The twilight of a winter’s evening, succeeding a short and stormy day, was fast fading into night, and old John Thornton sat dozing in his chair before the fire, waiting for candles to resume his reading. He was now but little over sixty, yet his hair was snowy white, and his face looked worn and aged. Anyone who watched his countenance now in the light of the blazing wood, might see by the down-drawn brows and uneasy expression that the old man was unhappy and disquieted.
The book that lay in his lap was a volume of Shakespeare, open at the “Merchant of Venice.” Something he had come across in that play had set him thinking. The book had fallen on his knees, and he sat pondering till he had fallen asleep. Yet even in his slumber the uneasy expression stayed upon his face, and now and then he moved uneasily in his chair.
What could there be to vex him? Not poverty at all events, for not a year ago a relation, whom he had seldom seen, and of late years entirely lost sight of, had left him 5000L. and a like sum to his daughter Mary. And his sister, Miss Thornton, a quiet good old maid, who had been a governess all her life, had come to live with him, so that he was now comfortably off, with the only two relations he cared about in the world staying with him to make his old age comfortable. Yet notwithstanding all this, John was unhappy.
His daughter Mary sat sewing in the window, ostensibly for the purpose of using the last of the daylight. But the piece of white muslin in her hand claimed but a small part of her attention. Sometimes she gave a stitch or two; but then followed a long gaze out of the window, across the damp gravel and plushy lawn, towards the white gate under the leafless larches. Again with an impatient sigh she would address herself to her sewing, but once more her attention would wander to the darkening garden; so at length she rose, and leaning against the window, began to watch the white gate once more.
But now she starts, and her face brightens up, as the gate swings on its hinges, and a tall man comes with rapid eager step up the walk. John moves uneasily in his sleep, but unnoticed by her, for she stands back in the shadow of the curtain, and eagerly watches the new comer in his approach. Her father sits up in his chair, and after looking sadly at her for a moment, then sinks back with a sigh, as though he would wish to go to sleep again and wake no more.
The maid, bringing in candles, met the new comer at the door, and, carrying in the lights before him, announced —
“Mr. George Hawker.”
I remember his face indistinctly as it was then. I remember it far better as it was twenty years after. Yet I must try to recall it for you as well as I can, for we shall have much to do with this man before the end. As the light from the candles fell upon his figure while he stood in the doorway, any man or woman who saw it would have exclaimed immediately, “What a handsome fellow!” and with justice; for if perfectly regular features, splendid red and brown complexion, faultless white teeth, and the finest head of curling black hair I ever saw, could make him handsome, handsome he was without doubt. And yet the more you looked at him the less you liked him, and the more inclined you felt to pick a quarrel with him. The thin lips, the everlasting smile, the quick suspicious glance, so rapidly shot out from under the overhanging eyebrows, and as quickly withdrawn, were fearfully repulsive, as well as a trick he had of always clearing his throat before he spoke, as if to gain time to frame a lie. But, perhaps, the strangest thing about him was the shape of his head, which, I believe, a child would have observed. We young fellows in those times knew little enough about phrenology. I doubt, indeed, if I had ever heard the word, and yet among the village lads that man went by the name of “flat-headed George.” The forehead was both low and narrow, sloping a great way back, while the larger part of the skull lay low down behind the ears. All this was made the more visible by the short curling hair which covered his head.
He was the only son of a small farmer, in one of the distant outlying hamlets of Drumston, called Woodlands. His mother had died when he was very young, and he had had but little education, but had lived shut up with his father in the lonely old farm-house. And strange stories were in circulation among the villages about that house, not much to the credit of either father or son, which stories John Thornton must in his position as clergyman have heard somewhat of, so that one need hardly wonder at his uneasiness when he saw him enter.
For Mary adored him; the rest of the village disliked and distrusted him; but she, with a strange perversity, loved him as it seldom falls to the lot of man to be loved — with her whole heart and soul.
“I have brought you some snipes, Mr. Thornton,” said he, in his most musical tones. “The white frost last night has sent them down off the moor as thick as bees, and this warm rain will soon send them all back again. I only went round through Fernworthy and Combe, and I have killed five couple.”
