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The Moving Finger
Mary Gaunt






THE MOVING FINGER (1895)

BY

MARY GAUNT


"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on; nor all your
piety and wit Shall lore it back to cancel half a line, Nor all your
tears wash out a word of it."



CONTENTS

     A Trotting
     Christmas Eve at Warwingie
     Lost!
     The Loss of the "Vanity"
     Dick Stanesby's Hutkeeper
     The Yanyilla Steeplechase
     A Digger's Christmas




TROTTING COB

"Hi--hey--hold up there, mare, will you? What did you say, mister? A
light? Yes. That 's Trotting Cob, that is. The missus 'll give us a cup
of tea, but that's about all. Devil fly away with the mare. What is it?
Something white in the road? Water by ----. Thank the Lord, they Ve had
plenty of rain this year. But they do say there's a ghost hereabouts--a
Trotting Cob, with a man in white on him? Lord, no, that's an old
woman's tale. But the girl--she walks--she walks they say, and mighty
good reason--too--if all tales be true. Hosses always shy here if they
Ve at all skittish. Got that letter, Jack, and the tobacco? That's
right! Rum, isn't it, to get all your news of the world at dead of
night? Reg'ler as clockwork we pass--a little after one, and the coach
from Deniliquin she passes an hour or so earlier.

"Anybody else? Well, no, not as a rule. It's the stock route? you see,
between Hay and Deniliquin, so there's bound to be stock on the way; but
sheep, bless you! they travel six miles a day, and cattle they ain't
so much faster, so we brings 'em all the news. The Company has stables
here, and feed, and we change horses. The old man and old woman keep it,
with a boy or two. Mighty dull for the old woman, I should think, with
on'y the ghost to keep her company. She was her cousin or her aunt or
somethin', the ghost was, and, Lord, women is fools an' no mistake."
It was July, and the winter rains had just fallen, so that the plains,
contrary to custom, were a regular sea of mud.

The wheels sank axle deep in it. The horses floundered through it in the
darkness, and every now and then the lamps were reflected in a big pool
of shallow water. The wind blew keen and cold, but the coach was full
inside and out, and so, though it was pitch dark, I kept my seat by the
driver.

A light gleamed up out of the darkness.

"Trotting Cob!" said he, and discoursed upon it till he pulled up his
horses on their haunches exactly opposite a wide-open door, where the
lamplight displayed a rudely-laid table and a bright fire, which seemed
hospitably to beckon us in. The whole place was as wide awake as if it
were noon instead of midnight.

Ten minutes' stay, and we were off again into the darkness, and then I
prevailed upon the driver to tell me the tale of Trotting Cob. He told
it in his own way. He interlarded his speech with strange oaths. He
stopped often to swear at the road, to correct the horses, and he was
emphatic in his opinions on the foolishness of women, so I must e'en do
as he did, and tell the tale of Trotting Cob in my own way.

A flat world--possibly to English eyes an uninteresting, desolate,
dreary world; but to those who knew and loved them, they had a weird
charm, all their own, those dull, gray plains that stretched away mile
after mile till it seemed the horizon, unbroken by hill or tree, must
be the end of the world. Trotting Cob was Murwidgee then, Murwidgee
Waterhole, where all the stock stopped and watered; but from the slab
hut, which was the only dwelling for miles, no waterhole was visible;
the creek was simply a huge crack in the earth, and at the bottom,
twenty feet below the level of the plain, was the water-hole. One
waterhole in summer, and in winter a whole chain of them, but the creek
seldom if ever flowed, except in a very wet season. It was a permanent
waterhole--Murwidgee, fed by springs, and the white cockatoos and
screaming corellas came there and bathed in its waters, and the black
swans, and the wild duck, and teal rested there on their way south, when
summer had laid his iron hand on the northern plains.

The reeds and rushes made a pleasant green patch in the creek bed, and
once there had been several tall white gums; but old Durham had cut them
down years ago, when first he settled there, and so from the hut door,
though almost close upon the creek, it was not visible, and there was
presented to the eye an unbroken expanse of salt bush. It was unbroken
but for the mirage that quivered in the dry, hot air. The lake of
shining water, with the ferns and trees reflected in it, was but a
phantasy, and the girl who leaned idly against the door-post of the
hut knew it. Still she looked at it wistfully--it had been so hot, so
cruelly hot, this burning January day, and in all the wide plain that
stretched away for miles on every side there was not a particle of
shade; even the creek ran north and south, so that the hot sun sought
out every nook and corner, and the bark-roofed hut, with its few
tumble-down outbuildings, was uncompromisingly hot, desolate, and ugly.

Old Durham called himself a squatter, and gave out that his wife, with
the help of her granddaughter Nellie, kept an accommodation-house. Forty
years ago the times were wild, and what did it matter. Convict and thief
the squatters round called him, and his grandsons, in their opinion,
were the most accomplished cattle-duffers in all the country round, and
as for the accommodation-house--well, if the old woman did go in for sly
grog-selling, the police were a long way off, and it was no business of
anybody's. And Nellie Durham was a pretty girl, a little simple perhaps,
but still sweetly pretty, with those wistful blue eyes, fringed with
dark lashes, that looked out at you so earnestly, and the wealth of
fair hair. So dainty and so pretty--the coarse cotton gown was quite
forgotten, and in those times, when women of any sort were scarce,
many a man turned out of his way just to speak a word or two to Mother
Durham's granddaughter.

She sat down on the door-step now, and resting her elbows on her knees,
and her chin in her hands, looked out across the plain. The sun was just
setting--a fiery, glowing sun, that sent long, level beams right across
the plains, till they reached her hair, and turned it to living gold,
and went on and penetrated the gloom of the hut beyond.

