A hot December day, with a cloudless blue sky, and a sun blazing down on the earth, clothed in all the beauty of summer garments. Such a description of snowy December sounds perchance a trifle strange to English ears. It may strike them as being somewhat fantastic, as was the play in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” to Demetrius when he remarked, “This is hot ice and wondrous cold fire.”
But here in Australia we are in the realm of contrariety, and many things other than dreams go by contrary. Here black swans are an established fact, and the proverb concerning them, made when they were considered as mythical a bird as the Phoenix, has been rendered null and void by the discoveries of Captain Cook. Here ironwood sinks and pumice stone floats, which must strike the curious spectator as a queer freak on the part of Dame Nature. At home the Edinburgh mail bears the hardy traveller to a cold climate, with snowy mountains and wintry blasts; but here the further north one goes the hotter it gets, till one arrives in Queensland, where the heat is so great that a profane traveller of an epigrammatic turn of mind once fittingly called it, “An amateur hell.”
But however contrary, as Mrs. Gamp would say, Nature may be in her dealings, the English race out in this great continent are much the same as in the old country — John Bull, Paddy, and Sandy, all being of a conservative turn of mind, and with strong opinions as to the keeping up of old customs. Therefore, on a hot Christmas day, with the sun one hundred odd in the shade, Australian revellers sit down to the roast beef and plum-pudding of Old England, which they eat contentedly as the orthodox thing, and on New Year’s Eve the festive Celt repairs to the doors of his “freends” with a bottle of whisky and a cheering verse of Auld Lang Syne.
Still it is these peculiar customs that give an individuality to a nation, and John Bull abroad loses none of his insular obstinacy; but keeps his Christmas in the old fashion, and wears his clothes in the new fashion, without regard to heat or cold. A nation that never surrenders to the fire of an enemy cannot be expected to give in to the fire of the sun, but if some ingenious mortal would only invent some light and airy costume, after the fashion of the Greek dress, and Australians would consent to adopt the same, life in Melbourne and her sister cities would be much cooler than it is at present.
Madge was thinking somewhat after this fashion as she sat on the wide verandah, in a state of exhaustion from the heat, and stared out at the wide plains lying parched and arid under the blazing sun. There was a dim kind of haze rising from the excessive heat, hanging midway between heaven and earth, and through its tremulous veil the distant hills looked aerial and unreal.
Stretched out before her was the garden with its intensely vivid flowers. To look at them merely was to increase one’s caloric condition. Great bushes of oleanders, with their bright pink blossoms, luxurious rose trees, with their yellow, red, and white blooms, and all along the border a rainbow of many-coloured flowers, with such brilliant tints that the eye ached to see them in the hot sunshine, and turned restfully to the cool green of the trees which encircled the lawn. In the centre was a round pool, surrounded by a ring of white marble, and containing a still sheet of water, which flashed like a mirror in the blinding light.
The homestead of Yabba Yallook station was a long low house, with no upper-storey, and with a wide verandah running nearly round it. Cool green blinds were hung between the pillars to keep out the sun, and all along were scattered lounging chairs of basket-work, with rugs, novels, empty soda-water bottles, and all the other evidences that Mr. Frettlby’s guests had been wise, and stayed inside during the noonday heat.
Madge was seated in one of these comfortable chairs, and she divided her attention between the glowing beauty of the world outside, which she could see through a narrow slit in the blinds. But she did not seem greatly interested in her book, and it was not long before she let it fall unheeded to the ground and took refuge in her own thoughts. The trial through which she had so recently passed had been a great one, and it had not been without its outward result. It had left its impress on her beautiful face, and there was a troubled look in her eyes. After Brian’s acquittal of the murder of Oliver Whyte, she had been taken by her father up to the station, in the hope that it would restore her to health. The mental strain which had been on her during the trial had nearly brought on an attack of brain fever; but here, far from the excitement of town life, in the quiet seclusion of the country, she had recovered her health, but not her spirits. Women are more impressionable than men, and it is, perhaps, for this reason that they age quicker. A trouble which would pass lightly over a man, leaves an indelible mark on a woman, both physically and mentally, and the terrible episode of Whyte’s murder had changed Madge from a bright and merry girl into a grave and beautiful woman. Sorrow is a potent enchantress. Once she touches the heart, life can never be quite the same again. We never more surrender ourselves entirely to pleasure; and often we find so many of the things we have longed for are after all but dead sea fruit. Sorrow is the veiled Isis of the world, and once we penetrate her mystery and see her deeply-furrowed face and mournful eyes, the magic light of romance dies all away, and we realise the hard bitter fact of life in all its nakedness.
