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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XXXIV

Chapter XXXIV.

“He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
Who dares not put it to the touch
To win or lose it all.”

The next morning, it being a working day, I was early in the shed, when one of the shearers handed me a note, which on opening I found to my surprise to be from Howden. In this note he stated that for urgent reasons he was starting off for Invercargill; therefore he requested me to take charge of his effects, and dispose of his horses, which he expected I could easily manage to get on board Mr. Campbell's large boat, that could at some points be laid almost alongside of the land, for what prices they would fetch, as it was not his intention to return again to that locality. Any money that I should realise from his effects, that, with the exception of the horses, were not likely to be marketable, he also requested me to pay at my convenience into the bank of New Zealand in Invercargill to his account. But the books he requested me to keep for myself, together with such articles as were not saleable, stating also that I should hear from him again.

As I had been in the habit of transacting business for Howden, that, besides occasional purchases, consisted in taking down his gold and depositing it in the bank of New Zealand, returning him receipts of its weight, I was quite able to carry out the wishes expressed in his present note.

After breakfast my visitors prepared for their departure. As I was accompanying them to the place of embarkation, I was walking alongside of Mary, Jessie being in front with Mr. M‘Gilvray, when suddenly the latter withdrew from her companion and joined me; when, as if by a preconcerted arrangement, Mary stepped forward and took the place vacated by her sister by Mr. M‘Gilvray's side.

Looking up into my face with her full blue eyes, clear as a fountain of water, Jessie remarked:—

“What is it makes you look so dull?”

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“Why do you ask, or what makes you imagine that I am dull?”

“I know very well, and I think you are foolish to give way to such fancies. Why should you not look as cheerful as the others?”

“And why do you give me reason to look dull then, Jessie?”

“Now, why should you talk like that? What occasion have I given you to look dull?”

I glanced significantly at the gentleman in front of me.

“Pooh! Mr. M‘Gilvray is a very nice gentleman, and I like him very well as a friend, but nothing else.”

By this time we had arrived at the side of the boat, and much as I could have wished the conversation prolonged, I had no further opportunity of saying more then.

But the effects of these few words upon me were simply magical.

I seemed to feel as if a load had been lifted off my heart, and in exact ratio to their previous depression did my spirits now rise to an excess of buoyancy.

As I gleefully shook hands with them all, I called out to Mrs. Ayson to be sure and bring her husband along with her if she felt inclined to pay me a visit again, as I hoped she would, next Christmas.

Next Christmas, forsooth! Little did I imagine that I was standing over a powder mine, whose sudden explosion shortly afterwards would send me far enough away from Lake — — — long ere Christmas would be round again!

That same day (I mean that of the departure of my visitors) Lilly was loaded up, and started away likewise.

On the conclusion of the shearing operations, and when the stir consequent thereon had subsided, I resolved, in pursuance of a determination that had lately been slowly maturing in my mind, since the departure of my Christmas visitors, to bring to a decisive issue a question that had long disturbed my peace of mind.

The reader will easily guess what this question was.

I accordingly one day rode down to the Campbells, and was received by them with their wonted cordiality.

After tea, I found myself in company with both the girls in the neat flower-bordered garden. It was a lovely evening. The setting sun flushed all the western horizon. Loud, clear, and musical rang the notes of the tuis in the neighbouring bush, while hundreds of twittering notes sounded through the glades of the forest, as the birds fluttered through the leaves. The gooseberry bushes were bending down with their profusion of fruity treasures, while, as we strayed along, we occasionally page 240 stooped down in attention to each, as its bursting, mellow, tasting fruit seemed to solicit our notice.

At length I found myself alone with Jessie, Mary having lingered behind, and then as if suddenly recollecting something, or desirous of giving us a better opportunity of communicating with each other, went back into the house.

The golden opportunity so long wished for had at last arrived. I felt my heart palpitating violently in view of the momentous issue immediately before me. I believe my very nervousness spoiled all.

I took her hand. I blundered sadly, and stated my case with almost rude bluntness.

“Jessie, I love you very much. Will you marry me?”

She tried to withdraw her hand from mine, but I held it more tenaciously. Again I spoke:—

“I have loved you a long time; I cannot do without you. Jessie, will you not give me some hope?”

At last she replied, and to the point. She was naturally of a blunt, straightforward disposition.

“I am sorry to hear you speak as you do, Duncan,” the more formal style of Mister Farquharson had long been set aside in my intercourse with all the members of the family, “I have known you a long time, and I indeed do love and respect you, but only as a friend. Let us go inside.” As she spoke she rose up and went towards the house, still looking and waiting for me to accompany her; but, stunned by the sudden overthrow of my late hopes, it was only with difficulty that I could force myself to do this.

If, with one sentence, Jessie had ruthlessly slain all my fond aspirations for her heart and hand, to do her justice, having dealt the blow, she did her utmost for the rest of the evening to mollify the wound.

