every man has a romance once in his life, and the story I have so lamely told you is theirs.

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