I: A Halt by the River

WHEN Alma Belmont arrived at Bristowe she had done about as foolish a thing as any young woman of four-and-twenty could have done in the way of marring a life that had been only too pleasant. Spoilt as a child, indulged in her wilful, wayward fancies as the only daughter of a long-widowed parent, much petted and admired in the set in which she moved, she had elected to consider herself an ill-used and unhappy creature, and had impulsively and hurriedly married a man who had come to her one day with a plea to “save him from going to the devil, for she was about the only woman who could do it.”

The excuse she made to the world was her father's second marriage; to herself the impossibility of marrying the “only man she had ever really loved,” and a kind of pride in the thought of reclaiming a poor fellow who loved her from the error of his ways. She was able to impose upon herself perhaps more successfully

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than on other people, who failed to see that a rich stepmother who “entertained,” and did her duty by society and marriageable maidens, was other than a highly estimable person, or that, as far as Alma herself was concerned, her devotion to a girlish ideal had ever stood in the way of many flirtations and a very patent enjoyment of her ballroom triumphs and successes. As to reclaiming Captain Belmont, the utter fallacy of such an aspiration revealed itself to her in the early days of her marriage, which were spent on board ship on their outward voyage to Australia.

He was one of those gentlemanly and agreeable ne'er-do-weels whom other men characterise as “no man's enemy but his own,” who had a “taking” way with women, much superficial good-nature, and an utter absence of principle. Withal, not destitute of a certain kind of cleverness, and possessed of a winning, almost boyish, affectionateness, which made his own womankind very gentle and tender and forgiving towards him, until came those evil days when he had sunk so low that even they could forgive and tolerate him no longer.

It is not, however, the story of Alma Belmont's married life that I have to tell, though it would have furnished material for a three-volume novel, but merely to relate an episode which did not even indirectly concern her husband, who had gone “up country” at the time in quest of one of those vague and frequently mythical “appointments” which he was very fond or talking about, and which entailed much acceptance or hospitality and even of monetary loans from genial hosts and open-handed Australian acquaintances, whom the plausible and quick-witted Irishman won over by

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his gift of ready speech and the inventive powers that never failed him.

On this occasion, however, the “appointment,” which was “something in the Customs,” was genuine, and Alma Belmont was on her way to the northern town of Stony Hollow to join her husband, who had preceded her, and who was staying there with a relative holding a position under Government.

Stony Hollow was reached by a three days' sea and river journey from the capital, from whence the high Customs official, who had held out a helping hand to the young couple, had seen Alma on board the steamer, with the kindly information that he had requested his brother collector at Ellenborough, where the vessel stopped for a night to take in and discharge cargo, to find her out on board, and thus make a break in the loneliness of her solitary journey.

It was in summer time, and every mile that they sped northward but increased the stifling heat and discomfort of the passage. It had been rough in the bay, there were even waves in the big river, and Alma had been seasick and was very miserable.

A wretched little six-weeks-old kitten, which her husband had requested her to bring for his cousin's children, had added to her misery by its piteous refusal to drink milk that had turned sour, and she was every moment expecting the poor little thing would die in the stuffy basket in which she had brought it so far at much personal inconvenience. The premature demise of a baby kitten may not seem a trouble to distress one's self about; but the lonely young wife was in that condition of forlornness that she had almost grown to care for her little travelling companion, and the

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stewardess's openly-expressed opinion that she couldn't think how any one could have troubled themselves with a “common little tabby kitten” quite grated upon her feelings.

She had been reviewing in her mind all the circumstances that had attended her short stay in the colony; how they had landed with no possessions beyond the clothing in their boxes and a ten-pound note, half of which had gone to pay the laundress for washing the linen that had accumulated during the hundred days of their long journey in a sailing ship. She dwelt on the dismay with which she had contemplated the plethoric linen-bag and the attenuated purse, and the joyful surprise with which she had accepted a kindly hospitality proffered “until they could turn themselves round, and Captain Belmont should find something to do.”

