The New Arcadia/Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI.

THE DYING SQUATTER'S DREAM.

You tell me you have improved the land, but what have you done with the labourers?"—Sismondi.

You have nothing else to do
But make others work for you;
And you never need to know
How the workers' children grow;
You need only shut your eyes
And be selfish, cold, and wise."—Holyoake.

Between the Dowlings on their little reserve, and the proprietor of the estates extending in all directions around them, a deadly feud existed. The latter owned more than he could ride round in a day, yet he coveted the little farm the decayed gentleman had set by the roadside. The atmosphere of content that surrounded it contrasted with his own feelings of unrest and dissatisfaction. Leicester impounded the poor man's cattle if they strayed, was suspected of setting his dogs on the daughter's "one ewe lamb" when it wandered, summoned the "genteel Cockey," as he termed him, to the Court at Gumford on the charge of "creating a nuisance," when the experimenting lawyer-farmer excavated a silo near the great man's fence. Leicester took his seat on the bench on that occasion and adjudicated on the case; the township Boniface and storekeeper deeming it politic to consent to the order for removal of the nuisance. Poor Bowling's cows yielded no milk that winter.

Leicester, with all his wealth, was the poorest man in all the country-side. The few hands he engaged hated him, and, when they could, neglected his interests. Neighbours' dogs were ever scattering his sheep, selectors persisted in travelling over his huge paddocks, though he had fenced the road across with six-rail wall of wood. Bulls would break his fences, his paddocks be burnt oftener than any one's else, and none have the grace to come to his assistance.

At nightfall the lonely man would return to the huge mansion he had built, no one knew for what purpose, The great drawing-room was filled with furniture evidently purchased to one large order, the library stocked with books procured from England by the ton. In the chiffonier of the long dining-room was his solace. Again and again through the evening the recluse rose from his pile of "weeklies" to refresh his spirit with whisky. He would doze, then rise and pace the dismal corridors and empty rooms like one possessed.

"Is life worth the living?" he would muse as he toyed with the revolver that ever reposed in the chiffonier drawer. "Had he not given employment to hundreds?" He would proceed to reckon up the scores of miles of fencing, and thousands of yards of excavation for tanks, the building and clearing he had effected—the thousands of pounds' worth of wool and stock, of which the Messrs. Goldbags and Co. had had the selling for him. Had he not been a benefactor to his race? And lo! the world cared not a straw for him, despised him, would not heed if he died, alone, to-morrow.

Alas for the ingratitude of man!

Now, he was actually compelled by the shire to open some of his closed roads! The price of wool had fallen—more than a penny—which involved a loss to him of thousands of pounds a year I He must certainly stop all his donations of a guinea a year to churches and hospitals! Added to all his troubles, the married couple, who had supplied his personal wants for ten years past, could tolerate his vagaries no longer, and were leaving him.

Alone in the world the millionaire stood in his ghostly mansion, under his far-reaching hills and valleys of richest pasture—deserted, despised! He would stand it no longer! One evening when the whisky was firing his brain, he had roved from room to room! .... There was a sudden explosion that no one heard! A heavy fall! Then a silence as of death reigned in the great house.

"I can't find the master nowheres, Jim," said the housekeeper, after taking in the last "hot toddy" before retiring. "I'm afeared for him. He looked so wild again this evening. Come and have a look; hold the dip."

In the vast, dim drawing-room the faithful couple almost stumbled over the form of the unfortunate millionaire. The woman screamed and started back with horror. Her husband knelt and sought the pulse of the unhappy man.

"Not dead," he reported; "quick, get some water and some whisky."

Weeping, chattering like two children, the simple pair bathed the wound above the temple from which blood was oozing, poured the whisky that had caused the deed down the throat of the dying man. He was heavy; they hesitated to try to carry him.

"Jane, old girl, run and call some one," said the man hoarsely.

"There's no one to fetch."

"Go and ask Mr. Dowling to run across. He'll know what to do."

