A Romance of Lake Wakatipu
A Little Love Affair—"A Faded Flower with a Bruised Stem"—Merchant Prince of the Golden City—The Colossal Fortune and the Hazelnut Period—A Still, Small Voice.
Although not a man of deep feeling or strong emotions in matters outside his bank-book and business ledger, his early associates knew of a little love affair in which Josiah Begg had dealt. It did not eventuate in the uniform success which usually attended upon his other engagements. Still, it had its results, but they were of a mixed character, inasmuch as they raised important issues in the plea for determining the final settlement of his wealth.
That, however, was the ultimate result. The immediate result, or rather results, involved those two great mysteries inevitable in the experience of mankind—a life and a death—and, as no matrimonial alliance supervened, the parties immediately implicated deemed it prudent to bury the transaction, as far as possible, in oblivion.
The birth was that of a frail, fragile little creature, whose infant prattles and innocent smiles were just as blythe and lightsome as if it had entered life amidst the music of the marriage-bells. The death was that of this little one's mother, who never regained her former footing in society after this, the first false step of her life.
The boot, the thumb-screw, and the faggot, so popular with the ancient Church for propagating the love which passes all understanding, had, it is true, at this time fallen into disuse, but a branch of the inquisitorial power still survived, named the Kirk Session. The poor mother had been taught, and her friends and relatives believed, its ordinances were essential to the saving of erring souls, and, accordingly, there was nothing page 42for it but to submit. A two hours' exposure on the stool of repentance, before a gaping congregation, so shattered the poor creature's health that in saving the soul the body was destroyed.
How the thing, ecclesiastically speaking, fared with Josiah is not known. It was, however, known that immediately prior to and on the eve of his departure for the far West he made a pilgrimage to Crossford. At about dusk the evening before his final departure he stole away from his friends and took a lonely walk in the village churchyard. Passing sundry emblems of mortality, some of which might not unreasonably have claimed his attention on the score of kith-and-kin, he made straight for a lonely, unpretending grave, situated in a remote corner. It looked so completely isolated, so lone, even amidst the lonely shadows of the dead, that no one could have been at all surprised to learn the grave closed over sad misfortunes, exceptionally deep sorrows. Arriving there, Josiah Begg paused and bent his head in solemn silence. Stooping down, as if in search of a lost treasure, he plucked a flower. Turning slowly away, his pent-up feelings escaped in a deep-drawn sigh. It was the only audible token he gave of a severe mental struggle—a passion of tenderness and remorse.
Having been for many years a uniformly successful man—in fact, become a merchant prince of the golden city—and having been long away from his early home, he longed to revisit the scenes of his youth. This is a feeling of the human mind that survives many others. No matter what length of time the man has been abroad, or how well he may have succeeded, it still remains to him "foreign parts," while the place of his birth remains sacred to his memory as home.
It is thus that home-mails, home-letters, home-news, and home-associations hold a sway over the mind, far before those of other countries.
Let those who know testify to the fact that around the camp-fire, deep down in the primeval wilderness, where no vestige of the outside world is seen, nothing enlivens the motley group more than the song dedicated to the memory of the fatherland. The immigrant or exile changes in many ways, but in this one there is no change, no decay. Assured he may be page 43that in the interim many changes have been wrought, and that the place which once knew him knows him no more: it still remains home—clothed in its early associations, peopled with its old familiar faces. Pleasing delusion. Perhaps, after all, he is the happiest man who is unable to revisit home, and so avoid the rude shock occasioned by complete dissipation of this happy spell.
Having fully determined upon braving these and other disappointments incidental thereto, Josiah Begg took his departure for home. Navigation having amended its pace in the meantime by the addition of steam and the steam propeller, the journey back was a much more pleasant and rapid affair than the journey out.
In due course he reached that greatest of all Scotia's shipping centres—the Broomielaw, of Glasgow. The reception he met with was one of distinguished politeness. Cap in hand, city-porters, cab-drivers, and hotel-keepers anticipated his every want. He readjusted business relations with home-correspondents on the most amicable terms, and he met and shook hands with such old friends and associates as death and the other contingencies had left behind to bear living testimony to the fact that he (Josiah Begg) once more planted his foot on his "native heath."
Still, there was something wanting; a something was not there as it had been in days of yore. He could recall to mind the occasion when he returned from Glasgow fair with a copper coin in his pocket and a satchel of nuts on his back. Compared with his present advent, what was it? A handful of hazelnuts and a few penny-pieces against a colossal fortune, the strength and stability of which rested on the foundation of broad acres extending throughout auriferous lands, and the merchant navy of the far West.
In itself the comparison was simply trifling, yet, looked at in the light of domestic felicity, the comparison was decidedly in favour of the nut and penny period. At that time he was the hero of the hour, and loud and hearty were the acclamations with which his boy companions greeted him. Now, when he again met not a few of that merry band, the meeting was hearty in its way, but there was altogether lacking the enthusiasm which pervaded the other.
The good folks of Crossford seemed to feel that, in building page 44up his fortune, Josiah Begg had erected a dividing-fence which they could not get over, and, no matter the effort Josiah made to remove this mental barrier, it still remained, and while such reserve exists no man can feel altogether at home.
And "these be thy gods, O Israel" We plot, scheme, devise, and bid high for the smiles of fortune, and, having secured them at an enormous sacrifice of the person and the principle, the first thing they reward us with is a complete divorce from the warmest, the most disinterested, friendships in life—the friendship of youth.
Watching his opportunity, Josiah Begg made one more excursion to the churchyard, and once again stood by the brink of the lonely grave. His head was once more bowed down in silent meditation, and, in the silence of the moment, he heard a voice—a still, small voice—from the tomb.
It spoke so low, its accents were alone audible to Josiah's ear.
Leaving the spot, he wandered forth, seemingly lost in reverie. He followed a path along the banks of the river well known to him in early life. It was one of those spots—a rolling river, rich luxuriance of foliage, soft but romantic surroundings—marked out as a fit retreat for the village swain and his sweetheart.
Selecting a place sheltered from observation by the umbrageous foliage, he sat down on the grassy knoll. The heather-bell and honeysuckle were in full bloom, and no spikenard ever produced a sweeter fragrance than these two plants combined.
Josiah had been seated in that knoll before, but on that occasion he sat beside a companion, by whose side he would sit no more. That companion was now the tenant of the isolated tomb.
Josiah was still lost in deep reverie. At last he rose, and clasping his head as if he had suddenly caught hold of an idea he was in danger of letting go, he muttered to himself, "Show thy devotion to the dead by a faithful discharge of thy duty to the living! It shall be done even so as the grave has spoken it."