Moondyne/The Valley of the Vasse
There was a large and pleasant party on the deck of Mr. Wyville's steamer as she slowly swung from her moorings and headed seaward through the islands of Fremantle harbour. It was evidently more than a coast excursion, for the vessel had been weeks in preparation, and the passengers had made arrangements for a long absence.
Beneath the poop awning, waving, their handkerchiefs to friends on shore, stood Mrs. Little and several other ladies. Standing with them, but waving no adieu, was Alice Walmsley; and, quietly sitting near her, enjoying the excitement and pleasure of the others, was Sister Cecilia.
There were many gentlemen on board, too, including the stiff old Governor of the colony, and several of his staff. Mr. Wyville stood with the Governor, pointing out, as they passed, something of interest on the native prison-isle of Rottenest; Mr. Hamerton lounged on the forecastle, smoking and with him the artillery officer of Fremantle; while Mr. Sheridan leant over the rail, watching the sea, but often raising his head and looking sternwards, seeking the eyes that invariably turned, as if by instinct, to meet his glance.
It was a party of pleasure and inspection, going to the Vasse, to visit the new settlement purchased from Mr. Wyville by Mr. Sheridan.
They proposed to steam slowly along the coast, and reach their destination in two days.
The excursion was a relief to Mr. Wyville, after the severe strain he had borne for months. From the day of the threatened mutiny, which he had quelled by the report, the new law had become an assured success, and the congratulations and thanks of the whole colony had poured in on the Comptroller-General.
It appeared to those who knew him best, that, during the period of trial, he had withdrawn more and more from social life, and had increased his silence and reserve. This change was ascribed to the anxiety he felt for the reform of the penal law. In his conversation, too, even Hamerton admitted that he had become almost irritable on personal or local topics, and was only willing to converse on abstract or speculative ideas.
‘The individual withers, and the world is more and more, quoted Hamerton one day, as the subject of Mr. Wyville's reserve was quietly discussed on the poop. "I don't know what he will do for a cause, now that his penal law has succeeded."
"He will turn his attention to politics, I think," said one of the gentlemen of the staff; "every patriotic man has a field there."
There was a pause, as if all were considering the proposition. At length Hamerton spoke.
"Can you call Mr. Wyville a patriot?"
"Every Englishman is a patriot," answered the first speaker; "of course he is one."
Again there was a lapse; and again Hamerton was the first to speak.
"I don't like the word—applied to him. I don't think it fits, somehow."
"Surely, it is a noble word, only to be given to a noble character," said one of the ladies.
"Well," drawled Hamerton, assenting, but still dissatisfied.
Mr. Wyville has the two highest characteristics of an Englishman," said the old Governor, sententiously.
"Which are?" queried Hamerton.
"Patriotism, and love of Law."
There was an expression of approval from almost every one but Hamerton, who still grumbled. The Governor was highly pleased with himself for his prompt reply.
"Are these not the noblest principles for an Englishman, or any man?" he asked exultingly.
"Let us leave it to Mr. Wyville himself," said Hamerton; "here he comes."
"We have been discussing public virtues," said the Governor to Mr. Wyville, who now joined the group; "and we appeal to you for a decision. Are not Patriotism and love of Law two great English virtues?"
"English virtues—yes, I think so;" and Mr. Wyville smiled as he gave the answer.
"But are they virtues in the abstract?" asked Hamerton.
"No; I think not—I am sure they are not."
There was a movement of surprise in the company. The answer, given in a grave voice, was utterly unexpected. The old Governor coughed once or twice, as if preparing to make a reply; but he did not.
Patriotism not a virtue at length exclaimed one of the ladies. "Pray, Mr. Wyville, what is it, then?"
Mr. Wyville paused a moment, then told a story.
