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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XXXVI

Chapter XXXVI.

To return to more serious matters. At this satisfactory stage of our enterprise, when we discovered what our profits had been, we were in Hokitika, where we had just disposed of our last drove of cattle.

At this time the cattle market was showing signs of glutting, though this was less the result of a more than usual supply than from the fact of the decline in gold returns that was then making itself sensibly felt throughout the community, and thereby occasioning the miners to be less reckless in their outlay. This, of course, resulted in a general decline in the high prices hitherto readily paid for cattle.

For this reason I, in particular, was desirous of resting upon my oars, as, in my peculiar circumstances, I was unwilling to risk by an unfavourable venture the money I had lately been fortunately able to secure, but which I merely regarded as held in trust by me for those to whom I owed it, and to whom it was incumbent upon my honour to faithfully repay it.

Musing upon these matters, I strolled down Revel Street one evening about nine o'clock. Hokitika was then at the height of its prosperity, for whatever of failure might about that time have been beginning to make itself felt in the diggings outside, page 254 its effects had not yet made themselves so manifest as to affect the business of the hotels within.

And with houses of this description Revel Street was at that time literally studded on both sides. These appeared to be all driving a roaring trade, and were filled with roystering revellers scattering their money about in reckless profusion in shilling “nobblers”. In front, the bars were thronged with tipsy diggers “shouting” for their friends, and as many “loafers” as happened to be loitering about, to the great increase of the prosperity of the landlords, if to the rapid diminution of their own; while from within—and all the hotels in this respect seemed to be equally favoured—where the inspiring strains of the fiddles were heard playing dance tunes, a still greater throng of spendthrifts were persuading themselves that they were having a fair return for all the money that they were spending so freely.

Passing in front of one of these houses, within which the sounds of harmony indicated that “the mirth and fun was fast and furious,” I paused to listen; then, out of curiosity, stepped inside to view the scene.

It was in a low ceilinged room, accommodated for the purpose it was then serving with benches at the upper end, that rose in tiers above one another for the benefit of the spectators. The space between the door and the benches was reserved for the dancers, and was barely sufficient—so great was the crowd—to admit of their moving freely. Under other circumstances this apartment, with its tier of benches in the rear and clear space in front, would have been well adapted to the service of God; at the present time, however, with its reeking fumes and reckless assemblage, it appeared to be doing excellent duty in the service of the devil.

The musical part of the entertainment was furnished by a piccolo and fiddle, that were by no means unskilfully played. Besides the musicians there was a third person set apart to act as master of the ceremonies. This gentleman's position was evidently anything but a sinecure, judging from the unremitting nature of his exertions, as one set of revellers was instantly succeeded by another, who had been meanwhile impatiently awaiting their opportunity of a clear space on the crowded floor, and who, on the happy consummation of these wishes, were in their turn as eagerly succeeded by a third set, until, what with calling out the orders of the dances, and introducing partners during the whole evening, he was allowed but few intervals for rest, and thoroughly earned his wages, whatever these might be.

On entering, I at once made my way up to one of the raised seats at the farther end of the room. Beside me, where page 255 I was sitting, I observed and was struck by the appearance of an individual, sometimes sitting, but usually standing, who appeared to be keenly observant of all arrivals as they entered the door.

He was a man of swarthy complexion, with hair and beard that had originally been black, but were now slightly grizzled. He was perhaps under the middle height, but of a very powerful build. He was dressed in plain clothes, but a certain squareness of shoulders and erectness of carriage bore the unmistakable stamp of a military training; and this, taken in conjunction with his appearance of watchfulness, impressed me at once with the conviction of his being a detective officer in disguise.

That he was on the look-out for some one whose presence there that night he had some reasons for expecting, was evident by the quick scrutinising glance with which he seemed to scan the appearance of each fresh comer as he entered the room.

For the diggers and others who felt disposed for dancing there was here no lack of female partners. Of the peculiar characters of the latter, however, their flaunting garments, their loud voices, unabashed looks, and coarse expressions, left no room for doubt—“beautiful daughters of sin,” as the sweet Danish author, Hans Christian, so aptly characterises them, and the records of whose lives, if written, would present such a harrowing picture of betrayal and seduction, of neglect and depravity, of lives reared 'mid scenes of infamy, or of seeds of virtue, crushed by degraded association. Such a picture as might well put our boasted Christian civilisation to the blush, and render us objects of astonishment and scorn to those very heathens, for whose spiritual welfare we equip missionaries with such pains and cost, to send them to the ends of the earth with tidings of gospel peace and salvation.

Yet among many of these unlovely representatives of womanhood, I observed one whose appearance, manner, and expression of features, at once proclaimed her to be, though with, not of, that company; this was shown, too, by the sudden flush on her pale cheek, as she shrank back haughtily from the attention of a flashily dressed, half-intoxicated young man, who, swaggering up beside her, attempted to place an arm over her shoulder.

“Hands off, young fellow!” cried out a young woman, good looking, but with a flushed and dissipated look, whose boisterous manners I had already noted, and who was seated on the other side of the girl whom the young man had accosted. “Hands off!” she repeated, coming forward and seating herself between them; “this lady is none of our sort, so you just keep page 256 yourself square and behave yourself, if you don't want to get yourself into trouble.”

She uttered this caution in a tone that plainly intimated an intention of hitting from the shoulder on a repetition of the offence—a feat that with her vigorous frame she seemed to be well capable of performing. The young man sheepishly withdrew into the crowd—many who had witnessed the scene cheering the spirit of the heroine with a loud laugh and exclamations of “Well done, Kate, that's the way to talk to him”.

