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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XLI

Chapter XLI.

Some hours afterwards, when the excitement consequent on Howden's daring suicide had somewhat subsided, I seriously took in hand the business of hunting out Rachel's lodging.

This, by the help of a policeman, I was easily enabled to do from her intimacy with Kate Dunovan. After some hesitation, as if she had doubts as to the object of our search for her friend, Kate pointed out to us where the poor girl lived, which was simply in a detached room in a neighbouring hotel.

On entering the house, Lilly, who was with me, thought it wise to keep in the background until I had broken the ground, thinking that this would be more easily accomplished if I were alone, than by both of us suddenly presenting ourselves before her.

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The poor fellow, on this occasion, appeared to be almost unmanned by his emotions at the near prospect of again beholding his quondam employer's daughter, whose kind, sprightly, yet winsome ways had formerly so deeply impressed his own rough, yet genuine nature, and whose subsequent betrayal and rum he had so sincerely mourned.

At my knock the door opened, and Rachel Rolleston once more stood before me. There was but little in the appearance of the apartment (into the interior of which I fear I cast a rather unceremonious glance ere I addressed her) that would associate the idea of moral degradation with its inmate, for though the signs of poverty were many, everything betokened neatness and industry.

Turning my eyes full upon her, I paused for a moment ere speaking, to note what possible effect her recognition of me might have upon her. To my intense astonishment she simply extended her hand to me, with calm dignity, and no other outward expressions of feeling than that shown in the slight touch of sadness in her tone as she quietly remarked: “Well, Mr. Farquharson, is it you? how are you? Come in and sit down.” Now, an invitation to sit down in a lady's bedroom seems, at any time, a peculiar one. And although this evidently did duty as a sitting-room too, yet that it was used as a sleeping apartment was plainly evident by the bed which stood at the further end tidily and smoothly made.

Her collected tone so entirely disconcerted me, moreover, that I confess my enthusiasm in her cause seemed to suddenly cool, as if with a dash of cold water. The disagreeable impression of her degradation, confirmed by her seeming entire absence of propriety in thus inviting me into her room, combined with her coolness of manner on meeting with one who had at one time so enthusiastically loved her, induced me, in addressing her, to pitch my voice in a tone of rebuke. But from this high ground I found myself quickly taken down.

“I am grieved” I said gravely, “to find you, of all persons in the world, leading such a life as this. Was it madness? was it frenzy, that could have induced Rachel Rolleston, once so admired, to forsake her father's home and the friends who loved her so well, for a life of shame amid the obscene surroundings in which I lately discovered her?”

A slight blush on Rachel's pale cheek together with an expression of haughty surprise—such as I could have imagined might have well become her of old, if offended—made me suddenly pause, and then she answered quickly—

“I hardly think, Mr. Farquharson, that you can rightly understand to whom, or of what you are talking. You used page 288 not to be rude when I formerly knew you. Surely it would become you now to inform yourself better ere you venture to address me in such language as this”

This spirited rebuke, that her indignant manner further emphasised, completely staggered me, while, at the same moment, Howden's use of the word wife, in reference to her, came rushing to my mind, suggesting that after all she might not be the polluted thing I had been conceiving her to be. Though as evidence on the other side, the scene of the dance-room, with the unmistakable character of some there with whom she certainly appeared to be on terms of intimacy, rose vividly before my mind.

For a moment I hesitated, uncertain how to address her; then, nerving myself to ascertain the truth of her position from her own lips, I replied firmly: “Am I then, madam, from your words to understand that instead of being the mere plaything of a man's pleasure, as I have been led to believe you were, that you are in reality the wedded wife of that man whose earthly account has been this day passed in at the bay of eternity?”

