Chapter II

“For the Present wakes the Past.”

Some time had elapsed,—one of those pauses which occur in life,—in nations, in cities, and more especially in retired localities and families which are barren of incident and change;—a hush such as precedes the storm, and usually as rudely broken. When once the dike has begun to leak, how swift the inundation! After the first separation, how rapid and complete

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the dispersion! Once more a human family is “scattered abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth.” But such a train of ideas is prospective, for it was that unbroken hush; —we only know that time has passed, because those equestrians are no longer children.

The girls were riding to the little post town, followed by a native black, also mounted; not that the lad had assumed the servile air of a lackey: his reins were negligently flung across the horse's neck, his hands stuffed into his pockets, and the large lips puckered up in a convenient form for whistling “Lucy Long,” or some such air; from time to time the boy discontinued his musical performances to call—“I say, Miss Rachel, you see that magpie's nest;” and a clever imitation of the birds, young and old, followed; from a mouse's hole to a bee's nest far up in the towering branches above them, the great black eyes of the boy went exploring; the Nimrod element of the savage was finely developed in him, although it might only have been in pursuit of “mice and such small deer.”

The bush meanwhile was traversed, and some very pleasing green fields, with a few scattered cottages, were their destination. One of these buildings, a whitewashed slab cottage, had a board erected on two posts before it, on which was written, “Andrew Apjohn. General Store. Post Office. Good Accommodations and Water.” This was the magnet which attracted the party.

There was some zealous activity to hold the horses and assist the ladies to dismount, evinced by the young farmers who were grouped round the counter; for though not one of the largest estate holders, Captain Dell, as a magistrate, and by the force of character, held a certain position in the district. Rachel and Elice bowed and smiled as they entered the store. The room was small and crowded with goods, and the large mailbags lay on the counter and floor; the mail was just in.

“Have you anything for us?—Good-day, Mr. Apjohn.”

“Yes, Miss Calder, I have: there's a letter for the Captain. How does he find himself to-day, Miss? and here's another—no, that's ‘Miss Calder’—that's yourself, Miss;” and so on the storekeeper's wife proceeded, as, from a pile of letters on the counter, and sundry little drawers and baskets, she produced letters and papers. That important personage himself was playing the part of Sir Oracle, perched upon a cask, with his

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rubicund face, forming a tolerable tableau vivant of Baechus, while he read the latest English news to an attentive audience, with a running commentary of much profundity; the great political questions of the day were being disposed of with much ease and dispatch as the girls left the store, and cantered out of the township to the retired bush-road; then the reins were drawn, and the seals of the many anxiously-expected communications broken. Rachel had a letter from her brother, telling, as all Gilbert's letters did, of mustering days, and hunting, and dangers of various kinds; with a postscript of loving messages to Elice, and Blackmore's respects to the Captain. Her cousin was not less occupied.

“A letter from papa,” she said at length. “I have another little sister since he wrote last, and—how strange it seems, Rachel—these brothers and sisters I have never seen.” Tears gathered in her' eyes.

Captain Dell had had three daughters; the eldest, the homely Anne, grew into the homely maiden, Aunt Nancy; for diamonds unpolished are frequently mistaken for pebbles; but the others married,—the one an officer, the other the Doctor of the regiment then stationed at Sydney; but after a while they were ordered to India. To Mrs. Calder the struggle was severe; she could not part from a husband loved as only such finely-wrought and impassioned natures can love, but she was a mother, and the climate was declared fatal to her children. Aunt Nancy wept over the cots where the little ones slept, and promised to be a mother to them; and her sister tore herself from her children, as it proved, to see them no more. Within a few months fever had stilled the beatings of that loving and sorrowing heart, and the babes were orphans.

Elice's mother, the Captain's youngest daughter, clung to her child; whether the cool, politic man of the world, with his bland, suave manner, had disappointed her hopes, none knew; but her feeble child received her first care, and she said that when it had gained strength they would join him; but the babe each day took firmer hold upon her affections, and the time did not come when she could either part with her, or expose her to the risk of an unhealthy climate. Gradually a naturally fragile constitution sank under many sources of disquiet, and Aunt Nancy once more promised to be a mother to the motherless.

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Mr. Gillett, the surgeon, had not long mourned his bereavement; he married a Creole lady with a good fortune, and at stated intervals wrote a letter to his eldest daughter, with an enclosure for her maintenance; the terms conventional and proper might have described these epistles: no fatherly affection, —no fatherly counsel: the words “My dear Elice,” and “Your Mamma and brothers and sisters desire their love,” were stereotyped and spiritless. He had once written that he considered it best for her to remain in Australia, where she would, no doubt, settle well;—he was no longer in the military, but the civil service, and not likely for some time to leave India. The subject weighed more deeply upon the girl's heart than anyone imagined: it had grown with her,—had become a festering wound carefully guarded; she pictured the family circle from which she was excluded;—the father closing up his desk and letter to the far-off child, with a sigh of relief that that was done, and setting out on a romping game with the little ones—the mother smiling on all. If she was lonely, she thought of them; if she was sorrowful, her imagination flew across the wide sea; the almost morbid sensibility of her spirit was fostered on such reflections, and deepened the bitterness of the case.