“Thank you, Mr. George, thank you,” said John, “they are not so plentiful as they were in old times, and I don’t shoot so well either as I used to do. My sight’s going, and I can’t walk far. It is nearly time for me to go, I think.”
“Not yet, sir, I hope; not yet for a long time,” said George Hawker, in an offhand sort of way. But Mary slipped round, kissed his forehead, and took his hand quietly in hers.
John looked from her to George, and dropped her hand with a sigh, and soon the lovers were whispering together again in the darkness of the window.
But now there is a fresh footfall on the garden walk, a quick, rapid, decided one. Somebody burst open the hall-door, and, without shutting it, dashes into the parlour, accompanied by a tornado of damp air, and announces in a loud though not unpleasant voice, with a foreign accent —
“I have got the new Scolopax.”
He was a broad, massive built man, about the middle height, with a square determined set of features, brightened up by a pair of merry blue eyes. His forehead was, I think, the finest I ever saw; so high, so broad, and so upright; and, altogether, he was the sort of man that in a city one would turn round and look after, wondering who he was.
He stood in the doorway, dripping, and without “Good-even,” or salutation of any sort, exclaimed —
“I have got the new Scolopax!”
“No!” cried old John, starting up all alive, “Have you though? How did you get him? Are you sure it is not a young Jack? Come in and tell us all about it. Only think.”
“The obstinacy and incredulity of you English,” replied the new comer, totally disregarding John’s exclamations, and remaining dripping in the doorway, “far exceeds anything I could have conceived, if I had not witnessed it. If I told you once, I told you twenty times, that I had seen the bird on three distinct occasions in the meadow below Reel’s mill; and you each time threw your jacksnipe theory in my face. To-day I marked him down in the bare ground outside Haveldon wood, then ran at full speed up to the jager, and offered him five shillings if he would come down and shoot the bird I showed him. He came, killed the bird in a style that I would give a year’s tobacco to be master of, and remarked as I paid him his money, that he would like to get five shillings for every one of those birds he could shoot in summer time. The jolter-head thought it was a sandpiper, but he wasn’t much further out than you with your jacksnipes. Bah!”
“My dear Doctor Mulhaus,” said John mildly, “I confess myself to have been foolishly incredulous, as to our little place being honoured by such a distinguished stranger as the new snipe. But come in to the fire, and smoke your pipe, while you show me your treasure. Mary, you know, likes tobacco, and Mr. George, I am sure,” he added, in a slightly altered tone, “will excuse it.”
Mr. George would be charmed. But the Doctor, standing staring at him open-eyed for a moment, demanded in an audible whisper —
“Who the deuce is that?”
“Mr. George Hawker, Doctor, from the Woodlands. I should have thought you had met him before.”
“Never,” replied the Doctor. “And I don’t — and I mean I have had the honour of hearing of him from Stockbridge. Excuse me, sir, a moment. I am going to take a liberty. I am a phrenologist.” He advanced across the room to where George sat, laid his hand on his forehead, and drawing it lightly and slowly back through his black curls, till he reached the nape of his neck, ejaculated a “Hah!” which might mean anything, and retired to the fire.
He then began filling his pipe, but before it was filled set it suddenly on the table, and drawing from his coat pocket a cardboard box, exhibited to the delighted eyes of the vicar that beautiful little brown-mottled snipe, which now bears the name of Colonel Sabine, and having lit his pipe, set to work with a tiny penknife and a pot of arsenical soap, all of which were disinterred from the vast coat-pocket before mentioned, to reduce the plump little bird to a loose mass of skin and feathers, fit to begin again his new life in death in a glass-case in some collector’s museum.
George Hawker had sat very uneasy since the Doctor’s phrenological examination, and every now and then cast fierce angry glances at him from under his lowered eyebrows, talking but little to Mary. But now he grows more uneasy still, for the gate goes again, and still another footfall is heard approaching through the darkness.
