IT is midwinter, in a little Lancashire village on the coast, not far from Liverpool. One quiet main street, crossed by three or four short side streets, that lead in the summer days into the sweet meadows and orchards. One of these side streets has only three houses on one side, separated by goodly gardens. The house in the centre is the smallest, but it is extremely neat, and the garden fairly glows with colour.
This is the home of Mrs. Walmsley, a Widow; and the garden is looked after by herself and her daughter Alice, about sixteen years old. The house on the right of Mrs. Walmsley's belongs to Mr. Draper, the richest man in the village, a retired shopkeeper. The house on the left belongs to Captain Sheridan, a bluff old Irishman retired from the navy, and now Inspector of Coast Guards, whose family consists of his son and daughterWill Sheridan, the son, being just twenty years old.
At the gate of Draper's garden, opening on the streets, stands a handsome young man in the uniform of the merchant marine. He is Sam Draper, first officer of the Canton, arrived a few weeks before from China.
"Good-morning, Alice," he says in a cheerful but not a pleasant voice, as Alice Walmsley passes down the road.
Alice stopped and chatted lightly for a minute with her old schoolmate. Draper evidently paid her a compliment, for her cheeks were flushed as she entered her mother's gate standing near which was young Sheridan, whom she slightly saluted
p.41and hurriedly passed, much to his surprise, for their relations were, at least, of the oldest and closest friendship.
"Alice," said Will, in a wondering tone as the girl passed with her flushed face.
"Welldid you speak?" And she paused and turned her head.
Will Sheridan loved Alice, and she knew it, though no word had been spoken. He had loved her for years in a boy's way, cherishing her memory on his long voyages, for Will, too, was a sailor, as were almost all the young men of the village; but he was soon to leave home for a two years' service on Sam Draper's vessel, and of late his heart had been urging him to speak to Alice.
He was a quiet, thoughtful, manly young fellow, with nothing particular about him, except this strong secret love for the prettiest girl in the village.
"Yes, I spoke," he answered hesitatingly, as if wounded; but perhaps you haven't time to listen."
"What is it, Will?" she said in a kindlier tone, and smiling, though before she spoke she saw with a side glance that Sam Draper had gone away from the gate.
"O, it isn't anything particular," said Will; "only there's rare skating on the mill-pond, and I was going there this afternoon."
"And?" queried Alice, archly.
"YesI wish you would," said Will, earnestly.
"Well, I think I will," she replied, laughingly, "though you haven't told me yet what I am to do."
"Why, go skating with me," said. Will, highly pleased; "Sam Draper and his sisters are going, and there will be a crowd from the village.
Shall I come for you at three?"
"Yes," she replied, "I'll be ready" and as she turned towards her mother's house the flush was in her face again.
Will Sheridan walked lightly on, thinking happy thoughts. Passing Draper's gate, Sam Draper stepped from the shrubbery, whence he had observed the interview. He was a tall, handsome fellow, with fair hair and blue eyes; not the soft blue which usually denotes good-nature, but a pale, slaty blue that has a hard and shallow look. He had a free and easy way with him, that made people who met him for the first time think he was cheerful and amiable. But if you observed him
p.42closely you would see, in the midst of a boisterous laugh, that the cold, blue eyes were keenly watching you, without a particle of mirth.
There was something never to be forgotten by those who discovered this double expression in Draper's face. He had a habit of waving his arms in a boisterous way, and bending his body, as if to emphasize the heartiness of his laugh or the warmth of his greeting. But while these visible expressions of jollity were in full play, if you caught the cold and calculating look from the blue eyes that were weighing you up while off your guard, you would shudder as if you had looked suddenly into the eyes of a snake.
Draper knew, too, that his face could be read by keen eyes; and he tried to mask even the habit of concealment, until, at last, his duplicity had become extremely artful and hard to be discovered. But he always knew the people who bad caught his eye and read his soul. He never tried his boisterous manner on them again, but treated them gravely and quietly. But these were the people be bated.
Seven years before, when he and Will Sheridan were schoolboys, Sheridan not only saw through the falsehood of Draper's manner, but exposed it before the whole school. Nearly every boy in the school had had some reason to dislike Draper, but his loud, good-natured way had kept them from speaking. But when Will Sheridan publicly pointed out the warm laugh and the cold eye, the friendly word and the cruel act, everyone saw it at a glance, and a public opinion against Draper was instantly made among his schoolfellows, which no after effort of his could quite remove.
From that day be nourished in his soul a secret desire to do Sheridan some injury that would cut him to the quick.
Not that Draper had no friendsindeed, he was always making new friendsand his new friends were always loud in his praise; but when they ceased to be new, somehow they ceased to admire Sam Draper, and either said they were mistaken in their first impression, or said nothing.
Both young men were sailors. Some years ago the English merchant service was almost as well ordered and as precise in discipline and promotion as the Royal Navy, and young men of good position entered it as a profession. On his last voyage Draper had become first mate; and Will Sheridan had
p.43lately engaged to take his old place on the Canton as second mate.
As Draper stepped from the shrubbery and hailed Will with a cheery word, his hand was outstretched in a most cordial way, and his lips smiled; but his eye was keen and smileless, and as cold as ice. He had known for years of Will's affection for Alice Walmsley; and it was commonly said in the village that Alice returned his love.
"Why don't you ask Alice to go skating this afternoon?" said Draper.
"I Have just asked her," said Will, "and she is going."
"Bravo!" said Draper, in a hearty tone, so far as the sound went; "I thought she would like to be asked, when I told her, half an hour ago, we were going."
Will Sheridan had some light word on his lip, but he did not speak it; and his smile faded, though without apparent cause, while he looked at Draper's pleasant face.
"She didn't say he had told her," he thought, and somehow the thought troubled him. But he put it away and forgot all about it before the afternoon.
The mill-pond was covered with skaters when Will and Alice arrived. They had often skated together before, and because Alice was timid on the ice, she used to hold Will's hand or take his arm; and now and then, and as often as he could, Will's arm was around her, as he struck out strongly and rapidly.
Unconsciously they had assumed settled relations towards each othershe resting on him with confidence, and he quite assured of her trust.
To-day there was a disturbing element somewhere. Before they had been ten minutes on the ice, Will noticed that Alice was, for the first time in her life, listening inattentively to his words. And more than once he saw her looking over his shoulder, as if seeking someone in the crowd of skaters. After a while she evidently found whom she had sought, and her face brightened. Will, at the moment, asked her some question, and she did not hear him at first, but made him repeat the word.
With a strange sinking of the heart, he followed the direction of the girl's eyes, and was just in time to see Sam Draper kiss his hand to herand Alice smiled.
Will Sheridan was a sensitive and proud young fellow, and his quick feelings of honour were wounded by what he perhaps too hastily deemed the deceit of Alice Walmsley. A change had certainly come in her relation to him, but what right had he to charge her with deceit? He had no claim on herhad never spoken a word of love to her in his life.
The evening had closed when he left her at her mother's gate. They said "Good-night" in a new fashionthe words were as cold as the wind, and the touch of the hands was brief and formal.
After that Will did not ask Alice to walk or skate with him. He called no more at her mother's house as he used to do. He went to none of the usual places of meeting with her. If he had gone, he should have been all the more lonely; for he could not pretend to be pleasantly engaged with others while his heart was full of pain and unrest. But he could not help watching for her from his room window; and surely it were better for his happiness had he overcome this too.
He saw that where he used to be, there every day was his rival. He heard Draper's loud and happy voice and laughterand he noticed that Alice was happier and far more boisterous than ever he had known herand that her happiness and gaiety became even louder when she knew he was observing.
But at last came the time of the Canton's sailing. On the evening before leaving, Will Sheridan went to Mrs. Walmsley's to say good-bye, and, as Alice was not there, he remained talking with her mother, with whom he had always been a favourite. After a while he heard the gate swing, and saw Alice approaching the house, and Draper looking after her from the gate.
When Alice entered, he was standing and bidding farewell to her mother, who was weeping quietly.
Alice understood all, and the flush faded from her cheek.
"Good-bye, Alice," he said, holding out his hand. "You know I am going away in the morning." He had walked towards the door as he spoke, keeping her hand, and now they stood in the porch.
He saw the tears in her eyes, and his courage gave way, for he had only a boy's heart to bear a man's grief; and he covered his face with his hands and sobbed.
In a few minutes he was calm, and he bent over the weeping girl. "Alice," he whispered, tenderly, and she raised her tear-stained face to his breast. Poor Will, yearning to take her in his arms, remembering what he had seen, only pressed her hands in his, and, stooping, kissed her on the forehead again and again Then he walked, tear-blinded, down the straight path to the gate.
A moment after, he felt a man's hand on his collar, and, turning, met the hard eyes of Draper. Sheridan's face was still quivering with the powerful emotion.
"What do you mean, Draper?" he demanded angrily, dashing the hand aside.
"I mean to let you know," said Draper, contemptuously, weighing the words, "that I saw all your snivelling scene, and that I have seen all your impertinent attentions to that girl."
Will Sheridan controlled himself by a violent effort, because the name of Alice Walmsley was in question.
"That girl, as you impertinently call her," he said, calmly, "is one of my oldest friends. My attentions have never been impertinent to her."
"You lie, you cur!" brutally answered Draper.
Though few words had been spoken, here was the culmination of an enmity that was old and rankling. On both sides there had been repression of feeling; but now the match had touched the powder, and the wrath flamed.
The word had barely passed the insulter's lips, when he reeled and tumbled headlong from Sheridan's terrible blow. As soon as the blow was delivered, Will turned, and walked towards his own home, never even looking behind.
It was half a minute before Draper picked himself from the frozen earth, still dazed with the shock. He showed no desire to follow, or continue the quarrel. With teeth set like a vice, and a livid face, he looked after the strong figure of Will, till he turned into his father's house.
Next day the young men left the village, and entered on their duty as officers of the Canton, which lay in a Liverpool dock. No one knew of their quarrel, as neither had spoken of it, and there had been no witnesses.
The preparations for sea kept them apart for several days the vessel sailed from Liverpool, and soon cleared the Channel. Two weeks later, when the ship passed, on a beautiful night,
p.46within right of the Western Islands, the young men came face to face on the poop. Will Sheridan had come on deck to enjoy the delightful scene, not thinking that the first mate was officer of the watch.
"Draper," said Will, in a friendly tone, holding out his hand when they met, "I did not know you were engaged to Miss Walmsley. We should both be sorry for what happened that night."
The eyes of Draper glittered like steel as he answered in a sneering tone
"And who told you, Sir, that I was engaged?"
"I judge so from your conduct," said Will.
"You are not a good judge, then," answered Draper.
"Then there's all the less reason for us to quarrel, man. Take back your insulting words, and let me apologize for my violence."
"My insulting wordslet me see, what were they? Ah, yes,"he spoke slowly, as if he meant to wound with the repetition"I think I said that I had been a witness to your snivelling scene of farewelland that I was acquainted with your unsought and impertinent attentions to that girl. By the way, I may tell you that she herself made me acquainted with the offensive persistence of her obtuse admirer."
"She told you?" said Will, staggered by the word. "She said my love was offensive to her?"
"Ha! Nonot love exactly," said the other, with the same biting sneer; "I believe you never gave her a chance to fling that in your teeth."
"Take care, Draper!" said Sheridan.
"Well, let us go on with the insulting words, as you choose to call them. I also said you were a liar, if I remember well and a curdid I not?"
"Why do you repeat the foul words, man?" asked Sheridan, indignantly.
"Why, because I used them after careful choosing and because they are true! Stay!" he added, raising his voice, and backing to the rail, as he saw Sheridan approaching." I am the first officer of this ship, and if you dare to raise your hand against me, I will shoot you like a dog. We'll have no mutiny here."
"Mutiny!" cried Sheridan, more astounded and puzzled
p.47than angry. "What in heaven's name are you talking about? I want to be calm, Draper, for old times' sake. You call me vile names, and threaten my life, and yet I have given you no earthly cause. What do you mean?"
"I mean, that he who pretends to be my friend, while he ruins my character, is a liar; and that he who tells a slander in secret is a coward."
"Slander your character?" said Sheridan, "I never said an ill word of youthough I have unwillingly become acquainted with some things that I wish I had never known."