It was very bare, the hut, just as bare as it could possibly be; but
three men bent eagerly over the rough-hewn table, while an old woman,
worn and wrinkled and haggard, and yet in whose face might still be
traced a ghastly resemblance to the pretty girl outside, laid out on the
table a much-thumbed, dirty pack of cards.

"Cut them, Bill. Drat you! what 'd you do that for, George? You know
you ain't never lucky--you oughter let Bill do it. No--no--no luck. Two,
three, nine o' spades, 'tis ill luck all through."

"Well, let Bill do it, Gran," said George with an oath, as he flung
down the cards, and they were picked up and shuffled, and cut again and
again; the old woman shook her head solemnly.

"'Tis bad luck the night," she said, "bad, bad luck. Don't you touch
Macartney's mob, or you 'll rue it. There's death some-wheres, but it
doesn't point to none o' you."

"Macartney probably," said another man, who was leaning against the slab
wall, and intently watching the girl in the doorway. "Come, Gran, don't
be croaking; if the cards ain't lucky, put 'em away till they are."

He looked cleaner and smarter than the other three--Nellie's brothers,
who were young fellows, little over twenty. They were good-looking,
strapping fellows, but the sweet simplicity in her face was in theirs
loutish stupidity, and their companion stood out beside them, though
probably he was nearly twice their age, as cast in a very different
mould. He was dressed as they were, in riding-breeches and shirt, but
the shirt was clean, his black hair and beard were neatly trimmed, the
sash round his waist was new and neatly folded, and the pistols therein
were bright and well kept. Gentleman Jim, the Durhams called him; as
Gentleman Jim he was known to the police throughout all the length and
breadth of New South Wales. What he had been once no man knew, though
evidently he was a man of some little culture and education; what he
was now was patent to every man--escaped convict, bushranger,
cattle-duffer--even a murder now and again, it was whispered, came not
amiss to Gentleman Jim. It was an evil face, with the handsome dark
eyes set too closely together, and when there is evil in a man's face at
forty, there is surely little hope for him; but bad as it was, to Nellie
Durham it was the one face in the world. Cattle-duffing--it hardly
seemed a sin to her. Ever since she could remember, her grandfather, and
her father, and when he died, her brothers, had driven off a few head
of cattle from the mobs that passed, and she in her simplicity hardly
realized the heinousness of the offence; and for the rest, she simply
believed nothing against her hero. He had been cruelly ill-treated,
cruelly ill-used, but she understood him--she loved him, she believed in
him, in the blind unreasoning way a woman, be she old or young, rich
or poor, wise or foolish, gentle or simple, does believe in the man she
loves. And the old grandmother saw, and shook her head. She did not mind
cattle-duffing--it was but levying a fair toll on the rich squatter as
he passed. Sly grog-selling was hardly a crime; so few people passed it
would have been waste of money to take out a licence, more especially
since there was no one to ask whether they had one or not. But Gentleman
Jim, whom the boys had taken to bringing home with them of late, was
another matter altogether, and she looked on anxiously when she saw the
impression he had made on her son's pretty daughter.

"I dunno," she said, anxiously to her husband, "whether the gal's all
there; sometimes I think she ain't, but anyhow, she's sweet and pretty
an' loving, an' he's an out-an'-out scamp, drat him!"

But the old man would not interfere. He was a little afraid of Gentleman
Jim; besides he was useful to him--he was getting old, and the grandsons
were not much help; they took after their mother, and privately old
Durham thought his son's wife had been more than half a fool, so he
encouraged Gentleman Jim; and now came information that Macartney would
be camping here to-morrow with a mob ready for the southern market, and
here was the man again. The cards too prophesied disaster, shuffle them
as she would.

Gentleman Jim swore at the cards and at the old woman in no measured
terms, and then he laughed, and gathered them up in his hands.

"Here, Nell, Nell!--the cards are clean against us, your Gran says--come
and cut, like a good girl."

Nellie rose willingly enough, but the old woman said scornfully, "Nell,
Nell, she ain't got no luck at all. Three times I tried her fortune, and
three times it came, 'tears, tears, tears'--never naught else for Nell
but tears."

"Never mind, mother, better luck this time, eh, Nell?" and the girl took
the cards, and smiled trustingly up into his face.

"Cut, Nell."

She cut the nine of spades, and the old woman groaned. "Disaster, sure
as fate; let Macartney's mob alone, I tell you."

"Cut again, Nell."

She shuffled them carefully, the other four watching her with eager,
anxious eyes, while the man at her side looked on with tolerant scorn.
And then she cut--the ace of spades. Her grandmother threw up her hands.
"Death, I tell you--death--death--death--an' no less."

Gentleman Jim struck the cards out of her hand roughly, and they went
flying to all corners of the hut.

"Come outside, Nell--come down to the waterhole, it's cool there, and
better fun than listening to an old woman's twaddle. The sun's down now.
Come on."

She looked at her grandmother first, partly from habit, but the old
woman was still wringing her hands over the danger foretold by the
cards, and was blind for the moment to that right under her eyes. So
Nellie followed him gladly, only too gladly, down the steep bank to the
waterhole. He pushed her down somewhat roughly under the shadow of the
western bank, and then flung himself down on the ground beside her,
and put his head in her lap. With her little work-hardened hand, she
smoothed back his black hair, and he looked up into her face.

"So you love me, Nellie?" he said, somewhat abruptly. "You be sure you
love me?"

It was hardly a question, he was too certain of it, and no man should be
certain of a woman's love.

She made no answer in words, but the pretty blue eyes smiled down at him
so confidingly, that for a moment the man was smitten with remorse. What
good would this love ever do her?

