At the hotel, Sheridan found a note from Lord Somers requesting him, if disengaged, to call upon him that afternoon. Half an hour later, he and the Colonial Secretary were riding together towards the West End.
"By the way, Mr. Sheridan," said Lord Somers, "there is a gentleman in London I want you to meet, who knows a great deal about the Australian colonies, and especially about the West. He is our chief adviser on the proposed reform of the Penal System."
Indeed said Sheridan, interested at once. This is the second time to-day, I surmise, that I have heard of him. Is his name Wyville?"
"Yes; do you know him?"
"No," answered Sheridan; "I have never heard of him. Sir Joshua Hobb does not like his reformatory ideas—which inclines me to think Mr. Wyville must be a superior man."
Lord Somers laughed. "Sir Joshua Hobb is, indeed, a strong counterblast," he said; "by nature, two such men are compelled to be antagonistic to each other."
"You admire Mr. Wyville, my Lord?" asked Sheridan.
"Thoroughly," answered Lord Somers. "He is a most remarkable man—a man of exalted principles and extraordinary power. His information is astonishing—and what he speaks about, he knows absolutely. I fancy he has lived a long time in the colonies, for he is enormously wealthy."
"Is he an old man?" asked Sheridan.
"No, I don't think he can be forty—certainly not more but a person of so much force, and with a manner so impressive, that really one forgets to think of his age. He is altogether a notable man—and I may say, in confidence, that even the Prime Minister has more than once consulted him with advantage on Colonial affairs."
"You interest me exceedingly," said Sheridan. "Such men are not common in Australia."
"We are beginning to think otherwise," laughed the Secretary. "And yet you Australians seem to learn everything without newspapers. I remember, when Mr. Wyville first appeared here, some years ago, he might have dropped from the moon, so oblivious was he of the doings of the European world."
"He must have lived in the bush," said Sheridan, smiling.
"Why, he had never heard of the Crimean War," said the Secretary; "and when I mentioned the Indian Mutiny to him, one day, he gravely stared, and asked "What mutiny?" Are you so utterly removed from civilization—from news, in your bush?"
"Well, Mr. Wyville must certainly have had the minimum of society," responded Will; "we usually get a report, however vague, of what your civilization is doing."
"Shall we call on Mr. Wyville?" asked Lord Somers; "he lives in Grosvenor Street."
"I shall be delighted to meet him," said Sheridan; and a few minutes afterwards they stopped before a large and handsome mansion.
Mr. Wyville was at home. A coloured servant showed the gentlemen into a rich reception-room, in which Sheridan's quick eye noted many Australian features of decoration.
The coloured servant seemed a negro, of the common African type to the superficial eye of Lord Somers. But there was an air of freedom about him, an uprightness in the setting of his head on the neck and shoulders, the effect being heightened by blue-black hair, that stood straight out like a handsome and very soft brush, which at once attracted the attention of Sheridan.
"Australian!" he thought, half aloud; "is it possible that a bushman may be trained in this way?"
He smiled at the absurdity of the thought, but was struck once more by the man's air as he turned to the door.
"Mir-ga-na nago mial Vasse!" said Sheridan, in a low voice, —("Mir-ga-na," a common name among bushmen, "you have known," or "you belong to the Vasse.")
The black man turned as if a shot had struck him, and stared at the gentlemen, not knowing which had spoken.
"Nago mial wan-gur Vasse?" repeated Mr. Sheridan.
"Tdal-Jung nago Vasse! Guab-ha-leetch!" answered the man, the look of amazement slowly changing to one of deep pleasure and curiosity. " My mouth knows the Vasse! That is good!"
"By Jove!" said a pleasant voice from a window recess in the room; "please ask what was the prince's name in his own country."
There came from the recess a handsome, well-set man, who greeted Lord Somers in a familiar manner.
"Oh, my dear Hamerton," said the Secretary, "I have great pleasure in making you acquainted with another Australian gentleman, whom you will find as interesting as Mr. Wyville."
