― 330 ―


Life At Westbrooke.


Twelve months had come and gone. The country was still in a depressed and uncertain condition. Public and commercial confidence was still at a low ebb. Throughout the length and breadth of the colony might be seen unfinished buildings—houses and churches—waiting for the money, so difficult to raise, to pay the expense of their completion. Here and there, a once comfortable and prosperous family dwelling was deserted, while its inhabitants had been driven to migrate farther away, to some out station perhaps, devoting all the energy and means of each member of the family to the keeping together what stock there was, and ever devising fresh ways of making any profit. Gentlemen's sons, who were to have been brought up to the learned professions—perhaps to have returned to the old country for a little polish and teaching, were now obliged to put the shoulder to the wheel, literally, and save wages by acting as tillers of the ground or stockmen. Poverty filled the land, and though there was a little lull, old houses and firms were still breaking, and money and lands changing hands.

Among those who profited were the Veseys. They, having some ready money, bought up stock at very low prices, and had taken a fine and improved farm on the Hunter for a mere ‘song.’ Vine Lodge was consequently again deserted. Warratah Brush was occupied by Mr. Herbert's agent—at least, he divided his time between it and the station. He had orders to sell or let, if certain terms could be

  ― 331 ―
had. If not, he was to go on quietly and do the best he could with the property. His answer to all inquiries was, that Mr. Herbert was in England engaged in a law-suit, and that he had succeeded to some fortune, but no title. Miss Herbert had surprised people by marrying Dr. Marsh, and then, as his wife, going to England. Langville was occupied by a retired innkeeper from Paramatta, who, it was said, kept a queer house, and lived a questionable life, very much undisturbed by any remarks that his very few and distant neighbours might make. A great change had come to the district—Bengala was a deserted place; and yet in the little township there were signs of life and stir. More huts and even weather-boarded cottages had been added, and small settlers had taken advantage of the times to rent plots of ground cheaply, which they cultivated on their own account, and kept up a small trade by supplying distant stations with necessaries at an enormous price, when it was not convenient to go all the way to Sydney.

The Parsonage was now covered with creepers, and the garden was a model for the neighbourhood. Mr. Farrant was married, and he and his wife lived very comfortably there with their parish, school, glebe farm, and pupils, having plenty to do, and only regretting the separation from their old friends.

A bright and scientifically built up wood-fire burnt on the well-whitened, large fireplace at Westbrooke farm. The two little girls were busy making doll's clothes in a corner, speaking in hushed voices, and now and then casting a glance towards Mrs. Lang, who sat with some needlework on her lap, but for the time not heeding that or anything. She still wore weeds, and had a clouded, discontented expression. Isabel was busy over some accounts. Presently she shut her desk with a sharp snap, and looking up with a bright face, said— 'Mamma, it will do. Clear profit; enough to pay for Jem's expenses, and get you a new cloak into the bargain, Mrs. Lang. What do you think of that?’

‘I don't want it! What is a new cloak to me? No! if there really is anything to spend, pray let dear, darling Kate have it. In her last letter she says that her dress is getting quite shabby, and she makes that an excuse for not going to the ball. Poor Kate! Ah! well!’

‘There is some one out there,’ said Fanny, presently.

‘Dr. Mornay, probably. I asked him to step down this evening. I wished to give him a message for Kate. He could take anything, Issy, for us. My dear—wont you—hadn't you better just go and meet

  ― 332 ―
him? I am sure it is his step in the verandah.’

‘No,’ returned Isabel, somewhat shortly, and with a slight shade on her changeful face. ‘I don't see that I need go out to him. He will be here in a minute.’

‘As you like, my dear!’ with a sigh. ‘But he is so very—so particularly kind and attentive—and has been so real a friend . . . .’

‘So funny, that you have completely forgotten to be afraid of him—a Roman Catholic priest!’ said Isabel.

‘But he is not at all like one,’ returned her mother. ‘How he comes here and talks—so clever,—so agreeable, and so polite! He is just like a Protestant—all but his long coat.’