“That is James Stockbridge. I should know that step among a thousand. Whether brushing through the long grass of an English meadow in May time, or quietly pacing up and down the orange alley in the New World, between the crimson snow and the blazing west; or treading lightly across the wet ground at black midnight, when the cattle are restless, or the blacks are abroad; or even, I should think, staggering on the slippery deck, when the big grey seas are booming past, and the good ship seems plunging down to destruction.”
He had loved Mary dearly since she was almost a child; but she, poor pretty fool, used to turn him to ridicule, and make him fetch and carry for her like a dog. He was handsomer, cleverer, stronger, and better tempered than George Hawker, and yet she had no eyes for him, or his good qualities. She liked him in a sort of way; nay, it might even be said that she was fond of him. But what she liked better than him was to gratify her vanity, by showing her power over the finest young fellow in the village, and to use him as a foil to aggravate George Hawker. My aunt Betsy (spinster), used to say, that if she were a man, sooner than stand that hussy’s airs (meaning Mary’s), in the way young Stockbridge did, she’d cut, and run to America, which, in the old lady’s estimation, was the last resource left to an unfortunate human creature, before suicide.
As he entered the parlour, John’s face grew bright, and he held out his hand to him. The Doctor, too, shoving his spectacles on his forehead, greeted him with a royal salute, of about twenty-one short words; but he got rather a cool reception from the lovers in the window. Mary gave him a quiet good evening, and George hoped with a sneer that he was quite well, but directly the pair were whispering together once more in the shadow of the curtain.
So he sat down between the Doctor and the Vicar. James, like all the rest of us, had a profound respect for the Doctor’s learning, and old John and he were as father and son; so a better matched trio could hardly be found in the parish, as they sat there before the cheerful blaze, smoking their pipes.
“A good rain, Jim; a good, warm, kindly rain after the frost,” began the Vicar.
“A very good rain, sir,” replied Jim.
“Some idiots,” said the Doctor, “take the wing bones out first. Now, my method of beginning at the legs and working forward, is infinitely superior. Yet that ass at Crediton, after I had condescended to show him, persisted his own way was the best.” All this time he was busy skinning his bird.
“How are your Southdowns looking, Jim?” says the Vicar. “Foot-rot, eh?”
“Well, yes, sir,” says James, “they always will, you know, in these wet clays. But I prefer ’em to the Leicesters, for all that.”
“How is scapegrace Hamlyn?” asked the Vicar.
“He is very well, sir. He and I have been out with the harriers today.”
“Ah! taking you out with the harriers instead of minding his business; just like him. He’ll be leading you astray, James, my boy. Young men like you and he, who have come to be their own masters so young, ought to be more careful than others. Besides, you see, both you and Hamlyn being ‘squires, have got an example to set to the poorer folks.”
“We are neither of us so rich as some of the farmers, sir.”
“No; but you are both gentlemen born, you see, and, therefore, ought to be in some way models for those who are not.”
“Bosh,” said the Doctor. “All this about Hamlyn’s going out hare-hunting.”
“I don’t mind it once a-week,” said the Vicar, ignoring the Doctor’s interruption; “but FOUR TIMES is rather too much. And Hamlyn has been out four days this week. Twice with Wrefords, and twice with Holes. He can’t deny it.”
Jim couldn’t, so he laughed. “You must catch him, sir,” he said, “and give him a real good wigging. He’ll mind you. But catch him soon, sir, or you won’t get the chance. Doctor, do you know anything about New South Wales?”
“Botany Bay,” said the Vicar abstractedly, “convict settlement in South Seas. Jerry Shaw begged the judge to hang him instead of sending him there. Judge wouldn’t do it though; Jerry was too bad for that.”
“Hamlyn and I are thinking of selling up and going there,” said Jim. “Do you know anything about it, Doctor?”
“What!” said the Doctor; “the mysterious hidden land of the great South Sea. Tasman’s land, Nuyt’s land, Leuwin’s land, De Witt’s land, any fool’s land who could sail round it, and never have the sense to land and make use of it — the new country of Australasia. The land with millions of acres of fertile soil, under a splendid climate, calling aloud for some one to come and cultivate them. The land of the Eucalypti and the Marsupials, the land of deep forests and boundless pastures, which go rolling away westward, plain beyond plain, to none knows where. Yes; I know something about it.”