The latter part of the sentence was slowly added. Draper winced as if cut with a whip.
"You have made a charge" continued Sheridan, sternly, "and you must explain it. How have I slandered you?"
Draper hesitated. He hated the man before him, like a fiend; but he hated still more the subject he had now to touch.
"You knew about that girl in Calcutta," he said, now fairly livid with passion; " no one in England knew it but you."
"Yes," said Sheridan, slowly, "I learned something about it, against my will."
"Against your will," sneered the other, "was it against your will you told the story toher?"
Draper never repeated Alice's name, as if it were unpleasant to his tongue.
"I never mentioned your shameful affairs," answered Sheridan, with scorn and indignation; " but you are justly punished to have thought so."
"You did tell her!" cried Draper, terribly excited; "you told her about my marriage in Calcutta."
"Your marriage!" and Sheridan stepped back, as recoiling from a reptile. Then, after a pause, as if speaking to a condemned culprit
"Your infamy is deeper than I thought. I did not know till now that your victim in Calcutta was also your wife."
With lightning rapidity Draper saw the dreadful confession his error had led him into. He knew that Sheridan spoke the truth, and he hurriedly attempted to close the grave he had exposed.
"She is dead," he said, searching Sheridan's face; "you should have known that, too."
"Dead or alive, God have pity on her!" answered Sheridan whose face and voice were filled with revulsion and contempt. "For her sake, I pray that she may be dead; but I do not believe you. I shall see that those be warned in time who are still in danger."
Sheridan deliberately turned on his heel and entered the cabin, while Draper, confounded and dismayed at his self conviction, leant on the rail looking out at sea, cursing his own stupidity that had betrayed him.
"Who else could have known?" he muttered; "and who else could have told her? But she doesn't wholly believe it and, when I swore it was false that last evening, I think she believed me. I'll take care, at all events, that he shall have no chance to unsay my word."
For hours the brooding rascal walked the poop deck, till the watch was changed, when he went below, and tried to sleep.
WILL SHERIDAN'S life on the Canton was a restless and unhappy one from the night of his altercation with Draper. He was daily associated with a man who had exposed his own villainy; a caitiff so vile, that he had sought, and probably still intended, to blight the life of a girl he had known from childhood.
The discipline of the ship required a certain courtesy and respect towards the first officer. This formal recognition Will paid, but nothing more.
A few days after this meeting Draper made an advance towards intimacy; but this was repelled with such cold severity as showed him that he had nothing to expect in future from Sheridan's forbearance.
"Do not dare to address me as a friend again," Will said, sternly; "I shall write to England from the first port, and expose you as the scoundrel you are."
Draper's dry lipshis lips were always drymoved as if he were speaking, but no words came. His shallow eyes became
p.49wells of hate. He passed by Sheridan without reply, and went to his room.
There are a hundred ways in which the chief officer of a large ship can grind his inferiors; and Sheridan every day felt the subtle malevolence of his enemy. But these persecutions he did not heed. He knew that underneath these symptoms lay a more dangerous rancour that, sooner or later, would try to do him a deadly injury.
What the form of the attack might be, he knew not. But he prepared himself for emergencies. Will Sheridan was not only a brave and straightforward young fellow, but he had a clever head on his shoulders.
"Why should I let this cunning scoundrel injure me?" he asked himself. "His villainy is easily seen throughand I'm going to watch him closely."
He did watch him, and it served him well. Every secret and dangerous move he saw and disarranged. A trumped-up plan of mutiny among the menwhich would have excused bloodshed, and the shooting of an officer, perhaps, by accidenthe nipped in the bud, and almost exposed the machinations of him who hatched it.
Draper soon understood that he was playing with his master, and changed his method. He began to wait for an opportunity instead of making one.
This will be the case almost invariably; when honest men axe fighting cowards and slanderers, the surest way to defeat them is by constant watchfulness. Evil-minded people are generally shallow, and easily countermined. Only, when they axe countermined, they should be blown up, and never spared.
The Canton touched at Singapore for orders, and was detained a week. Will Sheridan resolved that on the night before she sailed he would leave the ship. Draper seemed to divine his purpose, and watched him like a tiger. But Will's constant attention to duty, and his equable temper, deceived the watcher.
The night before the Canton was to sail, Will dropt a bundle into a dingy under the bow, swung himself after it, and went ashore. A close search was made for him next day by the police, headed by Draper, the law in those ports being rigid against deserters. But he could not be found, and the Canton sailed without her second officer.
The first thing Will Sheridan did when he knew he was out of danger was to write to Mrs. Walmsley, warning her of Draper's marriage in India. This done, he set about getting some sort of employment.
He was in a strange place, and he knew no business except that of the sea. In a few days he shipped as mate on a barque bound found for West Australia, in the sandalwood trade.
A large and lucrative trade in sandalwood is carried on between China, India, and the penal colony. Vast districts in West Australia are covered with this precious wood, which is cut by ticket-of-leave men, and shipped to China and India, where it is used in the burning of incense in the Josshouses or temples, and in the delicate cabinet and marquetry work which is so plentiful in oriental countries.
This was a life that suited Sheridan's vigorous temperament. He found his occupation pleasant, and would have quite forgotten the enmity of Draper; but he still feared that his influence over Alice Walmsley had not been broken.
He spent a year in the sandalwood trade, and was thinking of taking a trip to England, when he received a package through the post-office at Shanghai, containing all his letters, and a brief unfriendly message in Alice Walmsley's handwriting, informing him that she was Captain Draper's Wife, and that she scorned the cowardly nature that sought to destroy an honourable man's good name by malicious falsehood.
Will Sheridan was dumbfounded and grieved to the heart. In all he had previously borne, in his efforts to crush out of his heart a hopeless passion almost as strong as his life, he had, he thought, sounded the depths of his love for Alice Walmsley. But now, when he knew her utterly beyond his reach, and saw opening before her a desert life of misery and despair, the pity in his heart almost killed him. He would have given his life then that his enemy might be an honourable man. Her letter did not wound him, because he knew she had been deceived.
At first, he knew not what to do. He feared he had been hastyhe did not actually know that Draper was a villain his own accusing word was not enough, perhaps, or it might bear an explanation. Should he write to Alice and take back his cruel charges? Or should he remain silent, and let time unravel the trouble?
To do the first would be wrongto do the second might be woefully unjust. The true course was to find out the truth; to go to Calcutta and learn for himself; and if he were wrong, to publicly make acknowledgment. If he were right, he could remain silent if it were for the best.
Two months afterwards, Will Sheridan returned from Calcutta to Shanghai. He had found out the truth. He proceeded at once to West Australia to join his ship, and from that time he wrote no more to England. One part of his life, the sweet and tender part, without fault of his, had suffered woefully, and had died before his eyes. It was shrouded in his memory, and buried in his heart. Like a brave man, he would not sit and mourn over the loss. He set his face to his duty, hoping and praying that time would take the gnawing pain from his heart.
ABOUT a year after his trip to Calcutta, while his ship lay in Shanghai, Sheridan received an invitation to dinner from the chief owner, a wealthy and acute old Scotchman, whose palatial residence and beautiful grounds overlooked the town. He was surprised at the courtesy, and showed the invitation to the captain, a kind old sailor, who had formed an affection for Will from the first.
"Go, go, my lad," said Captain Mathews." It's a piece of luck, no doubt. I've heard that the old man has a daughter, or a niece, though I believe she's rather tough; but what's that, when she has a shipload of money? You're in luck, youngster; of course you'll go, and in your best rig, too. I'll lend you my old claw-hammer coat."
"Thank you, Captain," said Will, smiling inwardly, as his eye took in the short but portly dimensions of his old friend; "but I think I'll go as a plain sailor, without any pretence at society dress."
"Well, I don't know but you're right, Sheridan," responded the captain;" a sailor's jacket is fit for any man or any place,
p.52lad, when he who wears it loves his profession, and is worthy of it."
That evening saw Will Sheridan enter Mr. MacKay's drawing-room, as handsome and gentlemanly a fellow as ever gave an order through a trumpet.
"Mr. Sheridan," said the kind old merchant, coming forward to meet him, "you are welcome, for your own sake, and for that of a dear old friend. You are not aware, I think, that your father and I were midshipmen together forty years ago."
Will was surprised, but gratified. He had half expected to be patronized, and indeed was more than half prepared to resent such treatment. Mr. MacKay presented Will to his familyMrs. MacKay, an invalid, and his step-daughter, Miss Gifford, a handsome, buxom, good-natured maiden lady of a certain age.
They were all very kind, and they treated Will as an old and privileged friend. He forgot all about the patronage, and enjoyed himself immensely. Such an evening of home life, after years of rugged seafaring, was delightfully restful.
At dinner, Mr. MacKay recalled story after story of the time when he and Will's father were careless youngsters on His Majesty's ship Cumberland. Will was still more surprised to find that Mr. MacKay had recently been in communication with his father.
"I saw your papers, Mr. Sheridan," explained Mr. MacKay; and knowing that my old friend was in the Coastguard Service in England, I wrote to him. I found I was right in my conclusion; but I thought I would say nothing about the matter for some time. You will pardon me when I tell you that I have been observing you closely since you entered the service of our Company."
This was the first reference to their relative positions which had been made. Will did not know what to answer.
"You have seen a good deal of our sandalwood trade," said Mr. MacKay, changing the subject; "what do you think of its prospects, Mr. Sheridan?"
This was too extensive a question for Will, and he faltered in his reply. He had, he said, only considered his own duties in the trade, and they offered a limited scope for observation.
The old merchant, however, returned to the point.
"Captain Mathews tells me that you have expressed to him
p.53your dissatisfaction at the management of our affairs in West Australia."
"No, Sir," answered Will, with a smile, "not with the management, but with the mismanagement."
"Ah, just so," said Mr. MacKay, "we will talk more about this by-and-by."
When the ladies had retired, Mr. MacKay again took up the subject.
"You think our affairs in Australia are mismanaged, then?"
"Well, Sir, it appears to me there is no system whatever on the other side, so far as the Company's interests are concerned."
"How is that?" asked the keen business man opening his eyes. "Does not our agent purchase and ship the sandalwood?"
"Yes, he certainly does, and that's all be doesand that's nothing," said blunt Will, "at least for the Company's benefit."
"Please explain," said Mr. MacKay, nervously.
"Well," said Will, in his earliest way when interested, "as you know, the sandalwood is cut away in the bush, from sixty to a hundred miles from the shipping station at Bunbury. It is cut by ticket-of-leave men. From them it is bought by speculators, who team it to Bunbury; and from these fellows, who manage to control the wood, your agent buys it at the wharf, paying whatever price is asked."
"You would have him do more?" asked Mr. MacKay.
"I would change the whole plan, sir, if it were my concern. First, I would lease all or as much as I could, of the sandalwood land direct from the Government, then I would set my hired cutters to work and then carry the wood in my own teams to the wharf. The original cost can be decreased by at least fifty per cent. And, besides this, there are other valuable substances, such as gum, tan-bark, and skins, that could be carried and shipped at the same time."
The merchant listened attentively to the broad outline of Will's plans, which he spoke about quite freely, as one outside the matter, but familiar with it.
"Mr. Sheridan," said Mr. MacKay at length "our Company has decided to change our agent in West Australia, and it gives me great pleasure to offer you the position. I will see,"
p.54he added, interrupting Will's surprised exclamation, "that you shall have sufficient power at your disposal to carry out your ideas with regard to the extension of the trade."
Will hardly heard another word for the rest of the evening. His mind scarcely took in the changefrom the poor and unknown sailor, at one step, to a man of large influence and position, for such would be the Australian agent of so wealthy a Company.
When he returned to the ship his face flamed with excitement, as he related the wonderful story to his old friend Captain Mathews, who became even more excited than Will and declared many times over his glass of "Old Tom," "that they were beginning to see things right at last," and that "no man could do land business so well as him who was trained at sea," and divers other sentences filled with wisdom drawn from personal pride and marine philosophy.
"CURSE that fellow!" hissed Lame Scotty through his clenched teeth; "I hate him." The word was emphasized by a blow on the rickety table that made the glasses jump.