Madge felt something of all this. She saw the world now, not as the fantastic fairyland of her girlish dreams, but as the sorrowful vale of tears through which we must all walk till we reach the “Promised Land.”
And Brian, he also had undergone a change, for there were a few white hairs now amid his curly, chestnut locks, and his character, from being gay and bright, had become moody and irritable. After the trial he had left town immediately, in order to avoid meeting with his friends, and had gone up to his station, which was next to that of the Frettlbys’. There he worked hard all day, and smoked hard all night, thinking ever the secret which the dead woman had told him, and which threatened to overshadow his life. Every now and then he rode over and saw Madge. But this was generally when he knew her father to be away from Melbourne, for of late he had disliked the millionaire. Madge could not but condemn his attitude, remembering how her father had stood beside him in his recent trouble. Yet there was another reason why Brian kept aloof from Yabba Yallook station. He did not wish to meet any of the gay society which was there, knowing that since his trial he was an object of curiosity and sympathy to everyone — a position galling enough to his proud nature.
At Christmas time Mr. Frettlby had asked several people up from Melbourne, and though Madge would rather have been left alone, yet she could not refuse her father, and had to play hostess with a smiling brow and aching heart.
Felix Rolleston, who a month since had joined the noble army of benedicts, was there with Mrs. Rolleston, nee Miss Featherweight, who ruled him with a rod of iron. Having bought Felix with her money, she had determined to make good use of him, and, being ambitious to shine in Melbourne society, had insisted upon Felix studying politics, so that when the next general election came round he could enter Parliament. Felix had rebelled at first, but ultimately gave way, as he found that when he had a good novel concealed among his parliamentary papers time passed quite pleasantly, and he got the reputation of a hard worker at little cost. They had brought up Julia with them, and this young person had made up her mind to become the second Mrs. Frettlby. She had not received much encouragement, but, like the English at Waterloo, did not know when she was beaten, and carried on the siege of Mr. Frettlby’s heart in an undaunted manner.
Dr. Chinston had come up for a little relaxation, and gave never a thought to his anxious patients or the many sick-rooms he was in the habit of visiting. A young English fellow, called Peterson, who amused himself by travelling; an old colonist, full of reminiscences of the old days, when, “by gad, sir, we hadn’t a gas lamp in the whole of Melbourne,” and several other people, completed the party. They had all gone off to the billiard-room, and left Madge in her comfortable chair, half-asleep.
Suddenly she started, as she heard a step behind her, and turning, saw Sal Rawlins, in the neatest of black gowns, with a coquettish white cap and apron, and an open book. Madge had been so delighted with Sal for saving Brian’s life that she had taken her into her service as maid. Mr. Frettlby had offered strong opposition at first that a fallen woman like Sal should be near his daughter; but Madge was determined to rescue the unhappy girl from the life of sin she was leading, and so at last he reluctantly consented. Brian, too, had objected, but ultimately yielded, as he saw that Madge had set her heart on it. Mother Guttersnipe objected at first, characterising the whole affair as “cussed ’umbug,” but she, likewise, gave in, and Sal became maid to Miss Frettlby, who immediately set to work to remedy Sal’s defective education by teaching her to read. The book she held in her hand was a spelling-book, and this she handed to Madge.
“I think I knows it now, miss,” she said, respectfully, as Madge looked up with a smile.
“Do you, indeed?” said Madge, gaily. “You will be able to read in no time, Sal.”
“Read this?” said Sal, touching “Tristan: A Romance, by Zoe.”
“Hardly!” said Madge, picking it up, with a look of contempt.
“I want you to learn English, and not a confusion of tongues like this thing. But it’s too hot for lessons, Sal,” she went on, leaning back in her seat, “so get a chair and talk to me.”
Sal complied, and Madge looked out at the brilliant flower-beds, and at the black shadow of the tall witch elm which grew on one side of the lawn. She wanted to ask a certain question of Sal, and did not know how to do it. The moodiness and irritability of Brian had troubled her very much of late, and, with the quick instinct of her sex, she ascribed it indirectly to the woman who had died in the back slum. Anxious to share his troubles and lighten his burden, she determined to ask Sal about this mysterious woman, and find out, if possible, what secret had been told to Brian which affected him so deeply.
“Sal,” she said, after a short pause, turning her clear grey eyes on the woman, “I want to ask you something.”
The other shivered and turned pale.
“About — about that?”
Sal hesitated for a moment, and then flung herself at the feet of her mistress.