Holding up her left hand towards me to exhibit to my view a plain gold ring that encircled her marriage finger, she replied: “I am and never have been other than the late Randal Howden's wedded wife, as the ring on the finger testifies; that was placed there two days after I had, so unhappily for myself, gone off in his company. During those first two days I was with him as a companion, but in no dishonourable position, for I declared to him from the first that only as his lawfully wedded wife would I ever accompany him; and it was only from the necessities of the case, no clergyman being available sooner, that the ceremony was postponed till then. When we reached Euston, where one chanced to be staying at the hotel, from which, under the compulsion of Howden's revolver, he was brought at midnight to where we were encamped in the bush, at that place, in that same hour, were those (for me) unhappy nuptials celebrated, in the presence of those two men whom you saw captured with Howden, and whose names as witnesses to that deed I can still show you on the marriage lines that the clergyman, on the conclusion of the ceremony, committed to my keeping.

“On the evening before, Howden, who indeed would have preferred to have dispensed with such a ceremony altogether but for my determination to quit his company otherwise, had ridden to Wentworth to endeavour to secure the services of a clergyman there, leaving the two men with me encamped among the scrub a few miles off, I occupying, however, a separate tent; but his errand proved fruitless, as there was no resident clergyman there.”

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I here interrupted her suddenly with the remark: “Good heavens! you really were there that night, then? Do you recollect hearing sounds as of a struggle taking place there?”

“A struggle?” she repeated, looking at me with surprise. “Yes, surely I do, for I was very much frightened about it, thinking it was between the two men, of whom I was always in some dread, and that they were killing each other. So, not knowing what might be the result of the quarrel, I sat still in my tent, keeping the revolver that Howden had given me, with injunctions to at once use it in case of any insolent demonstrations from either of them. But what can you know about the struggle?”

“What do I know, madam?” I answered sadly. “Alas! I have reason now to know too much, though, unhappily for you, I then knew too little.”

I then detailed to her the account of my encounter with the two ruffians and my rescue by Howden, and the conversation which followed.

She looked at me with swimming eyes, and replied: “My poor friend, how near you were to delivering me from years of misery! But no; I fear it was ordained that I should have to reap the consequences of my own mad folly! Deliverance indeed would have been impossible. Knowing my husband's desperate nature, I feel little doubt but that you would have paid for your discovery of me with your life. Unarmed as you were, you would only have fallen a certain victim to his fury, had you persisted in your attempt to force me away from him. How strange it all seems now! Of course he never mentioned your name to me but merely confirmed my own suspicion as to the struggle having been but a drunken affray between his two companions, and that he had just arrived in time to prevent one from murdering the other.”

I felt at her account of her marriage with Howden, as if a mountain had been suddenly lifted off my heart, yet a still lingering suspicion caused me to question anxiously:

“But, madam, what about the strange society I found you in? Excuse my seeming doubts, but the blunt question will out. How could a respectable lady under any pressure of circumstances, associate with those on whose foreheads were plainly written the signs of shame—yes, even sing and take wine in such company?”

“I see,” she said slowly and sadly, “I see. Finding me apparently at my ease in such company, you therefore concluded that I must needs be like it! Oh, Mr. Farquharson, how could you, who of old used to be so kind and considerate, how could you, I say, find it in your heart to imagine that Rachel Rolleston, page 290 with all her headstrong foolishness, would have had so little virtue, that such a suspicion, under any conditions, could have obtained such a ready acceptance with you?”

At this rebuke I was deeply moved, and answered: “Our Heavenly Father, who knew how great my devotion to you once was, knows also how deep my gratitude is to find the utter groundlessness of that suspicion; but I could not avoid it, because of the conviction I had entertained from the first, that you had been ruined by the plausible wiles of an unscrupulous villain. Yet, would you mind explaining to me how it was that you were so unconcerned in the presence of such company?”