The scene was a public-house in the little mahogany town of Bunbury, West Australia; the time, six months after Will Sheridan had assumed the sandalwood agency. The speaker was a ticket-of-leave man, a wiry, red-eyed fellow of middle age, whose face had the cunning ferocity of a ferret. His auditors were a shaggy crowd of woodcutters and ex-convict teamsters, the latter group sitting, with him at a long table.
"Don't talk so loud, Scotty," said a rough-looking man of immense stature, with an axe strapped on his back, who leant smoking against the fireplace; "don't shout so, my friend, or Agent Sheridan will hear it, and kick you out of the team he gave you for charity."
"Kick me out!" retorted Scotty, with an oath; "he daren't touch me. Curse his charity; he gave me a team for his own interest."
"Bah!" said the big woodcutter, without moving, "you were always a brag. He gave work and wages to you and a lot of your ugly gang there, for downright charity; and, like the hounds you always were, you have no thanks in you."
Though the gang so broadly referred to were at the table with Scotty, no one resented the woodcutter's epithet, though dark looks were flung at him.
"This agent has ruined the sandalwood trade," said Scotty, addressing himself to the aroused woodcutters. "Before he came here, a poor man could earn a few pounds; but now we ain't any better than chain-gang men."
A murmur of approval from the teamsters followed the remark, and Scotty felt that he had struck a popular note. Even one or two of the woodcutters at another table struck the board in approval.
"No, you ain't any better than chain-gang men, that's true," said the brawny bearer of the axe, still quietly smoking; it nor you never were. There's where the whole boiling lot of you ought to be still. You talk of ruining poor men," he continued, slightly shifting his position, so as to face Scotty, "you darned fox! I know you-and these men know you," pointing to the group of woodcutters. "Before this new system came with this new agent, you and your rats there had the whole trade in your hands. You bought from the cutters at your own price, and you paid them in rum. You cheated the woodcutters and swindled the dealers, till the wonder was that some day you weren't found chopped to pieces for our villainy."
"That's true as Gospel," said one of the woodcutters who had lately applauded Scotty. You're an infernal set of vampires, you are."
Scotty and his ill-looking crew realized that the woodcutter had got the drop on them, dead sure."
A stamping and tramping in the outer room or store suggested new arrivals, as the place was a kind of inn. All eyes were turned on the door, where entered, one after another, about a dozen powerful fellows, in the picturesque garb of stockriders, who noisily but good-humouredly sat them down to the large central table, and called for something to eat and drink.
The interrupted discussion was not resumed but a whispered
p.56and earnest comment on the new-comers began among Scotty's gang.
"Where do you fellows hail from?" asked the big woodcutter, after waiting a while, and in a friendly tone.
"From Dardanup," said one of the stockriders. The whispering between Scotty and his friends ceased, the last word passed round being strongly emphasized, "Dardanup Irish."
There was a colony of Irish settlers at Dardanup, free men, who had emigrated there forty years before, when the Western colony was free from the criminal taint. The families were all related to each other by intermarriage; and the men of the whole settlement, who had been born and reared in the bush, were famous throughout the colony for strength, horsemanship, good-fellowship, and hard fighting qualities.
"From Dardanup-eh?" said the big woodcutter, with a mischievous smile at Scotty's group. Then you be Agent Sheridan's new teamsters, maybe?"
"Ay, we're going to take those teams up to-morrow," said a strong fellow; and then, to call the waiter, he hammered the table with his enormous fist.
"Why," said the woodcutter, in his bland way, "it might be as you're the Maguire boys from Dardanup?"
"Only eight Maguires in this crowd," said the table-hammerer, with a pleasant look round the circle.
Scotty and one or two of his friends here gently left their seats, and sauntered towards the door.
"Don't go," said the woodcutter pressingly; "don't be in a hurry, Scotty, man; why, it isn't ten minutes ago since you wanted to chaw up that dd Sheridan and his teamsters."
Scotty scowled at the woodcutter. "A man can come and go as he pleases, can't he?" he growled.
"O, ay; but don't leave the friends as you wanted to meet, just now. Here, you Dardanup fellows, this is your ganger in the teams; this is your 'boss,' as Yankee Sullivan says. This is the fellow that says Agent Sheridan darsn't order him, and that the agent went down on his knees and begged him to drive his black ox team."
"He'll never drive it again," said one of the Dardanup men.
"Why won't he?" demanded one of Scotty's friends.
"Because I'm going to drive that team," said the six-foot Australian, wheeling his seat with an ominous velocity.
"Ho, ho! ha, ha!" roared the big woodcutter, enjoying the fallen crest of the braggart; "but you can't have that team Maguire; Scotty will make ribbons of you."
And the man with the axe heavily stamped on the floor in his boisterous enjoyment of Scotty's discomfiture.
The Dardanup man rose and walked toward Scotty, who sank back with so sudden a dismay that he stumbled and fell headlong, while a waiter, entering with a tray of plates and glasses, tumbled across the prostrate bully.
At this there was a loud laugh, and the six-footer from Dardanup sat down again. Scotty, too, was wise enough to profit by the hilarity. He picked himself up, laughing with the rest.
"Come," he cried in a jolly tone, but with a humiliated aspect, as if he feared his offer would be refused, "let us have a drink and shake hands, no matter who has the teams."
"Bravo!" cried the Dardanup men, who were just as ready to drink as to fight.
The bottle was passed round, and every man drank with Scotty, except the big woodcutter.
Scotty handed him the bottle and a glass, noticing that he had not tasted.
"No, thank you," said the big man, with a shake of the head, "none of that for me."
A few moments afterwards one of the Dardanup men held up his glass to the big man of the axe. "Drink with me," he said.
"Ay, lad," said the woodcutter, "pass your bottle. I'll drink with you all night."
Scotty pretended not to have noted nor heard; but as soon as he could he escaped from the room with his associates. The Dardanup men ate a mighty supper, and afterwards had a wild time, in which the woodcutter was a partaker.
Powerful and hearty fellows, full of good-nature, but dangerous men to rouse, these young Australians, and their strong blood was excited by the new enterprise they had undertaken.
A combination had been made among the ticket-of-leave teamsters and buyers against the new agent of the sandalwood trade, who had revolutionized the old system. It had come to a serious pass with the business, and Agent Sheridan, knowing that a weak front would invite ruin, had resolved to test the opposition at once rather than wait for its bursting.
He rode to Dardanup, and called a meeting of the stockriders, who, though every one born in Australia and bred to the bush from infancy, had a warm feeling for Sheridan, perhaps because of his Irish name. He laid the case before them without hiding the danger.
The ticket-of-leave teamsters were resolved to destroy the Sandalwood teams of the Company by rolling great rocks on them as they passed through the Blackwood Gorge.
The Blackwood Gorge was the narrow bed of a stream that wound among the Iron-stone Hills. In the rainy season it was filled with a violent flood; but for six months of the year its bed was quite dry, and was used as a road to reach the sandalwood districts. For more than thirty miles the patient oxen followed this rugged bridle path; and for the whole distance the way zigzagged between the feet of precipices and steep mountains.
It would be an easy matter to block up or destroy a slow moving train in such a gully. And that the discharged ticket-of-leave teamsters had determined on this desperate revenge, the fullest proof was in the hands of Agent Sheridan.
He had considered the matter well, and he was resolved on a plan of action. He told the Dardanup bushmen that he wanted twenty-four men, twelve to act as teamsters and twelve as a reserve. In a few minutes he had booked the names and settled the conditions with two dozen of the strongest and boldest men in West Australia.
The meeting in the tavern was the first intimation the ticket-of-leave men had that their plan had been discovered.
Next morning the teams passed peacefully through the little town, while the discomfited Scotty and his friends looked on from their skulking-places, and never stirred a finger.
That evening, in the tavern, Scotty and his men were moodily drinking, and at another table sat half-a-dozen Dardanup stockriders. The woodcutter with the axe was smoking, as he lounged against the fireplace.
Why didn't you Dardanup boys go alone, with the others? he asked the stockriders.
Scotty and his ill-looking group turned their heads to hear the reply.
"We staid behind to watch the wind!" answered one, with a laugh.
"To watch the wind?" queried the big woodcutter.
"Ay," said the Dardanup man, very slowly, and looking squarely at the ticket-of-leave teamsters; "if the wind blows a stone as big as a turtle's egg down the Blackwood Gorge to-morrow, we'll put a swinging ornament on every one of those twenty gum trees on the square. The rope is ready, and someone ought to pray for fine weather. Just one stone," continued the giant, who had risen to light his pipe; and as he passed he laid a heavy hand on Scotty's shoulder, as if by chance; "just one stone, as big as a turtle's egg, and we begin to reeve that rope."
"Ha, ha! ho, ho!" roared the woodcutter, and the shanty shook with his tremendous merriment. When his derision had exhausted itself, he sat with the Dardanup men, and drank and sang in great hilarity over the routing of Scotty's gang.
From that day, the new agent of the sandalwood trade was treated with marked respect by all classes in West Australia.
;NINE years crowded with successful enterprise had made Will Sheridan a strong man in worldly wisdom and wealth. His healthy influence had been felt and acknowledged all over the West Australian colony. His direct attack on all obstacles never failed, whether the barriers were mountains or men.
He had raised the sandalwood trade into cosmopolitan commerce. In nine years he had made a national industry for the country in which he lived; had grown rich himself, without selfishly seeking it; and, in proportion, had made millionaires of the company that employed him.
When men of large intelligence, foresight, and boldness break into new fields, they may gather gold by the handful. So it was with this energetic worker. His practical mind turned everything into account, He inquired from the natives how they cured the beautiful soft kangaroo skins they wore as bokas, and learned that the red gum, tons of which could be gathered in a day, was the most powerful tan in the world.
He at once shipped twenty tons of it to Liverpool as an experiment. The next year he transported two hundred thousand pounds' worth; and, five years from that time, Australian red gum was an article of universal trade.
He saw a felled boolah-tree change in the rainy season into a transparent substance like gum arabic; and, three years afterwards, West Australia supplied nearly all the white gum in the markets of civilization.
One might conclude that the man who could set his mind so persistently at work in this energetic fashion must be thoroughly engaged, and that his rapid success must have brought with it a rare and solid satisfaction. Was it so with Agent Sheridan?
Darkest of all mysteries, O secret heart of man, that even to its owner is unfathomed and occult! Here worked a brave man from year to year, smiled on by men and women, transmuting all things to gold; vigorous, keen, worldly, and gradually, becoming philosophic through large estimation of values in men and things; yet beneath this toiling and practical mind of the present was a heart that never for one day, through all these years, ceased bleeding and grieving for a dead joy of the past.
This was the bitter truth. When riding through the lonely and beautiful bush, where everything was rich in colour, and all nature was supremely peaceful, the sleepless underlying grief would seize on this strong man's heart and gnaw it till he moaned aloud and waved his arms, as if to put physically swayfrom him the felon thought that gripped so cruelly.
While working, there was no time to heed the painno opening for the bitter thought to take shape. But it was there: alwaysit was alive under the icemoving in restless throbs and memories. It stirred at strange faces, and sometimes it beat wofully at a familiar sound.
No wonder that the man who carried such a heart should, sooner or later, show sign of the hidden sorrow in his face. It was so with Will Sheridan. His worldly work and fortune belonged only to the nine years of his Australian life; but he knew that the life lying beyond was that which gave him happiness or misery.
He became a grave man before his time; and one deep line in his face, that to most people would have denoted his energy
p.61and intensity of will, was truly graven by the unceasing presence of his sorrow.
He had loved Alice Walmsley with that one love which thorough natures only know. It had grown into his young life as firmly as an organic part of his being. When it was torn from him, there was left a gaping and bleeding wound. And time bad brought him no cure.
In the early days of his Australian career he had received the news of his death. His mother and sister had been well provided for. They implored him to come home but he could not bear to hear of the one being whose memory filled his existence; and so he never wrote to his people. Their letters ceased; and in nearly nine years he had never heard a word from home.
But now, when his present life was to outward appearance all sunshine, and when his future path lay through pleasant ways, the bitter thought in his heart rankled with unutterable suffering. Neither work nor excitement allayed the pang. He shrank from solitude, and he was solitary in crowds. He feared to give rein to grief; yet alone, in the moonlit bush, he often raised his face and hands to heaven, and cried aloud in his grievous pain.
