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Again at Home
On his arrival in England John Caldigate went instantly down to Folking. He had come back quite fortified in his resolution of making Hester Bolton his wife, if he should find Hester Bolton willing and if she should have grown at all into that form and manner, into those ways of look, of speech, and of gait, which he had pictured to himself when thinking of her. Away at Nobble the females by whom he had been surrounded had not been attractive to him. In all our colonies the women are beautiful and in the large towns a society is soon created, of which the fastidious traveller has very little ground to complain; but in the small distant bush-towns, as they are called, the rougher elements must predominate Our hero, though he had worn moleskin trousers and jersey shirts, and had worked down a pit twelve hours a-day with a pickaxe, had never reconciled himself to female roughnesses. He had condescended to do so occasionally,--telling himself that it was his destiny to pass his life among such surroundings; but his imagination had ever been at work with him, and he possessed a certain aptitude for romance which told him continually that Hester Bolton was the dream of his life, and ought to become, if possible, the reality; and now he came back resolved to attempt the reality,--unless he should find that the Hester Bolton of Chesterton was altogether different from the Hester Bolton of his dreams.
The fatted calf was killed for him in a very simple but full-hearted way. There was no other guest to witness the meeting. 'And here you are,' said the father.
'Yes, sir, here I am;--all that's left of me.'
'There is quite plenty,' said the father, looking at the large proportions of his son. 'It seems but a day or two since you went;--and yet they have been long days. I hardly expected to see you again, John,--certainly not so soon as this; certainly not in such circumstances. If ever a man was welcome to a house, you are welcome to this. And now,--what do you mean to do with yourself?'
'By nine o'clock to-morrow morning you will probably find a pit opened on the lawn, and I shall be down to the middle, looking for gold. Ah, sir, I wish you could have known poor Mick Maggott.'
'If he would have made holes in my lawn I am glad he did not come home with you.' This was the first conversation, but both the father and son felt that there was a tone about it which had never before been heard between them.
John Caldigate at this time was so altered in appearance, that they who had not known him well might possibly have mistaken him. He was now nearly thirty, but looked older than his age. The squareness of his brow was squarer, and here and there through his dark brown hair there was to be seen an early tinge of coming grey; and about his mouth was all the decision of purpose which comes to a man when he is called upon to act quickly on his own judgment in matters of importance; and there was that look of self-confidence which success gives. He had thriven in all that he had undertaken. In that gold-finding business of his he had made no mistakes. Men who had been at it when a boy had tried to cheat him, but had failed. He had seen into such mysteries as the business possessed with quick glances, and had soon learned to know his way. And he had neither gambled nor drank,--which are the two rocks on which gold-miners are apt to wreck their vessels. All this gave him an air of power and self-assertion which might, perhaps, have been distasteful to an indifferent acquaintance, but which at this first meeting was very pleasing to the father. His son was somebody,--had done something, that son of whom he had been so thoroughly ashamed when the dealings with Davis had first been brought to light. He had kept up his reading too; had strong opinions of his own respecting politics; regarded the colonies generally from a politico-economical point of view; had ideas on social, religious, and literary subjects sufficiently alike to his father's not to be made disagreeable by the obstinacy with which he maintained them. He had become much darker in colour, having been, as it seemed, bronzed through and through by colonial suns and colonial labour. Altogether he was a son of whom any father might be proud, as long as the father managed not to quarrel with him. Mr. Caldigate, who during the last four years had thought very much on the subject, was determined not to quarrel with his son.
'You asked, sir, the other day what I meant to do?'
'What are we to find to amuse you?'
'As for amusement, I could kill rats as I used to do; or slaughter a hecatomb of pheasants at Babington,'--here the old man winced, though the word hecatomb reconciled him a little to the disagreeable allusion. 'But it has come to me now that I want so much more than amusement. What do you say to a farm?'
'On the estate?'--and the landlord at once began to think whether there was any tenant who could be induced to go without injustice.
'About three times as big as the estate if I could find it. A man can farm five thousand acres as well as fifty, I take it, if he have the capital. I should like to cut a broad sward, or, better still, to roam among many herds. I suppose a man should have ten pounds an acre to begin with. The difficulty would be in getting the land.' But all this was said half in joke; for he was still of opinion that he would, after his year's holiday, be forced to return for a time to New South Wales. He had fixed a price for which, up to a certain date, he would sell his interest in the Polyeuka mine. But the price was high, and he doubted whether he would get it; and, if not, then he must return.