“To explain that properly, Mr. Farquharson, it would be necessary for me to put you in possession of the whole of my life, since I forsoo! my father's house on the Murray. I believe, however,” she added, with a faint smile, “that I was at no time greatly concerned about the forms and etiquette of society. I was inclined—thoughtlessly perhaps—to set such matters down to the score of worldly pride, a spirit that I was rather too prone to despise. Well for me had it been, had I had a little more of that spirit. But when you come to know all, or even a part of all that I have passed through these last few years, it may cease to surprise you, that what now appears so anomalous to you, should have been scarcely perceptible to me. Will you not be still more surprised, when I tell you that through the exigencies of my husband's wild career, women of that class have been the only sort of female society that I have been permitted to enjoy? That girl Kate, whom you might have noticed was so friendly with me and so ready to protect me against insult in the dance-room the other evening—I did not observe you there, though I saw and recognised you afterwards—has been, with all the dissipation of her life and the loathsomeness of her calling, a friend to whose kindness and attention I believe, that, under God, I owe my life; for she nursed me through the heavy sicknesses succeeding the births of my two children, neither of whom survived above a few weeks, and afterwards when I was in want, supplied me with means for the bare necessaries of life. Then there were the low orgies that I was at times compelled to witness, yes, and at my husband's stern request compelled to minister to, my voice being in request and popular; until, habituated to such scenes, language, and manners, that would at one time have filled me with disgust, I came at length to look at them with indifference.”

“This is indeed shocking; and your husband, how did he treat you in other ways? Was he as personally brutal to you as he seems to have been morally callous?”

“I believe that, to a certain extent, he loved me—as much as page 291 his fierce nature could love any one; for, whilst he never tried to keep me from the society of his rude companions or to prevent my ears from being contaminated with their filthy talk, yet, further than that, no one ventured to annoy me. For my husband was a man who was feared by the others, both on account of his courage and the strength of his arm; and more than once have I been forced to witness the sickening exhibition of his prowess with some of the more fractious of his companions, and always with the same result—that is, his antagonist was left senseless and belleding on the ground.”

“And how could you, Mrs. Howden” said I, for the first time addressing her by her married name, “still remain among such scenes as these, with your father's door always open to you? Did you never think of that, that you never tried to make your escape from such a life as that?”

“Before you asked that question, Mr. Farquharson, you should first have asked yourself if you could gauge the depth of a woman's love for a man to whom she had fully surrendered her heart? If you can answer that, the answer to your other question will not be far to seek. I had deliberately cast in my lot with his, and for his sake I had chosen to forgo my father's love and the position of wealth that, as his daughter, I was entitled to; and, unworthy and desperado as I soon found my husband was, the same passionate love that at first made me to go with him, has still, through all these cruel years, constrained me to cling to him, with the constant and yearning hope that I might yet persuade him to flee with me to America, and in that country under fresh auspices, to lay the foundations of a new life.

“For a time, indeed, he appeared to be considerate of me, and to endeavour to keep from my sight the degraded scenes connected with his calling. But gradually his carefulness on this point lessened, until he at length concealed nothing. After that his manner towards me varied with his circumstances, and although his hand was never raised against me, still his fierceness at times was such as to make me tremble at the thought of what might some day follow. This was when he was harassed by the police, when his temper increased in violence and moroseness, and he would drink until what little of the man that had been left in him before, seemed to be swamped in the passions of the brute. On these occasions his harshness towards me was great, for he was disappointed at reaping no benefit through me from my father. For, though by means of an agent he endeavoured to obtain the money that would have been my marriage portion had I married otherwise, my father, knowing well how it would be used, sternly refused page 292 to part with a shilling of it to him; nor would I ever, even under pressure, consent to write to my father myself with the object of obtaining it. I had disgraced him sufficiently, without seeking to annoy him further by any such request, even had I not felt persuaded that he would not listen even to my suit. Then came the sickness I have referred to, and the destitution that after my husband's sudden capture I was exposed to, when I was nursed and assisted, as I have said already, by Kate. Up to that time we had lived in the country about the Upper Murray amid a people who all appeared to be marked with the brand of infamy—convicts and the children of convicts.