The gentleman bowed. Sheridan liked him from the first look. An aristocrat, stamped; with a broad, open forehead, clear, honest eyes, a firm mouth and jaw, and a manner above trifles, and careless of form.
"Mr. Hamerton is a priest of the new order," said Lord Somers to Sheridan in mock-earnest; "he is a journalist and book maker—hungry for novelty as an epicure."
The black man had remained in the room, statuesque, his eyes fixed on Sheridan's face.
"Mr. Sheridan, will you please ask his royal name?" said Hamerton.
"Wan-gon-di?" said Sheridan to the man. "Ngarra-jil," he answered.
Mr. Sheridan motioned him to go.
"He is Ngarra-jil, a native of the Vasse country," said Sheridan.
"Is this really a language, with even an approach to regular formation, or the local gibberish of incoherent tribes?" asked Lord Somers.
"I have not studied its form," answered Mr. Sheridan, "but it certainly is not a mere local dialect. The same things have the same names all over the continent, with only a slight difference between the Swan River and Sydney—two thousand miles apart."
"How did you guess this man's particular nativity?" asked Hamerton.
"I have lived at the Vasse many years," said Sheridan, "and have grown familiar with the people. I believe the Vasse natives are the most superior tribe in Australia."
"You are right, sir," said a deep voice behind them; "the Vasse people are the parent stock of Australia."
"Mr. Wyville!" said both Lord Somers and Hamerton, with sudden gravity and respect.
Sheridan turned, and met the eyes of him who had spoken—deep, searching eyes, that held him strongly for a moment, then passed quietly to another direction.
Never, among all the men he had known, had Sheridan seen such a man as this. The head, with all its features, the eye, the voice, the whole body, were cast in one mould of superb massiveness and beauty. There was no point of difference or weakness. Among a million, this man would not have merely claimed superiority, but would have unconsciously walked through the opening crowd to the front place, and have taken it without a word. Before him now stood three men least likely of any in London to be easily impressed—a young and brilliant statesman, a cynical and able novelist, and a bold and independent worker; and each of these felt the same strange presence of a power and a principle to be respected.
Nature, circumstances, and cultivation bad evidently united to create in this man a majestic individuality. He did not pose or pretend, but spoke straight the thing he meant to say; yet every movement and word suggested a reserve of strength that had almost a mysterious calmness and beauty.
He was dressed in such a way that one would say he never could be dressed otherwise. Dress was forgotten in the man. But he wore a short walking or shooting coat, of strong dark cloth. The strength and roughness of the cloth were seen, rather than the style, for it seemed appropriate that so strangely powerful a figure should be strongly clad.
His face was bronzed to the darkness of a Greek's. His voice, as he spoke on entering the room, came easily from his lips, yet with a deep resonance that was pleasant to hear, suggesting a possible tenderness or terror that would shake the soul. It was a voice in absolutely perfect accord with the striking face and physique.
"Mr. Sheridan," he said, holding out his hand, which the other took with a feeling of rare pleasure, "we should not need a formal introduction. We are both from a far country, where formality is unknown; and I have been quite intimate with your plans and progress there for several years."
Sheridan could hardly stammer a reply, he was so profoundly astonished. He could only recall the wild nature of West Australian life, and wonder how it could have contained or developed this important man.
"You have studied with some effect," continued Mr. Wyville with a smile, "to have learned the language and discovered the superiority of the Vasse tribe."
"My life for nine years has been passed among them," answered Sheridan; "but the possibility of training them to European manners I should not have thought possible."
"Oh, civilization is only skin deep," said Mr. Wyville, pleasantly. "The gamut of social law is not very extensive; and a little skill, practised with kindness and attention, will soon enable one to run over all the keys."
"You really think it possible, Mr. Wyville," asked Lord Somers, "to transform the average savage into an obedient footman?"
"Yes, my lord, I know it is possible—and I have seen stranger things accomplished with little difficulty. Refinement and gracious intercourse, even according to civilized rule, are quite in keeping with the natural character. We assume that to be savage which is contrary to our habit; but this is no proof of inferiority. Degraded civilization is brutal, indeed; but the natural or savage life is not."