"You poor child!" he said. "You poor little girl. I believe you do.
Don't do it, Nellie--don't be such a fool."

"Why?" she asked simply.

"Why? Because I shall do you no good."

"But I love you," she whimpered, "an' you won't harm me."

"No, by ---- I won't." And for the moment perhaps he meant to keep his
oath, for he half rose, as if there and then he would have left her.
Perhaps it was too much to expect--all his companions feared him, the
outside world hunted him, only this woman believed in him and loved him;
and if it is a great thing to be loved, it is a still greater thing to
be believed in and trusted. And so when she put her arms around him and
drew him back he yielded.

"It is your own fault, Nell, your own fault--don't blame me."

"No," she said, satisfied because he had stayed. "I won't--never." Then
she ran her fingers through his hair again.

"I saw a gray hair in the sunshine," she said.

"A gray hair--a dozen--a hundred. My life is calculated to raise a few
gray hairs."

"But why--?"

"Why? Why--once on the downward path you can't stop, my dear. However
the path has led me to your arms, so common politeness should make me
commend the road by which I came."

"You are always good."

"Good! great Heavens! No--only a silly girl would think that. Was I ever
good? I'm sure I don't know. If I was a woman soon knocked it out of
me."

"A woman! Did you love her?"

"Love her--of course I loved her."

"More 'n you do me?"

"More than I do you!--You're only a little girl--and she--she was a
woman of thirty, and she just wound me round her fingers,--her!"

The tears gathered in the girl's eyes--only one thing her simple soul
hungered after--she wanted this man's love--she wanted to be allowed to
love him in return.

"She didn't love you like me," she said.

"She didn't love me at all, it was I loved her, the young fool. That's
the way of the world. Come, Nell, don't cry--that s the bitterness of
it. Where's the good of crying? Where's the good of loving me? I wasted
all the love I had to give on a woman, who made a plaything of me--oh,
about the time you were born I suppose. That's the way of the world, my
dear; oh, you 'll learn as you grow older."

"Ben Fisher," said Nellie slowly--"Ben Fisher, Gran says, loves me, an'
'ud marry me. An' he's Macartney's boss man."

The man sprang to his feet and caught her roughly in his arms. He
hurt her, but she did not mind; such fierce wooing was better than the
indifference which had seemed to mark his manner before. His hot breath
was on her face, and in his eyes was an angry gleam, but she read love
there too, and was content.

"You, Nellie--you--do you want Ben Fisher? If you go to him--if you have
any truck with him--I 'll kill you, Nell."

She closed her eyes and drooped her head on to his shoulder.

"Jes' so," she said, "you can."

"Nell, Nell," called her grandmother's voice from above. "Nell, you come
up this minute. Drat the girl, where's she got to? You come along, miss,
and help to get supper. There's the bread to set, for Macartney's mob 'll
be here early to-morrow."

James Newton held the girl for a moment with a merciless hand.

"Nell, I 'll kill you."

She smiled at him through her tears, then stooped and kissed the hand
that held her, and as he loosened his grasp, flew up the embankment and
joined her grandmother.

Next day the Durham lads and Gentleman Jim had disappeared. It seemed
a wonder in that flat open plain where they could disappear to, but the
creek had many windings, and its bed was so wide and so far beneath the
surface of the plain, there was ample room for men and horses to hide
there.

About three in the afternoon, a lowing of cattle and cracking of
stockwhips announced the arrival of Macartney's mob, and the beasts,
wild with thirst, for the way had been long and hot, and the waters were
dried up for miles back, rushed tumultously down into the waterhole,
trampling one another in their eagerness to get to the water. The men
could no nothing but look on helplessly, and finally Fisher, a tall
young fellow with that sad look on his bearded face, which sometimes
comes of much living alone, left the mob to his men, and flinging his
reins on his horse's neck went towards the hut.

Nellie stood in the doorway, but when she saw who it was, mindful of her
lover's fierce warning of the night before, she drew back into the
hut, and the sadness on the man's face deepened, for Nellie Durham,
the cattle-duffer's granddaughter, was the desire of his heart, and the
light of his eyes, and Murwidgee Waterhole, when he had charge of the
cattle, was on the main road to everywhere.

He dismounted and entered, and Mrs. Durham bustled up to him--eager to
make amends for Nellie's want of cordiality.

"It's pleased I am to see ye, pleased, pleased," she said, "for 'tis
lonesome hereabouts, now the boys is away down Port Philip way."

"Are the boys away?" he asked, watching Nellie, as in obedience to an
imperious command from her grandmother, she began to set out a rough
meal.

"Oh, ay--there 's on'y Nell an' grandfather, an' me, an' we're gettin'
old. Oh, 't is lonesome for the girl whiles."

If it were, she did not seem to feel it, and she steadfastly refused all
Fisher's timid advances. Farther away than ever he felt her to-day, and
yet she had never looked so fair in his eyes.

He ate his meal slowly, answering the old woman in monosyllables, when
she questioned him as to his camp for the night and his movements on
the following day. Possibly he may have thought it unwise to take old
Durham's wife into his confidence, but if so the men under him were not
so reticent, and when they came in a few moments later, chatted freely
on their preparations for the night, and half in jest roughly warned the
old woman that the cattle must be let alone.

"None o' your larks now, old girl," said Fisher's principal aid. "We
mounts guard turn an' turn about, an' the first livin' critter as comes
anigh them beasts--the watch he shoots on sight."

"What's comin' anigh 'em?" asked the old woman scornfully. "There's
me an' th' old man an' the girl here, an' nary a livin' thing else
for miles. They do say," she added, dropping her voice, "the place is
haunted. Jackson of Noogabbin was along here a month back, and he told
me how the cattle broke camp all along o' the ghost. He seed 'un wi' his
own eyes, a great white thing on a trottin' cob it was. Clean through
the camp it rode moanin', moanin', an' the cattle just broke like mad."

