previous
next



  ― 124 ―

14. CHAPTER XIV.

BREAKING THE ICE.

note

That same Sunday evening, the master of Warratah Brush had been sitting for a very long time, as if communing with his own thoughts, and from his look they were grave ones. Miss Herbert, having long since finished the sermon which she made a point of reading every Sunday, had watched him anxiously. She had arrived at the conclusion, growing on her for some little time, that her brother, to whom she was sincerely attached, was not quite happy. Some change which she could not describe, or attribute to any one thing in particular, had crept over him. It might certainly be the general panic which now came home to him, yet it was not quite like him to sit down in dejection under a monetary trouble. Rather she would have expected him to rise with twofold energy to meet and grapple with the difficulty.

At last she could bear it no longer, and at the risk of a short answer, she broke the lengthened silence by saying, ‘So Mr. Lang is still in anger, and keeps away from church to punish us! I suppose he thinks he makes us very unhappy!’

No answer, only a darkening of the face.

‘Do you mean to keep it up? Though, why do I ask? Of course you can't do otherwise. It is for him to come round with apology. Of course it would not be possible for us to think of going there, or making the smallest advance. I observed that you gave the girls a cut to-day. I was amused at your being driven to play the agreeable to Mrs. Vesey, though.’




  ― 125 ―

‘Had you waited five minutes more, you might have observed that I did not give any cut.’

‘Oh!—and I dare say received none, from that quarter! So you spoke after all, and Issy's eyes did not wander and seek you for nothing. She is anxious enough to be friendly, it seems, and made all kinds of excuses to me for her papa.’

‘Did she?’

‘Yes; but I received them very coldly. Of course, I am sorry for this misunderstanding; in our small set, it is very unpleasant. Yet, I must own, John, I am not sorry that something should intervene to stop your intercourse with that girl. It will not do now; she is grown up.’

‘It did not need this row to bring about that, I assure you, Mary; you need not trouble yourself on that score,’ he said, half-bitterly and half-sadly.

‘Why, she's very fond of you—very,’ returned the sister, uneasily; for she never could bear her brother to be hurt in his own esteem.

‘Fond! I don't doubt it. Fond of an old uncle or grandfather. To be sure she is!’

‘Well, and that is but natural, John! I mean, it is just as well, for it would have been awkward if she . . . . I heartily wish,’ she interrupted herself angrily, ‘I do wish that Mr. Farrant would be quick and bring things to a point. Not that I can ever think it tells well for his taste or judgment. A pretty rattling clergyman's wife she will be.’

‘I have heard you hint all this before,’ Mr. Herbert said, rising and walking about, looking down on the ground. ‘But, Mary, do you from your heart mean it? Do you apprehend that Mr. Farrant is paying attention to her?’

‘John, judge for yourself! I only ask you to look with your own clear eye and good sense, and tell me what is taking him there every day in the week? What induces him to be so interested in her improvement? Why, his very sermons seem to me to be meant for that family; and I know, I heard it from Kate—who is, by the way, a perfect sieve—that Issy takes notes of these sermons, and that she is much affected by them, and, as Kate says, gets full of new notions in consequence. I only wish I could think better of it; but I see so many points in her character which I do not like, that . . . .’

‘My dear, I don't think you know Isabel. You know nothing of her, and are prejudiced by her manner, which may be unformed, but . . .’

‘My dear John, I assure you I have taken pains to try and know her, not only by talking of her to Kate and to Miss Terry, but you might have seen, had you observed, that she and I happened to be pretty much


  ― 126 ―
together lately.’

‘I saw it with pleasure . . . .’

‘Yet, I must say—it is my duty to tell you, John—of course you can act as you like,—but I must say that I find in her a great deal of that very spirit, that identical disposition which you most dislike and dread; and Mrs. Vesey's coming here only increases and encourages it tenfold.’

His steps became quicker, he threw back his head, biting his lips, and showing symptoms of great annoyance, but he said nothing.

A sound of horses' feet in the yard reached them.

‘Well,’ he said, quickly, ‘you need not be troubled, there is no chance of any greater intimacy between us, and rest assured I am not a man to be taken in. I have had my lesson, one never, never to be forgotten. Here is Farrant. Now, Mary, order some tea at once.’ And he walked out, apparently relieved, to greet their guest, who had fallen into the habit of taking their house in his long round, having every second Sunday a service twenty miles off.

Mr. Herbert threw off all gloom, and made himself particularly agreeable. Each time he caught his sister's eye fixed on him he redoubled his efforts to be gay, and to show how much he liked their visitor. When Mr. Farrant rose to go, Mr. Herbert accompanied him to the stable, and even walked on by his side, ‘to put up the ‘slip-rail’ firmly,’ as he said.

At parting he patted the clergyman's horse, and, after a little clearing of his voice, he said—

‘Farrant, I am about to ask a question. If you don't wish to answer it, say so. Have you—any motive—any reason in particular, I would say, for your frequent visits to a certain house? I have a strong reason for asking, being, as you know, an old friend, a kind of hanger-on or uncle—and—owing to things I have heard, I wish to know—if you have any decided reason for going there, or if it is merely chance.’

Mr. Farrant's face flushed up, but after a moment's pause, he said, ‘I did not suppose I had done anything to awaken suspicion. The fact is—I am awkwardly situated—yet, I may say so much in strict confidence to you. Yes, there is a reason—a motive.’

‘Enough! I thank you heartily for your confession,’ and Mr. Herbert seemed about to turn away; but Mr. Farrant said, ‘I had before thought of asking your advice, knowing you to be an intimate friend of the family—but all—everything is so very uncertain yet—that—in fact—you understand when I say that I have a reason, it only implies—my own wishes, nothing more.’

‘I understand! But you will succeed. Good evening! Thank you.’