They had not only “turned themselves round” pretty frequently in the pleasant riverside home of their kind entertainers, but had even gyrated in the viceregal precincts, and assisted at balls and receptions at Government House, where Captain Belmont's waltzing and Mrs. Belmont's pretty French frocks had come in for a fair share of admiration. Several things had been found for Captain Belmont to do, but his doings had been of a perfunctory nature, and the illegible scrawl on which he rather prided himself had not advanced his position in the Government office which he had honoured with a trial. “Set of scribbling cads!” was his remark to his wife. “Ought to think themselves d——d lucky to have a gentleman amongst them.”

Alma did not feel very sanguine as to the appointment

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in the Customs, and she was looking forward with nervous dread of the unknown life to which she was going, the unknown connections whose house they were to share, and the very slight prospect of any permanent home of their own being ever provided for her. She was tired of living with or upon other people, and this shuttlecock state of existence was highly distasteful to her. Stony Hollow, too, from all accounts, was not exactly the place one would select for a residence in summer, being built down in a basin and surrounded by a range of low hills, which were quite high enough to exclude all air from the dwellers in its midst. So her musings were not of a very pleasant nature as she sat alone in her deck chair watching the sunset until it grew dark with the sudden darkness of a sky that has no twilight. Cockroaches were beginning to issue forth from the nooks and crannies in which they had lain concealed during the day, and as the ship made its way up the river through narrowing banks, on which the dismal mangrove grew thickly, the large spotted mosquito which haunts these shores deserted the accursed shrub that gives it shelter to settle about the ship and on its sweltering denizens.

They were nearing Ellenborough, where a halt was to be made during the night to discharge and take in cargo, the new goldfields that had lately been discovered a few miles from the township having given it a commercial impetus which warranted the delay, even in the case of a vessel that called itself a passenger steamer. They had now reached the landing-stage; ropes had been made fast to the piles with the usual accompaniment of “Heave away!” “Hold fast there!”

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and “aye ayeing;” and the Custom House officials were stepping on board. Amongst them was a tall, slender lad with a profusion of brown curls tumbling out from under his straw hat, who accosted the captain, and to Alma's astonishment at once asked if “Mrs. Belmont was on board.” When directed by a wave of the hand towards the lady in question, he came straight up to her, and as he raised his hat with a courteous gesture, introduced himself as “Athanase Bingham.”

“My father, you know, is the Collector of Customs here, and Mr. Thornhill, of Bristowe, asked him to look you up. My mother charged me to bring you to the house to supper, and to say that you must not think of going back to the steamer to-night, as there is a bed at your disposal.”

“Indeed, I shall be only too glad,” responded Alma, hastily adjusting the small toque she wore, and rising from her chair to follow her young visitor, who carefully assisted her to land, walking some distance along the quay and leading the way through a small gate that opened to the wharf, from an enclosure in which stood the Custom House. Passing one side of the building, and along the wall of a covered passage that seemed to connect it with a low, one-storied, verandahed dwelling-house, they found themselves in a garden, through which they passed, entering the house through a broad French window opening out on the verandah into a large, untidy, and yet comfortable-looking room, that revealed the harmonious life of a family by its combined masculine, feminine, and boyish litter. It was imperfectly lit by a lamp on a centre table, and at first Alma could but dimly discern the

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figure belonging to a rich voice that greeted her in foreign accents.

“Be welcome, my dear young lady, and excuse me that I do not rise. Nasi, approach that fauteuil. Bon. Now sit down by me, my dear, and remove your hat. Ouf! what a heat!” The speaker was reclining on a fully-extended cane lounging-chair, fanning herself with an indolent, rythmic movement. She was a large woman of about forty years of age, and must have been handsome till she grew stout; her massive proportions, that were evidently untrammelled by any corset, were exaggerated by the shapeless white cambric robe she wore, and masses of waving brown hair were hanging loosely by the side of her face, escaping from a thick twist coiled low down on her neck.

Alma Belmont's first impression of the lingering, liquid tones that had greeted her was almost effaced by this superabundant and untidy vision, but presently she spoke again, fixing on her visitor a pair of soft, sleepy brown eyes that matched the voice to perfection.