He had not been long at Folking,--not as yet long enough to have made his way into the house at Chesterton,--before annoyance arose. Mrs. Shand was most anxious that he should go to Pollington and 'tell them anything about poor Dick.' They did, in truth, know everything about poor Dick; that poor Dick's money was all gone, and that poor Dick was earning his bread, or rather his damper, mutton, and tea, wretchedly, in the wilderness of a sheep-run in Queensland. The mother's letter was not very piteous, did not contain much of complaint,--alluded to poor Dick as one whose poverty was almost natural, but still it was very pressing. The girls were so anxious to hear all the details,--particularly Maria! The details of the life of a drunken sot are not pleasant tidings to be poured into a mother's ear, or a sister's. And then, as they two had gone away equal, and as he, John Caldigate, had returned rich, whereas poor Dick was a wretched menial creature, he felt that his very presence in England would carry with it some reproach against himself. He had in truth been both loyal and generous to Dick; but still,--there was the truth. He had come back as a rich man to his own country, while Dick was a miserable Queensland shepherd. It was very well for him to tell his father that a few glasses of whisky had made the difference; but it would be difficult to explain this to the large circle at Pollington, and very disagreeable even to him to allude to it. And he did not feel disposed to discuss the subject with Maria, with that closer confidence of which full sympathy is capable. And yet he did not know how to refuse to pay the visit. He wrote a line to say that as soon as he was at liberty he would run up to Pollington, but that at present business incidental to his return made such a journey impossible.
But the letter, or letters, which he received from Babington were more difficult to answer even than the Shand despatch. There were three of them,--from his uncle, from Aunt Polly, and from--not Julia--but Julia's second sister; whereby it was signified that Julia's heart was much too heavily laden to allow her to write a simple, cousinly note. The Babington girls were still Babington girls,--would still romp, row boats, and play cricket; but their condition was becoming a care to their parents. Here was this cousin come back, unmarried, with gold at command,--not only once again his father's heir, but with means at command which were not at all diminished by the Babington imagination. After all that had passed in the linen-closet, what escape would there be for him? That he should come to Babington would be a matter of course. The real kindness which had been shown to him there as a child would make it impossible that he should refuse.
Caldigate did feel it to be impossible to refuse. Though Aunt Polly had on that last occasion been somewhat hard upon him, had laid snares for him, and endeavoured to catch him as a fowler catches a bird, still there had been the fact that she had been as a mother to him when he had no other mother. His uncle, too, had supplied him with hunting and shooting and fishing, when hunting and shooting and fishing were the great joys of his life. It was incumbent on him to go to Babington,--- probably would be incumbent on him to pay a prolonged visit there. But he certainly would not marry Julia. As to that his mind was so fixed that even though he should have to declare his purpose with some rudeness, still he would declare it. 'My aunt wants me to go over to Babington,' he said to his father.
'Of course she does.'
'And I must go?'
'You know best what your own feelings are as to that. After you went, they made all manner of absurd accusations against me. But I don't wish to force a quarrel upon you on that account.'
'I should be sorry to quarrel with them, because they were kind to me when I was a boy. They are not very wise.'
'I don't think I ever knew such a houseful of fools.' There was no relationship by blood between the Squire of Folking and the Squire of Babington; but they had married two sisters, and therefore Mrs. Babington was Aunt Polly to John Caldigate.
'But fools may be very worthy, sir. I should say that a great many people are fools to you.'
'Not to me especially,' said the squire, almost angrily.
'People who read no books are always fools to those who do read.'
'I deny it. Our neighbour over the water'--the middle wash was always called the water at Folking--'never looks at a book, as far as I know, and he is not a fool. He thoroughly understands his own business But your uncle Babington doesn't know how to manage his own property,--and yet he knows nothing else. That's what I call being a fool.'
'Now, I'm going to tell you a secret, sir.'
'You must promise to keep it.'
'Of course I will keep it, if it ought to be kept.'
'They want me to marry Julia.'
'My cousin Julia. It's an old affair. Perhaps it was not Davis only that made me run away five years ago.'
'Do you mean they asked you;--or did you ask her?'
'Well; I did not ask her. I do not know that I can be more explicit. Nevertheless it is expected; and as I do not mean to do it, you can see that there is a difficulty.'
'I would not go near the place, John.'
'Then you'll have to marry her.'
'Then there'll be a quarrel.'
'It may be so, but I will avoid it if possible. I must go. I could not stay away without laying myself open to a charge of ingratitude. They were very kind to me in the old days.' Then the subject was dropped; and on the next morning, John wrote to his aunt saying that he would go over to Babington after his return from London. He was going to London on business, and would come back from London to Babington on a day which he named. Then he resolved that he would take Pollington on his way down, knowing that a disagreeable thing to be done is a lion in one's path which should be encountered and conquered as soon as possible.