She took her seat close beside me, and smiling pleasantly, addressed her remarks straight to me, endeavouring continually to anticipate my slightest desires, or if I did anything for her it was instantly acknowledged by a bright smile and a frank “Thank you, Duncan”.

Yet towards her I maintained a deep, almost stern reserve, only giving brief, monosyllabic replies when necessary to questions addressed directly to me.

My reticence was not the result of anger. It was not that I felt revengeful towards the girl for slighting my offer. No, I loved her too well for that. But my irreparable loss grieved me bitterly in proportion to my love.

Had I not been ashamed to do so I would instantly have mounted Selim and ridden home; but to my kind friends such page 241 a proceeding would have been an act of rudeness, that I could not think of showing to them. So, harassed and dejected, I found it a matter of no small difficulty to rouse myself to the task of sustaining some kind of commonplace conversation with Mr. Campbell—interrupted by passing remarks from his wife—about sheep, wool, and other station matters; all subjects of inexhaustible interest to worthy, common-sense, plain, plodding, Mr. Campbell.

At length the weary evening came to a close, and I retired to bed, but as the reader may well believe, not to sleep; my faculties being kept awake by a hard, dry grief, that refused to be comforted. All the future seemed to be a dreary plain without any line to mark the horizon.

But enough of this. I had hardly returned home, when I received a painful confirmation of the truth of the adage, that misfortunes seldom come singly.

I fear the reader will think me a strange hero, when I record this fresh instance of my heedlessness and trustfulness. After having already tasted the bitter fruits of a too unquestioning reliance on the faith of another in the matter of my business solvency, what will any sensible person now think of my imprudence, when I confess that I found myself convicted of the same fatal blunder?

The facts are briefly told. About six months before, Mr. Roscoe, in view of some heavy liabilities in his own mercantile business, received my consent to strengthen his credit, by the use of the cheques of our joint firm for his own private business, though, as he represented at the time, it would only be for a short period.

To any one reasonably cautious in worldly matters, such a proposal would have been viewed with instant distrust.

But so firmly impressed was I with the assurance of Mr. Roscoe's personal probity, and financial solvency, that such a suspicion never once entered my mind.

Besides, I was sustained in my opinion, by the very fact of Mr. M‘Elwain's recommendation, for he had known him very intimately for a long time, and I was therefore the more off my guard.

Consequently when the news of the crash came (for Roscoe's business suddenly did crash), it fell upon me with all the more stunning effect, from being so wholly unlooked for.

Mr. Roscoe, as it turned out, was found to be one of those unprincipled scoundrels, who had for a course of years maintained an appearance of fictitious prosperity, by a systematic system of fraudulent book-keeping.

It was with borrowed money he had at first started the page 242 station business, and although under my management this business had paid well, yet such was the serious nature of his over-drafts, for his commercial transactions, that the station profits were instantly absorbed as they came to hand. My own incautious loan of my name for the requirements of his private engagements, had in consequence rendered me liable for all his debts; and these proved to be so extensive that the proceeds of the station, when sold, were insufficient to meet them.

In a word, all my own private means, besides £1000 of Mr. M‘Elwain's, which I had intended immediately to pay off—would have paid ere then in fact, but for this arrangement with Mr. Roscoe—were entirely lost through the unscrupulous selfishness of a detestable villain, the more detestable for the Christian profession and standing as an elder in the church, with which he had contrived so thoroughly to veil his real character, and who had thought fit to decamp, taking no small share of his plunder with him.

Bad as the ruin of my business in itself was, the bitterness of feeling it caused me was intensified by the memory of my late proposal to Jessie Campbell, which would now lay me open to the suspicion of having been influenced in my offer to her, by purely selfish consideration; for, from the ruin that so quickly followed that declaration, both herself and her parents must conclude—a conclusion to me most bitterly humiliating—that I could not have been ignorant of my impending ruin and must have been moved by the most mean and contemptible motives—the endeavour to hamper them with my difficulties.

It was the intolerable idea of the certainty of such a suspicion on the part of the Campbells, that made me on the day following the reception of these cruel tidings, when on my way to Invercargill, ride past their house without calling, an act I was never known to have been guilty of before.

The dismal business connected with the transfer of the station property into the hands of the Bank officials (indeed, properly speaking, there was no form of transfer in the matter, they having taken prompt possession for themselves), I will not enter into, but will dismiss the whole painful matter with the remark, that on interviewing the Bank authorities, I found that it was only due to their kind consideration that I was allowed to retain possession of my horse and £50 in money, and that all my toil for the last five years in New Zealand, had been for naught, and that in addition to having worked hard in the colonies for thirteen years with this result, I was now saddled with the almost hopeless burden of a debt of £1000.

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Yet against all this I still resolved bravely to struggle, and to rouse my energies, so as to be able to redeem my honour, now compromised by the serious loss entailed upon Mr. M‘Elwain, through his generous action in befriending me; for I had little desire to free myself by a bankrupt's credentials from the encumbrance of this moral responsibility.