I now began to scan the appearance of this woman, whose presence in that rude assemblage the remark of the girl Kate had drawn attention to, with more interest. Being seated behind her, my observations could only be made by side looks at her face as she occasionally turned her head. Whatever might have been the motive of her presence there, it was evident at a glance that she had at one time been accustomed to scenes of ease and refinement, and traces of this appeared to hover round her still. She was slight and beautiful in form and features, though her face was perfectly colourless. Her eyes, I observed when on one occasion she turned her head round quickly, attracted by some sound behind her, were dark, as also was the colour of her hair. There was something in the quick bird-like motion of the turning of her head that roused in my mind a vague consciousness of something familiar about this woman, that compelled my eyes as if by some secret fascination to rest continually upon her. I at length asked of the disguised detective if he knew who this woman was, but he simply shook his head and made no reply.

Shortly afterwards the girl Kate, who had before championed her, and who appeared, however inconsistently, to be on terms of intimacy with her and to regard her with some rough sympathy, addressed her.

“Come, Rachel,” she said, “what are you moping so much about? It will never do for you to get yourself so low as this, you know; have a drink of summat, it will put some life in you. You know ——” Here she whispered something into the girl's ear; and then, addressing some young fellow beside her, she said, “Here, young fellow, ain't you going to ‘shout’ for me and this young lady here now?”

“Rachel, Rachel,” I mused, but even then my thoughts failed to recognise the person in front of me, so far were they removed from the idea of such a meeting.

Meanwhile, to Kate's proposal to accept of a treat from this young man, her companion replied with a smile and a shake of her head, “Thanks, Kate, but I would rather not”.

“Tuts! this will never do, you know. You must rouse up; page 257 you know what's before you, so you must brace yourself up for it. You won't dance, I know, but take something to drink, and sing a song; that will liven you up, and brighten your wits for your work.”

“A song? I am afraid that my song would be still duller than myself,” I heard the other reply.

“Well, have summat to drink first, and then we'll see. Come, Jim, you ‘shout’. Mine is brandy; won't you try some of that, Rachel, too? Very well; fetch this lady a glass of sherry.”

As Kate had predicted, her companion's spirits seemed to be sensibly revived by the glass of wine that she had been persuaded to take.

“Who can this woman or girl be?” I soliloquised. “She looks respectable in her appearance; but what sort of respectability can this be, that can thus permit her to associate, and even drink, if only wine, in such company as this?”

I confess that, from the circumstances of her surroundings, the utmost extent of my charity in my judgment of this woman—though her face bore the impress of experience, matured by sorrow—was but to allow her a slightly higher place in society than that of her degraded companion. In the meantime these unfavourable suspicions were confirmed by hearing the girl Kate strongly urge her to give the company a song, for the dancing at this juncture had temporarily subsided. To any respectable woman, who from any circumstance chanced to be one of that assemblage, Kate's request would have caused a feeling of disgust, but to the person addressed, there was evidently nothing offensive in such an idea. She proved this by her manner of refusing to comply at first, but not as if she felt offended at it, but only disinclined. At length, however, overborne by the pressure of her stronger willed companion, her objection seemed to give way, when, as if rousing herself up for a determined effort to acquit herself at once of a task that she saw she could not avoid, she suddenly remarked:

“What shall I sing then, if sing I must? Let me see. Ah, me,” she suddenly sighed, as if with uncontrollable feeling, “it is on me again, and I can sing only this.”

Then, with a voice whose tones of plaintive, wailing sweetness instantly pierced through the recesses of my memory—as the arrow of a strong bowman pierces the heart of his naked foe—I instantly saw again a house on the banks of the Murray, where once before I had, on a moonlight night, listened outside of a window to that same sweet voice, then, too, wailing as if in forboding sadness the concluding lines of Burns' exquisite lyric—

page 258

“And my fause lover stole the rose,
But ah! he left the thorn wi' me”.

And springing to my feet in almost overpowering astonishment, bewildered and transfixed with horror at the sudden discovery, and the surroundings amongst which it was made—all of which flashed through my mind like lightning—I listened to the long-lost, the ruined, Rachel Rolleston, singing to the same air the following dirge:—

“The flower that with tender care
Sweet fragrance was wont to diffuse,
The loveliest of the gay parterre
Fair blooming, with refreshing dews.
Till smitten by the summer's blast
It's velvet petals droop forlorn,
When from its bed 'tis vilely cast
An object then of loathing scorn.

“Like it, her hapless lot o'er whom,
A parents' love once watched and smiled,
Who now drags out her wearied doom
From love and honour far exiled.
Now to those bright and shining years
Undimmed by guilt and clouds obscene,
How near the prospect still appears,
But ah! how vast, the gulf between!”

At the moment when the last word of this song was still ringing faintly from Rachel's lips, a stranger suddenly entered the room. He was tall, erect and very muscularly built, with bushy whiskers of a sandy shade. His features seemed indented, or rather rent with deep lines, traced by violent passions that seemed still to flash from his restless grey eyes, and to quiver on his thin, curling lips.

On entering, he fixed a stern, almost resentful glance on her who had been singing, whose eyes at the same moment met his: she suddenly subsided to her seat and clasped her hands tightly over her breast.

As this stranger entered I observed a quick, peculiar, movement on the part of the disguised detective, who chanced at the time to be standing up. As the door opened, I observed the detective suddenly start, then, stooping his head, he put his pipe into his mouth and struck a match. At the noise caused by the match, the new comer glanced up suddenly in the direction of the sound.

For a moment his stern, inquiring eyes endeavoured to penetrate the detective's disguise, then, as if suspicious of what he had observed, he turned round on his heel and abruptly left the house.