Chère petite, what a ridiculous little hat is that you have there! Your pretty fair face is all brown and burnt, and your poor nose—those terrible mosquitoes, how they have arranged you! Nasi, fetch the eau de Cologne, and a soft mouchoir, and dab her face; doucement, you know—but first, come and kiss your mother.”

The tall lad came to her and leant over her chair, and his brown curls mingled with her luxuriant brown tresses. As he left the room, she half raised herself and turned to Alma, saying, “Ah! no one can tell what a son that is! I had so longed that my little

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child should be a daughter, for I had one son already; but he is son and daughter both, ce cher Nasi!” The subject of her eulogy here appeared with the eau de Cologne, but did not attempt the dabbing process recommended by his mother, who sent him again out of the room on a fresh errand to see and report if the evening meal were ready. He returned presently with his father, a quiet, gentlemanly man of middle age, whose thoughtful face bore traces of disappointment or dissatisfaction with life generally, that showed themselves in the lines on his forehead, and in the querulous tones of a thin voice. Of the Irishman, nothing, no accent, no vivacity, nothing but the name. With a courteous allusion to the introduction of his friend, the Collector of Bristowe, he gave Alma his arm, while Athanase dragged his mother up from her reclining posture, and they went into an adjoining room, where a cloth was laid with cold meats, fruit, and salad, cakes, tea, and lemonade, and adorned with flowers. Alma's head was aching frightfully, and she did but scant justice to the appetising repast, though it offered a delightful contrast to the greasy, ill-served meals on board the steamer. The little party had been increased by the addition of a good-looking boy of twelve, who, with his head resting between his hands and his elbows on the table, had appeared on their entrance to be completely engrossed by a book he was reading.

“This is our scholar,” said the father, with a glance of affectionate pride. “Our baby, too,” interposed the mother, who seated herself between her boys, while Mr. Bingham and Alma completed the circle at the round table. The hospitable hostess expressed

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herself au désespoir that her guest could not eat. Mr. Bingham said little, but his inquiries about books, politics, society “at home,” all showed a hankering after the old country. It was easy to see that the duties of his life were not congenial, however close and dear were the home ties of the family. Alma could not restrain a sympathetic feeling of pity for the man who had probably hoped for and anticipated a very different career, while at the same time, surrounded by this soft atmosphere of home, her pity for herself grew stronger, and she envied the lot of the happy wife and mother.

Rising from the table, Mr. Bingham said he had “some work to do”; the studious boy was going to “help his father with his accounts,” and the two ladies and Athanase adjourned to chairs on the verandah.

“Ah! but they are clever, my husband and Sosthène,” said the Creole lady, “and Nasi here is my dear, good boy, and my eldest son, Hilarion, who is away, is beau comme Apollon.” And so she babbled on with her simple talk, little knowing that she was planting daggers of regret in the heart of the girl who had cut herself off from home, and so keenly realised that she had bartered her birthright for a mess of pottage as bitter to the taste as the apples of the Dead Sea. When she had been further informed that Athanase was named after his grandfather, and Sosthène after his uncle, who were planters in the Isle of France, and that the good lady's own name was Zéphyrine, an incongruity upon which she herself commented with fat chuckles of enjoyment, Alma at last ventured to say that she was tired, and would fain retire for the night.

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“Ah! my poor child! That I should not have thought of it! And you are pale—pale as this linen,” waving a handkerchief that in the morning had probably been whiter. “Come; Nasi and I will show you to your room. Unfortunately, we have no spare apartment in the house, and it is really in the Custom House; but the bed is comfortable. You are young and tired and will sleep soundly, and in the morning early I will send round some one to you with a cup of tea. Come, chère enfant.”

They proceeded round the verandah to the other side of the house and through the long, covered passage in the garden that they had skirted on Alma's arrival, then down a short one in the Custom House, into which doors opened from various rooms.

Under the closed door of one of them shone a brighter light than the dim oil wicks with which the building was scantily lit.

