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A South-Sea Siren

Chapter XXI

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Chapter XXI

In consequence, it was said, of the reaction that had set in after the Carnival Week, Sunnydowns had become oppressively dull. But, as a matter of fact, this reaction had very little to do with it, and other causes contributed much more to this temporary want of animation.

One of them was, undoubtedly, a fit of that epidemic, which, from the earliest times, made periodical visits to the young community, and which, of late years, would seem to have been quite endemic to the Australian Colonies—The Depression.

But in those days, when everything was fresh and new; when the hardy pioneer was redundant with energy; when people struggled bravely on in the happy anticipation of an ideal prosperity, which they were never fated to see, but which meanwhile kept their spirits up to a fever heat; in those days the hard knocks of untoward Fortune were taken smilingly, the ‘roughing if’ in the bush was rather enjoyed as a novelty, disappointments were easily borne, and adversity made light of.

Yet, even at this early period, people did become occasionally ‘depressed’, if not in mind, at least in pocket. Money was scarce, and the banks, even though they exacted exorbitant rates of interest on overdrafts, had, not unfrequently, to put ‘the screw on’. Then there were also continual recoils after too rapid a rush forward; and, in his extreme hurry to ‘get on’, the enterprising colonist might find himself suddenly relegated to the rear, with all the race of life to begin again.

Now Sunnydowns had ‘advanced’ at a tremendous pace, and was looked upon as one of the most brilliant results of the ‘go-a-head’ spirit. It had done wonders. In the absurdly short space of three years it had developed from an embryo state, consisting of a solitary roadside hotel and a few rude shanties, into quite a promising young township, with macadamised streets, rows of shops, a couple of churches, and a goodly sprinkling of public buildings; this nucleus dotted round with freshly-painted wooden cottages, patches of gardens, and growing plantations.

But it was not to be expected that such a pace could last, and while the sanguine inhabitants, full blown with their newly-acquired importance, aspired to the dignity of a mayor and corporation, and agitated for further developments, the check came.

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There had been a bad season—a bad crop of wheat and a bad clip of wool. Then, to make matter worse, both wheat and wool had gone down.

Immediately the price of land—the financial barometer of these small communities—fell. Town allotments, once so keenly competed for, no longer brought a bid. Land was everywhere for sale, but purchasers nowhere to be found. Stores and materials were soon in a similar predicament; building was suddenly stopped, and nearly every shop in the township was advertised as ‘selling off’. For the first time within its short historical record Sunnydowns exhibited the sight of a house ‘to let’. There was also a general slackening of trade, and a stoppage of superfluous expenditure. Everybody complained of being ‘hard up’.

The aristocratic squatter, with his grand air, had been unable to realise in the market even the advances he had received on his clip of wool, and was fain to come down from a dashing four-in-hand drag to a modest buggy and pair; the well-to-do farmer was noticed to have given up his comfortable waggonette and to be riding a young cart horse; the smaller fry, that used to canter along the high roads, were now met tramping it wearily on foot. Thus there was a general ‘come down’ from a high estate to a lower one; a considerable falling off in the natural exuberance of animal spirits, and perhaps a still greater reduction in the consumption of ardent spirits.

The public-house owners complained bitterly that travellers no longer rested by the way, or even pulled-up on the dusty road to give their tired steeds a drink, while partaking of similar refreshment themselves; the expectant ostlers often missed the welcome ‘tip’, and the idle loungers by the ‘bar’ rarely heard the rallying ‘shout’ that called to them to join in a convivial ‘liquoring up’ all round. It was clearly, the depression!

Apart, moreover, from the general condition of stagnation, Sunnydowns was specially afflicted about this time from more local causes.

Some of its shining lights had failed; others were gradually becoming extinguished. The great founder of the settlement, the energetic Mr Sunny, had withdrawn his paternal presence and fostering care. Having made a profitable speculation out of the site, and realised handsomely on outside properties, he had decided to seek ‘fresh woods and pastures new’, or, in other words, to run some other favoured spot on similar lines. His departure was a heavy blow to the bantling.

The Ceruleans, who were the biggest people in the district, the leaders of society, and patrons of all local concerns, had left for England for a lengthened visit. Their absence was greatly felt.

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The military don, Major Dearie, having run through all his money, had been compelled to accept some small appointment in the newly formed Volunteer Force, and to remove to headquarters. His imposing presence was much missed among the ‘upper ten’.