“On Howden's capture, I found my way to an obscure lodging in Melbourne. Thither also Kate and one or two of her companions moved. I supported myself meanwhile as best I could by my needle, whilst through Kate I kept up some communication with Morgan and Wilson, who were also then skulking about Melbourne, until Howden managed to elude the vigilance of his keepers. For a long time he lay concealed in a house that Kate knew of, though I myself, for fear of the police, was not permitted to see him. Neither did I again see him until the night when you saw him suddenly enter the dance-room. But, informed by Kate of his wishes, I came over here with her. Through her I was informed of the whereabouts of the tent that had been constructed by Morgan and Wilson, as also of Howden's expected arrival in Hokitika. The exact position of this tent I then, by Kate's direction, made myself acquainted with by an afternoon's walk that I took in secret shortly after my arrival at Hokitika.”

“You mentioned that you had seen me before now?” I remarked, as Rachel paused in her interesting narrative. “I had no suspicion of this. Was it in the court-house? I saw you there, but as I did not think that a suitable place in which to discover myself to you, I tried to screen myself from your view.”

“I noticed you all the same,” she replied. “Indeed, as I knew that you had discovered me, I was surprised that you had not sought me out before, knowing of old what sympathy you had for me. But I recognised you first, Mr. Farquharson, during that dreadful scene of struggle in the tent, when you seized me so hard by the arm, and flung me so roughly from you. See there how you have left your marks behind you,” she added, baring her wrist as she spoke, and displaying just above it some blue marks. Singularly enough now, as she spoke, I remembered what I had forgotten till then, but what I had at the time noted, and that was her pale face with her full expressive eyes being suddenly turned up to mine, as I seized her page 293 hand to prevent her extinguishing the light in obedience to Howden's command.

And in the swift glance of that terrible moment, what a train of disconnected thoughts must have flashed through that poor girl's mind!

I rejoined: “I had no idea that you recognised me then and I feel grieved that even unintentionally I should have been harsh and rough with you, but you know that things were then at a most desperate crisis, and my only idea was the immediate prevention of Howden's escape”.

“Nay, indeed, you need not apologise: for that you had then no intention of hurting me, I am now well assured of. Yet I could not help wondering afterwards if you had really known it was me at the time, or if that repulse had been an indication of the contempt with which you had now come to regard me in your heart. You who had once been so kind, and had so valiantly risked your life to defend mine. You of whom I have so often thought with such sad regret. Alas! how great my folly has been, and how bitter the price I have paid for it!”

These words, spoken in the tone of one whose bright spirit had been subdued and broken by sorrow and hardship, went to my very heart, but beyond a glance of compassionate sympathy, I gave no further expression to my thoughts, but after a while remarked: “And now that death has loosened your bonds to this man, am I to understand that this is a grief to you, and that you do not regard it in the light of a happy release?”

She answered in a subdued tone: “The suddenness of his end, unprepared as he was for his Maker's awful presence, though only what his unbridled career gave reason to expect, is a grief to me; but now that he has been taken away, do I count it as a relief? Why, yes; because now freed from my responsibility to him, and the influence of the strange life that his presence could still inspire me with, I can breathe freely and choose my own mode of life for the future. For with him, from the very nature of his circumstances and the desperation of his calling, life was but a mockery and a burden”

“What about the black detective in the scrub?” I inquired doubtfully; “it is evident that it was none other than Howden who shot him.”

“It was,” she replied, “he himself informed me of the fact, but he did it in defence of his liberty, which he declared he would surrender to neither black nor white; a threat whose stern significance, the determination of his manner when he attempted to shoot you all as you entered his tent to capture him, so well justified. Yet, though I believe he could do things like that without the least remorse, still he would suffer none of his com- page 294 panions to gain their ends by murder, nor would he permit any one to wantonly insult a woman. He was indeed a most strange mixture of good and evil.”

I then asked her why Howden hated Duval so. Her explanation was that this Duval had at one time been an officer in the same regiment with himself, and like him had lapsed into habits of gambling and drinking, for which he too had been eventually forced to leave his regiment. In the course of one of these gambling bouts, Duval had accused Howden of cheating, and they had drawn their swords, but were separated by their companions. Duval then, having joined the police force in Melbourne, made himself particularly obnoxious to Howden by the unremitting activity with which he pursued him, and which was in fact the means of Howden's former capture. This, coupled with their former enmity, seems to have peculiarly exasperated Howden against him. Yet it was strange, that during Howden's trial in Melbourne, Duval mentioned nothing in court about his former character, or that he had even known him before that time.