Isabel laughed a little; but what she was going to say was checked by a knock at the door. Fanny opened it, and received a caressing stroke on the head for her pains. Dr. Mornay came in like an intimate and constant visitor, drawing the child on to his knee, after greeting Mrs. Lang and while he spoke to Isabel, whose hands were too full, it seemed, for shaking hands. She was collecting the bundles of papers which had strewed the table.

‘Busy as ever, I see,’ he remarked.

‘Yes; I have finished my accounts, and the result is very consoling; after paying for the new harness and all the expenses, a very respectable profit remains.’

‘All owing to your kind suggestion,’ said Mrs. Lang, addressing Dr. Mornay. ‘I am sure, as I tell Issy, we ought to be very much obliged to you.’

‘Issy doesn't need reminding of that’, she said, with a blush rising, as she tied up the last packet, and left the table clear for the tea-tray. ‘It will be great triumph showing it to that perverse Charlie. I wont spare him; he shall come down and confess his mistake,’ she added.

‘He has quite come round to the idea,’ Dr. Mornay remarked. ‘I suspect he only keeps up the argument for the sake of a little fun with his young mistress. In sober earnest he allowed to me that it was a good ‘spec,’ and he went on to hope that when you had made some money by it, his own pet scheme might be carried out, which is to make your fortunes, you know.’

‘Building houses is such a risk,’ sighed out Mrs. Lang. ‘And then, times are so bad. When we had spent ever so much on the proposed street, who would there be to live in it—at least to pay the rent? No; it wont do to be led too much by that man, though he means well.’

  ― 333 ―

‘Certainly he does. But the beauty of Dr. Mornay's plan was, that it involved so little outlay,’ said Isabel.

‘I have sometimes been led to regret my officiousness, nevertheless,’ he answered, drawing his chair a little nearer to Isabel's. ‘I fear it has brought a great deal of hard work on you. Even now, though so-so bright, you are thinner than you should be, than you were when—’

‘O, yes, people do get thinner as they grow older. Work is the salt of life; I adore it! No work hurts me, especially such very successful work as this has been. No, you were a good adviser, Dr. Mornay, in that matter.’

‘But not in others!—Is that what you mean to imply?’

‘I implied nothing. I never have double meanings. I am too dull and matter-of-fact.’

‘Talking of being thin, Dr. Mornay, pray observe my dear Kate, and tell me if she is really wasting away in that terrible place,’ Mrs. Lang put in.

‘O mamma! You used to like us to go to Sydney. Consider how very dull Kate would be here. Now she is quite gay in the metropolis, and—’

‘Issy, I think that is hardly right. It is unfeeling and selfish towards your poor dear sister. You are comfortable at home, while she is living with her cousin; such a particular person, too, who worries poor darling Kate every day and all day long, and then you know how bad her spirits are, and how devotedly fond she is of home and of me!’

Isabel made no answer. But her cheeks were very red, and while she turned quickly to get the kettle, her handkerchief was furtively raised to her eyes. Dr. Mornay rose, in his courteous way, to take it from her, and she resigned it without a word. Mrs. Lang left the room, saying she would be back in a moment.

‘Do you happen to know of a governess being wanted in any respectable family?’ asked Isabel, lightly, but not looking at Dr. Mornay.

‘A governess?’

‘Yes. You always seem to know everything. We are so in the habit of going to you for help now, that I ask even this, you see, though of course it must be a Protestant family.’

‘God forbid you should come to that drudgery,’ was his answer, playing with the knife before him.

‘Good gracious me, Dr. Mornay, what is it? I positively must learn to look on you as—as—dealing in unlawful knowledge at the least.

  ― 334 ―
How could you guess that I meant myself? Can you, indeed, read one's very thoughts?’

He smiled. It was a very peculiar smile, speaking of self-content and yet of doubt. It was at once amused and very sad.

‘I can read some thoughts, and you are so very transparent!’ he said, gently and earnestly. ‘Yet I could wish to read more, and find my power very limited.’

‘Well! all I can say is, it is not endurable; it is awful! You actually find out what I declare I have never so much as hinted to any living soul; and only just lately ventured to glance at in my own private thoughts!’