Evil days had befallen the Seaguls, the O'Neils, the Dugalds, and other popular residents in the neighbourhood, victims to the ‘go-ahead’ mania. The lavish hospitality of these amiable people had therefore, through cruel necessity, to be much curtailed.

Then the respected parson, the Rev. Tupper, had threatened to desert his flock unless his too slender stipend was considerably added to, and paid with more regularity, and loud were the lamentations which his projected departure drew forth.

One of the banks in the township had to close its doors for want of customers, and a dozen stores were shut up for want of the bank; while the Philharmonic Society was silenced through a want of harmony among its members.

The Shire Council, after lavishing all the Government grant-in-aid, had been reduced to the direst financial extremities, and was forced to the harrowing necessity of levying a tax on the ratepayers. This occasioned widespread dissatisfaction. As a crowning indignity a parsimonious government had retrenched the police force, and the town was actually left without a mounted trooper.

Thus the fair Sunnydowns was unmistakably ‘under a cloud’, and exhibited the most aggravated symptoms of the prevailing dejection.

* * * * *

Richard Raleigh had returned to his lonely cottage in a grievous and unhappy state of mind. And his personal melancholy was only intensified by his melancholy surroundings. He suddenly became more reserved in his manner, more sedentary in his habits, and morbid in temper. He took to brooding in solitude over his disappointments and disillusions, and even, what was contrary to his custom, to tormenting himself concerning the opinions and prattle of others. For he entertained a galling suspicion of having made himself unpleasantly notorious.

In this irritating surmise he was not altogether mistaken, although he greatly magnified the importance of the part he had played and the notice which had been taken of his indiscretions.

He had, indeed, become somewhat of ‘a marked man’ of late.

Originality is nearly always distasteful to ordinary minded people, and Raleigh was in his habits and mode of life too much out of the common to escape ill-natured criticism. Moreover, his former page 233 popularity now told against him. He had been petted and made much of, and when the usual reaction set in he suffered in consequence.

Then the effusive attentions which he still received from certain ladies in the neighbourhood were viewed suspiciously by a jealous public, while his own gallivanting with the much scandalised Mrs Wylde received from the gossips of the place the very worst interpretation that could be put upon it.

Raleigh was not blind. While pretending to concern himself very little about public opinion, he was quick to notice growing symptoms of coolness among many of his acquaintances, and he found himself less cordially welcomed in some houses where he was wont to visit. His independent spirit took ready affront at even the semblance of a slight, and he therefore held himself proudly aloof, and answered neglect with contemptuous indifference. But in his heart he was deeply mortified, and he bitterly resented the defection of his friends. Nor was he alone to suffer in his own cause. His lady friends and supporters were full sharers in this sudden revulsion of popular feeling. Poor little Maggie, the rosy-cheeked milkmaid, was severely taken to task for her lingering at the proscribed door, and was further treated to the ‘pot stick’ in consequence, until she was finally forbidden the house, and placed upon another ‘beat’.

Sprightly Mrs McDonald had to weather a storm of remonstrance and scandalous clatter, which first roused her indignation and then overwhelmed her with shame. She was scolded by her relations, warned by her friends, and gravely lectured by the minister. Her husband, who loved and trusted her, was rendered utterly miserably by repeated insinuations as to the folly of having allowed his young wife to cultivate an intimacy with so dangerous an acquaintance.

Mrs Seagul forbad her female progeny to do any more knitting for the compromised young man, other ladies decided upon giving him ‘the cold shoulder’, and his supply of jams and comfits fell off alarmingly, but much more to the grief and regret of the givers than to the receiver.

At last it came to the ears of Mr Seymour that his beloved daughter had been ‘talked about’ in connection with the subject of this scandal; but although he treated the report with lofty disdain, yet Alice winced under it, and was much troubled in her gentle heart over these cruel aspersions on her friend.

Raleigh's chief cause of unhappiness arose from the heart, but he had other sources of disquiet. He felt that he had been wantonly deceived and cruelly wounded in his most tender susceptibilities; but page 234 he also realised that he had been grossly imposed upon, and robbed of his money as well as of his self-respect.

What added to his bitterness and aggravated the evil were the upbraidings of his conscience, for he well knew that he had gravely erred, and was not deserving of sympathy. Nor did he attempt in his inner consciousness to blind his eyes to the facts, or to extenuate his conduct, although he wondered at it.