"There were ten families living on a beautiful island, and owning the whole of it. They might have lived together in fraternal peace and love; but each family preferred to keep to themselves, neither feeling pride nor pleasure in the good of their neighbours, nor caring about the general welfare of the whole number. They watched their own interests with greedy care; and when they were strong enough they robbed their fellows, and boasted of the deed. Every person of each family was proud of its doings, though many of these were disgraceful. The spirit which filled these people was, I think, patriotism—on a small scale."
"Good!" said Hamerton, looking, at the Governor; "I thought that word didn't fit, somehow."
"Well, if patriotism is to be condemned, shall we not still reverence Law?" asked someone. "Have you another allegory, Mr. Wyville?"
Again he thought a moment, before his reply came.
"There was a lake, from which two streams flowed to the sea. One river wound itself around the feet of the hills, taking a long course, but watering the fields as it ran, and smiling back at the sun. Its flood was filled with darting fish, and its banks fringed with rich grass and bright flowers. The other stream ran into a great earthen pipe, and rolled along in the dark. It reached the sea first, but it had no fish in its water, except blind ones, and no flowers on its banks. This stream had run so long in the tunnel without its own will that it preferred this way to the winding course of its natural bed; and at last it boasted of its reverence for the earthen pipe that held it together and guided its blind way."
"The earthen pipe is Law, I suppose," said Mr. Little, "that men come in time to love."
Mr. Wyville, who had smiled at the ladies all through his allegory, did not answer.
"But do you apply the allegory to all law?" asked a gentleman of the staff
"To all law not founded on God's abstract justice, which provides for man's right to the planet. Sooner or later, human laws, from the least act to the greatest, shall be brought into harmony with this."
"Will you give us substitutes for those poor virtues that you have pushed out? What shall we have instead?"
"Mankind and Liberty—instead of Patriotism and Law. Surely, the exchange is generously in our favour."
Then followed a general discussion, in which everyone had a hasty word. Mr. Wyville said no more; but drew off the Governor and Hamerton to his cabin to settle some geographical inaccuracy in a chart of the coast.
So the hours passed on the steamer, as she slowly rounded headlands and cut across bays. The air was laden with the breath of the interminable forest. On shore, when the great fires swept over miles of sandalwood and jamwood bush, the heavy perfume from the burning timber lingered on the calm air, and extended fax over land and sea.
On the afternoon of the second day, they saw before them the mountains of the Vasse, running sheer down to the sea, in two parallel ridges about six miles apart.
The land between these high ridges was cut off, some four or five miles back, by a line, of mountain which joined the ridges, thus forming the valley which Mr. Sheridan had bought from Mr. Wyville.
As the steamer drew close to the land, the valley assumed the perfect shape of a horse-shoe. From the sea, at a distance, it seemed a retreat of delicious coolness and verdure. The mountains were wooded high up their sides, and the tops were so steep they seemed to overhang the valley. Two broad and bright shallow streams, which tumbled from the hills at the head of the valley, wound through the rich plain, and calmly merged in the ocean.
Exclamations of wonder and delight were on every lip as the surpassing beauties of the scene came one after another into view.
The end of the ridge on the southern side ran far into the sea; and here, under Mr. Wyville's directions, years before, a strong mahogany pier had been erected, which made a safe landing-place for even great ships. A railed platform ran round the foot of the hills, and brought the passengers to a road shaded by majestic trees that swept towards the farther end of the valley.
Awaiting their arrival were easy, open carriages, evidently of European build, in which the astonished party seated themselves. The drivers were some black, some white, but they were all at home in their places.
The scene was like a field from fairy-land. No eye accustomed only to northern vegetation and climate, can conceive unaided the glory of a well-watered Australian vale. The carriages rolled under trees of splendid fern from fifteen to twenty feet in height; the earth was variegated with rich colour in flower and herbage; spreading palms of every variety filled the eye with beauty of form; the green and crimson and yellow parrots and paroquets rose in flocks as the carriages passed; and, high over all the beauteous life of the underwood, rose the grand mahogany and tuad and gum trees of the forest.