At last the thought came that he must look his misery in the facethat he must put an end to all uncertainty. Answering the unceasing yearning in his breast, he came to a decision.
"I must go home," he said aloud one day, when riding alone in the forest, "I must go homeif only for one day."
IT was winter again. A sunburnt, foreign-looking man stood on the poop deck of a steamer ploughing with decreased speed past the docks in the long line of Liverpool shipping. The man was young, but, with deep marks of care and experience on his face, looked nearly ten years older than he really was. From the face, it was hard to know what was passing in the
p.62heart; but that no common emotion was there might be guessed by the rapid stride and the impatient glance from the steamer's progress to the shore.
It was Will Sheridan; but not the determined, thoughtful Agent Sheridan of the Australian sandalwood trade. There was no quietness in his soul now; there was no power of thought in his brain; there was nothing there but a burning fever of longing to put his foot on shore, and then to turn his face to the one spot that had such power to draw him from the other side of the world.
As soon as the steamer was moored, heedless of the Babel of voices around him, the stranger passed through the crowd, and entered the streets of Liverpool. But he did not know the joy of an exile returning after a weary absence. He did not feel that he was once more near to those who loved him. It was rather to him as if he neared their graves.
The great city in which be walked was as empty to him as the great ocean he had just left. Unobservant and unsympathetic, looking straight before him, and seeing with the soul's vision the little coast village of his boyhood, he made his way to the railway station, bought a ticket for home, and took his place in the car.
At first, the noise and rush of the train through the cold evening of a winter day, was a relief to the restless traveller. The activity fell upon his morbid heart like a cold hand on a feverish forehead. But, as the sun sank, and the cheerless grey twilight crept round him, the people who had travelled from the city were dropped at the quiet country stations, and sped away to their happy homes.
A man came and lighted a lamp in the carriage, and all the outer world grew suddenly dark. The traveller was alone now; and, as the names of the wayside stations grew more familiar, a stillness fell upon him, against which he made no struggle.
At last, as once more the train moved to a station, he arose, walked slowly to the door, and stepped on the platform. He was at the end of his journeyhe was at home.
At home! He passed through the little station-house, where the old porter stared at his strange face and strange clothes, and wondered why he did not ask the way to the village. On he strode in the moonlight, glancing at familiar things with
p.63every step; for ten years had brought little change to the quiet place. There were the lone trees by the roadside, and the turnpike, and down in the hollow he saw the moon's face reflected through the ice in the mill-pond; and seeing this, he stopped and looked, but not with the outward eye, and he saw the merry skaters, and Alice's head was on his shoulder, and her dear voice in his ear, and all the happy love of his boyhood flooded his heart, as he bowed his face in his hands and sobbed.
Down the main street of the village he walked, glancing at the bright windows of the cottage homes, that looked like smiles on well-known faces. He passed the post office, the church, and the inn; and a few steps more brought him to the corner of his own little street.
The windows of the Draper's house were lighted, as if for a feast or merry-making within; but he passed on rapidly, and stopped before the garden gate of the widow's cottage. There, all was dark and silent. He glanced through the trees at his own old home, which lay beyond, and saw a light from the kitchen, and the moonlight shining on the window of his own room.
But here, where he longed for a light, there was no light. He laid his hand on the gate, and it swung open before him, for the latch was gone. He passed through, and saw that the garden path was rank with frozen weeds, and the garden was itself a wilderness. He walked on and stood in the porch, and found a bank of snow against the bottom of the cottage door, which the wind had whirled in there, perhaps a week before.
He stood in the cheerless place for a moment, looking into his heart, that was as empty as the cottage porch, and as cold; and then he turned and walked down the straight path, with almost the same feeling that had crushed him so cruelly eleven years before.
He passed on to his own home, which had been shut out from his heart by the cloud that covered his way; and a feeling of reproach came upon him, for his long neglect of those who loved him. Those who loved him! There was something warming in his heart, and rising against the numbness that had stilled it in the cottage porch. He stood before the door of his old home, and raised his hand and knocked twice.
The door opened, and a strange face to William Sheridan met his look. Choking back a something in his throat, he said, with an effort
"Is this Mrs. Sheridan's house?"
"It was Mrs. Sheridan's house? Sir!" answered the man; "but it is my house now. Mrs. Sheridan is dead."
Another cord snapped, and the stranger in his own place turned from the door with a moan in his heart.
As he turned, a young woman came from within to the porch; and the man, with a sudden exclamation, stepped after him, and placing his hand on his shoulder, said earnestly,
"Be this William Sheridan that we thought were dead?" and, looking in his face and recognizing him, he muttered "Poor lad! poor lad! dont'ee know thy old schoolmate, Tom Bates, and thy own sister Mary?"
Taking him by the arm, the kind fellow led Sheridan to the door, and said
"Wife, here be thy brother Will, safe and sound, and not drowned, as Sam Draper told us he wereand dn that same Draper for all his evil doin's!"
Then William Sheridan felt his kind sister's arms on his neck, and the associations of his youth thronged up like old friends to meet him, and with them came the sweet spirit of his boy's love for Alice. They came to his heart like stormers, to a city's gate, and, seeing the breach, they entered in, and took possession. For the second time that night, the strong man bowed his head and sobbednot for a moment as before, but long and bitterly, for the suppressed feelings were finding a vent at last; the bitterness of his sorrow, so long and closely shut in, was flowing freely.
Brother and sister were alone during this scene; but after a while, Mary's kind-hearted husband entered, a rugged but tender-hearted Lancashire farmer; and knowing that much was to be said to Will, and that this was the best time to say it, he began at once; but he knew, and Will Sheridan knew, that he began at the farthest point he could from what he would have to say before the end. Will Sheridan's face was turned in the shadow, where neither his sister nor her husband could see it,and so he listened to the story.
"Will," said his brother-in-law, "tha knows 'tis moren ten years since thou went to sea, and that great changes have come to thee since then; and tha knows, lad, thou must expect that changes as great have come to this village. Thy father took sick about a year after thou went, and grieved that he died,
p.65hear from thee. Samuel Draper wrote to his people that thou'd turned out a bad lad in foreign countries, and had to ran away from the ship; and when that news came, it made th' old people sorrowful. Thy father took to his bed in first o' th' winter, and was dead in a few months. Thy mother followed soon, and her last words were a blessing for thee if thou were living. Then Samuel Draper came back from sea, looking fine in his blue uniform; and he said he'd heard thou'd been drowned on a voyage from China. He went to sea again, six months after, and he's never been here since; and 'tis unlikely," Mary's husband said very slowly, "that he ever will come to this village any more."
Tom Bates ceased speaking, as if all were told, and stared straight at the fire; his wife, Mary, who was sitting on a low seat near him, drew closer, and laid her cheek against his side, weeping silently; and he put his big hand around her head and caressed it.
Will Sheridan sat motionless for about a minute, and then said, in a hard monotone
"What became of Alice Walmsley? Did sheIs she dead also?"
"Nay, not dead," said his brother-in-law," but worse than that. Alice Walmsley is in prison."
Will Sheridan raised his head at the word, repeating it to himself in blank amazement and dread. Then he stood up, and faced round to the two people who sat before him, his sister hiding her weeping face against her husband's side, the husband patting her head in a bewildered way, and both looking as if they were the guilty parties who should be in prison instead of Alice.
Had they said that she was dead, or even that she was married, he could have faced the news manfully, for he had prepared his heart for it; but now, when he had come home and thought he could bear all, he found that his years of struggle to forget had been in vain, and that a gulf yawned at his feet deeper and wider than that he had striven so long to fill up.
"In the name of God, man, tell me what you mean! Why is Alice Walmsley in prison?"
Poor Tom Bates still stared at the fire, and patted his wife's head; but a moment after Sheridan asked the question, he let
p.66his hand close quietly round the brown hair, and raising his eyes to Will's face, said, "yes" in a low voice
"For murder. For killing her child!"
Will Sheridan looked at him with a pitiful face, and uttered a sound like the baffled cry of a suffering animal that finds the last door of escape shut against it.
His brother-in-law knew that now was the time to tell Will all, while his very soul was numbed by the strength of the first blow.
They were married in the church, as you know," said Mary's husband, "and they lived together for some time, seeming very happythough Mary and I said, when it was all over, that from the very clay of the wedding there was a shadow on Alice's face, and that she was never seen to smile. Draper was a captain, and his ship was going to India, and Alice wanted very bad to go with him. But he refused her at last so roughly, before her mother, that poor little Alice said no more. Five months after his going, her child was born, and for six months the poor ailing thing looked like her old self, all smiles, and kindness, and love for the little one. Then, one day, there walked into her house a strange woman, who said that she was Samuel Draper's wife. No one knows what passed between themthey two were alone; but the woman showed the papers that proved what she said. She was a desperate woman, and, with no one else in the house, she was like to kill poor Alice with her dreadful words. Alice's heart was changed to stone from that minute. The woman left the village that day, and never was seen here again. But that night the little child was found dead beside the mother, with marks of violence on it. Poor lass! she was charged wi' killing itshe made no defence; she never raised her head nor said a word. She might have told how the thing happened, for we knewMary and I knewthat Alice never did that. But she couldn't speak in her own defenceall she wanted was to get out of sight and hide her poor head. Poor little Alliepoor little Allie! She never raised her hand to hurt her child. It was accident, or it was someone else; but she couldn't or wouldn't speak. She was sent to prison, and her mother died from the blow. God help the poor lass to-night! God help poor little Allie!" And the warm heart overflowed, and husband and wife mingled their tears for the lost one.
"And this was Samuel Draper's work?" asked Sheridan, slowly.
"Ay, damn him for a scoundrel!" said the strong yeoman, starting to his feet, and clenching his fist, the tears on his cheeks, and his voice all broken with emotion. "He may keep away from this village, where the people know him; but there's no rest for him on this earthno rest for such as he. Mother and child curse himone from the grave, the other from the prison; and sea or land cannot shut them out from his black heart. Her father was a seaman, too, and he'll sail wi' him until the villain pays the debt to the last farthing. And Allie's white face will haunt him, even in sleep, with her dead child in her arms. Oh, God help poor Alice to-night. God comfort the poor little lassie!"
William Sheridan said no more that night. His sister prepared his own old room for him, and he went to it; but not to sleep. Up and down he walked like a caged animal, moaning now and again, without following the meaning of the words
"Why did I come here? O, why did I come here?"
He felt that he could not bear this agony much longer that he must think, and that he must pray. But he could do neither. There was one picture in his mind, in his eye, in his hearta crouching figure in a dock, with a brown head sunk on her white handsand were he to try to get one more thought into his brain, it would burst and drive him mad.
And how could he prayhow could he kneel, while the miscreant walked the earth who had done all this? But from this hateful thought he reverted with fresh agony to her blighted heart. Where was she that night? How could he find her and help her? If he could only pray for her, it would keep him from delirium until he saw her.
And he sank on his knees by the bed where he had knelt by his mother's side and learned to pray; and again the old associations came thronging to his heart, and softened it. The sweet face of his boy's love drew to him slowly from the mist of years; and gradually forgetting self, and remembering only her great sorrow, he raised up his face in piteous supplication, acknowledging his utter dependence on divine strength, and prayed as he had never prayed before. Such prayers are never offered in vain. A wondrous quiet came to the troubled heart, and remained with it.
When he arose from his knees, he looked upon every familiar object around him with awakened interest, and many things that he had forgotten came back to his memory and affection when he saw them there. Before he lay down to rest, for he felt that he must sleep, he looked through the window at the deserted cottage, and had strength to think of its former inmates.
"God give her peace, and in some way enable me to bring comfort to her," he said. And when he arose in the morning this thought was uppermost in his mindthat he must search for means to bear comfort to the afflicted heart of Alice Walmsley.
From his sister and her husband he learned that Alice was confined in Millbank Prison in London, and he made up his mind to go to London that day. They, seeing that he was determined on his course, made no effort to oppose him. He asked them not to mention his visit to anyone in the village for he did not wish to be recognized; and so he turned from the kind-hearted couple, and walked towards the railway station.
Sheridan now remembered that he had brought from West Australia some letters of introduction, and also some official dispatches; and he thought it might be a fortunate circumstance that most of the official letters were addressed to the Colonial Office and the Board of Directors of Convict Prisons.
