Moondyne/Walking in the Shadow
There was nothing apparent in the possibilities of Alice Walmsley's new life to disturb the calm flow of her returning happiness. Even her wise and watchful friend, Sister Cecilia, smiled hopefully as she ventured to glance into the future.
But when the sky was clearest, the cloud came up on the horizon, though at first it was "no larger than a man's hand."
The visits of Mr. Wyville to Farmer Little's pleasant house were frequent and continuous. Mr. Little's colonial title was Farmer; but he was a gentleman of taste, and had a demesne and residence as extensive as an English duke. He was hospitable, as all rich Australians are; and he was proud to entertain so distinguished a man as Mr. Wyville.
Gravely and quietly, from his first visit, Mr. Wyville had devoted his attention to Alice Walmsley, and in such a manner that his purpose should not be misunderstood by Mr. Little or his wife. Indeed, it was quite plain to them long before it was dreamt of by Alice herself. From the first, she had been treated as a friend by these estimable people; but after a while she began to observe something in their manner that puzzled her. They were no less kind than formerly; but they grew a little strange, as if they had not quite understood her position at first.
Alice could discover no reason for any change; so she went on quietly from day to day. Mr. Wyville always drew her into conversation when he came there; and with him she found herself as invariably talking on subjects which no one else touched, and which she understood perfectly. It seemed as if he held a key to her mind, and instinctively knew the lines of reflection she had followed during her years of intense solitude. Alice herself would have forgotten these reflections had they not been brought to her recollection. Now, they recurred to her pleasantly, there are so few persons who have any stock of individual thought to draw upon.
She took a ready and deep interest in every plan of Mr. Wyville for the benefit of the convicts; and he, seeing this, made his purposes, even for many years ahead, known to her, and advised with her often on changes that might here and there be made.
One evening, just at twilight, when the ladies of the family were sitting, under the wide verandah, looking down on the darkened river, Mrs. Little pleasantly but slyly said something that made Alice's cheek flame. Alice raised her face with a pained and reproachful look.
"There now, Alice," said the lady, coming to her with a kind caress; "you musn't think it strange. We can't help seeing it know."
"What do you see?" asked Alice in bewilderment.
"Mr. Wyville's devotion, dear. We are all delighted to think of your marriage with so good and eminent a man."
Alice sank back in her chair, utterly nerveless. It was so dark they did not see her sudden paleness. She held the arms of her chair with each hand, and was silent for so long a time that Mrs. Little feared she had wounded her.
"Forgive me if I have pained you, Alice," she said kindly.
"Oh, no, no!" said Alice, with quivering lips; "I thank you with all my heart. I did not know—I did not think—"
She did not finish the sentence. Mrs. Little, seeing that her rallying had bad quite another effect from that intended, came to Alice's aid by a sudden exclamation about the beauty of the rising moon. This was successful; for ten minutes every eye was turned on the lovely crescent that rose, as bright as burnished silver, above the dark line of forest. In the midst of this admiration, Alice slipped away from the happy group, and spent the evening alone in her own room.
A few days later, she sat in the arbour of the convent garden, while Sister Cecilia watered her flower beds. Sitting so, her mind went reaching, back after one memorable incident in her life. And by some chance, the already-vibrating chord was touched at that moment by the little nun.
"Here is my first rose-bud, Alice," she said, coming into the arbour; "see how pretty those two young leaves are."
Alice's eyes were suffused with tears as she bent her head over the lovely bud. It appealed to her now, in the midst of her happiness, with unspeakable tenderness of recollection. She held it to her lips, almost prayerful, so moved that she could not speak.
"Only think," continued Sister Cecilia, "for nine months to come we shall never want for roses and buds. Ah me! I think we value them less for their plenty. It's a good thing to visit the prison now and again, isn't it, Alice? We love rosebuds all the better for remembering the weeds."
Alice raised her head, and looked her eloquent assent at Sister Cecilia.
"I love all the world better for the sweet rose-bud you gave me in prison," she said.
Sister Cecilia seemed puzzled for a moment, and then she smiled as if she recalled something.
"It was not I who gave you that rose-bud, Alice."
Alice's face became blank with disappointment; her hands sank on her knees.
"O, do not say that it was left there by accident or by careless hands. I cannot think of that. I have drawn so much comfort from the belief that your kind heart had read my unhappiness, and had discovered such a sweet means of sending comfort. Do not break down my fancies now. If you did not give it me, you prompted the act? You knew of it, Sister, surely you did?"
"No. I did not know of it until it was done. I should never have thought of it. It was thought of by one whose whole life seems devoted to others and to the Divine Master.
Do not fear that careless hands put the flower in your cell, Alice. It was placed there by Mr. Wyville."
"By Mr. Wyville!"
"Yes dear; it was Mr. Wyville's own plan to win you back to the beautiful world. I thought you knew it all the time."
"It was nearly five years ago; how could Mr. Wyville have known?" There was a new earnestness in Alice's face as she spoke.
"He had learned your history in Millbank from the governor and the books; and he became deeply interested. It was he who first said you were innocent, long before he proved it; and it was he who first asked me to visit you in your cell."
Alice did not speak; but she listened with a look almost of sadness, yet with close interest.