They passed cottages bowered in flowers, and ringed by tall hedgerows composed wholly of gorgeous geraniums. The strangers who looked on these changing revelations of loveliness sat silent, and almost tearful. Even those long accustomed to Australian scenery were amazed at the beauty of the valley.
Mr. Wyville and Mr. Sheridan had ridden rapidly on before the others, and stood uncovered and host-like on the verandah of the house where the drive ended.
Alice Walmsley sat in the foremost carriage, and was the first to alight, with Sheridan's hand holding hers. Their eyes met as she stepped to his side. His lips formed one short word, of which only her eye and ear were conscious—
Exclamations of wonder came from all the party at the peerless beauty of their surroundings. The house was wholly built of bright red mahogany beams, perfectly fitted, with rich wood-carving of sandalwood and jamwood on angle, cornice, and capital. It was very low, only one story high for the most part, though there were a number of sleeping rooms raised to a second story. From the verandah, looking seaward, every part of the wooded valley was visible, and the winding silver of the rivers glanced deliciously through the trees. Beyond, lay the level blue water of the Indian Ocean, stretching away to the cream-coloured horizon.
The house within doors was a wonder of richness, taste, and comfort. Everything was of wood, highly finished with polish and carving, and the colours were combined of various woods. Soft rugs from India and Persia lay on halls and rooms. Books, pictures, statuary, rare bric-a-brac, everything that vast wealth and cultivated taste could command or desire, was to be found in this splendid residence.
Almost in silence, the strangers passed through the countless rooms, each differing from the others, and each complete. Mr. Wyville led the larger party of guests through the place. He had not before seen it himself; but he was wholly familiar with the plans, which, indeed, were largely his own.
"But it will have an owner now," he said, "who will better enjoy its restfulness, and take closer interest in its people."
"But you should rest, too, Mr. Wyville," said Mrs. Little; "the colony is now settled with your excellent law."
"There is much to be done yet," he said, shaking his head, with the old grave smile. "I have not even time to wait one day."
There was a general look of astonishment.
"Why, Mr. Wyville, surely you will not leave this lovely place—"
"I must leave to-night," he said; "I am very sorry, but it is imperative."
Then, not waiting for further comment, he took them out to the stables and village-like out-houses. There was no regular garden; the valley itself was garden and farm and forest in one.
Alice Walmsley had lingered behind the others, in a quiet and dim little room, looking away out to sea. Contentment filled her soul like low music. She wished to be alone. She had sat only a few minutes when she heard a step beside her. She did not look up; she knew whose hand was round her cheek, and standing over her. They did not say a word; but remained still for a long, long time, Then he bent over her, turning her face to his. She raised her arms, and he took her to his breast and lips in the fullness of happiness and love.
When they left the dim little room, which was ever after to be the dearest to them in their rich home, they saw the sombre robes of Sister Cecilia as she sat alone on the verandah.
"Where shall the school be, Sister?" asked Sheridan; "have you selected your site?"
"She shall build it on the choicest spot that can be found," said Alice, seating herself beside Sister Cecilia.
"Dictation already!" laughed Sheridan, at which Alice blushed, and sent him away.
Towards evening there stood on the verandah, having quietly withdrawn from the guests, Mr. Wyville, Sheridan, and Hamerton. Mr. Wyville meant quietly to leave, without disturbing the party.
"I am sorry beyond expression," said Sheridan, holding his hand; "your presence was our chief pleasure. Can you not even stay with us to-night?"
"It is impossible!" answered Mr. Wyville, with a look of affectionate response; "the work yet before me will not bear delay. Good-bye. God bless you—and yours!"
He walked rapidly away, his horse having been led by Ben Lodge before him to the entrance.
"Good-bye, Sheridan," said Hamerton, suddenly seizing his friend's hand, "I'm going, too."
"Stop! Don't try to prevent me. I can't let him go alone. Go in to your people, and say nothing till to-morrow. Goodbye, my dear fellow."
That night the steamer returned to Fremantle, having on board Mr. Wyville and Hamerton.