“That is where they are ‘working,”’ said Mrs. Bingham; “we will not disturb them—you are so fatigued, and I will wish them bonne nuit for you.”

She threw open a door as she spoke, and ushered her guest into a large, cool, bare room, with two windows, situated at right angles to each other, one of which was shaded by a drawn down venetian, the other, which was long and narrow and barred with iron, had neither blind nor venetian, so that the bright moonlight streamed through it, illuminating that part of the room and leaving the rest in darkness. Lighting a little lamp that stood on a table near the bed, which, with a washstand, a couple of chairs, and a strip of Indian matting on the floor, constituted the whole furniture, Mrs. Bingham gave a motherly kiss to the

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girl, while Nasi clasped her hand in his lithe, lissom young fingers.

Bonne nuit! Dormez bien!” and they departed. Left to herself, Alma's first act was to fasten the door and extinguish the little lamp, that was smelling vilely and aggravating her sick headache. Then she sat down on her bed, and tried not to think, but just to rest a little before undressing herself in the quiet, dark corner, swaying gently backwards and forwards with closed eyes, as if rocking her own lullaby.

At first, she could hear occasional faint snatches of talk, in which she recognised the voices of Mr. Bingham and his son, in an adjoining room. Presently, she ceased to distinguish them, becoming absorbed in the thoughts which crowded into her mind, whether she would or no.

How wretched she had felt on leaving Bristowe, and parting with the kind friends who had kept her with them after her husband's departure. Mr. Thornhill, fine, honourable English gentleman that he was—if a little proud, as some people seemed to think. Who, after all, had more cause to be so? And his clever, brilliant wife, who would have held her own as leader of a “salon” in the most select set of London or Paris society. The interesting daughter of the house, too; a little satirical, a little reserved perhaps, but so proud of her mother, and so singularly free herself from small feminine foibles and vanities. A charming family, whom Alma had learnt to love. Why were all her affections and friendships to be torn up almost as soon as they had struck root? These kind people, under whose roof she was at this moment, were hardly like strangers, but she would have to leave

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them, too, the next morning, and so probably it would always be.

Footsteps along a passage and the shutting of doors here interrupted the course of her reflections. Evidently Mr. Bingham and Sosthène were returning to the house. Then came a tremendous clang, as if a heavy door had suddenly swung to, and Alma could even fancy she heard a lock or a bolt shot. It must be the door of the long passage dividing the Customs from the dwelling-house. And all at once she realised that she was shut out for the whole night in a strange, empty, solitary building, quite alone!

It was not a pleasant feeling, for she had never been brave even as a girl, and had become a nervous, easily-agitated young woman. So she thought she would undress as quickly as possible and, child-like, bury herself and her fears under cover of the friendly bed-clothes. But her hand shook so that she could hardly manage to unfasten her dress, and the obstinate strings of a petticoat got knotted and entangled to such a degree that she was seriously contemplating jumping into bed without any further attempt at divesting herself of her ordinary attire.

Hark! what is that? A sound of footsteps outside the window—a kind of cat-like tread of unshod feet, and surely a dusky shadow goes past, and yet another and another! Blacks! Her heart, which had been thumping loudly, gave a great leap and then stood still. She had come across a few of them in Bristowe, town blacks, tame creatures, who spoke English and begged for pennies. She had only just begun to tolerate the young gins, with their little brown picaninnies slung over their shoulders, but the old

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hags with their pipes and their dilly bags, and the spindle-shanked men with their hungry, wolf-like dogs and their waddies, had always remained to her objects of horror. She never could understand why “King Billy,” who wore a brass plate round his neck with the title duly set forth thereon, should be a persona grata at Riverview, where he was allowed the run of the offices, and quite failed to see what amusement the household could find in his mimic antics when he strutted about on the lawn. “Now, me Honourable William Thornhill. Wait; you see. Now, me Governor, Sir George.” But, at any rate, he was partially civilised and harmless. All the blood-curdling stories she had ever heard or read about savage atrocities came into her mind. She shivered where she sat, and her teeth chattered with fright. What did it matter if the window was barred? Why, if they were only to look in, if she saw a black face at the pane, she knew she should die of fright. For a moment she contemplated snatching up a shawl, a towel, no matter what, and pinning it across the window: but that would only attract attention. Besides, she could not endure not knowing what they were about; at all risks, she must see for herself. So she got off her bed and crept along by the walls until she came to the window, crouching down so that her head was on a level with the sill.

