There had been something almost approaching to exultation at Babington when the tidings of Caldigate’s alleged Australian wife were first heard there. As the anger had been great that Julia should be rejected, so had the family congratulation been almost triumphant when the danger which had been escaped was appreciated. There had been something of the same feeling at Pollington among the Shands — who had no doubt allowed themselves to think that Maria had been ill-treated by John Caldigate. He ought to have married Maria — at least such was the opinion of the ladies of the family, who were greatly impressed with the importance of the little book which had been carried away. But in regard to the Australian marriage, they had differed among themselves. That Maria should have escaped the terrible doom which had befallen Mrs. Bolton’s daughter, was, of course, a source of comfort. But Maria herself would never believe the evil story. John Caldigate had not been — well, perhaps not quite true to her. So much she acknowledged gently with the germ of a tear in her eye. But she was quite sure that he would not have married Hester Bolton while another wife was living in Australia. She arose almost to enthusiasm as she vindicated his character from so base a stain. He had been, perhaps, a little unstable in his affections — as men are so commonly. But not even when the jury found their verdict, could she be got to believe that the John Caldigate whom she had known would have betrayed a girl whom he loved as he was supposed to have betrayed Hester Bolton. The mother and sisters, who knew the softness of Maria’s disposition — and who had been more angry than their sister with the man who had been wicked enough to carry away Thomson’s ‘Seasons’ in his portmanteau without marrying the girl who had put it there — would not agree to this. The verdict, at any rate, was a verdict. John Caldigate was in prison. The poor young woman with her infant was a nameless, unfortunate creature. All this might have happened to their Maria. ‘I should always have believed him innocent,’ said Maria, wiping away the germ of the tear with her knuckle.
The matter was very often discussed in the doctor’s house at Pollington — as it was, indeed, by the public generally, and especially in the eastern counties. But in this house there a double interest attached to it. In the first place, there was Maria’s escape — which the younger girls were accustomed to talk of as having been ‘almost miraculous;’ and then there was Dick’s absolute disappearance. It had been declared at the trial, on behalf of Caldigate, that if Dick could have been put into the witness-box, he would have been able to swear that there had been no such marriage ceremony as that which the four witnesses had elaborately described. On the other hand, the woman and Crinkett had sworn boldly that Dick Shand, though not present at the marriage, had been well aware that it had taken place, and that Dick, could his evidence have been secured, would certainly have been a witness on their side. He had been outside the tent — so said the woman — when the marriage was being performed, and had refused to enter, by way of showing his continued hostility to an arrangement which he had always opposed. But when the woman said this, it was known that Dick Shand would not appear, and the opinion was general that Dick had died in his poverty and distress. Men who sink to be shepherds in Australia because they are noted drunkards, generally do die. The constrained abstinence of perhaps six months in the wilderness is agonising at first, and nearly fatal. Then the poor wretch rushes to the joys of an orgy with ten or fifteen pounds in his pocket; and the stuff which is given to him as brandy soon puts an end to his sufferings. There was but little doubt that such had been the fate of Dick — unless, perhaps, in the bosom of Maria and of his mother.
It was known too at Pollington, as well as elsewhere in the month of August, that efforts were still to be made with the view of upsetting the verdict. Something had crept out to the public as to the researches made by Bagwax, and allusions had been frequent as to the unfortunate absence of Dick Shand. The betting, had there been betting, would no doubt have been in favour of the verdict. The four witnesses had told their tale in a straightforward way; and though they were, from their characters, not entitled to perfect credit, still their evidence had in no wise been shaken. They were mean, dishonest folk, no doubt. They had taken Caldigate’s money, and had still gone on with the prosecution. Even if there had been some sort of a marriage, the woman should have taken herself off when she had received her money, and left poor Hester to enjoy her happiness, her husband, and her home at Bolton. That was the general feeling. But it was hardly thought that Bagwax, with his envelope, would prevail over Judge Bramber in the mind of the Secretary of State. Probably there had been a marriage. But it was singular that the two men who could have given unimpeachable evidence on the matter should both have vanished out of the world; Allan, the minister — and Dick Shand, the miner and shepherd.
‘What will she do when he comes out?’ Maria asked. Mrs. Rewble — Harriet — the curate’s wife, was there. Mr. Rewble, as curate, found it convenient to make frequent visits to his father-in-law’s house. And Mrs. Posttlethwaite — Matilda — was with them, as Mr. Posttlethwaite’s business in the soap line caused him to live at Pollington. And there were two unmarried sisters, Fanny and Jane. Mrs. Rewble was by this time quite the matron, and Mrs. Posttlethwaite was also the happy mother of children. But Maria was still Maria. Fanny already had a string to her bow — and Jane was expectant of many strings.
‘She ought to go back to her father and mother, of course,’ said Mrs. Rewble, indignantly.
‘I know I wouldn’t,’ said Jane.
‘You know nothing about it, miss, and you ought not to speak of such a thing,’ said the curate’s wife. Jane at this made a grimace which was intended to be seen only by her sister Fanny.
‘It is very hard that two loving hearts should be divided,’ said Maria.