"Then," said Mr. Hamerton, "why can't we put all our savages in Australia through your civilizing process, and do away with savagery at one stroke?"
"Why not begin at home?" quietly asked Mr. Wyville.
"Ah, just so; I hadn't thought of that!" and Hamerton lapsed into listening, with a shrug.
"Have you actually civilized your savage servant?" asked Lord Somers.
"I don't think I quite know your meaning, my lord," answered Mr. Wyville. "All my people are Australians taken from the bush. I am well served, and honestly; and I have no gossips in my household, for no one in Europe can speak to my people—except Mr. Sheridan here," he added, smiling.
"But how have you changed the nature of the bushmen?" asked Lord Somers, very much interested.
"I haven't changed it; my men are bushmen still. I have attempted no change whatever—and that is the secret of my success. It is true, I have asked Ngarra-jil and the others to wrap some warm cloth round their bodies while we live in this cold climate; to open the door when the bell rings; and to drive slowly and carefully in the streets. This was learned easily in a week or two. The bushmen are natural horsemen, trained to riding through close woods. We have no collisions with other carriages, I assure you. Then, again, my men, being savages, never lie, and never steal."
"But is not this actual civilization?" asked Lord Somers.
"I really don't know," said Mr. Wyville.
"Ha, ha!" chuckled Hamerton. "I really think it is!"
"Yes, you may laugh, Hamerton; but this is very interesting," said Lord Somers. "Have your men retained any of their savage ways, Mr. Wyville?"
"I think they have kept all their natural customs, which people in England call savage ways. They eat and sleep in their own fashion—I do not see any reason for imposing my way upon them, if they prefer theirs. Mine is in itself no better, except as it pleases me. They even keep their familiar implements, if they please."
"What, for instance?" asked Lord Somers.
Mr. Wyville touched a bell. Ngarra-jil appeared at the door.
"Yanga dan-na womerah," said Mr. Wyville.
The Australian disappeared, and in a few moments returned to the door, holding three or four long and slender spears in one hand, and the womerah or throwing stick in the other.
Lord Somerton and Mr. Hamerton examined the weapons with great interest, vainly trying to draw a word from the observant Australian; while Mr. Wyville took Mr. Sheridan aside, and conversed with him for several minutes.
On taking their leave, Mr. Wyville gave Sheridan a cordial invitation to come and see him soon, as he had much to say to him.
"You will find me at home almost always," he said.
"And if Mr. Wyville is absent, you will certainly find Mr. Hamerton," said Lord Somers, jestingly.
Before they parted, Lord Somers informed Mr. Sheridan that Hamerton was a wealthy gentleman, who had refused to adopt his hereditary title, and who had also decided to earn his own livelihood, making a yearly division of the profits of his estate among his farmers and tenants. This had earned him quite another kind of title amongst the upper classes; but he had gone on working in his own way, and had already won for himself an honourable name as an author.
"Hamerton is a Republican now," said Lord Somers, after a pause; "he was a Socialist in the University."
Mr. Sheridan remarked that he seemed quite to agree with Mr. Wyville's opinions.
"Yes," the Secretary said, "he has been much attracted to this remarkable man—more so than to any one he has ever known." Lord Somers also mentioned that the Government was about to introduce a sweeping reform of the entire penal system, at home and abroad, and that the assistance of Mr. Wyville bad been deemed of the utmost importance.
"He has already reformed our system at the Andaman Islands, the penal colony for India," said the Secretary; "but the Australian colonies offer a profound problem. If possible, we are bound, he says, to use the convicts not merely as slaves, preparing the way for civilized life, but to transform them gradually into a healthy basis of population."
"It certainly is a wide field, and a grand undertaking," responded Sheridan, "and it is terribly needed. But Mr. Wyville is an uncommon mind. I trust his views will be largely heeded by the Government."
"He has the matter in his own hands," said the Secretary, confidentially and earnestly; "the Prime Minister has asked him to draft the entire bill."