Captain Calder also was alive, seeing service in many lands: wounded, duelling, sporting, and leading the life of a man of the world; withal generous and kind; and with a fine honorable spirit, which these pursuits had not been able to quench. Rarely, indeed, did he write, and then it was a long, loving letter; for the dead mother had the richest corner in the Captain's heart, and he loved her children for her sake. Always he added that he would come back to them some day. Ah! those some days, which run away with life and the time of action!

An hour later, and the family party were assembled round the tea-table.

Captain Dell had received a communication which required his sudden departure from home, and the rough brows were rather knitted as he perused his correspondent's letter. Rachel anxiously read the stern face, and gathered from the increased firmness of the lines that the news was unwelcome.

Aunt Nancy officiated at the tea-table with her usual air of simple good-nature: she was such an every-day character, only

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unusual in the excess of her homely worth,—not the remotest selfishness or unkindness in her composition. A peculiarly square, flat face, of a pale hue, and a pair of small, quiet grey eyes, were indexes to this abundant goodness, but utter absence of imagination: her house was her world, and all her honest, steady principles led her to an unaffected and sincere Christian faith and life.

There was much happiness in that family, but the circle was not complete: it was easy to see that, if sorrow entered, the discordant materials must jar sadly, or at least want the connecting link of sympathy. Good plain Aunt Nancy could be nothing more than a thorough housekeeper, and firm friend in actions. Had she been a wife and mother, she would have done her duty truly, but she could not guide a mind; there she must have stopped short; she had not the faintest idea of the thoughts and feelings of the young girls who sat on either side of her. The strong mind of the Captain would have fitted him for the task, had not a vigorous firmness—almost severity of will—left him without the tender sympathy so essential to mind-training; he loved “his girls,” as he proudly called them, and was kind, very kind to them; but Rachel had long felt her want, although she had no words to express it. She could not define her necessities, but she wanted culture, apart from education;—a clear, vigorous mind, and frank, warm spirit, enthusiastic in its glow, was vaguely longing rather than achieving; it was for life to do, by a long and painful process, that maturing which the deficiencies of her mental culture had neglected;—a noble nature, which might reach great perfection, and yet lose nothing of its essentially feminine qualities.

Elice's character it would be hard to describe; like her fair, refined countenance, it grew in beauty with familiarity;—a rare quality, and unfolded a peculiar sweetness, which at first was entirely overlooked.

Whilst the Captain still read, and the others refreshed themselves, a visitor entered. Evidently, by the way in which the servant ushered him in, he was no stranger.

“Mr. Fenwick!” exclaimed Aunt Nancy, heartily extending her hand. The gentleman shook it, and passed round the table to Captain Dell.

“We did not expect to see you to-night. I thought you were going with Jenkinson up to his brother's,” remarked he.

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“I did think of doing so, but as I must return to Sydney so shortly, I changed my plan.” He paused, looking at the females grouped at the other end of the table, whom, excepting Aunt Nancy, he had only previously noticed by several bows and smiles.

“Indeed! Are you returning immediately?”

“To-morrow.” The visitor again looked at the ladies.

Elice's eyes sought the floor, and Rachel flushed with a quick sympathy.

A chair was placed for Mr. Fenwick at the tea-table, and a freer flow of conversation ensued. After the tray was removed he requested Elice to “give them some music,” which she did. An exquisite touch and some practice made her a pleasing musician. Mr. Fenwick leant over the back of a chair, listening, and occasionally whistling a bar of a tune that struck him, whilst he interspersed his accompaniments with remarks addressed to the Captain, of a purely business or commercial nature. Rachel sat on a sofa in the shade, with her full bright eyes almost anxiously watching them; the occupation of the one and the evident direction of the other's thoughts, notwithstanding his endeavour to appear interested, seemed clearly to answer her mental interrogation—“Can there be real sympathy of soul between them?”—with a most decided negative. Still no one doubted that Elice loved him; it was a sort of whispered mystery in the household; hers was such a tender, loving heart, it appeared made to love;—that excited no wonder. As for the object, Aunt Nancy saw in him a very steady, pains-taking young man; and Captain Dell, a good turn for business; and both were satisfied—though the former fain would have seen less worldliness, and more heavenliness, in his aims. Nothing, however, had been said: it all rested on surmise; and so it did when Mr. Fenwick bade them farewell in a rather low, faltering voice, and started on his journey. On that morning, too, Captain Dell left home.