In the penal colony of West Australia, where there are few free settlers, and an enormous criminal population, a man of Sheridan's standing and influence was rarely foundand the Government of the colony was desirous of introducing him to the Home Government, knowing that his opinions would be treated with great consideration. He began to think that these letters might be the means he sought for, and he made up his mind to deliver them at once.
ARRIVED in London, he proceeded at once to the Colonial Office, and left his letters for the Secretary, and with them his address in the metropolis. He went through the same routine with the dispatches for the Prison Directors. Then, though his heart craved instant action, he was forced to exercise his patience, to wait until these high and perhaps heedless officials were pleased to recognize his presence.
The great city was a wonder to him; but, in his intense preoccupation, he passed through it as if it had been familiar from childhood. On the day after his arrival, not expecting an answer from the officials, one of whomthe Colonial Secretarywas a cabinet minister, he tried to interest himself in the myriad strangeness of London. He visited Westminster Abbey and the British Museum. But, everywhere, his heart beat the same dolorous key; he saw the white face, the slight, crouching figure in the dock, the brown hair bowed in agony and disgrace. On the walls of the great picture gallery the gilded frames held only this pitiful scene. Among the tombs of the kings in Westminster, he thought of her ruined life and shattered hopes, and envied, for her sake, the peace of the sleeping marble knights and ladies.
All day, without rest or food, he wandered aimlessly and wretchedly through the sculptured magnificence of the galleries. When the night closed, he found himselfalmost unconscious of how he had come to the place, or who had directed him thitherwalking with bared and feverish brow beneath a high and gloomy wallthe massive outer guard of Millbank Prison. Hour sped after hour, yet round and round the shadowy, silent precipice of wall the afflicted heart wandered with tireless feet. It was woeful to think how near she was, and to touch the sullen graniteyet it was a thousand times more endurable than the torture and fear that were born of absence.
Surely, if there be any remote truth in the theory of psychic magnetism, the afflicted soul within those walls must have felt the presence of the loving and suffering heart without, which
p.70sent forth unceasingly silent cries of sympathy and comfort. Surely, if communion of living spirits be possible, the dream of the lonely prisoner within must have thrilled with tenderness when his fevered lips were pressed as lovingly to the icy stone of the prison wall as once they were pressed to her forehead in affectionate farewell.
Back to his hotel, when morning was beginning to break, the lonely watcher went, spiritless and almost despairing. The reaction had begun of his extreme excitement for the past four days. He passed along the lonesome river, that hurried through the city like a thief in the night, flashing under the yellow quay-lights, then diving suddenly beneath dark arches or among slimy keels, like a hunted murderer escaping to the sea. Wild and incoherent fancies flashed through Will's feverish mind. Again and again he was forced to steady himself by placing his hand on the parapet, or he should have fallen in the street, like a drunken man.
At last he reached his hotel, and flung himself on his bed, prayerless, friendless, and only saved from despair by the thought of an affliction that was deeper than his, which he, as a man and a faithful friend, should be strong to relieve and comfort.
It was past noon when he awoke. The fever had passed and much of the dejection. While dressing, he was surprised to find his mind actively at work forming plans and surmises: for the day's enterprise.
At breakfast, a large official letter was brought him. It was; a brief but unofficially-cordial message from the Colonial Secretary, Lord George Somers, appointing an hourtwo o'clock on that daywhen he should be happy to receive Mr. Sheridan at the Colonial Office.
Under other circumstances, such an appointment would have thrown off his balance a man so unused to social or formal, ways as this stranger from Australia, whose only previous training had been on a merchant ship. But now, Will Sheridan prepared for the visit, without thinking of its details. His mind was fastened on a point beyond this meeting.
Even the formal solemnity of the powdered servant who received him had no disturbing effect. Will Sheridan quite forgot the surroundings, and at length, when ushered into the presence of the Colonial Secretary, his native dignity and
p.71intelligence were in full sway, and the impression he made on the observant nobleman was instantaneous and deep.
He was received with more than courtesy. Those letters, Lord Somers said, from Australia, had filled him with interest and desire to see a man who bad achieved so much and who had so rapidly and solidly enriched and benefited the colony.
The Colonial Secretary was a young man for his high positioncertainly not over forty, while he might be still younger. He had a keen eye, a mobile face, that could turn to stony rigidity, but withal a genial and even frank countenance when conversing cordially with this stranger, whom he knew to be influential, and who certainly was highly entertaining.
Will Sheridan was soon talking fluently and well. He knew all about the penal colony, the working of the old penal system and the need of a new one, the value of land, the resources of the country, the capabilities for commerce and all this the Secretary was most anxious to learn.
After a long interview, Sheridan rose to take leave, and the Secretary said he hoped to see a great deal of him before his return to Australia, and told him plainly that the opinions of a settler of wealth and intelligence on colonial matters in West Australia were just then of special importance to the Government. He also wished it were in his power to give Mr. Sheridan pleasure while he remained in England.
There was only one thought in Sheridan's mind all this time, and now was the moment to let it work. He said he desired very much to visit the convict prisons in England, and compare the home system with that of the penal colony.
The minister was gratified by the request, and, smiling, asked which prison he would visit first. Will mentioned Millbank; and the minister With his own hand wrote a few lines to the governor, and handed the paper to his visitor.
Will Sheridan took his departure, with a tremulous hope at his heart, and drove straight to Millbank Prison.
There is something strange, almost unaccountable, and yet terrible, in the change that appears, in half a century, in the building of prisons. Few people have thought of this perhaps; but it contains a suggestion of a hardening of hearts
p.72and a lessening of sentiment. The old prisons were dark and horrible, even in aspect; while the new ones are light and airy. In the latter, the bar takes the place of a walland the box is often ornamented with cast-iron flowers and other slightly but sardonic mockery. Better the old dungeon, with its gloom; better for the sake of humanity. The new prison is a cagea hideous hive of order and commonplace severity, where the flooding sunlight is a derision, and the barred door only a securer means of confinement. For the sake of sentiment, at least, let us have the dismal old keep, that proclaims its mission on its dreadful brow, rather than the grinning bar-gate that covers its teeth-like mils with vulgar metal efflorescence.
The great penitentiary of Millbank, is, or rather was, an old fashioned prison, its vast arched gateway sombre and awful as a tomb. It has disappeared now, having been pulled down in 1875; but those who visited it once, or who even passed it will never forget the oppression caused by its grated and frowning portal. In the early part of this century, the Government of Great Britain determined to build an immense penitentiary, on the plan laid down by Jeremy Bentham in his celebrated "Panopticon, or the Inspection House."
Bentham's scheme proposed colossal prison, which should contain all England's convicts, and dispense entirely with transportation. The Government, acting on his plan, purchased a large and unhealthy tract of flat land, lying beside the Thames, and on this the unique structure was raised. The workmen were ten years in completing it; but, when it was finished, Englishmen said that it was the model prison of the world.
And it certainly was a great improvement on the older prisons, where those confined were often herded, many in a room, like cattlethe innocent with the guilty, the young and pure with the aged and the foul. In Millbank every prisoner had his or her own cella room of stone (walls, ceiling, and floor), with a large and heavily-barred window. Each cell was eight feet square. The prison was built in six vast pentagons, radiating from a central hexagon, from which every cell was visible.
The entrance to the prison, from the street, was a wonder of architectural gloom. First there was a dark archway of solid
p.73masonry, from the roof of which, about six feet from the portal, sprang a heavy grate or portcullis, with spear-points apparentlyready to fall and cut the unfortunate off for ever from the world. Far within the arch appeared a mighty iron gate, ponderously barred, with an iron wicket, through which an armed warder could be seen on sentry within the yard.
These details were not noticed by Will Sheridan as he entered the echoing archway; but he was chilled. Nevertheless, by the cold shadow of the surroundings. The warder within came to the wicket, and took the letter, leaving Will outside. In a few minutes he found that his introduction was an "open sesame." The governor of Millbank himself, an important gentleman in a black uniform with heavy gold facings, came speedily to the wicket, the ponderous bars were flung back, the awful door rolled aside, and Will Sheridan entered.
The governor was very gracious to his distinguished visitor. On learning of his desire to see the arrangements of the prison, he himself became the guide.
An hour was spent in the male side of the establishment, which was an age to Will Sheridan. While the governor thought his attention was engaged in observing the features or motions of some caged malefactor, the mind and fancy of the visitor were far or otherwise engaged. He did not see the wretched, crime-stained countenances in the cells he passed; but in every one he saw the white face, the brown hair, and the crouching figure that filled his mind.
At last the governor asked him to visit the female prison, in which the discipline was necessarily different. They passed through a long passage built in the wall, and entered the corridors of the female prison.
Sheridan's heart beat, and the blood fled from his face, leaving him ghastly pale, as he passed the first iron door. He feared that the governor might notice his agitation; and he wondered how he should learn whether Alice were there or not.
As he walked down the corridor he noticed that on every door was hung a white card, and, approaching, he read the name, crime, and sentence of the prisoner printed thereon. This was a relief to him. As he walked he read the name on every card, and on and on they went, up stairs and down, and round and round the pentagons, until he thought she surely
p.74was not in the prison, and the governor concluded that his visitor evidently meant to see all that was to be seen.
When the last corridor on the ground floor was entered, Will read every name on the doors with a despairing persistence, and his heart sank within him as he came to the last.
The governor opened the door at the end of the passage, and they entered a light, short corridor, with large and pleasantly lighted cells. Here, the governor said, were confined those prisoners who, by extreme good conduct, had merited less severe treatment than the others.
Will Sheridan's heart leaped within him, for he knew that this was the place where he should see her.
On the doors were simply printed the names and sentences of the occupants; and at the fourth door Will stopped and read the card.
Seeing him pause and intently examine the card, the governor beckoned to the female warder, who was in the passage, to come and open the door.
The woman approached, the key in her hand, and stood aside until the gentlemen withdrew from the door. Will turned and read her intention, and with a shudder he put her back with his hand.
"No, nonot her," he said hurriedly. Then recollecting himself "No, no; the prisoners do not like to be stared at."
Next moment, before he could think of the consequences, he turned again, and, speaking rapidly, said
"I am wrong. I should like to see the interior of this cell."
The lock clicked back, the heavy iron door swung open, and William Sheridan saw Alice Walmsley before him.
She had been sewing on something coarse and white, and a heap of the articles lay at her feet. As the door opened, she stood up from the low seat on which she had sat in the centre of the stone-floored cell, and, with her eyes on the ground, awaited the scrutiny of the visitors, according to prison discipline.
Will Sheridan took in the whole cell at once, although his eyes only rested on her face. She never looked on him, but stood in perfect calmness, with her eyes cast down.
She was greatly changed, but so differently changed to Will's expectations, that he stood amazed, stunned. He had pictured her fragile, broken, spiritless, wretched. There she stood before him, grown stronger than when he had known her, quiet as a statue, with a facenot of happiness, but of intensified peace, and with all that was beautiful in her as a girl increased a thousand fold, but subdued by suffering. Her rich brown hair had formerly been cut close, but now it had grown so long that it fell to her shoulders. Her face was colourless, for want of open air and sunshine. A casual observer would have said she was happy.
Something of her peace fell upon William Sheridan as he looked upon her. Suddenly he was recalled to consciousness by a simple movement of hers, as if averse to inspection. His heart quickened with fear and: sorrow for his impulsive action in entering the cell, for now he would give all he possessed that she should not look upon his face. He turned from her quickly and walked out of the cell, and he did not look round until he heard the heavy door swing into its place.
When he had walked so far from the cell that she could not hear his voice, he asked the governor what work these privileged prisoners were engaged in, and was almost startled into an exclamation of astonishment when the governor answered
"They are just now engaged on a pleasant task for themselves. They are making their outfit for the penal colony."
"Is sheis that prisoner going to the penal colony?" asked Will Sheridan, scarcely able to control his emotion.
"Yes, sir; she and all those in this pentagon will sail for West Australia in the next convict ship," said the governor.
"We shall send three hundred men and fifty Women in this lot."
"When does the ship sail?" asked the visitor, still apparently examining the door-cards.
"On the 10th of Apriljust three months hence," answered the governor.