‘I never thought so much of John Caldigate as you did,’ said Mrs. Posttlethwaite. ‘He seems to have been able to love a good many young women all at the same time.’
‘It’s like tasting a lot of cheeses, till you get the one that suits you,’ said Jane. This offended the elder sister so grievously that she declared she did not know what their mother was about, to allow such liberty to the girls, and then suggested that the conversation should be changed.
‘I’m sure I did not say anything wrong,’ said Jane, ‘and I suppose it is like that. A gentleman has to find out whom he likes best. And as he liked Miss Bolton best, I think it’s a thousand pities they should be parted.’
‘Ten thousand pities!’ said Maria enthusiastically.
‘Particularly as there is a baby,’ said Jane — upon which Mrs. Rewble was again very angry.
‘If Dick were to come home, he’d clear it all up at once,’ said Mrs. Posttlethwaite.
‘Dick will never come home,’ said Matilda mournfully.
‘Never!’ said Mrs. Rewble. ‘I am afraid that he has expiated all his indiscretions. It should make us who were born girls thankful that we have not been subjected to the same temptations.’
‘I should like to be a man all the same,’ said Jane.
‘You do not at all know what you are saying,’ replied the monitor. ‘How little have you realized what poor Dick must have suffered! I wonder when they are going to let us have tea. I’m almost famished.’ Mrs. Rewble was known in the family for having a good appetite. They were sitting at this moment round a table on the lawn, at which they intended to partake of their evening meal. The doctor might or might not join them. Mrs. Shand, who did not like the open air, would have hers sent to her in the drawing-room. Mr. Rewble would certainly be there. Mr. Posttlethwaite, who had been home to his dinner, had gone back to the soap-works. ‘Don’t you think, Jane, if you were to go in, you could hurry them?’ Then Jane went in and hurried the servant.
‘There’s a strange man with papa,’ said Jane, as she returned.
‘There are always strange men with papa,’ said Fanny. ‘I daresay he has come to have his tooth out.’ For the doctor’s practice was altogether general. From a baby to a back-tooth, he attended to everything now, as he had done forty years ago.
‘But this man isn’t like a patient. The door was half open, and I saw papa holding him by both hands.’
‘A lunatic!’ exclaimed Mrs. Rewble, thinking that Mr. Rewble ought to be sent at once to her father’s assistance.
‘He was quite quiet, and just for a moment I could see papa’s face. It wasn’t a patient at all. Oh, Maria!’
‘What is it, child?’ asked Mrs. Rewble.
‘I do believe that Dick has come back.’
They all jumped up from their seats suddenly. Then Mrs. Rewble reseated herself. ‘Jane is such a fool!’ she said.
‘I do believe it,’ said Jane. ‘He had yellow trousers on, as if he had come from a long way off. And I’m sure papa was very glad — why should he take both his hands?’
‘I feel as though my legs were sinking under me,’ said Maria.
‘I don’t think it possible for a moment,’ said Mrs. Rewble. ‘Maria, you are so romantic! You would believe anything.’
‘It is possible,’ said Mrs. Posttlethwaite.
‘If you will remain here, I will go into the house and inquire,’ said Mrs. Rewble. But it did not suit the others to remain there. For a moment the suggestion had been so awful that they had not dared to stir; but when the elder sister slowly moved towards the door which led into the house from the garden, they all followed her. Then suddenly they heard a scream, which they knew to come from their mother. ‘I believe it is Dick,’ said Mrs. Rewble, standing in the doorway so as to detain the others. ‘What ought we to do?’
‘Let me go in,’ said Jane, impetuously. ‘He is my brother.’
Maria was already dissolved in tears. Mrs. Posttlethwaite was struck dumb by the awfulness of the occasion, and clung fast to her sister Matilda.
‘It will be like one from the grave,’ said Mrs. Rewble, solemnly.
‘Let me go in,’ repeated Jane, impetuously. Then she pushed by her sisters, and was the first to enter the house. They all followed her into the hall, and there they found their mother supported in the arms of the man who wore the yellow trousers. Dick Shand had in truth returned to his father’s house.
The first thing to do with a returned prodigal is to kiss him, and the next to feed him; and therefore Dick was led away at once to the table on the lawn. But he gave no sign of requiring the immediate slaughter of a fatted calf. Though he had not exactly the appearance of a well-to-do English gentleman, he did not seem to be in want. The yellow trousers were of strong material, and in good order, made of that colour for colonial use, probably with the idea of expressing some contempt for the dingy hues which prevail among the legs of men at home. He wore a very large checked waistcoat, and a stout square coat of the same material. There was no look of poverty, and no doubt he had that day eaten a substantial dinner; but the anxious mother was desirous of feeding him immediately, and whispered to Jane some instructions as to cold beef, which was to be added to the tea and toast.