But there was one visit which he must pay before he went up to London. 'I think I shall ride over to-morrow and call on the Boltons,' he said to his father.
'Of course; you can do that if you please.'
'He was a little rough to me, but he was kind. I stayed a night at his house, and he advanced me the money.'
'As for the money, that was a matter of business. He had his security, and, in truth, his interest. He is an honest man, and a very old friend of mine. But perhaps I may as well tell you that he has always been a little hard about you.'
'He didn't approve of Davis,' said the son, laughing.
'He is too prejudiced a man to forget Davis.'
'The more he thinks of Davis, the better he'll think of me if I can make him believe that I am not likely to want a Davis again.'
'You'll find him probably at the bank about half-past two.'
'I shall go to the house. It wouldn't be civil if I didn't call on Mrs. Bolton.'
As the squire was never in the habit of going to the house at Chesterton himself, and as Mrs. Bolton was a lady who kept up none of the outward ceremonies of social life, he did not quite understand this; but he made no further objection.
On the following day, about five in the afternoon, he rode through the iron gates, which he with difficulty caused to be opened for him, and asked for Mrs. Bolton. When he had been here before, the winter had commenced, and everything around had been dull and ugly; but now it was July, and the patch before the house was bright with flowers. The roses were in full bloom, and every morsel of available soil was bedded out with geraniums. As he stood holding his horse by the rein while he rang the bell, a side-door leading through the high brick wall from the garden, which stretched away behind the house, was suddenly opened, and a lady came through with a garden hat on, and garden gloves, and a basket full of rose leaves in her hand. It was the lady of whom he had never ceased to think from the day on which he had been allowed just to touch her fingers, now five years ago.
It was she, of course, whom he had come to see, and there she was to be seen. It was of her that he had come to form a judgment,--to tell himself whether she was or was not such as he had dreamed her to be. He had not been so foolishly romantic as to have been unaware that in all probability she might have grown up to be something very different from that which his fancy had depicted. It might or it might not come to pass that that promise of loveliness,--of loveliness combined with innocence and full intelligence,--should be kept. How often it is that Nature is unkind to a girl as she grows into womanhood, and robs the attractive child of her charms! How often will the sparkle of early youth get itself quenched utterly by the dampness and clouds of the opening world. He knew all that,--and knew too that he had only just seen her, had barely heard the voice which had sounded so silvery sweet in his ears.
But there she was,--to be seen again, to be heard, if possible, and to receive his judgment. 'Miss Bolton,' he said, coming down the stone steps which he had ascended, that he might ring the bell, and offering her his hand.
'You remember me, then?'
'Oh yes, I remember you very well. I do not see people often enough to forget them. And papa said that you were coming home.'
'I have come at once to call upon your mother and your father,--and upon you. I have to thank him for great kindness to me before I went.'
'Poor mamma is not quite well,' said the daughter. 'She has headaches so often, and she has one now. And papa has not come back from the bank. I have been gardening and am all----.' Then she stopped and blushed, as though ashamed of herself for saying so much.
'I am sorry Mrs. Bolton is unwell. I will not go the ceremony of leaving a card, as I hope to able to come again to thank her for her kindness before I went on my travels. Will you tell your father that I called?' Then he mounted his horse, feeling, as he did so, that he was throwing away an opportunity which kind fortune had given him. There they were together, he and this girl of whom he had dreamed;--and now he was leaving her, because he did not know how to hold her in conversation for ten minutes! But it was true, and he had to leave her. He could not instantly tell her how he admired her, how he loved her, how he had thought of her, and how completely she had realised all his fondest dreams. When on his horse, he turned round, and, lifting his hat to her, took a last glance. It could not have been otherwise, he said to himself. He had been sure that she would grow up to be exactly that which he had found her. To have supposed that Nature could have been untrue to such promises as had been made then, would have been to suppose Nature a liar.
Just outside the gate he met the old banker, who, according to his daily custom, had walked back from the town. 'Yes,' said Mr. Bolton, 'I remember you,--I remember you very well. So you found a lot of gold?'
'I got some.'
'You have been one of the few fortunate, I hear. I hope you will be able to keep it, and to make a good use of it. My compliments to your father. Good evening.'
'I shall take an early opportunity of paying my respects again to Mrs. Bolton, who, I am sorry to hear, is not well enough to see me,' said Caldigate, preventing the old curmudgeon from escaping with his intended rapidity.
'She is unfortunately often an invalid, sir,--and feels therefore that she has no right to exact from any one the ceremony of morning visits. Good evening sir.'
But he cared not much for this coldness. Having found where the gold lay at this second Ahalala,--that the gold was real gold,--he did not doubt but that he would be able to make good his mining operations.
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