With his eyes fixed on a ponderous door, which he did not see, Will Sheridan made a sudden and imperative resolution.
"I shall return to Australia on that convict ship," were the words that no one heard but his own soul.
"I thank you, Sir, for your courtesy and attention," he said, next moment, to the governor; "and as I wish to examine more closely the working of your system, I shall probably trouble you again."
The governor assured him that his visits to the prison would be at all times considered as complimentary; and Will Sheridan walked from Millbank with a firmer step and a more restful spirit than he had known for ten years.
LORD SOMERS, the Colonial Secretary, had evidently conceived a high opinion of Mr. Sheridan from his first brief visit. He soon renewed the acquaintance by requesting another interview. In the course of a few weeks their relations had become almost friendly.
Their conversation was usually about the Australian colonies, on which subject the Secretary found Sheridan to be a perfect encyclopedia. It seemed that every possibility of their condition, latent as well as operative, had come into his practical mind, and had been keenly considered and laid aside.
But Sheridan was a child in London. He was supremely ignorant of everything that this nobleman considered necessary to existence. He knew nothing of British or European politicsdid not even know who was Prime Minister. It gratified the genial and intelligent Englishman, on their frequent rides through the city, to impart information and pleasure to his Australian friend.
One day Mr. Sheridan received another large official letter this time from the Chief Director of Convict Prisons, Sir Joshua Hobb, who, without apologizing for the delayed acknowledgment of Mr. Sheridan's letter, asked him to meet the Board of Directors on the next day at noon, at the Department in Parliament-street.
Sheridan kept the appointment, and became acquainted with the half-dozen men to whose hands Great Britain had intrusted the vast burden of punishing and reforming the criminal class.
Half an hour's conversation, though of a general nature, astonished Will Sheridan, by convincing him of the stupendous conceit and incompetence of these men. They talked glibly about the weight of a prisoner's loaf, and the best hour to light the cells in the morning; they had statistics at their finger-ends to show how much work a convict could perform on a given number of ounces of meat; but they knew nothing whatever of the large philosophy of penal government.
The Chief Director, Sir Joshua Hobb, however, was an exception, in so far as he had ideas. He was a tall, gaunt man, of fifty, with an offensive hauteur, which was obviously from habit rather than from nature. His face said plainly: "I know allthese gentlemen know nothingit is not necessary that they shouldI am the Convict System." He reminded Sheridan of a country pedagogue promoted to high position for some narrow piece of special knowledge. He looked superciliously at Sheridan, as if to ask "Do you mean to pretend, before me, that you know anything about prisons?"
"Confound this fellow!" said Sheridan to himself, five minutes after meeting him; "he deliberately delayed acknowledging my letters, to show his importance."
But Sir Joshua Hobb was an "expert" in penal systems. He had graduated from a police court, where he had begun as an attorney; and he was intimately acquainted with the criminal life of England in its details. But he had no soul for the awful thought of whence the dark stream came, nor whither it was going. He was merely a dried mudbank to keep it within bounds for a little way.
The admiration of his colleagues was almost reverential. Mr. Sheridan was informed by several of the Boardin subdued voice, of course, so that the great reformer should not
p.78be put to the blushof his wonderful successes in the treatment of criminals.
"They all hate him," said Mr. Pettegrew, one of the Board.
"I give you my word, Sir, that every criminal in England hates the name of Sir Joshua Hobb. He has made them feel his power, Sir, and they know him."
"He was knighted by the Queen for his Separate System," said another Director.
"Is that your present system?" asked Sheridan.
"No," said the Director. " At present we are on the other tack."
"The Separate System was a failure, then I presume?" inquired Mr. Sheridan.
"Not a failure, Sir, but it was abandoned out of regard to the sentimental reformers. It increased insanity from 12 to 31 per 1,000. Sir Joshua himself was the first to find it out."
And then you adopted the Public Works System, did you not?" asked Sheridan.
"No, not so soon. When his Separate System failed, Sir Joshua introduced the maska cloth skull-cap coming down over the face, with eyelet holesto promote a salutary shame in the prisoners. He was made a Knight Commander of the Bath for that wonderful invention."
"Then that system gave beneficial results?" inquired Mr. Sheridan.
"Well, there was no doubt of its moral excellence; but it increased the insanity from 31 to 391 per 1,000. Sir Joshua himself was the first to discover this also."
"He certainly deserves the name of a discoverer," thought Sheridan. Then, aloud
"And your present system is his invention, also?"
"Yes, our present system is wholly his. We are just now examining results. We discover one peculiarity, which Sir Joshua hardly knows how to class; but he says it certainly is a proof of progress."
"May I ask what is this peculiarity?" inquired Mr. Sheridan.
"That within three years insanity has decreased 2 per cent," answered the Director, "while suicide has increased 17 per 1000."
"Sir Joshua inclines to the opinion," said another Director, who was listening, "that this fact proves that we are at last
p.79getting to bear closely on the criminal principle. The law is touching itthere is no escapeand in despair the baffled criminals give up the fight, and kill themselves."
There was something fearfully repugnant to Sheridan's broad and humane view in all this, and he would gladly have escaped from the place. But the Directors meant to impress him with their ability to manage the entire Penal System, both in Australia and England. To secure this general management, Sir Joshua Hobb had recently introduced a bill to Parliament.
"Have you heard, Sir," said Sir Joshua, addressing Sheridan with a patronizing kindness, "of the proposals made to the Government as to penal reform, by Mr. Wyville, of West Australia?"
"No," answered Sheridan, smiling at his own ignorance. "I have never even heard of Mr. Wyville."
"Indeed!" said Sir Joshua, with a stare of rude surprise.
He is the most influential man in the West Australian penal colony."
"I never heard his name before," simply answered Will.
"He, perhaps, resides in a district far from yours, Mr. Sheridan," said one of the Directors. Mr. Wyville is a wealthy settler from the Vasse District."
"From the Vasse!" repeated Sheridan, quite surprised; "I thought I knew every man, rich and poor, bond and free, in that district. I have lived there many years."
Sheridan saw that his importance was lessened to the Board, but, strange to say, increased to the Chief Director, by his confession of ignorance of Mr. Wyville. However, Sir Joshua continued to speak.
"Mr. Wyville wants to introduce the sentimental idea into our penal systeman absurdity that has never been attempted. There is only one-way to blend: punishment with reform, sirby rigid rules, constant work, low diet, impersonal treatment; and all this kept up with unflaggging regularity for all the years of a prisoner's sentence."
"With educational and religious influences added, of course," suggested Mr. Sheridan.
"No, Sir, not of course," said Sir Joshua, in a tone of severe correction; "a chapter of the Bible read by a warder every morning, in a regular way, may do some good; but these
p.80influences have been overratedthey, are of the sentimental School. The quality that is absent in the criminal class is order, Sir, order; and this can best be supplied by persistent and impersonal regularity of work, meals, exercise, and sleep."
"You subject all prisoners to the same course of treatment?" asked Sheridan.
"Precisely," answered Sir Joshua. Our system is the measure of normality, Sir. We make the entire criminal or, abnormal class pass through the same process of elevation, and try to reach one standard."
Mr. Sheridan would have asked what the standard wag, and how many had reached it, and what had become of those who had failed to reach it, who had sunk under the Draconian yoke; but he thought it prudent to keep the questions back.
"Suppose a youth commit a first offence," he said, "or an hitherto respectable and industrious commit a crime in a moment of passionwill you treat him as if he were a professional criminal?"
"Precisely," repeated the eminent reformer; "our system regards criminality as a mass, and ignores its grades. This is our leading idea, sir uniformity and justice. The criminal body is diseasedour system is the cure, sir; physician and cure in one."
Accustomed to say the word he meant, Will Sheridan could hardly restrain an indignant comment. "Confound the man," he thought, "he would take a hundred men, with as many diseases, and treat them all for the cholera." He concluded that Sir Joshua would have earned distinction as a torturer as well as a reformer, but he did not say so. As soon as possible he ended the conversation, and withdrew from the presence of the Directors of Prisons.
"Lord help the convicts!" he thought, on his way to the hotel. "No wonder they are eager to be sent to the penal colony."
AT the hotel, Sheridan found a note from Lord Somers requesting him, if disengaged, to call upon him that afternoon. Half an hour later, he and the Colonial Secretary were riding together towards the West End.
"By the way, Mr. Sheridan," said Lord Somers, "there is a gentleman in London I want you to meet, who knows a great deal about the Australian colonies, and especially about the West. He is our chief adviser on the proposed reform of the Penal System."
Indeed said Sheridan, interested at once. This is the second time to-day, I surmise, that I have heard of him. Is his name Wyville?"
"Yes; do you know him?"
"No," answered Sheridan; "I have never heard of him. Sir Joshua Hobb does not like his reformatory ideaswhich inclines me to think Mr. Wyville must be a superior man."
Lord Somers laughed. "Sir Joshua Hobb is, indeed, a strong counterblast," he said; "by nature, two such men are compelled to be antagonistic to each other."
"You admire Mr. Wyville, my Lord?" asked Sheridan.
"Thoroughly," answered Lord Somers. "He is a most remarkable mana man of exalted principles and extraordinary power. His information is astonishingand what he speaks about, he knows absolutely. I fancy he has lived a long time in the colonies, for he is enormously wealthy."
"Is he an old man?" asked Sheridan.
"No, I don't think he can be fortycertainly not more but a person of so much force, and with a manner so impressive, that really one forgets to think of his age. He is altogether a notable manand I may say, in confidence, that even the Prime Minister has more than once consulted him with advantage on Colonial affairs."
"You interest me exceedingly," said Sheridan. "Such men are not common in Australia."
"We are beginning to think otherwise," laughed the Secretary. "And yet you Australians seem to learn everything without
p.82newspapers. I remember, when Mr. Wyville first appeared here, some years ago, he might have dropped from the moon, so oblivious was he of the doings of the European world."
"He must have lived in the bush," said Sheridan, smiling.
"Why, he had never heard of the Crimean War," said the Secretary; "and when I mentioned the Indian Mutiny to him, one day, he gravely stared, and asked "What mutiny?" Are you so utterly removed from civilizationfrom news, in your bush?"
"Well, Mr. Wyville must certainly have had the minimum of society," responded Will; "we usually get a report, however vague, of what your civilization is doing."
"Shall we call on Mr. Wyville?" asked Lord Somers; "he lives in Grosvenor Street."
"I shall be delighted to meet him," said Sheridan; and a few minutes afterwards they stopped before a large and handsome mansion.
Mr. Wyville was at home. A coloured servant showed the gentlemen into a rich reception-room, in which Sheridan's quick eye noted many Australian features of decoration.
The coloured servant seemed a negro, of the common African type to the superficial eye of Lord Somers. But there was an air of freedom about him, an uprightness in the setting of his head on the neck and shoulders, the effect being heightened by blue-black hair, that stood straight out like a handsome and very soft brush, which at once attracted the attention of Sheridan.
"Australian!" he thought, half aloud; "is it possible that a bushman may be trained in this way?"
He smiled at the absurdity of the thought, but was struck once more by the man's air as he turned to the door.
"Mir-ga-na nago mial Vasse!" said Sheridan, in a low voice, ("Mir-ga-na," a common name among bushmen, "you have known," or "you belong to the Vasse.")
The black man turned as if a shot had struck him, and stared at the gentlemen, not knowing which had spoken.
"Nago mial wan-gur Vasse?" repeated Mr. Sheridan.
"Tdal-Jung nago Vasse! Guab-ha-leetch!" answered the man, the look of amazement slowly changing to one of deep pleasure and curiosity. " My mouth knows the Vasse! That is good!"
"By Jove!" said a pleasant voice from a window recess in
p.83the room; "please ask what was the prince's name in his own country."
There came from the recess a handsome, well-set man, who greeted Lord Somers in a familiar manner.
"Oh, my dear Hamerton," said the Secretary, "I have great pleasure in making you acquainted with another Australian gentleman, whom you will find as interesting as Mr. Wyville."
The gentleman bowed. Sheridan liked him from the first look. An aristocrat, stamped; with a broad, open forehead, clear, honest eyes, a firm mouth and jaw, and a manner above trifles, and careless of form.
