Mr Mark Marchurst was a very peculiar man. Brought up in the Presbyterian religion, he had early displayed his peculiarity by differing from the elders of the church he belonged to regarding their doctrine of eternal punishment. They, holding fast to the teachings of Knox and Calvin, looked upon him in horror for daring to have an opinion of his own; and as he refused to repent and have blind belief in the teachings of those grim divines, he was turned out of the bosom of the church. Drifting to the opposite extreme, he became a convert to Catholicism; but, after a trial of that ancient faith, found it would not suit him, so once more took up a neutral position. Therefore, as he did not find either religion perfectly in accordance with his own views, he took the law into his own hands and constructed one which was a queer jumble of Presbyterianism, Catholicism, and Buddhism, of which last religion he was a great admirer. As anyone with strong views and a clever tongue will find followers, Mr Marchurst soon gathered a number of people around him who professed a blind belief in the extraordinary doctrines he promulgated. Having thus founded a sect he got sufficient money out of them to build a temple — for so he called the barn-like edifice he erected — and christened this new society which he had called into existence ‘The Elect’. About one hundred people were members of his church, and with their subscriptions, and also having a little money of his own, he managed to live in a quiet manner in a cottage on the Black Hill near to his temple. Every Sunday he held forth morning and evening, expounding his views to his sparse congregation, and was looked upon by them as a kind of prophet. As a matter of fact, the man had that peculiar power of fascination which seems to be inseparable from the prophetic character, and it was his intense enthusiasm and eloquent tongue that cast a spell over the simple-minded people who believed in him. But his doctrines were too shallow and unsatisfactory ever to take root, and it could be easily seen that when Marchurst died ‘The Elect’ would die also — that is, as a sect, for it was not pervaded by that intense religious fervour which is the life and soul of a new doctrine. The fundamental principles of his religion were extremely simple; he saved his friends and damned his enemies, for so he styled those who were not of the same mind as himself. If you were a member of ‘The Elect’, Mr Marchurst assured you that the Golden Gate was wide open for you, whereas if you belonged to any other denomination you were lost for ever; so according to this liberal belief, the hundred people who formed his congregation would all go straight to Heaven, and all the rest of mankind would go to the devil.
In spite of the selfishness of this theory, which condemned so many souls to perdition, Marchurst was a kindly natured man, and his religion was more of an hallucination than anything else. He was very clever at giving advice, and Madame Midas esteemed him highly on this account. Though Marchurst had often tried to convert her, she refused to believe in the shallow sophistries he set forth, and told him she had her own views on religion, which views she declined to impart to him, though frequently pressed to do so. The zealot regretted this obstinacy, as, according to his creed, she was a lost soul, but he liked her too well personally to quarrel with her on that account, consoling himself with the reflection that sooner or later, she would seek the fold. He was more successful with M. Vandeloup, who, having no religion whatever, allowed Marchurst to think he had converted him, in order to see as much as he could of Kitty. He used to attend the Sunday services regularly, and frequently came in during the week ostensibly to talk to Marchurst about the doctrines of ‘The Elect’, but in reality to see the old man’s daughter.
On this bright afternoon, when everything was bathed in sunshine, Mr Marchurst, instead of being outside and enjoying the beauties of Nature, was mewed up in his dismal little study, with curtains closely drawn to exclude the light, a cup of strong tea, and the Bible open at ‘The Lamentations of Jeremiah’. His room was lined with books, but they had not that friendly look books generally have, but, bound in dingy brown calf, looked as grim and uninviting as their contents, which were mostly sermons and cheerful anticipations of the bottomless pit. It was against Marchurst’s principles to gratify his senses by having nice things around him, and his whole house was furnished in the same dismal manner.
So far did he carry this idea of mortifying the flesh through the eyes that he had tried to induce Kitty to wear sad-coloured dresses and poke bonnets; but in this attempt he failed lamentably, as Kitty flatly refused to make a guy of herself, and always wore dresses of the lightest and gayest description.
Marchurst groaned over this display of vanity, but as he could do nothing with the obdurate Kitty, he allowed her to have her own way, and made a virtue of necessity by calling her his ‘thorn in the flesh’.