He marvelled at his own egregious stupidity—he marvelled still more at the infatuation which had possessed him for such a person as Mrs Wylde. When he calmly reviewed the character and proceedings of that vain and intriguing woman, he was truly at a loss to understand what he could have found to admire in her. Judged by any critical standard, there was, indeed, nothing particularly distinguished or attractive about the Siren, yet he had to plead guilty to having been completely entrapped and bewitched by her, and even sorely scorched in the flame.

Added to these qualms and repinings there remained the appalling consideration of the danger to which he had exposed nearly the whole of his slender patrimony. The savings of years, together with the amount of a few legacies, which made up the sum total of his worldly belongings—a small capital which properly invested might have been sufficient to set him up in some profitable employment, or at least to secure his independence for life—had all been rashly advanced to the Wyldes on security of a very dubious character. He had staked his all on a rotten investment, at the entreaties of a designing woman, who had since showed herself to be equally devoid of gratitude and affection. He now considered himself the victim of fraudulent misrepresentations.

In his trouble he had applied to that astute and friendly lawyer, the saturnine Mr Pike, with whom he had kept up an occasional intercourse for some years, but the man of law had not afforded him any comforting relief. Mr Pike had emphatically pronounced the whole business to be bad, very bad, d——d bad; he had shaken his head dubiously over it, and cursed with even more than ordinary emphasis on the occasion.

And as the irascible lawyer had waxed red with wrath, so his dejected client had turned blue with dismay.

‘There is but one hope for you,’ Mr Pike had declaimed in a theatrical attitude, ‘which is that this fellow Prowler's title—he has the first claim on the estate, and will bag the lot if he gets the chance—may turn out to be as bad as yours. I think it is likely enough. He is a clever scoundrel, but in this case he evidently thought himself page 235 opposed to a … what shall I say—honest man; he has been rather too sharp, and may yet cut himself. It is clear the Wyldes have played into Prowler's hands, at your expense, or else have been parties to a swindle. Any way, you have fallen into a deep trap; you can't get out, but you may, perhaps, pull them in after you. You have made a pretty considerable fool of yourself. Why the deuce, in the first instance, didn't you come to me, to ME? This comes from mixing up sentiment with business. They don't amalgamate kindly in law. You have been got at, poor boy; thoroughly got at, and you have shown yourself to be as green as a new chum, and as soft as mashed turnips. Of course there was a lady in the case. Ah! I thought so. Charming woman, what hast thou not to answer for! Affectionate interest, devoted friendship, and all that sort of thing. No doubt you acted with very worthy intentions, with the best of sentiments; you trusted her, you believed her, you took everything for granted, and of course you made a fool of yourself. Most young men do under the circumstances. There was a time when I, even I, would have done just the same thing myself!’ and with this crumb of consolation to sooth his ruffled feelings Raleigh had to depart.

Thus on all sides, morally, sentimentally, and financially, the young man felt himself to be badly hit. Yet he held up his head and kept a bold face towards an unsympathetic world, while he fretted and grieved in private, or endeavoured to call a philosophical spirit to his aid, to brace himself together against the approaching storm.

It is at such times, when the heart is sore and the mind dejected, that one yearns for the solace of a friend; but it is at such times, unfortunately, that the consolations of friendship are generally discovered to be least available. Among his numerous acquaintances Raleigh found none to whom he could with unrestrained confidence unbosom his secret sorrows. His most intimate friend and former companion, Doctor Valentine, was far away, living in some remote part of the continent of Australia. His absence was deplored at the present moment with unceasing regret, and Raleigh often indulged the tender thought that if only his devoted friend had been with him, the comfort of his life would be assured. His other companions, although friendly and obliging, could afford him no real relief, nor share the inmost anxieties of his soul.