"He won't come, Jim; he can't. He's never set foot in the house all these years, and the poor master did hate him so."

The woman was supporting the dying man's head and looking with tenderness into the face that had never smiled on her once.

Why is it that the dog loves most the hand that commands and never caresses; that the devotion of woman is most signally displayed for the husband who acts the brute; that honest Jim and his wife felt as if all the world was darkening for them as they bent, in the great dim room, over the man who had never given them ought but wages, food, and curses?

On their first and last visit in Mr. Leicester's time to the great White House, Mrs. Dowling insisted upon accompanying her husband. The moon bathed the avenue and orange grove, now neglected, with a ghostly light. The unused lounges set around the spacious high verandah seemed as seats for the dead. The great front-door creaked dolefully as, for the first time for many a month, Jane threw it open. In the wide hall were hung brass breastplates inscribed with the names of "Kings" "Billy" and "Bob," and other chieftains of a vanished race, whose spears, "waddys," and "nullahs" were disposed around a Walhalla from which all the heroes and the glory had departed!

As Jane, with trembling hand, flung open the drawingroom door a weird scene presented itself. The dim light of the rude "dip" which Jim had placed on the grand piano, that never sounded, threw a gruesome light on the long mirrors and curtains, high cornices and stencilled walls, the oleographs with gilt frames of immense proportions—a dim light before an unused shrine! Beside it a grizzled man lay dying, and another, with soiled Crimean shirt and moleskin trousers, knelt before the crimson settee in the midst of the velvet-pile carpet.

"Poverty in the midst of riches," whispered Dowling to his wife.

"Yes, that boundary rider is richer than he, poor man!"

"And always has been," the husband replied.

The worthy couples placed the wounded man on a mattress and bore him to his bedroom. All night long the Dowlings sat and watched, while Jane stood at the foot of the bed gazing wistfully at the troubled sleeper, or wandered about the empty rooms of the lonely house, bewailing her impending loss. Her husband had ridden to Gumford for the Doctor.

Towards morning the sick man's breathing became more regular. He opened his eyes and looked long at the two watchers. He averted his gaze, then scanned the anxious faces as the sick are wont to do. The sufferer tried to extend his hand towards the watchers.

"You are better now," said Dowling, taking the hot, moist hand in both of his, while his wife smoothed the pillow and tenderly moistened with a damp cloth the fevered brow.

"Why do you come?" the sick man with difficulty whispered. "Why not, like everybody else, leave me to my fate?"

Quietly they assured him that the world was much what people made it. That sometimes God left men alone that they might discover how empty it was without the love of their kind and of Him.

"And you forgive me?" he said, stretching out his hand again, and looking into the face of the man he had wronged.

"As God forgives. I have angered you unintentionally, and perhaps given you cause for resentment."

"No, you have not," was the reply. "You shall not say that. Is there a Bible about?" he asked, after a pause. "You will find one at the top of the book-case. I used it for the men to take their oaths and declarations upon."

Mrs. Dowling brought the volume.

"Now read to me, slowly, Nathan's parable to King David. You'll find it, you know, about the end of the second book of Samuel. I knew the old Book once," the penitent murmured, half to himself; "my mother taught it me." A tear, that he vainly tried to brush away, rolled down the old man's face. "It was the lust for land and gold," he continued, "that ruined me. I thought the whole country-side was mine, and not the Lord's and His people's. Of what good has it been to me?—A ! you cannot know the remorse I have experienced of late," he continued; "the terrible conflict that has raged in my breast—between love and hatred, strength and weakness. I have prayed and cursed with the same breath. I could not unbend. I could not change in my demeanour. I could not confess. Yet I knew that I was wrong. In a mad moment I sought to end all. I am dying, but I have not ended all! Now read."

"Let me select something else," Dowling persisted.

"No, I will not. I am going to hear that—from you."