Mrs. Lang's re-entrance turned the subject to the duties of the meal. Dr. Mornay talked in a light and agreeable manner of local interests. There was no one person and no fact unobserved by him. He threw himself into the spirit of his companions wonderfully, adapting himself to every taste, not stupidly and weakly agreeing with every one, but refraining from obtruding his own peculiar opinions, especially when the subject bore on religion. As to making converts, he never seemed to have such an idea, and Mrs. Lang had long since grown to look on him as their pleasantest and most useful friend. His advice had often been to the point and very judicious, especially when he had suggested their cutting down the numberless small trees which in some parts crowded the estate, and sending them as fire-wood, for sale in Sydney. At first Charlie Brand had sneered at the notion, and much worried Isabel by what she called his stupid prejudice and opposition. Charlie was all for building a street in the small township, as the property extended to one side of the public road. He thought ‘Lang Street’ would sound well, and turn out a profitable speculation. But Isabel liked the wood scheme best, and so heartily threw herself into the work, standing early and late in the bush, watching the trees being felled, and looking at the carts being filled, that Charlie could not resist trying to please her. When returning from the sale, he saw her looking out so anxiously for his arrival, and noted the eager, bright inquiry of her eyes, as she scanned the empty cart and then his face, that it became a real pleasure to him to be able to say ‘Tolerable-good-enough sale,’ and so on. As said above, this scheme, carried on for more than ten months, had answered entirely, and they were now about to continue it on a larger scale. Then, Dr. Mornay had helped them very much in getting Jem into a situation, on a cattle station, and this evening he was talking very eagerly about what it might lead to. In fact, when Isabel came to consider it quietly, which

  ― 335 ―
she did at last, she felt surprised at the way in which this man, almost a stranger a year ago, had become necessary to the house—an advising friend, and implicitly trusted by Mrs. Lang, whose disposition was completely satisfied by his gentle flattery and never-failing attention. Not getting the proposed chapel and school-house in Bengala district, he had subsequently been sent to Westbrooke, where the Romanists had a church, a school, and a thoroughly comfortable residence for the priest. This had greatly facilitated the intimacy, which was added to from his being a great friend, and at one time confessor, to some distant cousins of Mr. Lang, who resided at the north shore, near Sydney.

When the tea-things were removed, and Isabel had brought out her work-basket, Dr. Mornay asked in a lower tone than that he generally used, ‘If the sketch he had begged for, and had been half-promised, was forthcoming?’

‘Half a promise is not a whole. Indeed it was your own imagination, for I did not enter into any promise; I never do draw now. I haven't time, and I—I hate it.’

‘I should not like to ask you to do anything you really hated. I was wrong then to persevere in begging. I did crave a sketch like the one I saw of your old place. I should have sent it home.’ There was a touch of sadness in his tone.

‘Indeed! Home! Have you then . . . .’

‘You think it strange for a priest to talk of home!’ he interrupted. ‘You look on us as separate and lonely individuals, cut off from all household and domestic ties, all human feelings, all affection and love. Yet I had a home, and a mother and father, and sisters too. All are gone, save one, I believe. It was to her I thought of sending it.’

There was so much of pathos, so much tender recollection touched with sadness in his tone, that she looked into his face: it was in harmony with his voice, though his eyes were bent on the table. She was moved by the idea of his life of exile and self-denial; the giving up of all that most men desire and hold precious. Was it out of real self-devotion? Was this man, who had so far thrown off his attributes as to be considered by them as any other ordinary friend,—was he so devoted, so religious a man? In what light must she, must they all appear to him, and what was his motive for seeking them, and devoting so much time to their amusement? Had he been zealous to convert them to his own views, she could understand it. But it would almost seem as if he came to please and amuse himself. Yet, the very fact

  ― 336 ―
of his being a priest seemed to involve higher and sterner motives. As we have before said, Isabel was no great thinker. Her feelings were warm and impulsive, and at this moment there was a re-action in favour of this singular man. She was angry with herself for some rather disagreeable doubts concerning him, and some cold and curt speeches she had made in consequence. She hastened now to assure him that she would to-morrow seek out her sketching things, and forthwith begin the drawing. She was out of practice, but she would do her best. Then he looked up at her, his whole face changed. It was but one brief instant—a mere flush—but its expression had the effect of throwing back her previous sympathy and kindly regard. She felt afraid of him, afraid of something which she did not understand, and which had at different times struck her much in the same sudden and strange way. She involuntarily shrank back and drew herself very upright. Before, she had been bending forwards, toying with her needles and thread, and wrapped in the interest his words and manner excited.