The Vicar was “knocked all of a heap” at James’ announcement, and now, slightly recovering himself, said —
“You hear him. He is going to Botany Bay. He is going to sell his estate, 250 acres of the best land in Devon, and go and live among the convicts. And who is going with him? Why, Hamlyn, the wise. Oh dear me. And what is he going for?”
That was a question apparently hard to answer. If there was a reason, Jim was either unwilling or unable to give it. Yet I think that the real cause was standing there in the window, with a look of unbounded astonishment on her pretty face.
“Going to leave us, James!” she cried, coming quickly towards him. “Why, whatever shall I do without you?”
“Yes, Miss Mary,” said James somewhat huskily; “I think I may say that we have settled to go. Hamlyn has got a letter from a cousin of his who went from down Plymouth way, and who is making a fortune; and besides, I have got tired of the old place somehow, lately. I have nothing to keep me here now, and there will be a change, and a new life there. In short,” said he, in despair of giving a rational reason, “I have made up my mind.”
“Oh!” said Mary, while her eyes filled with tears, “I shall be so sorry to lose you.”
“I too,” said James, “shall be sorry to start away beyond seas and leave all the friends I care about save one behind me. But times are hard for the poor folks here now, and if I, as ‘squire, set the example of going, I know many will follow. The old country, Mr. Thornton,” he continued, “is getting too crowded for men to live in without a hard push, and depend on it, when poor men are afraid to marry for fear of having children which they can’t support, it is time to move somewhere. The hive is too hot, and the bees must swarm, so those that go will both better themselves, and better those they leave behind them, by giving them more room to work and succeed. It’s hard to part with the old farm and the old faces now, but perhaps in a few years, one will get to like that country just as one does this, from being used to it, and then the old country will seem only like a pleasant dream after one has awoke.”
“Think twice about it, James, my boy,” said the Vicar.
“Don’t be such an ass as to hesitate,” said the Doctor impatiently. “It is the genius of your restless discontented nation to go blundering about the world like buffaloes in search of fresh pasture. You have founded already two or three grand new empires, and you are now going to form another; and men like you ought to have their fingers in the pie.”
“Well, God speed you, and Hamlyn too, wherever you go. Are you going home, Mr. Hawker?”
George, who hated James from the very bottom of his heart, was not ill-pleased to hear there would be a chance of soon getting rid of him. He had been always half jealous of him, though without the slightest cause, and to-night he was more so than ever, for Mary, since she had heard of James’ intended departure, had grown very grave and silent. He stood, hat in hand, ready to depart, and as usual, when he meant mischief, spoke in his sweetest tones.
“I am afraid I must be saying good evening, Mr. Thornton. Why, James,” he added, “this is something quite new. So you are going to Botany without waiting to be sent there. Ha! ha! Well, I wish you every sort of good luck. My dear friend, Hamlyn, too. What a loss he’ll be to our little society, so sociable and affable as he always is to us poor farmers’ sons. You’ll find it lonely there though. You should get a wife to take with you. Oh, yes, I should certainly get married before I went. Good night.”
All this was meant to be as irritating as possible; but as he went out at the door he had the satisfaction to hear James’ clear honest laugh mingling with the Vicar’s, for, as George had closed the door, the Doctor had said, looking after him —
“Gott in Himmel, that young man has go a skull like a tom-cat.”
This complimentary observation was lost on Mary, who had left the room with George. The Vicar looked round for her, and sighed when he missed her.
“Ah!” said he; “I wish he was going instead of you.”
“So does the new colony, I’ll be bound,” added the Doctor.
Soon after this the party separated. When James and the Doctor stood outside the door, the latter demanded, “Where are you going?”
“To Sydney, I believe, Doctor.”
“Goose. I mean now.”
“No, you ain’t,” said the Doctor; “you are going to walk up to Hamlyn’s with me, and hear me discourse.” Accordingly, about eleven o’clock, these two arrived at my house, and sat before the fire till half-past three in the morning; and in that time the Doctor had given us more information about New South Wales than we had been able to gather from ordinary sources in a month.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10