  ― 127 ―

‘Mary!’ said Mr. Herbert, as he took his candle to retire to his room for the night. ‘Am I grown a very old-looking fellow? Am I so very much older than our parson?’

‘I suppose you are a few years, perhaps four or five years older than he is. But as to calling yourself old-looking, it is folly. You never looked better in your life, John. Mr. Farrant is very well indeed, but look at him by you. You are far taller and more manly, and handsomer too—though that way he has seems very attractive to people. You don't choose to try to make yourself pleasant; if you did, you could succeed.’

‘One is apt to forget how time goes on. But now I awake suddenly to the fact that I have been here between five and six years. However, there is some hard work before me, I can see,’ he presently added, with forced animation, ‘These are not times to add to one's expenses and cares. We must be very careful, or I don't see how we shall weather the storm. I hear that Lang's affairs are in an ugly state. Budd, too, is very hard up, and that last crash in Sydney has destroyed all confidence. The fact is, we have been going ahead in the most reckless, thoughtless way as a colony, and now comes the crash. We shall live to see many changes, if we can manage to sit it out ourselves; and, luckily, as I have always kept within bounds, and left that sum safe in England, we are likely to be better off than our neighbours.’

It was about this time that the Bank of Australianote failed, and its fearful consequences to the numerous shareholders added considerably to the universal distress and want of confidence.

A phantom seemed to hover over the land. Old-established houses were failing everywhere. There was no sale for anything, no money and no credit. People who had begun to build fine houses had to withhold their hand. Everywhere unfinished buildings proclaimed the dismal truth. Throughout the length and breadth of the land arose a low prophetic cry of coming distress.

A change came, entering the very heart of society. The independent and haughty egotism which the untroubled prosperity of years had engendered gave way. People began now to tremble, and to feel there was a God. In times of distress we all remember this, and while churches were necessarily left unfinished from lack of means, the services and ordinances of religion appeared to be more appreciated and sought. The clergy felt that a path was thus opened to their ministrations. Hearts were softened, new ideas and principles were received. But though, in speaking of this season, it is hardly possible to pass this phase in the life of the colony in silence, it does not belong to this story further to enter


  ― 128 ―
into particulars. Suffice it to say, that the prospect of actual ruin stared many a hitherto wealthy family in the face. And this dread was felt in the district of Bengala. It was playing a desperate game; to give up was to hasten the dreaded hour of doom. So each one tried to deceive his neighbour and himself. The ball must be kept up by whatever means. They dared hardly diminish their households, or put down an extra horse, for fear a neighbour's attention should be drawn to them and their weakness suspected.

So Mr. Lang, aided by a naturally sanguine temper, shut his eyes to danger, and busied himself to make the best bargains he could, and to gather enough to pay off the immense mortgages with which he had burdened his property. Mrs. Lang's whole energy was devoted to save on the one hand and to spend on the other—to make a show with small outlay. Above all, she desired to marry her daughters before the hour of ruin struck, and besought her husband at whatever cost to keep up his establishment yet a little longer, and furnish her with cheques for the milliners. If once Kate was Mrs. Fitz, and Isabel Mrs. Farrant, she should be comparatively relieved and content. She might have wished for something better a short time ago, especially with regard to Isabel. Yet, she reasoned that this was better than nothing, and Isabel had not the beauty of her sister. Mr. Herbert would have been a better match, but he was not liked by herself or her husband, and besides, she began to give him up altogether, for had he thought of it at all, he would have come forward before. Anything was better than to sit down and think; so constant parties and meetings were encouraged between the neighbours. Yet time went on, and still the Herberts came not; and except a hurried meeting in the churchyard,—for there was no more going to Warratah Brush, since Mr. Lang persisted in forbidding the carriage being used on a Sunday,—they had no intercourse whatever.

Mr. Farrant gained golden opinions by proposing a service to be held for the benefit of Mr. Lang's people, in a rough and unfinished building, originally intended for a store. Certainly the distance to Bengala was great, and prevented many of the labourers from going to church, especially the women. Mr. Lang, though deprived of his bridge and road by the final decision of government, resolved to have ‘his’ church, in which laudable undertaking Mr. Farrant encouraged him, though he tried to put it on other grounds than to ‘spite’ Mr. Herbert. He said that Mr. Herbert would rejoice in the building, and would, he was sure, be ready to give his share of help. It was quite a different thing from the bridge. But Mr. Lang could not, or would not, see this. ‘Herbert and Budd wished to concentrate all the advantages to Bengala, but he would


  ― 129 ―
show them that he had his own views, and there should yet be a church and a township, too, at Galoola.’ The worst of it was, it was so hard to raise the money just then, and building a church was so expensive.

Mr. Farrant thought that a temporary building might be erected at very small cost, of wood, which might be far more churchlike in form than the usual smooth, shapeless brick buildings. He drew plans, aided by the ladies, and it became a favourite scheme. There was a clever workman and carpenter among Mr. Lang's men. To him was entrusted the execution of this work, under Mr. Farrant's orders.

Mr. Lang forbade any assistance being accepted from Mr. Herbert or Mr. Budd. He asked the Veseys, as they had appeared to approve and would benefit considerably. But the answer was a loud laugh at the absurdity of the idea ‘in these bad times.’ So they were forced to let it creep on very slowly, and meanwhile Mr. Farrant assembled a congregation, as before said, every other Sunday, on the Langville estate.

It was a great comfort, but Isabel was unhappy at this further estrangement from their old friends. As she said, she always liked to carry out her ideas; in plain English, she liked to have her own way. And she had settled it would be such a good thing for Mr. Herbert to marry Miss Terry, that this hindrance to her plans was deeply annoying. Some way must be found to restore peace; but musing long and often did not bring any light on the subject.

previous
next