‘It is very kind of you. But I know I must not thank you too much. Perhaps when I come back it will be ready,’ he said.

Nothing could be more polite, and at the same time almost indifferent, than his tone now, and she rallied herself for losing her wits. What was there to scare her so?

‘You wish to go from home that your sister may return. Isn't that it?’ he presently asked, with kind interest.

‘O, of course you know all, everything! Well—yes—some such thought, I confess, has struck me. Mamma pines for Kate, and perhaps it is rather trying for her to be there, in not the pleasantest of positions. I couldn't stand it! No, far rather would I dig the ground. Yet I thought she preferred it to the rough work here. Poor Kate! she is not born for work. But now all is in pretty good train here, and it will do her good, perhaps, to come home.’

‘And for you to change from your toil, anxious toil, now that it begins to grow a little lighter, to something even worse! Have you ever considered what the duties of a governess consist of?’

‘Often! I have imagined myself one. For that I have tried my hand with my sisters; and if all children are as good, it need not be very bad. I am serious. And I mean to inquire at once, and not speak of it here, till something is settled. It would worry mamma. They must be small children, too, Dr. Mornay. I am not accomplished, as you know.’

‘Because you have not cared to be so. You have power, capacity for anything. No, thank Heaven! you are not an accomplished young

  ― 337 ―
lady. Happy the parents, thrice happy the children who . . . .’

‘No compliments,’ she put in; ‘I always feel myself insulted. Moreover, it is not truth, for I am not an agreeable, easy-going body. No doubt I shall vex both the parents and the pupils. But I shall do my best. Can you conscientiously recommend me?’

‘The difficulty is, that of course my interest lies with those of my own church. I fear my recommendation would scarcely do you much service; would it not alarm the sheep? A wolf! they would say; Gunpowder-plots and the Inquisitionnote might be thought to lurk in that wavy, golden hair, or shine out in your eyes. No, I will make inquiries and find out who is wanting a governess, but beyond that, for your own sake, I will not go.’

‘Thank you! As usual, you are all wisdom and foresight. But you . . . .’ and she fell into a fit of musing.

‘Of what are you thinking, may I ask? You pique my curiosity by beginning a sentence. After asserting, what you are good enough to call my wisdom, comes a ‘but.’ Now what does that alarming ‘but’ lead to? Do say!’

‘I was thinking that I can't quite understand you. You puzzle me. I always thought that Catholics were so bigoted, calling us all ‘heretics,’ and that at least every priest was by duty bound to try and make converts. But you . . . .’

‘Dr. Mornay is so liberal and so kind!’ said Mrs. Lang, just coming into the room. ‘Ah! your poor dear father was so good a judge of people! He first asked Dr. Mornay to our house—I so well remember the day! And of course I always go by what he thought right and safe.’ Mrs. Lang spoke pathetically, and gave a sigh.

Isabel remembered that day too; and Dr. Mornay, rising, said that he felt grateful for Mrs. Lang's good opinion, and valued it all the more from the amiable motive she gave for it. He, too, had not always found among Protestants such confidence and generous liberality as he always met here. But the world was growing wiser by slow degrees. People were learning to understand each other. There was greater freedom of opinion now. By-and-bye, all would be brothers. Then, with a low respectful bow, he shook Mrs. Lang's hand, again noticed the children, and invited them to see his tame kangaroo. Lastly, he came to Isabel, and seemed to hesitate what would be her wish, for he had found it did not always lead to hand-taking. To-night she stretched out her hand cordially, and wished him a pleasant walk home.