As the memorable parable sounded again in the ears of the sinking man, Mrs. Dowling bowed her head and wept, but the dying squatter listened with set countenance as though hearing his doom.

"Read it all," he insisted, as Dowling hesitated. "I know that last verse. Do not shirk it. 'Give it tongue,' as we used to say to the old collie dog. Poor old Laddie! I wonder will he miss me! Round up the tale, 'Thou art the man!' God gave me miles, or I took it, and I coveted your few feet of land."

"Stay!" interjected the lady—"there is yet another verse you should hear: 'And David said, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said, The Lord hath put away thy sin.'"

Thereupon the woman's gentle voice, with tender tact, poured into the closing ear oil of comfort for the broken heart.

"I hate death-bed repentances," the sufferer declared, with a spark of the vehemence that had marked him; "but I do repent—I do. ... I can't do more. I must leave the rest. Stay, quick, yes—I can. I can exercise restitution. Fetch me pen and paper. I will bestow all my goods as best I can. I had resolved to leave all for the State to divide. Another shall perhaps do what I failed to attempt. A Solomon shall apply the hoard of a sorry David to a noble end."

Mr. Dowling was able, in a few words, to pen the preamble to the Will.

"'To my faithful servants, whom I spurned in life'—put that in word for word—'I bequeath the manager's house, garden, and the three paddocks adjoining. To the objects of my mad and bitter animosity, Richard Dowling and his wife Mary'—put down those very words, mind. No trimming the fleece! This is my dying will and confession, remember—'I bequeath the one thousand acres adjoining their homestead——'"

"We cannot accept it," interposed Mrs. Dowling, her native sense of independence and pride gaining the ascendant over feelings of pity and sympathy.

"Will you not let me offer restitution, madam?" said the dying man, with a spice of his old imperiousness. "May I not unburden my soul? I will do to the last what I will with my own!" Then, after a painful pause, more softly, "Let me leave it to your daughter. It is not much, but you'll think less harshly of me when, in your industrious. fashion, you turn up that black soil, Dowling." The sick man tried to smile. "You have slogged away like a brick. I admire your pluck! Give me your hand again. It is harder than once it was. You commend the gentleman to the world. I—and such as I—defame that 'grand old name.' 'All else of which I die possessed I leave to my nephew'—you know the name—'in the hope that he will make a worthy use of the lands I greedily held for myself.' Tell him," he added, "I repent my treatment of him. To come so far," he wandered on, almost to himself, "and then to be driven away. He was proud and wrong-headed. Ah, but my sister's son, with a big heart of his own, that angered because it condemned me."

With difficulty the Will was signed and witnessed. Two men who had come for "killing sheep" were dragged into the room in the early morning to write their names and vanish.

"I wish the sun would rise," Leicester faintly whispered. "Push aside the curtains; right back, please. Often I've lain here and waited for old Sol to appear over the ridge just behind that pine, this time of year. Even now I can see the links of gold, the wattles beside the creek. Jupiter is the morning star just now; there he shines, 'like a diamond in the sky.' Poor old mother. Venus is the evening star, I shall never see it more. Not here at least. Ah, there it is. God's blessed sun!"

And, as they helped him, with a last effort the dying man raised himself, stretched forth his arm towards the distant hills, and cried—

"See! They are coming. Pouring over the hills! Troops of happy people." And his eyes shone with a novel lustre. "Women and children. All across the lovely valley, where the sheep feed alone." With trembling hand he shaded his eyes as if to observe more clearly, and continued, "Vines and fig-trees, and pomegranates around their dwellings. Pure rivers of water flowing between. Hark! hark! to the children calling. And to the music at their feast." A pause ... a long breath ... "A—new—day—has—dawned!" he whispered slowly, word by word. Then a last gasp.

Sinking back gently, the millionaire left his fields behind. A smile settled on the set face. The eyes fixed for ever. Closing them, the three weeping, kneeled in the silent room into which the first beams of the rising sun were shining.