As they examined him, holding him by the arms and hands, and gazing up into his face, the same idea occurred to all of them. Though they knew him very well now, they would hardly have known him had they met him suddenly in the streets. He seemed to have grown fifteen years older during the seven years of his absence. His face had become thin and long and almost hollow. His beard went all round under his chin, and was clipped into the appearance of a stiff thick hedge — equally thick, and equally broad, and equally protrusive at all parts. And within this enclosure it was shorn. But his mouth had sunk in, and his eyes. In colour he was almost darker than brown. You would have said that his skin had been tanned black, but for the infusion of red across it here and there. He seemed to be in good present health, but certainly bore the traces of many hardships ‘And here you are all just as I left you,’ he said, counting up his sisters.
‘Not exactly,’ said Mrs. Rewble, remembering her family. ‘And Matilda has got two.’
‘Not husbands, I hope,’ said Dick.
‘Oh, Dick! that is so like you,’ said Jane, getting up and kissing him again in her delight. Then Mr. Rewble came forward, and the brothers-in-law renewed their old acquaintance.
‘It seems just like the other day,’ said Dick, looking round upon the rose-bushes.
‘Oh my boy! my darling, darling boy!’ said the mother, who had hurried up-stairs for her shawl, conscious of her rheumatism even amidst the excitement of her son’s return. ‘Oh, Dick! This is the happiest day of all my life. Wouldn’t you like something better than tea?’ This she said with many memories and many thoughts; but still, with a mother’s love, unable to refrain from offering what she thought her son would wish to have.
‘There ain’t anything better,’ said Dick very solemnly.
‘Nothing half so good to my thinking,’ said Mrs. Rewble, imagining that by a word in season she might help the good work.
The mother’s eyes were filled with tears, but she did not dare to speak a word. Then there was a silence for a few moments. ‘Tell us all about it, Dick,’ said the father. ‘There’s whisky inside if you like it.’ Dick shook his head solemnly — but, as they all thought, with a certain air of regret. Tell us what you have to say,’ repeated the doctor.
‘I’m sworn off these two years.’
‘Touched nothing for two years?’ said the mother exultingly, with her arms and shawl again round her son’s neck.
‘A teetotaller?’ said Maria.
‘Anything you like to call it. Only, what a gentleman’s habits are in that respect needn’t be made the subject of general remark.’ It was evident he was a little sore, and Jane, therefore, offered him a dish full of gooseberries. He took the plate in his hand and ate them assiduously for a while in silence, as though unconscious of what he was doing. ‘You know all about it now, don’t you?’
‘Oh my dearest boy!’ ejaculated the mother.
‘You didn’t get better gooseberries than those on your travels,’ said the doctor, calling him back to the condition of the world around him.
Then he told them of his adventures. For two terrible years he had been a shepherd on different sheep-runs up in Queensland. Then he had found employment on a sugar plantation, and had superintended the work of a gang of South Sea Islanders — Canakers they are called — men who are brought into the colony from the islands of the Pacific — and who return thence to their homes generally every three years, much to the regret of their employers. In the transit of these men agents are employed, and to this service Dick had, after a term, found himself promoted. Then it had come to pass that he had remained for a period on one of these islands, with the view of persuading the men to emigrate and reemigrate and had thus been resident among them for more than a couple of years. They had used him well, and he had liked the islands — having lived in one of them without seeing another European for many months. Then the payments which had from time to time been made to him by the Queensland planters were stopped, and his business, such as it had been, came to an end. He had found himself with just sufficient money to bring him home; and here he was.
‘My boy, my darling boy!’ exclaimed his mother again, as though all their joint troubles were now over.
The doctor remembered the adage of the rolling stone, and felt that the return of a son at the age of thirty, without any means of maintaining himself, was hardly an unalloyed blessing. He was not the man to turn a son out of doors. He had always broadened his back to bear the full burden of his large family. But even at this moment he was a little melancholy as he thought of the difficulty of finding employment for the wearer of those yellow trousers. How was it possible that a man should continue to live an altogether idle life at Pollington and still remain a teetotaller? ‘Have you any plans I can help you in now?’ he asked.
‘Of course he’ll remain at home for a while before he thinks of anything,’ said the mother.
‘I suppose I must look about me,’ said Dick. By-the-by, what has become of John Caldigate?’
They all at once gazed at each other. It could hardly be that he did not in truth know what had become of John Caldigate.
‘Haven’t you heard?’ asked Maria.
‘Of course he has heard,’ said Mrs. Rewble.
‘You must have heard,’ said the mother.
‘I don’t in the least know what you are talking about. I have heard nothing at all.’
In very truth he had heard nothing of his old friend — not even that he had returned to England. Then by degrees the whole story was told to him. ‘I know that he was putting a lot of money together,’ said Dick enviously. ‘Married Hester Bolton? I thought he would! Bigamy! Euphemia Smith! Married before! Certainly not at the diggings.’
‘He wasn’t married up at Ahalala?’ asked the doctor.
‘To Euphemia Smith? I was there when they quarrelled, and when she went into partnership with Crinkett. I am sure there was no such marriage. John Caldigate in prison for bigamy? And he paid them twenty thousand pounds? The more fool he!’
‘They all say that.’
‘But it’s an infernal plant. As sure as my name is Richard Shand, John Caldigate never married that woman.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14