"Oh, yes--I dessay," said the man, "and when them cattle were mustered,
there was a matter o' fifty head missin', I 'll bet. Now if that ghost
comes along my way I shall just put a bullet in him sure as my name's
Ned Kirton. So there, old lady, put that in your pipe and smoke it. Come
along, Nell, my girl--don't be so stingy with that liquor, the old woman
'll make us pay for it, you bet. Why, Nell, I ain't seen such a pretty
pair o' eyes this many a long day. Give us just one--"

He had caught her roughly by the shoulder, and bent down to kiss her,
but the girl drew back with a low cry that brought Fisher to her aid.

"Let her alone, Ned," he said with a muttered oath.

"Right you are, boss," laughed the other. "There 's a darned sight too
much milk and water there for my taste; I like 'em with a spice o' the
devil in 'em, I do. But if that 's your taste--well, fair's fair an'
hands off, says I."

"It ain't much good, boss," said another man. "She's Gentleman Jim's
gal, she is, and I shouldn't sleep easy if I so much as looked at her."

"Gentleman Jim," he repeated, and the bitterness in his heart none of
his comrades guessed. "Gentleman Jim I heard of yesterday, somewhere
about the head waters of the Murray--no danger from him."

Bill, being a cattle man, cleared his throat and his brain by a
good string of oaths--resonant oaths worthy of a man from the back
blocks--and then gave it as his opinion that Gentleman Jim's being
seen among the ranges yesterday, was no guarantee that he would not be
lifting cattle far on the plains to-day.

"Not our cattle," said Fisher grimly. "We set a watch, and the first
thing--man or beast, or ghost--that comes down among the cattle, we
shoot on sight. D'ye hear that, mother?" and he turned to the old woman,
who merely shook her head and groaned.

"It's old I am--old--old--old. It isn't the likes o' us as 'll touch yer
beasts."

And Nellie slipped outside the door, and looked wistfully and anxiously
across the plain, at the cattle now peacefully grazing on the salt-bush,
and at the mocking mirage in the far distance. Never before, it seemed
to her, had so much fuss been made about the cattle. The ghost trick had
stood them in good stead for some time, and now apparently these men saw
through it.

Two ideas she had firmly grasped. Ben Fisher was a man of his word, and
Ben Fisher was a good shot.

Her brothers and her lover were down in the creek bed. One of the four
would ride through the sleeping cattle to-night and that man would pay
for his temerity with his life. The casual mention of her own name with
that of the outlaw had sealed his fate. She was as sure of that as she
was sure that the sun would set to-night in the west and would rise
again to-morrow in the east. It did not occur to her simple soul to
inquire the reason why; only she felt that it was so, and her heart
was full of one passionate prayer, that the man who rode forth on that
perilous errand should not be her lover. Her brothers were dear to her
naturally, but her nearest and her dearest were as nothing when weighed
in the scale with the love she bore this stranger. He must be saved at
any cost--he must, he must. She walked slowly along with down-bent head,
till she stood on the top of the bank overlooking the waterhole, and
then, hearing footsteps behind her, looked up quickly to see Ben Fisher
standing beside her.

"Nellie," he said awkwardly, "Nellie, I--I--mean did that brute hurt
you?"

"What? Oh, Ned Kirton. Oh, it's no matter."

"It's dull here for you, Nell, out on the plains, isn't it?" he asked
still more awkwardly.

If her heart was full of another man, his was full of a strong man's
longing for her.

He saw her position, he knew her helplessness, he felt how much she
stood in need of care and guardianship. If she would only give him the
right to care for her. His very eagerness made him stupid and awkward,
and she, looking up at him in the hot afternoon sunlight, read none of
his thoughts, and only saw in him the man who held her lover's life in
his hands and would mercilessly take it.

She answered his question sullenly with a shrug of her shoulders.

"No, no."

"But Nellie--oh, Nellie, Nellie--poor little girl, don't you see
that--that--"

"What?" she asked, for even she, indifferent as she was, could not fail
to see that the man was shaken by strong emotion. "I 'm all right."

"All right, with a devil like that after you, a brute who--Nellie,
Nellie, for God's sake give me the right to take care of you."

She looked at him stupidly and then a light dawned on her.

"Do you mean Jim?" she said. "Why, Jim--" and for a moment a tender
smile broke about her lips, and a light was in her eyes such as would
never be there for the man beside her.

"Oh, Nellie," he groaned, "am I too late after all? I only want to take
care of you, Nellie--only to take care of you."

He stepped forward and caught her hands, holding them fiercely as Jim
Newton himself might have done.

"Nellie, if you won't let me do anything else, let me help you; for your
own sake let me help you."

Clearly outlined they stood against the summer sky; if there should be
anybody in the creek-bed, lurking among the rushes and scrub round the
waterhole, they would be plainly visible to him. Their attitudes were
significant, and their speech was inaudible. If Jim should be there,
thought Nellie, and then dismissed the thought. Rash as he was, he would
never be so foolhardy as that. And yet she might have noticed a slight
movement among the reeds--might have remembered that Gentleman Jim found
no companionship in her brothers, and would be pretty sure to find his
way to the water-hole at any risk, if it were only to vary the monotony
and to see how the land lay. And so after one vain effort to free
her hands, she stood still and listened, while Fisher poured into her
unwilling, uncomprehending ears the story of his love for her, and then,
since that made no impression, he warned her again and again against
Gentleman Jim. Foolishly warned her--for was ever woman yet warned
against the man she loved. An angry gleam flashed into Nellie's eyes,
and she stamped her feet and strove to draw away her hands again.