“I will tell you,” she cried. “You have been kind to me, an’ have a right to know. I will tell you all I know.”
“Then,” asked Madge, firmly, as she clasped her. hands tightly together, “who was this woman whom Mr. Fitzgerald went to see, and where did she come from?”
“Gran’ an’ me found her one evenin’ in Little Bourke Street,” answered Sal, “just near the theatre. She was quite drunk, an’ we took her home with us.”
“How kind of you,” said Madge.
“Oh, it wasn’t that,” replied the other, dryly. “Gran’ wanted her clothes; she was awful swell dressed.”
“And she took the clothes — how wicked!”
“Anyone would have done it down our way,” answered Sal, indifferently; “but Gran’ changed her mind when she got her home. I went out to get some gin for Gran’, and when I came back she was huggin’ and kissin’ the woman.”
“She recognised her.”
“Yes, I s’pose so,” replied Sal, “an’ next mornin’, when the lady got square, she made a grab at Gran’, an’ hollered out, ‘I was comin’ to see you.’”
“Gran’ chucked me out of the room, an’ they had a long jaw; and then, when I come back, Gran’ tells me the lady is a-goin’ to stay with us ’cause she was ill, and sent me for Mr. Whyte.”
“And he came?”
“Oh, yes — often,” said Sal. “He kicked up a row when he first turned up, but when he found she was ill, he sent a doctor; but it warn’t no good. She was two weeks with us, and then died the mornin’ she saw Mr. Fitzgerald.”
“I suppose Mr. Whyte was in the habit of talking to this woman?”
“Lots,” returned Sal; “but he always turned Gran’ an’ me out of the room afore he started.”
“And” — hesitating — “did you ever overhear one of these conversations?”
“Yes — one,” answered the other, with a nod. “I got riled at the way he cleared us out of our own room; and once, when he shut the door and Gran’ went off to get some gin, I sat down at the door and listened. He wanted her to give up some papers, an’ she wouldn’t. She said she’d die first; but at last he got ’em, and took ’em away with him.”
“Did you see them?” asked Madge, as the assertion of Gorby that Whyte had been murdered for certain papers flashed across her mind.
“Rather,” said Sal, “I was looking through a hole in the door, an’ she takes ’em from under her piller, an’ ’e takes ’em to the table, where the candle was, an’ looks at ’em — they were in a large blue envelop, with writing on it in red ink — then he put ’em in his pocket, and she sings out: ‘You’ll lose ’em,’ an’ ’e says: ‘No, I’ll always ’ave ’em with me, an’ if ’e wants ’em ’e’ll have to kill me fust afore ’e gits ’em.’”
“And you did not know who the man was to whom the papers were of such importance?”
“No, I didn’t; they never said no names.”
“And when was it Whyte got the papers?”
“About a week before he was murdered,” said Sal, after a moment’s thought. “An’ after that he never turned up again. She kept watchin’ for him night an’ day, an’ ’cause he didn’t come, got mad at him. I hear her sayin’, ‘You think you’ve done with me, my gentleman, an’ leaves me here to die, but I’ll spoil your little game,’ an’ then she wrote that letter to Mr. Fitzgerald, an’ I brought him to her, as you know.”
“Yes, yes,” said Madge, rather impatiently. “I heard all that at the trial, but what conversation passed between Mr. Fitzgerald and this woman? Did you hear it?”
“Bits of it,” replied the other. “I didn’t split in Court, ’cause I thought the lawyer would be down on me for listening. The first thing I heard Mr. Fitzgerald sayin’ was, ‘You’re mad — it ain’t true,’ an’ she ses, ‘S’elp me it is, Whyte’s got the proof,’ an’ then he sings out, ‘My poor girl,’ and she ses, ‘Will you marry her now?’ and ses he, ‘I will, I love her more than ever;’ and then she makes a grab at him, and says, ‘Spile his game if you can,’ and says he, ‘What’s yer name?’ and she says — ”
“What?” asked Madge, breathlessly.
There was a sharp exclamation as Sal said the name, and, turning round quickly, Madge found Brian standing beside her, pale as death, with his eyes fixed on the woman, who had risen to her feet.
“Go on!” he said sharply.
“That’s all I know,” she replied, in a sullen tone. Brian gave a sigh of relief.
“You can go,” he said slowly; “I wish to speak with Miss Frettlby alone.”
Sal looked at him for a moment, and then glanced at her mistress, who nodded to her as a sign that she might withdraw. She picked up her book, and with another sharp enquiring look at Brian, turned and walked slowly into the house.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09