I now asked her if, on the night of the capture or since, she had observed anyone else in my company that she recognised. On her replying in the negative, I told her I would introduce another old friend to her. Then leaving her, I at once went out to find Lilly, and meeting him, told him hastily of Rachel's true position, and the entirely erroneous nature of our suspicions about her; we then at once hurried back to her room. Advancing towards her, with his hat deferentially held in his hand—a mark of respect, that I never knew Benjamin Lilly take the trouble to show, either to Miss Rolleston in her prosperity nor to any other lady, before—the gallant old fellow, extending his arm, seized Mrs. Howden's hand in his rough, cordial grasp saying, “God bless you, Miss Rachel, for I must still call you by your old name, I am mighty proud to see you safe in the hands of your friends again. You must have had a sorrowful time of it, since you went away with that wretch. But he was a bold villain, we will give him his due. And it is myself that is glad to hear, that bad and all as he treated you, he had still some sense of honour left in him, to save your good name. Shure, I thought that he had ruined you entirely, but even if he had, you would be still all the same in my eyes; for good as gold I ever knew you, and gold is gold,” added he sententiously, “though buried in a pigsty.”

“Lilly, my dear old faithful friend,” cried Rachel, her eyes overflowing with tears, while warmly returning the pressure of his hand. “How can you show me respect and consideration page 295 now? I am sure I but little deserve such kindness from either Mr. Farquharson or you.”

“Deserve such kindness, Miss?” said Lilly stoutly, “and why shouldn't you deserve it, shure? Who is it that ever knew you, with your winning ways, and kindness, and want of stinking pride to a poor man, but would have laid down his life for you? Haven't I still the beautiful watch you gave me,” said he, suddenly producing it, “that ever since then, I have worn agin my heart, and on which I swore an oath before my Maker, that I would have revenge in the life's blood of the villain who, I thought then, had ruined you? and I thank God now, this day, that he gave me the chance of as good as keeping that oath. Yet he was a bold and a brave man, that same Marsden, or Howden, or whatever his name was. What a pity that a man who had such good points in him should be such a rascal as he was!”

To Mrs. Howden I now gave a detailed account of her husband's capture, and the leading part that Lilly had played in it, Wiping her eyes at the recital of the close of the desperate struggle with the man whom she had loved, and whose tragic end now sincerely moved her, she said:—

“And my father, my poor forsaken father, can you tell me anything of him? Is he still alive and well?”

I told her that though I knew no particulars about Mr. Rolleston, with whom I had exchanged no correspondence since I had left him, yet that I believed he was still living in Melbourne, as the death of a man of such wealth and position would have been doubtlessly chronicled in the papers, in which event I should certainly have either read or heard of it. I added:—“But as we are about to return as far as Dunedin, our business in this place being now finished, you will of course come along with us, and we will immediately communicate with Mr. Rolleston.”

Rachel hesitated a little.

“My father's favour,” she replied, “I have but little right to expect after the disgrace I have brought upon him by my disreputable manner of leaving him. Yet he still may forgive me when he learns that I am not quite so vile as he has had reason perhaps to think I was, and when he knows too what I have suffered. But the girl Kate—how can I forsake her, who has been such a friend to me, yet whom I could not think of taking with me to my father's house?”

“Mrs. Howden,” I replied firmly, “you must not let your feelings of gratitude overpower your sense of what is due to your own character as a lady, for such, in spite of all that has befallen you, you still are. Looking at the matter in this light, page 296 you must see that Kate can be no sort of associate for you now. You lately hinted to me that your close association with her and companions like her, for the last few years, seems to have dulled your sense of the fitness of things. It must now be your study to regain your old point of view in these matters. When you return to your father, you can find means of befriending Kate, according as the circumstances of her position may make it desirable. At present, however, to attempt to do this by a gift in money I should strongly deprecate, for it would only be dissipated at once among her companions. I will see the girl myself and explain to her your altered plans, and that this renders an alteration in your position towards one another necessary.”