He was a tall thin man, of a bleached appearance, from staying so much in the dark, and so loosely put together that when he bowed he did not as much bend as tumble down from a height. In fact, he looked so carelessly fixed up that when he sat down he made the onlooker feel quite nervous lest he should subside into a ruin, and scatter his legs, arms, and head promiscuously all over the place. He had a sad, pale, eager-looking face, with dreamy eyes, which always seemed to be looking into the spiritual world. He wore his brown hair long, as he always maintained a man’s hair was as much his glory as a woman’s was hers, quoting Samson and Absalom in support of this opinion. His arms were long and thin, and when he gesticulated in the pulpit on Sundays flew about like a couple of flails, which gave him a most unhappy resemblance to a windmill. The ‘Lamentations of Jeremiah’ are not the most cheerful of reading, and Mr Marchurst, imbued with the sadness of the Jewish prophet, drinking strong tea and sitting in a darkened room, was rapidly sinking into a very dismal frame of mind, which an outsider would have termed a fit of the blues. He sat in his straight-backed chair taking notes of such parts of the ‘Lamentations’ as would tend to depress the spirits of the ‘Elect’ on Sunday, and teach them to regard life in a proper and thoroughly miserable manner.
He was roused from his dismal musings by the quick opening of the door of his study, when Kitty, joyous and gay in her white dress, burst like a sunbeam into the room.
“I wish, Katherine,” said her father, in a severe voice, “I wish you would not enter so noisily and disturb my meditations.”
“You’ll have to put your meditations aside for a bit,” said Kitty, disrespectfully, crossing to the window and pulling aside the curtains, “for Madame Midas and M. Vandeloup have come to see you.”
A flood of golden light streamed into the dusky room, and Marchurst put his hand to his eyes for a moment, as they were dazzled by the sudden glare.
“They’ve got something to show you, papa,” said Kitty, going back to the door: “a big nugget — such a size — as large as your head.”
Her father put his hand mechanically to his head to judge of the size, and was about to answer when Madame Midas, calm, cool, and handsome, entered the room, followed by Vandeloup, carrying a wooden box containing the nugget. It was by no means light, and Vandeloup was quite thankful when he placed it on the table.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you, Mr Marchurst,” said Madame, sitting down and casting a glance at the scattered papers, the cup of tea, and the open Bible, “but I couldn’t help gratifying my vanity by bringing the new nugget for you to see.”
“It’s very kind of you, I’m sure,” responded Mr Marchurst, politely, giving way suddenly in the middle as if he had a hinge in his back, which was his idea of a bow. “I hope this,” laying his hand on the box, “may be the forerunner of many such.”
“Oh, it will,” said Vandeloup, cheerfully, “if we can only find the Devil’s Lead.”
“An unholy name,” groaned Marchurst sadly, shaking his head. “Why did you not call it something else?”
“Simply because I didn’t name it,” replied Madame Midas, bluntly; “but if the lead is rich, the name doesn’t matter much.”
“Of course not,” broke in Kitty, impatiently, being anxious to see the nugget. “Do open the box; I’m dying to see it.”
“Katherine! Katherine!” said Marchurst, reprovingly, as Vandeloup opened the box, “how you do exaggerate — ah!” he broke off his exhortation suddenly, for the box was open, and the great mass of gold was glittering in its depths. ‘Wonderful!’
‘What a size!’ cried Kitty, clapping her hands as Vandeloup lifted it out and placed it on the table; ‘how much is it worth?’
‘About twelve hundred pounds,’ said Madame, quietly, though her heart throbbed with pride as she looked at her nugget; ‘it weighs three hundred ounces.’
‘Wonderful!’ reiterated the old man, passing his thin hand lightly over the rough surface; ‘verily the Lord hath hidden great treasure in the entrails of the earth, and the Pactolus would seem to be a land of Ophir when it yields such wealth as this.’