"I hate you--I hate you. He is good, I tell you--good--good--good! He
loves me an'"--oh, the unanswerable argument all the world over--"I
love him."

Fisher dropped her hands.

"Oh Nell! Nell! My God! it is too hard."

She looked at him wonderingly, and a dawning pity softened her face. It
had never occurred to her that this man could feel any pain. She read it
in his haggard face now, and because she was pitiful of all things she
put her hand on his arm and said gently, "Poor Ben, I 'm sorry."

It was too much--Fisher had stood her coldness, had heeded not her
anger--but the pretty, wistful face looking up so pitifully into his was
too much for him. He could resist temptation no longer, he caught her
in his arms and smothered her with kisses. Clearly it was marked against
the sky, clearly the man crouching among the reeds saw it, and put
his own interpretation upon it, and that one passionate embrace sealed
Nellie Durham's fate. Well might the cards prophesy disaster and death,
for as he slunk away back to his ambush a mile further down, with raging
hate at his heart, he swore revenge against the girl who was trifling
with him, swore it and meant to keep his oath.

Nellie with an inarticulate cry freed herself and ran towards the hut,
and Fisher flung himself face downwards on the crisp dry salt-bush. He
had lost everything now he realised, she would not even accord him pity.

And Nellie up at the hut was trying to make her grandmother understand
that all chance of the ghost trick being played again with success was
out of the question. Not only would it be a failure, but the man who
rode through the cattle rode at the risk of his life. But the old woman
could not or would not see it.

"Let 'un alone, Nell, let 'un alone--a parcel of women ain't wanted
meddlin' wi' the men-folks' business."

"But, Gran--" the girl was wild with anxiety, and trembling with
excitement, and the old woman shut her up sharply. She did not choose
to hear any more about it, and turned a deaf ear on purpose. Like Nellie
she too was of opinion that Gentleman Jim would play the ghost, and
if--through no fault of hers--he came to grief, she felt she would not
grieve unduly. Nellie's infatuation for him was undeniable, and with a
good decent man like Ben Fisher ready to take her it was unpardonable.
Nellie had always been soft and yielding to her, once this man were out
of the way she would be so again, and the old woman had seen enough of
the seamy side of life to desire better things for the helpless girl. So
she turned a deaf ear to her anxious warnings; not by word or sign would
she interfere. Let be, let be, it should be fate--it should be no doing
of hers. Nellie gave up the struggle at last and taking up her favourite
position on the doorstep, with her chin in her hands and her elbows on
her knees, stared out moodily across the plains, seeking in her brain
some way to help. It was not possible to go near them by daylight, the
risk of detection was too great, she must wait till it was dark. Fisher
crossed her path once, and for a moment a wild thought crossed her
brain--to confide her trouble to him--to ask him to have mercy, but she
dismissed it as soon as it was born. Betray her lover and then ask his
rival to spare him! It was out of the question; she must find some other
way. She thought and thought, till for very weariness she closed her
eyes, and slept with her head against the door-post. The long level
beams of the setting sun made a golden glory of her hair and seemed to
be striving to smooth out the look of care and pain, which was already
marked on the fair young face. Ben Fisher passed and paused.

"Pretty, ain't she?" said the old woman; "a dainty mossel for any man."

"Ay," said Fisher quietly, "ay," and passed on, wondering to himself, as
many another man has done before him--why this girl was so priceless in
his eyes--and why, seeing that she was so, he might not have her rather
than this reckless outlaw, who would make her the toy of his idle hours,
and when she became a burden to him throw her aside, like a worn-out
horse or a dog he had no further use for.

He bit his lip and clenched his hands, and the men when he gave the
orders for the night, muttered to one another that the boss meant
business an' no mistake. "Ghost or no ghost. 'T wouldn't be much good
anybody meddlin' wi' the cattle now. He was mighty struck on the gal, he
was--but it didn't seem to be interfering wi' business nohow."

He was mighty struck on the girl, and his thoughts were so full of her
that sleep seemed out of the question, so he took the first watch with
Ned Kirton for his mate.

Out on the plains here, had they been quite certain of the honesty of
the Durhams, one man would have been quite sufficient to mount guard,
his duties being simply to ride round the cattle, and should any seem
restless or inclined to roam to head them back again. Even as it was,
two seemed an almost unnecessary waste of energy, more especially as
the other men were camped close by, ready to spring to their feet at a
moment's call.

It was a still, hot night; the moon, though not near full, still shed
a sufficient light to distinguish everything quite plainly; the men's
camp, the sleeping cattle, the hut and outbuildings a little to the
left, so calm and peaceful.

Fisher, as he sat on his motionless horse, began to think one guard
was more than enough, and to speculate as to whether he should not tell
Kirton to go to sleep and leave the cattle to him. Sleep was not likely
to come to him, he thought, with that haunting girl's face ever before
his eyes. He turned his horse so that he should not see the hut, and
then found himself riding round the camp, in order to bring it into view
again.

"It's all right, boss," said Kirton, as he passed. "Things is as quiet
as quiet. Ghosts ain't expected to walk before twelve though, are they?"

Fisher laughed. "No," he said, "but somehow I don't believe the ghost
intends to trouble us after all. They 're scared at our preparations. I
think one man 'll do after midnight."

He rode on a little way, when suddenly something induced him to turn his
head, and he saw distinctly, in the moonlight, a white figure come out
of the hut and make its way quickly in the direction of the creek. It
was a woman's figure, with a kerchief across the head, but whether it
was Nell or her grandmother he could not at that distance or in that
light say.