"Mr. Hamerton is a priest of the new order," said Lord Somers to Sheridan in mock-earnest; "he is a journalist and book makerhungry for novelty as an epicure."
The black man had remained in the room, statuesque, his eyes fixed on Sheridan's face.
"Mr. Sheridan, will you please ask his royal name?" said Hamerton.
"Wan-gon-di?" said Sheridan to the man. "Ngarra-jil," he answered.
Mr. Sheridan motioned him to go.
"He is Ngarra-jil, a native of the Vasse country," said Sheridan.
"Is this really a language, with even an approach to regular formation, or the local gibberish of incoherent tribes?" asked Lord Somers.
"I have not studied its form," answered Mr. Sheridan, "but it certainly is not a mere local dialect. The same things have the same names all over the continent, with only a slight difference between the Swan River and Sydneytwo thousand miles apart."
"How did you guess this man's particular nativity?" asked Hamerton.
"I have lived at the Vasse many years," said Sheridan, "and have grown familiar with the people. I believe the Vasse natives are the most superior tribe in Australia."
"You are right, sir," said a deep voice behind them; "the Vasse people are the parent stock of Australia."
"Mr. Wyville!" said both Lord Somers and Hamerton, with sudden gravity and respect.
Sheridan turned, and met the eyes of him who had spokendeep, searching eyes, that held him strongly for a moment, then passed quietly to another direction.
Never, among all the men he had known, had Sheridan seen such a man as this. The head, with all its features, the eye, the voice, the whole body, were cast in one mould of superb massiveness and beauty. There was no point of difference or weakness. Among a million, this man would not have merely claimed superiority, but would have unconsciously walked through the opening crowd to the front place, and have taken it without a word. Before him now stood three men least likely of any in London to be easily impresseda young and brilliant statesman, a cynical and able novelist, and a bold and independent worker; and each of these felt the same strange presence of a power and a principle to be respected.
Nature, circumstances, and cultivation bad evidently united to create in this man a majestic individuality. He did not pose or pretend, but spoke straight the thing he meant to say; yet every movement and word suggested a reserve of strength that had almost a mysterious calmness and beauty.
He was dressed in such a way that one would say he never could be dressed otherwise. Dress was forgotten in the man. But he wore a short walking or shooting coat, of strong dark cloth. The strength and roughness of the cloth were seen, rather than the style, for it seemed appropriate that so strangely powerful a figure should be strongly clad.
His face was bronzed to the darkness of a Greek's. His voice, as he spoke on entering the room, came easily from his lips, yet with a deep resonance that was pleasant to hear, suggesting a possible tenderness or terror that would shake the soul. It was a voice in absolutely perfect accord with the striking face and physique.
"Mr. Sheridan," he said, holding out his hand, which the other took with a feeling of rare pleasure, "we should not need a formal introduction. We are both from a far country, where formality is unknown; and I have been quite intimate with your plans and progress there for several years."
Sheridan could hardly stammer a reply, he was so profoundly astonished. He could only recall the wild nature of West Australian life, and wonder how it could have contained or developed this important man.
"You have studied with some effect," continued Mr. Wyville with a smile, "to have learned the language and discovered the superiority of the Vasse tribe."
"My life for nine years has been passed among them," answered Sheridan; "but the possibility of training them to European manners I should not have thought possible."
"Oh, civilization is only skin deep," said Mr. Wyville, pleasantly. "The gamut of social law is not very extensive; and a little skill, practised with kindness and attention, will soon enable one to run over all the keys."
"You really think it possible, Mr. Wyville," asked Lord Somers, "to transform the average savage into an obedient footman?"
"Yes, my lord, I know it is possibleand I have seen stranger things accomplished with little difficulty. Refinement and gracious intercourse, even according to civilized rule, are quite in keeping with the natural character. We assume that to be savage which is contrary to our habit; but this is no proof of inferiority. Degraded civilization is brutal, indeed; but the natural or savage life is not."
"Then," said Mr. Hamerton, "why can't we put all our savages in Australia through your civilizing process, and do away with savagery at one stroke?"
"Why not begin at home?" quietly asked Mr. Wyville.
"Ah, just so; I hadn't thought of that!" and Hamerton lapsed into listening, with a shrug.
"Have you actually civilized your savage servant?" asked Lord Somers.
"I don't think I quite know your meaning, my lord," answered Mr. Wyville. "All my people are Australians taken from the bush. I am well served, and honestly; and I have no gossips in my household, for no one in Europe can speak to my peopleexcept Mr. Sheridan here," he added, smiling.
"But how have you changed the nature of the bushmen?" asked Lord Somers, very much interested.
"I haven't changed it; my men are bushmen still. I have attempted no change whateverand that is the secret of my success. It is true, I have asked Ngarra-jil and the others to wrap some warm cloth round their bodies while we live in this cold climate; to open the door when the bell rings; and to drive slowly and carefully in the streets. This was learned
p.86easily in a week or two. The bushmen are natural horsemen, trained to riding through close woods. We have no collisions with other carriages, I assure you. Then, again, my men, being savages, never lie, and never steal."
"But is not this actual civilization?" asked Lord Somers.
"I really don't know," said Mr. Wyville.
"Ha, ha!" chuckled Hamerton. "I really think it is!"
"Yes, you may laugh, Hamerton; but this is very interesting," said Lord Somers. "Have your men retained any of their savage ways, Mr. Wyville?"
"I think they have kept all their natural customs, which people in England call savage ways. They eat and sleep in their own fashionI do not see any reason for imposing my way upon them, if they prefer theirs. Mine is in itself no better, except as it pleases me. They even keep their familiar implements, if they please."
"What, for instance?" asked Lord Somers.
Mr. Wyville touched a bell. Ngarra-jil appeared at the door.
"Yanga dan-na womerah," said Mr. Wyville.
The Australian disappeared, and in a few moments returned to the door, holding three or four long and slender spears in one hand, and the womerah or throwing stick in the other.
Lord Somerton and Mr. Hamerton examined the weapons with great interest, vainly trying to draw a word from the observant Australian; while Mr. Wyville took Mr. Sheridan aside, and conversed with him for several minutes.
On taking their leave, Mr. Wyville gave Sheridan a cordial invitation to come and see him soon, as he had much to say to him.
"You will find me at home almost always," he said.
"And if Mr. Wyville is absent, you will certainly find Mr. Hamerton," said Lord Somers, jestingly.
Before they parted, Lord Somers informed Mr. Sheridan that Hamerton was a wealthy gentleman, who had refused to adopt his hereditary title, and who had also decided to earn his own livelihood, making a yearly division of the profits of his estate among his farmers and tenants. This had earned him quite another kind of title amongst the upper classes; but he had gone on working in his own way, and had already won for himself an honourable name as an author.
"Hamerton is a Republican now," said Lord Somers, after a pause; "he was a Socialist in the University."
Mr. Sheridan remarked that he seemed quite to agree with Mr. Wyville's opinions.
"Yes," the Secretary said, "he has been much attracted to this remarkable manmore so than to any one he has ever known." Lord Somers also mentioned that the Government was about to introduce a sweeping reform of the entire penal system, at home and abroad, and that the assistance of Mr. Wyville bad been deemed of the utmost importance.
"He has already reformed our system at the Andaman Islands, the penal colony for India," said the Secretary; "but the Australian colonies offer a profound problem. If possible, we are bound, he says, to use the convicts not merely as slaves, preparing the way for civilized life, but to transform them gradually into a healthy basis of population."
"It certainly is a wide field, and a grand undertaking," responded Sheridan, "and it is terribly needed. But Mr. Wyville is an uncommon mind. I trust his views will be largely heeded by the Government."
"He has the matter in his own hands," said the Secretary, confidentially and earnestly; "the Prime Minister has asked him to draft the entire bill."
IN a few days, as soon as he could do so without apparent haste, Will Sheridan visited Millbank again, and was escorted by a warder to the governor's office, where he was graciously received by that dignitary. Very soon, Sheridan adroitly turned the conversation on the transport service, and the class of prisoners to be transported in the next ship. The governor, who was a portly old army major, was willing enough to talk on this subject.
"The Government has no special ships for transport," said the governor; "we charter a large reliant vessel, and fit her up for the voyage. The Houguemont, which will sail in April, is now lying at Portland under preparation."
"The convicts to be transported you select from those who are best conducted, do you not?" asked Sheridan.
"No," said the governor, "only the women. These are the healthiest and best among their class; because they are soon released in Australia, and get married to liberated men, or go to service in settlers' houses. But the men who go to Australia are the oppositethey are the worst criminals in Great Britain. They are first selected for their sentence; men imprisoned for life, or for twenty years, are sure to go. Next we take them for re-conviction; we want to send away as many professional criminals as possible. Then we make up the number with strong young fellows, who have never been in prison before, but who are able to do a good deal of hard work."
"I presume the Australian authorities soon give this last class their liberty, and encourage them to become settlers?" said Sheridan, inquiringly.
"Quite the contrary," answered the governor, very gravely, as if he, subordinate though he was, could see the wrong of the system. "These men, who should be punished lightest, have the heaviest burden in Australia. The professionals escape hard tasks, by knowing how; but these poor fellows, being strong, and ignorant of the rules, are pushed into the quarry gangs. The chain-gang of Fremantle, of which you have heard, is filled with these men. Very rarely, indeed, does a really dangerous criminal get heavy punishment in prison. As a rule, the worst characters outside are the best in prison."
"It is a bad system," said Sheridan. "Does Mr. Wyville's plan propose a reform?"
"Mr. Wyville," said the old governor, walking towards the door, which he closed; then, sinking his voice almost to a whisper, "Mr. Wyville is a man and a Christian, sir. I have heard him say that the true penal law should be filled with the spirit of Christ, and that our present code had none of it. He is going to change the whole machinery. He knows more about humanity and reform than a regiment of your K.C.B.'s."
The bluff old Major mopped his face with his large handkerchief. He was excited.
"Pardon me, Mr. Sheridan," he continued. "I speak too quickly against my superiors, perhaps. But I don't do it often; and I think you Australian gentlemen may have a good deal of influence in making the new law."
"You know Mr. Wyville intimately, Major?" asked Sheridan. "I have known him for five years, sir," answered the governor; "since first he visited this prison with an order from Lord Palmerston. He has done more good to convicts in that time than all the men in BritainI'm free to say that," added the Major, emphatically. "Four years ago I called his attention to an extraordinary case among our female convictsthe very prisoner you saw the other day. She had never prayed, and had hardly spoken a word for five years after she came here. Mr. Wyville took an interest in her, and he has changed the whole mariner of her life."
"By what means?" asked Sheridan, profoundly interested.
"Means?" repeated the governor, again resorting to his sail-like handkerchief; "it was done in his own wayunlike any other man's way. That poor girl's life was saved from insanity and despair, by what do you think? By a poor little flowera little common flower he went and pulled in my garden down there."
Sheridan was about to hear the story of this strange event, when a low knock came to the door. The governor opened it, and there entered and stood near the threshold two ladies dressed in black, with snowy head-dresses. They were Sisters of Mercy, who attended the female school and hospital. They had come for their ward keys, without which it was impossible to pass through the pentagons, each ward or passage ending with a door.
The governor treated the ladies with respect and courtesy. He handed them their keys with a knightly bow, and, as they retired, he bowed again, and waited until they bad, reached the end of the passage before he closed the door. Sheridan who was a Catholic, was gratified and much surprised at seeing all this.
The governor turned to him with a radiant face. "God bless them!" he said, earnestly. "They may believe in the Pope of Rome, but it doesn't prevent them spending their lives for the love of God."
"Are they constant attendants in the prison?" asked Sheridan.
"Yes, they might as well be penal convicts, for all they see of the outside world. It was through these ladies, and the little flower I spoke of, that Mr. Wyville did so much for the
p.90poor girl. I'll tell you that story some day, Mr. Sheridan, if you care to hear it. Just now I have to make my rounds of inspection. Will you join me?"
"With pleasure," said Sheridan; and they passed into one of the male pentagons.
It was a monotonous and unpleasant routine, this visiting of the wards. Will Sheridan was glad when they entered the female pentagon, after half an hour's rapid walking. When at last they came to the short ward in which Alice was confined, Sheridan's heart was beating rapidly.