The nugget was duly admired by everyone, and then Brown and Jane, who formed the household of Marchurst, were called in to look at it. They both expressed such astonishment and wonder, that Marchurst felt himself compelled to admonish them against prizing the treasures of earth above those of heaven. Vandeloup, afraid that they were in for a sermon, beckoned quietly to Kitty, and they both stealthily left the room, while Marchurst, with Brown, Jane, and Madame for an audience, and the nugget for a text, delivered a short discourse.
Kitty put on a great straw hat, underneath which her piquant face blushed and grew pink beneath the fond gaze of her lover as they left the house together and strolled up to the Black Hill.
Black Hill no doubt at one time deserved its name, being then covered with dark trees and representing a black appearance at a distance; but at present, owing to the mines which have been worked there, the whole place is covered with dazzling white clay, or mulloch, which now renders the title singularly inappropriate. On the top of the hill there is a kind of irregular gully or pass, which extends from one side of the hill to the other, and was cut in the early days for mining purposes. Anything more extraordinary can hardly be imagined than this chasm, for the sides, which tower up on either side to the height of some fifty or sixty feet, are all pure white, and at the top break into all sorts of fantastic forms. The white surface of the rocks are all stained with colours which alternate in shades of dark brown, bright red and delicate pink. Great masses of rock have tumbled down on each side, often coming so close together as to almost block up the path. Here and there in the white walls can be seen the dark entrances of disused shafts; and one, at the lowest level of the gully, pierces through the hill and comes out on the other side. There is an old engine-house near the end of the gully, with its red brick chimney standing up gaunt and silent beside it, and the ugly tower of the winding gear adjacent. All the machinery in the engine-house, with the huge wheels and intricate mechanism, is silent now — for many years have elapsed since this old shaft was abandoned by the Black Hill Gold Mining Company.
At the lower end of the pass there is an engine-house in full working order, and a great plateau of slate-coloured mulloch runs out for some yards, and then there is a steep sloping bank formed by the falling earth. In the moonlight this wonderful white gully looks weird and bizarre; and even as Vandeloup and Kitty stood at the top looking down into its dusty depths in the bright sunshine, it looks fantastic and picturesque.
Seated on the highest point of the hill, under the shadow of a great rock, the two lovers had a wonderful view of Ballarat. Here and there they could see the galvanized iron roofs of the houses gleaming like silver in the sunlight from amid the thick foliage of the trees with which the city is studded. Indeed, Ballarat might well be called the City of Trees, for seen from the Black Hill it looks more like a huge park with a sprinkling of houses in it than anything else. The green foliage rolls over it like the waves of the ocean, and the houses rise up like isolated habitations. Now and then a red brick building, or the slender white spire of a church gave a touch of colour to the landscape, and contrasted pleasantly with the bluish-white roofs and green trees. Scattered all through the town were the huge mounds of earth marking the mining-shafts of various colours, from dark brown to pure white, and beside them, with the utmost regularity, were the skeleton towers of the poppet heads, the tall red chimneys, and the squat, low forms of the engine-houses. On the right, high up, could be seen the blue waters of Lake Wendouree flashing like a mirror in the sunlight. The city was completely encircled by the dark forests, which stretched far away, having a reddish tinge over their trees, ending in a sharply defined line against the clear sky; while, on the left arose Mount Warreneip like an undulating mound and, further along, Mount Bunniyong, with the same appearance.
All this wonderful panorama, however, was so familiar to Kitty and her lover that they did not trouble themselves to look much at it; but the girl sat down under the big rock, and Vandeloup flung himself lazily at her feet.
‘Bebe,’ said Vandeloup, who had given her this pet name, ‘how long is this sort of life going to last?’
Kitty looked down at him with a vague feeling of terror at her heart. She had never known any life but the simple one she was now leading, and could not imagine it coming to an end.
‘I’m getting tired of it,’ said Vandeloup, lying back on the grass, and, putting his hands under his head, stared idly at the blue sky. ‘Unfortunately, human life is so short nowadays that we cannot afford to waste a moment of it. I am not suited for a lotus-eating existence, and I think I shall go to Melbourne.’
‘And leave me?’ cried Kitty, in dismay, never having contemplated such a thing as likely to happen.
‘That depends on yourself, Bebe,’ said her lover, quickly rolling over and looking steadily at her, with his chin resting on his hands; ‘will you come with me?’