He rode up to his mate quickly.

"There's some mischief brewing, Ned," he said, looking towards the
figure, which had apparently changed its mind, and was now walking in
a direction which would bring it to the banks of the creek, a little
beyond the cattle camp. "You waken the boys quietly, and tell 'em to
be on the look out, and I 'll follow the old woman and see if I can't
circumvent her little tricks."

"It ain't the old woman," said Kirton, "it's the gal."

"You be hanged," said Fisher, who preferred Mrs. Durham should get the
credit for any midnight escapades. "It's the old harridan herself, and I
'll keep my eye on her."

He slipped to the ground, tied his reins to the stirrup, and the old
stock horse, understanding the situation, stood quietly, while his
master quickly and quietly followed in the footsteps of the girl, for it
was Nellie; he was sure of that when she came abreast of the camp. She
was evidently terribly hurried, and hardly seemed to notice the men and
cattle as she passed. In truth Nellie did not, for her grandmother had
kept so careful an eye on her, she had been unable to leave the hut
until she was asleep, and now it was so late, she dared not take the
longer and safer way round by the windings of the creek, lest her lover
should have already started on his perilous ride. Whether she thought
the men would not notice her or whether she hardly cared if they did,
Fisher never knew. She held a cloth closely over her head and never
turned to the right or left, though he thought his footsteps must be
clearly audible as he tramped in his long riding boots over the crisp
dry salt-bush.

Truth to tell, Nellie heard nothing save the beating of her own heart.
It was such a desperate venture, she was afraid of her grandmother, she
was afraid of Ben Fisher, she was afraid even of the man she was trying
to save, but most of all she was afraid of being too late, and so the
poor child went on, her heart full of one passionate, unspoken prayer,
that she might be in time to save him. It was little wonder then that
she never turned her head, never heard the footsteps so close behind
her. She reached the brink of the creek at length and peered into
its depths, then turned and skirted along the top of the bank, Fisher
following closely in her track.

They had gone but a little way when he saw, greatly to his astonishment,
that the bank, instead of being a steep drop of about twenty feet,
gently sloped like it did near the hut, and a track, half hidden by
thick scrub, ran down the slope. Down this track the girl went swiftly,
her skirts raising a little whirl of dust behind her. The man paused a
moment, and by the light of the moon examined his pistols to see they
were loaded, for he judged he was doing an unwise thing. Should there
be men there, as he more than half suspected, there was no knowing what
might happen; but still he never thought of turning back, that Nellie
was there was more than sufficient reason he should follow. When he
looked again he was startled to find she had vanished, and the measured
sound of a horse's hoof-beats broke on his ear. At the same moment he
saw the path took a turn in the scrub, and drawing out a pistol, ran
down it. As he turned the corner, he came full on Nellie standing
motionless in the moon-light; the covering had fallen from her head, and
she was stretching out her arms to a mounted figure which was draped,
horse and all, in a long white cloth which fell almost to the ground.

It flashed across the overseer that this was the "Trotting Cob," this
was the ghost he had been warned against, and a very substantial,
life-like ghost it was too. He wondered as he stood there that any man
could be deceived.

The girl stood right in its path, right between the two men, and to
move, the horseman must either ride over her or turn into the scrub.

He seemed inclined to do neither, but with an angry oath flung back the
covering from his face.

"You, girl!" he said.

Then she burst out, half-sobbing, "Oh, Jim, Jim! I was afraid I 'd be
too late. Oh, Jim, Gran wouldn't let--"

"Too late!" said the man; he spoke apparently with an effort, but in
such grave, cultured tones that Fisher, who was a man of but little
education, himself stood silent with wonder. "Too early, I think. I told
you how it would be, Nell. I believed in you, Nell, so help me God,
I did, but I saw you this afternoon with that man, and now you have
betrayed me. You will have it then," and before Fisher could stop him
or shield her, he had drawn a pistol from his belt and shot her in the
breast. So close she was there was not a chance of missing, and she fell
backwards and lay there in the dusty track, the pale moonlight lighting
up her fair hair, and the dark stain widening, widening, on the bosom of
her dress.

Fisher's first thought was for vengeance, but his hand shook and his
shot flew wide, and the other man, apparently giving no heed to him,
flung himself from his saddle on to the ground beside the girl.

"Oh, Nell, Nell, little girl, and I trusted you."

She put her little bloodstained hand on his arm, and smiled up into his
face with such a world of love in the dying eyes, that Fisher looking on
dared not for very pity mar her last moments by word or sigh.

Time enough when she was gone, for the two men to settle accounts.

"Jes' so," she gasped, her one idea strong in death; "I was--near,
too late--don'--go--nigh the camp. Ben Fisher--will--shoot the
ghost--on--sight."

"But--but--"

Pity for the girl, dying misjudged by the hand she loved, impelled
Fisher to speak.

How great had been his share in the tragedy he hardly as yet realized;
that would come later.

"It wasn't her fault this afternoon," he said roughly; "it was mine, and
this evening she never knew I followed her."

"Oh, my God--my little girl, my poor little girl."

He lifted her up in his arms and made a half effort to staunch the
wound, but she was evidently dying fast--past all human aid.

"Jim--you--won't--go--anigh--the--camp?"

"Nellie, Nellie, don't die, my darling--don't leave me; don't let me
have this on my conscience. I love you, Nellie--you are all there is to
live for. I love you."

"Better 'n _her_?" she gasped.

He looked down at her in wonder, then covered the white face with
kisses.

"Better a thousand times--better than any woman that ever lived. Forgive
me, Nell, forgive me."

She was going fast, but she understood him, and the man looking on saw
peace and happiness on her face.

"I love you, Jim."