The door of Number Four was open, and one of the nuns was standing in the cell beside Alice, who sat with her work in her lap. Will Sheridan heard the low sound of her voice, as she spoke to her visitor, and it thrilled him like a strain of exquisite music. In after years, he never forgot the subtle pleasure and pain he experienced at the sound of her soft voice in that brief sentence.
The governor stood at the doorway, and greeted Sister Cecilia, respectfully, then passed on. Will Sheridan had only for one instant rested his eyes on Alice; but he went away happy, his heart filled with gratitude. The old governor wondered at the earnest warmth of his manner as he thanked him and took his leave.
When Will Sheridan emerged from Millbank Prison, he seemed impatient, and yet pleased. He hailed a cab, and drove straight to Mr. Wyville's. He was drawn there by a deep, pleasurable feeling of mingled respect, gratitude, and expectation. He felt unaccountably light-hearted and joyous. He had no actual thoughts, but only happy perceptions. The world was changed. He did not know in what the change consisted; but he certainly was a different man from the unhappy stranger who had wandered round Millbank a few weeks before.
He sprang from the cab in Grosvenor square, thinking he would quiet his excitement by walking the remainder of the way. As he turned into Grosvenor-street, his eye was attracted by a low and elegant brougham, driven by a coloured coachman who wore a peculiar oriental dress. This driver had caught Sheridan's eye at first, and he was rather surprised when he recognized Mr. Wyville's Australian servant, Ngarra-jil.
In the carriages, sat two young girls of extraordinary beauty and similarity of face and age. They were dark-skinned rather
p.91than "coloured," with intensely black hair and flashing eyes. Their faces were of a splendid, rich bronze, warmer than the Moorish brown of Spain, and darker than the red bronze of Syria. They were wrapped in soft furs, their faces only visible. They might have been twins; they were certainly sisters. They were talking and smiling as they spoke, as the brougham slowly passed Sheridan, and drew up at Mr. Wyville's door.
The ladies sprang lightly to the sidewalk, having thrown off their heavier wraps in the carriage. Their dress beneath was still of rich furs, of two or three colours. They walked lightly to the door, which was held open by a black servant, and entered the house.
The incident surprised Sheridan; but he was little given to curiosity. "Those ladies," he thought, "are certainly Australian natives, and yet it seems absurd to believe it. But, then, it is no stranger than everything, connected with this remarkable man."
At Mr. Wyville's he found Lord Somers, who had brought a copy of Sir Joshua Hobb's new Prison Bill, and Mr. Hamerton. The greeting of all was pleasant, but Sheridan was especially pleased with the almost silent cordiality of Mr. Wyville.
They had been conversing on criminal matters; and the conversation was renewed.
"Mr. Wyville," said the Secretary, "I wish to ask you a question I have put to many philanthropists, with varying results: Have you ever sought, or, rather, have you ever found the roots of the criminal upas tree?"
Mr. Wyville stood facing the window; he turned towards the Secretary, and his impressive face was in shade, as he answered, in a low tone
"Yes, my lord, I have sought for it, and I have found it."
"Then, why not announce the discovery? Why not lay the axe to the root of this tree of evil, and let the world, or at least England, be freed from the criminal incubus?"
The question was earnestly put, and Hamerton and Sheridan, he with deep interest, watched the face of Mr. Wyville till the answer came.
Because, my lord, the tree of evil is a banianits roots drop from above; its blood is not drawn directly from the soil, but pours from the heart of the main stem, which you think healthy. Its diseased branches ramify through admirable limbs, and cannot be separated with a knife."
"You are allegorical, Mr. Wyville, but I presume that you mean
"That the criminal principle is rooted in the heart of society, underlies the throneor let me say, that the throne cannot escape injury if the axe be laid to its base," said Mr. Wyville, speaking slowly. The nobleman glanced nervously at Hamerton, who was smiling broadly, as if intensely pleased.
The Secretary could not give up the point just then, having reached dangerous ground. And as Wyville remained silent, he was forced to continue.
"My dear Mr. Wyville," he said jocosely, "you speak today almost like a French Republican, and I fear Mr. Sheridan will conceive a violent prejudice against you. You mean, of course, that the law dare not attempt to suddenly suppress all rime for fear of exciting revolution?"
"No, my Lord, that was not my meaning," said Mr. Wyville.
"Well, then, I give it up," said the pleasant nobleman, laughing, and turning to Hamerton to change the conversation.
"Don't you think, Mr. Hamerton, that with all the public and private money spent in charity and religious work in England, the existence of a great criminal class is a vastly difficult problem, and a monstrous popular ingratitude?"
"I agree as to the problem," answered Hamerton, becoming grave; "but I do not quite see the ingratitude. But may I ask Mr. Wyville to read us the riddle of his allegory, or to continue it further?"
"Pray do, sir," said the Secretary, seeing no escape.
"My lord," said Mr. Wyville, slightly smiling, but yet very earnest in look, "my views are personal, as my researches have been. I have drawn no political dissatisfaction from foreign schools. I have merely sought among the poor and the tempted for the dangerous and the lawless; and I have found them, and lived among them, and have investigated the causes of their state. I have followed the main root of the criminal plant till I found it disappear beneath the throne; and its lateral issues run through and under the titled and heredity circles that ring the monarch."
Hamerton opened his eyes and locked his hands tightly, as he looked at the speaker; Lord Somers seemed puzzled, and
p.93rather dismayed; while Sheridan enjoyed the conversation keenly.
"Do the roots spring from the throne and the aristocracy, or enter their crevices from the outside?" asked Hamerton.
"They are boon of aristocracy," answered Wyville, impressively. "They spring from the rotting luxuries that fall from the tables of kings and earls and hereditary gentry. They creep from the palaces, where custom and care are too strong for them, and they crawl to the cabins and seize on the hearts of the poor for their prey. The seed of crime is in the flower of aristocracy."
"You speak in paradoxes now, sir," said Lord Somers, interested in spite of himself.
"I take aristocracy as the efflorescence of the social and political evil," said Mr. Wyville, now deeply moved by his theme. "It presupposes the morality of hereditary classes. Men would not, in a justly ordered state, be born either to luxury, poverty, disease, or crime. I do not know where or how mankind began to do the social sum wrong; but I do know, for I see, that the result is appallingthat millions have evil for a heritage, as truly as you, my lord, have your entailed estate."
"But how can this be changed or bettered, my dear Mr. Wyville, exceptby the spread of charity and religion among the wealthy?" asked the peer.
"Ah, pardon me; I consider these things from another standpoint. Charity among the rich simply means the propriety of the poor being miserablethat poverty is unfortunate, but not wrong. But God never meant to send the majority of mankind into existence to exercise the charity and religion of the minority. He sent them all into the world to be happy and virtuous, if not equal; and men have generated their evils by their own blind and selfish rules."
"Surely, Mr. Wyville," interrupted Mr. Hamerton, " you do not believe in the American absurdity that men are born equal?
"I do not think the Americans mean that in your sense, answered Wyville. "I do believe that every generation men should have a fair start, and let the best lives win."
But it never can be done," said Lord Somers.
"It has never been tried, I think, except by fanatics or
p.94philanthropic charity-mongers, who have done more harm than good. The good shall not come from the stooping of the rich, but from the raising of the poor; and the poor had better remain poor for another cycle than be raised by charity, and so pauperized and degraded."
"How would you begin the improvement, had you absolute power?" asked Mr. Hamerton.
Mr. Wyville checked himself with an effort, as he was about to speak.
"You have led me to utter latent thoughts rather than opinions," he said, smiling, and looking towards the nobleman.
I fear my upas roots have led me out of bounds."
Mr. Hamerton seemed annoyed at the check, and strode across the room impatiently.
"Confound it, Somers," he cried, "throw off your official airs, and take an interest in principles, as you used to do. Mr. Wyville, I beg of you to continue; you should not only talk freely here, but I wish to Heaven you could preach these things in Westminster Abbey"
"Let me recall the question of this excitable person, Mr. Wyville," said his lordship; "he asked how you would begin the reform of society, had you absolute power?"
"By burning the law-books."
"Splendid!" cried Hamerton.
"And then?" asked Lord Somers.
"By burning the title-deeds."
" Magnificent!" ejaculated Hamerton.
"Could society exist without the law?" asked the nobleman.
"Not just yet; but it could have a better existence with better laws. At present the laws of civilization, especially in England, are based on and framed by propertya depraved and unjust foundation. Human law should be founded on God's law and human right, and not on the narrow interests of land and gold."
"What do you propose to effect by such law?" asked Lord Somers.
"To raise all men above insecurity, which is the hot-bed of lawlessness," answered Mr. Wyville.
"But by what means can law make poor men rich?" asked the nobleman.
"By allowing no one to hold unproductive land while a
p.95single man is hungry. By encouraging small farmers, till every acre of land in England is teeming with food."
"But men do not live by bread alone. Englishmen cannot all be farmers. What then?"
"By developing a system of technical education, that would enable the town and city populations to manufacture to advantage the produce of the fields and mines."
"Admirable!" cried Hamerton.
"But this is revolution," said the nobleman.
"I know not what it may be called, my lord," responded Mr. Wyville, impressively; "but it is lawful and right. This can all be achieved by legal reform, even under present laws."
"Let me not misunderstand you, Mr. Wyville," said the nobleman, seriously. "Would you propose that the estates of wealthy men be wrested from them by law?"
"Not without compensation, my lord; and not at all unless they refused to cultivate the soil or to pay the heavy tax necessary to insure cultivation. I would do no wrong to make a right. No inherited nor purchased land should be taken for the benefit of the people without giving a fair recompense to the aristocrat."
"Well, and having done all this, where should we be?" asked Lord Somers.
"At the starting-point," answered Mr. Wyville, with a sad smile; "only at the starting-point. At present, the level of society is insecurity, poverty, misery; from which spring fear, ignorance, disease, and crime. Under a better system, the lowest point would be at least sufficiency, enough for all the human beings in the country; and this, in time, would eradicate much of the evil, perhaps most of it."
"Do you think, if there were enough for all, there would not still be some who would steal?" asked Hamerton.
"For a time there would be," answered Wyville, gravely; "perhaps for a thousand years or more we should have remnants of common crime. Men have been thousands of years learning to steal, and cringe, and lie; at least give them one thousand to unlearn."
"But if it take so long," said Lord Somers, laughing, "we may as well go on as we are."
"Not so, my lord," answered Wyville, and as he spoke, his face was lighted with an exaltation of spirit that made it
p.96marvellously beautiful and powerful; "no man who sees the truth, however distant, can conscientiously go on as if it were not there. Thousands of years are vast periods; but the love of human liberty and happiness shall reach out and cling to the eternal. Let every man who believes, faithfully do his share, sow the seed that he has received, and in God's time the glorious harvest will come of a pure and truthful people, whose aristocrats shall be elevated by intelligence and virtue, and the love of humanity, and not by accident of birth and superiority in vice and pride."
The three who heard were deeply moved by the earnestness of the speaker, whose whole being seemed filled with the splendid prophecy. Lord Somers was the first to speak, returning to the subject of the Penal Reform Bill.
"And yet, Mr. Wyville, with all your enthusiasm for social reform, you have given us a bill which is filled with practical attention to existing institutions."
"Ah, it is too soon to begin; and the beginning will not be at that point," said Mr. Wyville. "The real evil is outside the prison, and at present our legal morality calls it good. Until society is changed by the new common sense of abstract justice, we must temporize with our criminal codes."
There was a pause: no one seemed willing to break the floating possibilities of the future.
"You are going to Australia with the next convict ship, are you not?" Mr. Hamerton at length asked Mr. Wyville.
"Yes; I wish to see the machinery of the new system put in motion. Besides, I have personal matters to attend to in the colony."
Sheridan had started so sudden at the question, that now all three turned their eyes on him.
"I have thought," he said, looking at Lord Somers, "that I also should like to return to Australia on that ship."
"Would you not prefer to go in my yacht, Mr. Sheridan?" asked Mr. Wyville. "She will sail for Australia about the same time, and you shall command her for the voyage."
"I should prefer the ship," said Sheridan. Then, thinking he had rudely refused, he added: "I desire very keenly to have this experience."
"You shall have your wish, Sir," said the Secretary; "and I envy you the companionship of your voyage."