With his female entourage he was hardly more fortunate, although he had been rather spoilt and petted by the ladies. He had flirted with many, but with the exception of Alice Seymour, there was not one to whom he could trustfully confide in a matter of sentiment. And towards Alice Seymour he then experienced a degree of reserve, and page 236 even a sense of constraint, which painfully affected their intercourse, and impelled him to avoid her society. This was all the more regrettable from the fast and heart-felt amity which had previously existed between them. But it was the very sincerity of his feelings towards Alice that now occasioned this enstraagement. What the precise nature of these feelings was, he himself did not know. He had never fathomed them. Prone as he was to introspection, and to brooding in solitude over his most secret affections, he had never been able to analyse clearly his sentiments for his amiable friend. That he had a warm and tender regard for her he never doubted, combined with a loyal respect which placed her on the highest pinnacle of his good opinion. She held, indeed, quite a little saintly niche of her own in the private oratory of his heart. But it was more for homage than for love. Raleigh never conceived himself to be enamoured of Alice. He appreciated her at all times, but she combined in her disposition so many different moods and striking contrasts, that his sentiments varied with the occasion, and often partook somewhat of her own changeable humour. And yet Alice Seymour was not by any means a versatile or erratic being. Her nature was rather one of gentle simplicity and engaging frankness. With a sparkling flow of animal spirits she would prate and rattle away, at times, like a giddy school girl, and the clear ring of her hearty laugh would often announce her approach when out of sight. She had, indeed, a genuine love of fun, and the merry twinkle of her bright eyes proclaimed a spring of lively merriment which would frequently gush forth in a burst of rather boisterous hilarity. Quite a jolly girl! Yet, in other respects, quite a demure young person also. For Alice was eminently sensible, industrious, practical. She was ever busy. She attended to all household duties with praiseworthy regularity, and she was always punctually at her post to meet outside engagements. She played the organ in the little parish church, and led the choir, taught in the Sunday School, visited the sick, collected subscriptions for charitable purposes, and was indefatigable in good works.

Quite a pattern, some would say, for a country parson's wife, only, perhaps, not sufficiently prim and devout, and rather too noisy. She usually dressed very plainly, although without affectation of plainness, and neglected her toilet from lack of time and inclination.

She also showed considerable indifference to the prudish conventionalities that encompass the sex, and she openly expressed her contempt for mere outward appearances. She readily freed herself from many such restraints and encumbrances; she would tolerate no chaperon, and, as a rule, needed no escort.

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A daring horsewoman, and never so happy as when cantering about over the breezy downs, whether on business or pleasure intent, and following her own sweet will in all things.

She thus acquired the name of being a very independent young lady, and even ran the risk of being taken for a ‘strong-minded female’.

This she was not by any means. Her strength lay much more in her physical temperament, and in her conscious innocence and the rectitude of her motives than in her mental qualities. For Alice was womanly to the core; her nature was gentle and modest. She had a deep sense of reverence for age and authority; she was obedient to duty, and inclined to be religious. Towards her father she was ever most submissive and affectionate, and she was thoroughly domesticated. A true friend also, and a warm partisan; hot-tempered; ready to speak her mind, on occasions, but with slight regard for the observances of conventional society; sometimes rather demonstrative, at others somewhat too brusque, but always genuine and true, and open to every call of sympathy and benevolence.

Such was Alice Seymour, a popular favourite, but neither a ballroom belle, nor a society queen.

Raleigh had been intimate with the Seymours for several years. He had from the first been very cordially entertained by them, and had soon been received almost as one of the family.

Mr Seymour had shown a strong partiality for his company, an amiable appreciation of his good points, and, perhaps, a still more marked indulgence for his faults. Miss Seymour had developed quite a sisterly regard for him, and generally addressed him as ‘Cousin Richard’, and he had once stood in such high favour with the younger daughter as to provoke the jealousy of her former suitor and present husband, Captain Fitzroy. After Miss Mary Seymour's marriage, Alice and Richard had been thrown much together, but although they had continued excellent friends there had never been any question of courtship between them. Alice had been everything to him but sentimental. She had petted him and scolded him through various seasons, advised him as a friend, reproved him as a mentor, coaxed him and teased him by turns, but never made love to him. They had had many tiffs and many reconciliations, with occasionally, perhaps, some little flirtation, but in such cases the element of fun had so decidedly predominated as to render the sentimental passages quite harmless.

It is not that the genial young lady objected to or scoffed at sentiment—on the contrary, she often confessed to being of a susceptible page 238 nature, and quite liable to falling desperately in love; but it generally came about that after a few serious observations on the tender subject, the idea would so tickle her risible faculties that she would break short in her discourse to go off into an immoderate fit of laughter. Raleigh, on his part, always derided sentimentality, and tried to make out that he was quite incapable of a great passion. Moreover they both agreed in condemning matrimony: he, objecting on principle to the chains of wedlock; and she, because of the many ill-assorted matches she had seen.