  "There never was a daughter of Eve, but once ere the tale of her years be done,
  Shall  know the scent of  the   Eden rose--but  once beneath the sun!
  Though the  years may bring her joy or pain, fame, sorrow, or sacrifice,
  The hour that brought her the scent of the Rose--she lived it in Paradise!"

The horse's hoof-beats kept time to the rhythm of the song. "The hour
that brought her the scent of the Rose--she lived it in Paradise!"

"An' I guess," said the driver's voice--breaking in on my
reverie--"that's about all there is to tell. Them's the lights of
Wongonilla over there. The rest of the story--Lord bless you, it all 'us
ended where the gal died. The men I guess did'nt feel much inclined for
fighting after that. Anyhow I b'lieve Ben Fisher came back dazed like to
camp an' told 'em what 'd happened. But though they scoured the country,
Gentleman Jim got clean away. Fisher? Oh, he weren't no account after
it, I b'lieve--gave him a sort a' shock, same as if he 'd killed her
hisself. He was speared by the blacks on the Lachlan three years later,
they say. He never took up with another gal. The other? Lord, yes--he
did--Woa, mare, will you? She's a bit tired, you see--we 've come the
pace. Yes, it was all along o' a woman Jim Newton was taken--wanted for
a bushranging job, over on the Queensland border--that was fifteen years
after. I 've heard my father tell the story. He was one of the troopers
that took him, and it was a gal that sold him. Mighty set on her he was.
She? Oh, she was gone on another man. A woman's only gone like that once
in a way, ye see, an' then, Lord! she is a fool--same as Nellie Durham,
an' she was a mighty fool all through, for Fisher was a decent sort of
a chap--while the other fellow was an' out-an'-out blaggard. But ye see,
if there's a ghost at all, it 's the gal that walks, though they call
the place Trotting Cob, and Trotting Cob it'll be till the end of the
chapter."




CHRISTMAS EVE AT WARWINGIE

It was a comfortable place, the wide verandah at Warwingie, a place
much used by the Warners on all occasions, save during the heat of the
day--but the long hot day was drawing to a close now. Slowly the sun was
sinking over the forest-clad hills. The heat haze which had hung all day
over the eastern outlet to the gully cleared, the faraway blue ranges
grew more distinct, and the creeper-covered verandah was once more a
pleasant place to lounge in. From the untidy, half-reclaimed garden,
came the sound of children's voices, subdued by the distance, and the
gentle lowing of the milkers in the stockyard behind the house. But no
one came on to the verandah to disturb Tom Hollis and Bessie Warner, the
eldest daughter of the house--perhaps they knew better--and yet
these two did not seem to have much to say to each other. He leaned
discontentedly against one of the posts, moodily staring out into the
blue distance, and every now and again flicking his riding boot with his
whip; but she looked happy enough as she swung herself slowly backwards
and forwards in a rocking-chair, her hands clasped behind her head. Such
a pretty girl, oh, such a pretty girl, she was--so dainty and pink and
white. Her rosy lips were just parted in a smile; the long, level beams
of the setting sun, falling on her through the passion vine, lingered
lovingly in her golden hair, and made a delicate tracery as of fine lace
work, on her pink gingham gown. Such a pretty picture she made, rocking
slowly backwards and forwards, thought her companion, but he dared not
say so. And then too it was so hot and so still it was hardly wonderful
they were silent.

Silence seemed more in keeping with the quiet evening. They could not
agree, and yet they could not quarrel openly. He brought his eyes back
from the hills at length to the girl's fair face.

"Oh, Bessie," he said almost in a whisper, "oh, Bessie--"

"Now, Tom," she interrupted, "now, Tom, do be quiet; whatever is the
good of going all over it again?"

"If you could only like me a little," he sighed miserably.

"Like you a little! I have liked you a good deal more than a little all
my life--but there's where it is. I know you a great deal too well. I
like you, oh yes, I believe I may say I love you quite as well even as
my own brothers, but--marry you, no thank you. I have lived all my life
up here at Warwingie, up among the hills, and I 'm just tired of the
monotony of it. Nothing ever happens, nothing ever will happen, I
suppose; it's most horribly unexciting; but anyhow I don't see I 'd
better matters by going and living alone with you at Tuppoo, even if you
'd take me on such terms, which, of course, you wouldn't."

"You know I would," he said drearily.

"Don't be so foolish, Tom Hollis," said Bessie sharply, rocking away
faster than ever. "You know you wouldn't do any such thing. You 'd
despise yourself if you did. Why don't you despise me?--I'm sure I 'm
showing myself in an extremely disagreeable light for your benefit."

"But I know you, you see. I know you so thoroughly," he said; "and I'd
give--I'd give--"

"There, for goodness' sake, stop, and let's hear no more of it. I can't
and won't marry you--it 'd be too slow. I don't want to live on the
other side of the ranges all the rest of my life. If I 've got to live
here at all, this is the nicest side, and I 've Lydia and the children
for company, to say nothing of papa and the boys--besides, you 'll come
over sometimes."

"I shan't," he said, sullenly, "I shan't. If you don't take me, I 'll
not come here to be made a fool of. I shan't come again."

"Don't talk nonsense," she said calmly; "you will; you 'll forget all
this rubbish, and be my own dear old Tom again. I should miss you so
dreadfully if I didn't see you three or four times a week."

A gleam of hope Hashed into his sad brown eyes, and passionate words
of love and tenderness trembled on his lips, but, for once in his
love-making, he was wise, and turning, gazed silently down the gully
again. She would miss him--very well then, she should; he would go away,
and not come back for a month at least. The only fear was lest in the
meantime some one else might not woo and win her. Those brothers of hers
were always bringing some fellow to the house. However--

A bell inside rang furiously, and five boys and girls, ranging between
the ages of twelve and three, came racing in from all corners of the
garden. Bessie rose from her chair, and shook out her skirts.