‘As your wife?’ murmured Kitty, whose innocent mind never dreamt of any other form of companionship.
Vandeloup turned away his face to conceal the sneering smile that crept over it. His wife, indeed! as if he were going to encumber himself with marriage before he had made a fortune, and even then it was questionable as to whether he would surrender the freedom of bachelorhood for the ties of matrimony.
‘Of course,’ he said, in a reassuring tone, still keeping his face turned away, ‘we will get married in Melbourne as soon as we arrive.’
‘Why can’t papa marry us,’ pouted Kitty, in an aggrieved tone.
‘My dear child,’ said the Frenchman, getting on his knees and coming close to her, ‘in the first place, your father would not consent to the match, as I am poor and unknown, and not by any means the man he would choose for you; and in the second place, being a Catholic,’— here M. Vandeloup looked duly religious —‘I must be married by one of my own priests.’
‘Then why not in Ballarat?’ objected Kitty, still unconvinced.
‘Because your father would never consent,’ he whispered, putting his arm round her waist; ‘we must run away quietly, and when we are married can ask his pardon and,’ with a sardonic sneer, ‘his blessing.’
A delicious thrill passed through Kitty when she heard this. A real elopement with a handsome lover — just like the heroines in the story books. It was delightfully romantic, and yet there seemed to be something wrong about it. She was like a timid bather, longing to plunge into the water, yet hesitating through a vague fear. With a quick catching of the breath she turned to Vandeloup, and saw him with his burning scintillating eyes fastened on her face.
‘Don’t look like that,’ she said, with a touch of virginal fear, pushing him away, ‘you frighten me.’
‘Frighten you, Bebe?’ he said, in a caressing tone; ‘my heart’s idol, you are cruel to speak like that; you must come with me, for I cannot and will not leave you behind.’
‘When do you go?’ asked Kitty, who was now trembling violently.
‘Ah!’ M. Vandeloup was puzzled what to say, as he had no very decided plan of action. He had not sufficient money saved to justify him in leaving the Pactolus — still there were always possibilities, and Fortune was fond of playing wild pranks. At the same time there was nothing tangible in view likely to make him rich, so, as these thoughts rapidly passed through his mind, he resolved to temporize.
‘I can’t tell you, Bebe,’ he said, in a caressing tone, smoothing her curly hair. ‘I want you to think over what I have said, and when I do go, perhaps in a month or so, you will be ready to come with me. No,’ he said, as Kitty was about to answer, ‘I don’t want you to reply now, take time to consider, little one,’ and with a smile on his lips he bent over and kissed her tenderly.
They sat silently together for some time, each intent on their own thoughts, and then Vandeloup suddenly looked up.
‘Will Madame stay to dinner with you, Bebe?’ he asked.
‘She always does,’ she answered; ‘you will come too.’
Vandeloup shook his head.
‘I am going down to Ballarat to the Wattle Tree Hotel to see my friend Pierre,’ he said, in a preoccupied manner, ‘and will have something to eat there. Then I will come up again about eight o’clock, in time to see Madame off.’
‘Aren’t you going back with her?’ asked Kitty, in surprise, as they rose to their feet.
‘No,’ he replied, dusting his knees with his hand, ‘I stay all night in Ballarat, with Madame’s kind permission, to see the theatre. Now, good-bye at present, Bebe,’ kissing her, ‘I will be back at eight o’clock, so you can excuse me to Madame till then.’
He ran gaily down the hill waving his hat, and Kitty stood looking after him with pride in her heart. He was a lover any girl might have been proud of, but Kitty would not have been so satisfied with him had she known what his real thoughts were.
‘Marry!’ he said to himself, with a laugh, as he walked gaily along; ‘hardly! When we get to Melbourne, my sweet Bebe, I will find some way to keep you off that idea — and when we grow tired of one another, we can separate without the trouble or expense of a divorce.’
And this heartless, cynical man of the world was the keeper into whose hands innocent Kitty was about to commit the whole of her future life.
After all, the fabled Sirens have their equivalent in the male sex, and Homer’s description symbolizes a cruel truth.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55