Raleigh thought his fair friend altogether charming; he admired her expressive eyes, her clear olive complexion and her prettily rounded figure, as personal attractions; he esteemed her good qualities, he appreciated her frank and open nature, and he relished her overflowing cheerfulness; but he was not melted to any tender mood in her presence, and he sometimes rather dreaded her outspoken sentiments. For Alice was absolutely without guile, and a little hypocrisy is generally needed to promote the entente cordiale in society. She willingly bowed to his superior knowledge in many things, but she was by no means prepared to fall down and worship him as an idol, or even to be wilfully blind to his glaring shortcomings. Whether in her inmost heart she may not have cherished some warmer feeling, or contemplated the possibility of a closer union, it is hard to tell. That was a secret which was never divulged to the public ear, and upon which she may not have rightly known her own mind—at any rate, she never gave expression to any such weakness. Duty, which was her rule and guide in life, had otherwise directed her.

For some months previous to this period of our story Raleigh had shown himself very remiss in visiting at Glenmoor, and he had exhibited a marked reluctance to any confidential discourse with Alice. This was not to be attributed to the unsociable mood into which he had fallen, for the hospitable home of the Seymours' had ever been his chosen resort when the melancholy fit was upon him. Nor could he accuse his friends of any show of coolness, such as he had noticed elsewhere. He well knew that their friendship was staunch and loyal, and did not depend on outside opinion, or fluctuate with the varying tide of popularity.

He appreciated all this, but it was rather his own remorseful misgivings and sense of unworthiness that kept him aloof.

He began to see his conduct in a true light, and was becoming heartily ashamed of it. He had sacrificed his own self-respect, and felt that he must have fallen miserably in the opinion of others.

Then Alice was too honest and too outspoken for him. He rather page 239 winced, under that clear, honest gaze, which while it revealed nothing beyond a frank, cordial, and even sympathetic spirit, yet seemed to pry into his own troubled soul, and to unmask the secret of his hidden transgression. At one time he had delighted in her conversation, had loved to tease her on tender points, gently ridiculing her pet theories, and even scandalising her modest prejudices. These lively disputes had often waxed warm and petulant, and led to periods of contention to be always shortly followed by a friendly truce or solemn compact of peace.

But things were altered now. The humiliating sense of his own defection seemed to disarm him, and he felt unequal to any encounter with his fair opponent; above all, he dreaded what he had formerly so much enjoyed, a cosy tête-à-tête, when the conversation might take a rather sentimental turn, or lead to some exchange of confidences. For of all people Alice was the one he was least inclined to confide in. He instinctively knew that her pure mind and upright character could not readily tolerate his disingenuous and culpable conduct. His weak infatuation for Mrs Wylde could only call forth her censure or provoke her ridicule. Henceforth he felt that their spheres in life were distinct, and their dispositions estranged. She would remain his good angel to inspire him with a beautiful and lofty ideal, but he could not drag her down into the dark and devious paths he had strayed into. She, indeed, was ever the same, the frank, genial, cheerful, and devoted being she had shown herself from the first; he, it was, who had degenerated; and, now, to his bitter sorrow, he found himself no longer in sympathy with her.

On her part, Miss Seymour was quite unable to account for the coolness and restraint which had gradually grown up between ‘Cousin Richard’ and herself. She could not help noticing the change, but her heart acquitted her of having in any way contributed to it. His behaviour both grieved and perplexed her.

She still entertained the same cordial and unselfish feelings towards him, and although aware of his compromising and equivocal relations with Mrs Wylde, and of the uncharitable comments of a gossiping neighbourhood, yet she could not bring herself to take a serious view of the matter, or to join in the chorus of virtuous indignation. In her loyal little heart she had already condoned his vagaries and entered warmly on his defence.

So, in her straightforward and unguarded style, she openly expressed herself to her father, and would have done the same to the culprit himself, had he afforded her the chance. But Raleigh kept cautiously out of the way, and showed himself ever more timid in his approach page 240 and reserved in his manner. This ended in exasperating Alice to such an extent that she determined to ‘have it out’ with her bashful friend on the very first available occasion.

The opportunity was not long in presenting itself. Had it not so come about, Miss Seymour, who was of a somewhat rash and impatient temperament, had made up her mind to force the situation, and even, as a last resource, to make a sudden descent on the ‘Growlery’, and beard the lion in his den.