Moondyne/Alice Walmsley's New Home
The little town of Fremantle, with its imposing centre, the great stone prison, is built on the shore, within the angle formed by the broad Swan River as it flows calmly into the calm sea. At its mouth, the Swan is about two miles wide. The water is shallow, and as clear as crystal, showing, from the high banks, the brown stones and the patches of white sand on the bottom. The only ripple ever seen on its face, except in the rainy season, is the graceful curve that follows the stately motion of the black swans, which have made the beautiful river their home, and have given it its name.
One mile above the mouth of the river, where the gloomy cliff hangs over the stream, are situated the terrible stone-quarries of Fremantle, where the chain-gang works. Many a time, from the edge of the overhanging cliff, a dark mass had been seen to plunge into the river, which is very deep at this point. After this, there was one link missing in the chains at night, and there was little stir made and few questions asked. Not one swimmer in a thousand could cross a mile of water with fifty pounds of iron chained to his ankles.
For ten miles above Fremantle, the Swan winds in and out among the low hills and the wooded valleys. Its course is like a dream of peace. There is never a stone in its bed great enough to break the surface into a whirl or ripple. Its water turns no busy wheels. Along its banks are seen no thriving homesteads. Here and there, in the shallows, a black man, with upraised spear, stands still as an ebony statue, while his wives and children sit upon the shaded rocks on the shore, and silently watch his skilful fishing. Presently, without a quiver of warning, the statue moves its arm, the long spear is driven under water like a flash, and is raised to bear ashore its prize of a wide-backed plaice. Along the wooded banks, the kangaroo nibbles the fresh grass, and the bright-skinned carpet snake dives into the pleasant water, that has become almost his second home.
On a lovely bend of the river, ten miles from its mouth, stands the little city of Perth, the capital of the penal colony, and the residence of the Governor. It is a petty town to-day, of four or five thousand people; it was much smaller at the date of our story. The main building, as in all West Australia towns, is the prison; the second is the official residence, a very spacious and sightly mansion.
Just outside the town, on a slope of exquisite lawn, running great stone prison, running down to the river, stood a long, low building, within a high enclosure. This was the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy, where the children of the colony were educated.
In the porch of the convent one evening, some two weeks after the arrival of the Houguemont, sat Alice Walmsley, Sister Cecilia, and two growing girls from the convent school.
"Yes," said Alice, in answer to some remark of the nun, "this is, indeed, a scene of utter rest. But," she added, sadly, "it is not so for most of those who see what we see. There is no rest for—"
"The wicked, Alice," said one of the schoolgirls, the daughter of a free settler. "Neither should there be. Why do you always pity the convicts so? One would think you ought to hate them."
The other girl stood beside Alice's chair, touching her soft hair with her hand in a caressing manner.
"Alice couldn't hate even the convicts," she said, bending to smile in Alice's face.
It was evident that the loving nature was fully alive, sending out already its tendrils to draw towards it everything within its reach. Sister Cecilia smiled kindly as she heard the girls, and saw their expressions of love for Alice. She, however, changed the subject.
"Mr. Wyville's yacht, with Mr. Hamerton and Mr.
Sheridan, will return from Adelaide next week," she said to Alice. "Here is the report in the Fremantle Herald."
Alice turned her head as if interested in the news. Sister Cecilia continued reading.
"And then they will start for Mr. Wyville's home in the Vasse."
Alice silently sank back in her chair. Her eyes slowly withdrew from the newspaper in her friend's hand, and settled far away on the other side of the Swan, in a waking dream and a dream that was not content. A few moments later she rose, and said she would walk home early that evening.
"You like your new home and friends?" said Sister Cecilia, not trying to detain her, though the girls did. "I thought it would be pleasanter and more natural to you than our monotonous convent life."
"They are very kind," said Alice; "and I love to work in the dairy and among the children. It reminds me of my own dear old home in England."
She said the words without pain, though her eyes filled with tears.
"My good Alice!" said Sister Cecilia, taking her face between her hands in the old way; I am so happy to hear you say that. Come, girls, let us walk to Mr. Little's farm with Alice."
With characteristic wisdom and kindness, Sister Cecilia had obtained for Alice, shortly after their arrival, a home in a rich settler's family. Her mind, so recently freed from the enforced vacancy, became instantly filled with new interests, and her life at once took root in the new country.
When she had been settled so for about a fortnight, and was becoming accustomed to the new routine, she received a letter from Will Sheridan. She knew it was from him; but she did not open it among the children. When her duties for the day were done, she walked down towards the convent, which was only half a mile away; but when she came to the tall rocks beside the river, where she was utterly alone, she opened and read her letter.
It was a simple and direct note, saying "Good-bye for a time," that he was going to Adelaide to leave the crew of the convict ship there; but he should call on her, "for the old time's sake," when he returned.
Alice read the letter many times, and between each reading her eyes rested on the placid river. Once before, she had been haunted with the last words of his letter, "Yours faithfully;" and now she repeated and repeated the one sentence that was not prosaic—"I will come for the old time's sake."
A few weeks later she received a letter from him, written in Adelaide, telling her of the voyage, and stating the time of their probable return to Fremantle. Alice could not help the recurring thought that he was thinking of her.
One day, at dinner, Mr. Little spoke to her about the voyage.
"You brought us back a man we wanted in this colony, Miss Walmsley," he said; "the man who has made the country worth living in."
"Mr. Wyville—yes," said Alice confidently; "he could ill be spared from any country."
"No, I don't mean Wyville; I mean Mr. Sheridan—Agent Sheridan, we call him,"
"Yes, sir," said Alice, her eyes lowered to the table.
"He's the cleverest man that ever came to this colony," said the well-meaning farmer; "I hope he'll get married and settle down here for life."
"O, Sam, who could he marry in the West? There is no one here," said the farmer's wife.
"Nonsense," said Mr. Little; "there's the Governor's daughter for one, and there are plenty more. And don't you know, the Governor is going to give Mr. Sheridan a grand dinner, in the name of the colony, when he comes back from Adelaide?"
Throughout the dinner Alice was particularly attentive to the children, and did not eat much herself.
"Mr. Wyville is coming here to-morrow," said Mr. Little, presently. "He wants to buy that meadow below the convent, to put up another school. He's a good man that, too, Miss Walmsley; but the other man knows the needs of this colony, and has taught them to us."
"Mr. Wyville is a man whose whole life seems given to benefit others," said Alice, quite heartily; and she joined the conversation in his praise, telling many incidents of his care for the prisoners on the journey.
But, though Farmer Little again and again returned to the praise of Sheridan, who was his man of men, Alice sat silent at these times, and earnestly attended to the wants of the children.