The sight that met her eyes paralysed her with terror, so that, fearful as she was of being seen, she could not move from her constrained position. The bright moonlight made everything as plain as day, and the fires which the blacks had lighted around the circle within which they were congregated in some

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numbers threw up lurid flames, and cast fantastic reflections on the painted and besmeared faces of the warriors, who were flourishing their spears and nulla-nullas, and brandishing waddies above their heads in terrible mimicry of real warfare. Their hoarse cries and fierce yells mingled with the discordant music and monotonous chanting of the gins, who were beating tom-toms and swaying backwards and forwards as they sat in the background, with eyes fixed on the pantomime of their braves. The mimic combat was succeeded by a dance, if possible, even more terrible, in which the fighting men became so many grinning demons, with countenances distorted by every vile passion, dancing through the flames and throwing up their arms with wild screams and sudden shouts of fiendish laughter, such as one could imagine proceeding from the devils torturing the damned in the accursed orgies of an Inferno. Alma could have screamed herself, but her dry throat was voiceless. Her temples throbbed violently, and all the blood in her benumbed body seemed to have concentrated itself in her head, which felt as if it would burst. She turned sick and faint, and suddenly losing consciousness, sank down in a heap on the floor beneath the window.

How long she had lain there she never knew, but when she revived all was silent. Shuddering, while she nerved herself for the effort, she once more raised herself to her knees and cast a fearful glance in the direction of the scene that had been enacted. No traces remained beyond the ashes of the extinguished fires, strewing the ground where they had been lit. But for that, all might have been a hideous dream born

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of her frightened fancies and fevered imagination. Her trembling limbs could hardly drag her to the bedside; but, reassured in a degree, though still quivering in every nerve, she was at last able to close her strained and aching eyes in a sleep of utter prostration and exhaustion.

Alma Belmont was young and strong in those days, however, and when she was awakened by the brilliant sunlight streaming into the room, followed by the arrival of the promised cup of tea, she was able to dress and appear at the breakfast table with very little trace of any more trying experience than the fatigue and indisposition of the previous evening. She had made up her mind to say nothing about it, being rather ashamed of her fright, for a little calm reflection had convinced her that her kind host would not have left her in a position in which she could have incurred any actual danger, that the ship was not far off along the quay, and that her alarm had been utterly groundless. She felt glad to have come to this decision when Mr. Bingham said he “hoped she had not been disturbed during the night by the antics of his black friends,” that they generally chose a night when the moon was at the full for the indulgence of their pantomimic diversions, and that he had given them leave to assemble when they pleased on the piece of waste ground adjoining the Customs enclosure. He was sorry he had not warned her, as she might have been alarmed by a sight that must be novel and unexpected to a “new chum.” To which Alma merely replied, with a smile, that his hospitality was quite on an Eastern scale in providing such entertainments for his guests, and that she certainly had to thank him for a new sensation.

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But time and tide brought round the moment of departure. With a sob in her throat Alma bade farewell to the warm-hearted Creole lady, whose soft brown eyes rested on her through tears as she affectionately embraced her, and wished her bon voyage! She had not been allowed to refuse the offer of Nasi's last new straw hat in lieu of the petit chapeau ridicule that had aroused Mrs. Bingham's womanly concern for her “poor nose” and complexion; and thus equipped, and laden with fruit and flowers in a basket, and other trifles that might conduce to her comfort and recreation, she watched the little party from the deck of the steamer until a bend in the river hid them and the township of Ellenborough from eyes that were dimmed by grateful tears.

She never saw any of the family again, with the exception of the absent Hilarion, whose acquaintance she made about a year later.

But that, as Mr. Kipling says, is another story.