“You speak wisely, Mr. Farquharson, and your suggestion I will endeavour to follow, but pray explain to the poor girl that it is not pride but necessity that occasions this seeming alteration in my feelings towards her, for that I shall never, never forget her kindness to me, or lose sight of her if she is ever in want of a friend.”

“Yes,” replied Lilly, who had so far listened to these arrangements in silence, “that is the right way to do things, and if there is any money wanted for the payment of debts, shure we have both plenty of money to pay them for ye, Miss Rachel”—he could not bring himself yet to address her under her married name—“and if your father will not take you home with him, Mr. Farquharson and I will find a home for you. But your father will take you fast enough, and right glad will he be to see your purty face again, white as it is now; for Mr. Rolleston was always a good ‘boss,’ and a good ‘boss’ is always a good man.”

Leaving Mrs. Howden shortly after this, I sought out Kate's abode. “Humph,” I growled, struck suddenly with the awkward imputation on my character, the sight of me visiting this place might occasion in the eyes of any one who might notice and recognise me. “Humph! a pretty account of me this would make, to find its way to the Campbells. What would the excellent Mrs. Campbell think of me after that, let alone the girls? Bother the girls! I am not likely to see them again, for some years anyhow. Yet I should be sorry to give them occasion for thinking badly of me for all that.” I was by this time inside the house, and inquired for Kate, who, on being summoned from an inner room, at once made her appearance. I desired her to come outside with me, as I wished to talk with her about her friend Rachel. This communication at once called up a serious manner, and she instantly left the house with me, when I, in as few words as possible, put her in possession page 297 of the fact of the alteration in Mrs. Howden's circumstances, and the necessary change in the terms of their intimacy, that such an alteration involved, delivering Rachel's message to her at the same time.

The poor girl was neither destitute of good feeling nor of good sense. At Rachel's message, the tears flowed from her eyes, but she replied:

“Shure and Kate Dunovan is not the girl to think herself the aiqual of such a lady as Rachel. What for should I be wanting to disgrace her wid my rough company, I would like to know? For among us, the poir girl always seemed like a suffering angel among so many divils. And my heart often pitied her lone condition, and I did what I could to help the poir thing: and she always so maik and gintle too, while I knew she was pining at her heart, tied to that divil's own son of a captain, rest his sowl. For he was not a bad sort at bottim, wid all his roughness. And it's myself that's downright glad to hear that she's now going home to her father, and to live as she should live in her own proper station, and it's nothing that Kate Dunovan wishes her but good luck and joy in the same. But I will go and bid her good-bye, anyhow.”

Saying this, Kate hastily went towards the hotel where Rachel was staying, and rushing up to her room, flung her arms around her neck, blessing her after her own rough fashion with all the sincerity and emotion of her warm, impulsive, Irish heart; while, with equal emotion on her part, Rachel promised her that she would never lose sight of her again, but that when she got finally settled at her father's house, she would do what she could to befriend her.

“I'll not send you money, Kate,” she remarked, “for it would do you but little good, you would only spend it in drink, or give it away to your companions; but I will do better for you than that, if you will let me.”

After this they bade each other farewell.

I then went to the landlord to discharge what debts might be owing to him for Mrs. Howden's board for the past month. This might have been a serious item—for hotel board was at that time an expensive matter in Hokitika—but for the hotel keeper's consideration for Mrs. Howden's evident poverty, and his interest in the lady-like gentleness of her manner, that induced him to supply her with such needlework as she was competent to undertake.

On understanding this, as also that the landlord—who appeared on the whole to be a good sort of fellow—disclaimed any intention of pressing Rachel for any arrears she might have been unable to meet, Lilly testified his high approbation page 298 of his conduct by at once “shouting for the whole house”. As the popular interpretation of this phrase meant every one who was inside the house at the time, guests, servants, and tipplers at the bar, besides the landlord and his wife—this order represented drinks at one shilling per glass for about fifty people.

On the following day we sailed for Dunedin.