"He was your friend, Alice, when you had no other friend in the world," continued Sister Cecilia, not looking at Alice's face, or she would have hesitated; "for four years he watched your case, until at last he found her whose punishment you had borne so long."
"Where did he find her?" Alice asked, after a pause.
"He found her in the jail of your native village, Walton-le-Dale."
"Walton-le-Dale!" repeated Alice in surprise; "he took much trouble, then, to prove that I was innocent."
"Yes; and he did it all alone."
"Mr. Sheridan, perhaps, could have assisted him. He was born in Walton," said Alice in a very low voice.
"Yes, Mr. Sheridan told me so when he gave me the package for you at Portland; but he was here in Australia all the years Mr. Wyville was searching for poor wretched Harriet. But come now, Alice, we will leave that gloomy old time behind us in England. Let us always keep it there, as our Australian day looks backward and sees the English night."
Soon after, Alice started to return to her home. She lingered a long time by the placid river, the particulars she had beard recurring to her and much disturbing her peace. In the midst of her reflections she heard her name called, and looking towards the road, saw Mr. Wyville. She did move, and he approached.
"I have come to seek you," he said, "and to prepare you to meet an old friend."
She looked at him in surprise, without speaking.
"Mr. Sheridan has just returned from Adelaide," he said; "and you were the first person he asked for. I was not aware that you knew him."
There was no tone in his voice that betrayed disquiet or anxiety. He was even more cheerful than usual.
"I am glad you know Mr. Sheridan," he continued; "he is a fine fellow; and I fear he has been very unhappy."
"He has been very busy," she said, looking down at the river; "men have a great deal to distract them from unhappiness."
"See that jagged rock beneath the water," he said, pointing to a stone, the raised point of which broke the calm surface of the river. "Some poet likens a man's sorrow to such a stone. When the flood comes, the sweeping rush of enterprise or duty, it is buried; but in the calm season it will rise again to cut the surface, like an ancient pain."
Alice followed the simile with eye and mind.
"I did not think you read poetry," she said, with a smile, as she rose from her seat on the rocks.
"I have not read much," he said—and his face was flushed in the setting sun—"until very recently."
As they walked together towards the house, Alice returned to the subject first in her mind. With a gravely quiet voice she said—
"Mr. Sheridan's unhappiness is old, then?"
"Yes; it began years ago, when he was little more than a boy."
Alice was silent. She walked slowly beside Mr. Wyville for a dozen steps. Then she stopped, as if unable to proceed, and, laying her hand on a low branch beside the path, turned to him.
"Mr. Wyville," she said, "has Mr. Sheridan told you the cause of his unhappiness?"
"He has," he replied, astonished at the abrupt question; "it is most unfortunate and utterly hopeless. Time alone can heal the deep wound. He has told me that you knew him years ago: you probably know the sad story."
"I do not know it," she said, supporting herself by the branch.
"He loved a woman with a man's love while yet a boy," he said; "and he saw her lured from him by a villain, who blighted her life into hopeless ruin."
"Does he love her still?" asked Alice, her face turned to the darkened bush.
"He pities her; for she is wretched and—guilty."
At the word, Alice let go the branch, and stood straight in the road.
"Guilty?" she said; in a strange voice.
"Miss Walmsley, I am deeply grieved at having introduced this subject. But I thought you knew—Mr. Sheridan, I thought, intimated as much. The woman he loved is the unhappy one for whom you suffered. Her husband is still alive, and in this country. I brought him here, to give him, when she is released, a chance of atonement."
A light burst on Alice's mind as Mr. Wyville spoke, and she with difficulty kept from sinking. She reached for the low branch again, but she did not find it in the dark. To preserve her control she walked on towards the house, though her steps were hurried and irregular.
Mr. Wyville, thinking that her emotion was caused by painful recollections, accompanied her without a word. He was profoundly sorry that he had given her pain. Alice knew, as well as if he had spoken his thought, what was passing in his mind.
As one travelling in the dark will see a whole valley in one flash of lightning, Alice had seen the error under which Mr. Wyville laboured, and all its causes, in that one moment of illumination. Then, too, she read his heart, filled with deep feeling, and unconscious of the gulf before it; and the knowledge flooded her with sorrow.
At the door of the house, Mrs. Little met them with an air of bustle.
"Why, Alice!" she exclaimed, "two gentlemen coming to dinner, and one of them an old friend, and you loitering by the river like a school-girl. Mr. Wyville, I believe you kept Alice till she has barely time to put a ribbon in her hair."
Mr. Wyville, with some easy turn of the subject, covered Alice's disquiet, and then took his leave, going to Perth, to return later with Sheridan and Hamerton.
"Dear Mrs. Little," said Alice, when his horse's hoofs sounded on the road, "you must not ask me to dine with you to-night. Let me go to the children."
There was something in her voice and face that touched the kind matron, and she at once assented, only saying she was sorry for Alice's sake.
"But you will see Mr. Sheridan?" she said. "Mr. Little says he was very particular in asking for you."
"I will see him to-morrow," said Alice; "indeed, I am not able to see anyone to-night."
An hour later, when the guests arrived, Alice sat in her unlighted room, and heard their voices; and one voice, that she remembered as from yesterday, mentioned her name, and then remained silent.