"That's tea," she said; "you won't mind a nursery tea with the children,
will you? Lydia and I always have it when papa's away. The Campbell
girls are here too. Harry, you know, is very much in love with Dora,
and, like a good sister, I 'm helping on the match. Aren't you coming?"

He had intended to decline, but she put her hand on his arm in the old
familiar way, and he weakly gave in.

"Aren't you dull, all you women alone?" he asked.

"No, sir, of course not; besides, they 'll all be home to-morrow for
Christmas."

"They 've at Kara, aren't they?"

"Yes, that bothering old Wilson always has a muster at the most
inconvenient times. They want to be home, of course, so they Ve taken
every man on the place to help. Dick, at the mature age of ten, is our
sole male protector."

"They can be back to-morrow, though?"

"Oh, yes; they Ve bound to be here pretty early too. It's Christmas Day,
you know--at least--. Why, what was that?"

She paused on the doorstep and listened.

"Some one coming into the yard," said Hollis. "They must have got away
earlier than they expected."

"No--they--."

A sharp cry--an exclamation of fear and terror, and men's voices raised,
loud and peremptory.

"That's not--" began Bessie, but Hollis pushed past her into the
house. It was a bush house built in the usual primitive style of
bush architecture, with all the rooms opening one into the other and
dispensing with passages altogether. The dining-room, a big sparsely
furnished room, had doors both front and back, and looked on the yard
behind as well as on the garden. The table was laid for a substantial
tea. Mrs. Warner, Bessie's stepmother, a good-looking woman of thirty,
was at the head of the table with the tea-pot in her hand, but the
children had left their places and clustered round her; two other girls
of sixteen and eighteen were clinging to one another in a corner, and
two women servants, raw Irish emigrants, were peering curiously out into
the yard, where half a dozen horses and men were now standing. The cook,
an old assigned servant, had taken in the situation at once, had made
for the dining-room followed by the other two, and was now sitting in
the arm-chair, her apron over her head, beating the ground with her
feet.

Hollis saw it all at a glance--the big dining-room, the frightened
women, the silent children, the sunlit yard beyond, the horses hitched
to the post and rail fence, the half dozen bearded blackguardly men,
with pistols and knives in their belts--noted it all, even to the blue
and white draped cradle in the corner of the room, and the motes dancing
in the sunbeams that poured in through the end windows--noted it all,
and looked down on the girl at his side.

"Oh, my God!" he muttered, "it's the Mopoke's gang, and--."

He was unarmed, but he looked round vaguely for a second. Two of the men
stepped into the doorway and covered him with their pistols.

"Bail up, you -----," said the shorter of the two, a man in a dirty red
shirt and torn straw hat, who was evidently the leader of the party,
"bail up; throw up your hands, or--," and he added such a string of vile
oaths that Bessie, shuddering, covered her face with her hands. Hollis
did not at once obey, and in a second a shot rang out and his right hand
fell helpless at his side--shot through the wrist.

"If the gent prefers to keep 'em down, I 'm sure we 're alius ready to
oblige," said the little man, with grim pleasantry, interlarding his
speech with a variety of choice epithets. "Now then, mate, back you
steps agin that wall--and Bill," to the other man, "you just let
daylight in if he so much as stirs a finger."

Hollis leaned up against the wall, stunned for a moment, for the bullet
had smashed one of the bones of his wrist, and torn a gaping wound from
which the blood was trickling down his fingers on to the carpet,
but with the armed bushranger in front of him he realized the utter
hopelessness of his position. Help himself he could not, but he never
thought of himself, he never thought even of the other helpless women
and children; his heart had only room for one thought--Bessie, pretty
dainty Bessie, the belle of the country side. How would she fare at the
hands of ruffians like these? He would die for her gladly, gladly, but
his death could be of no avail. The men had come in now, and he scanned
them one by one, brutal, cruel, convict faces, sullen and lowering; the
only one that showed signs of good humour was that of the leader of the
band, and his good humour was the more terrible as it seemed to prove
how certain he was of them and how utterly they were in his power.

"You will kindly all stand round the room, with your backs to the
wall, so I can take a good look at you, an' you can impress my 'aughty
features on your minds--kids an' all, back you go. I 'm sorry to
inconvenience you, Mrs. Warner, but you must just let the babby cry
a bit. I can't have you a-movin about a-obstructin' my men in the
execution of their dooty."

The baby in the cradle had wakened up at the shot, had cried uneasily,
and now not having been noticed was wailing pitifully, but its mother
dared not move. She stood by the window, the two youngest children
hanging on to her skirts, a strong-minded, capable woman, who had all
her wits about her, but she too saw clearly they were caught in a trap.
She looked across at Hollis, but he could only shake his head. There was
nothing to be done, nothing.

A man stood on guard at each door, while the other four went through the
house; they could hear them yelling and shouting to one another, pulling
the furniture about, and every now and then firing off a shot in simple
devilment, as if to show their prisoners that they had made sure of
their prey and feared no interruption. The baby cried on, and the
sunshine stole gradually up the wall; up and up it crept to the ceiling,
and the clock ticked noisily on the mantelshelf--but there was no
change, no hope for them. A crash of broken wood and glass told them
that the bushrangers had found the store-room, and had made short work
of bolts and bars. There were spirits stored there, brandy in plenty,
as Bessie and her stepmother knew full well, and Hollis scanning their
faces read clearly their thoughts--what chance would they have once
these men began to drink! Ghastly stories of the bushranging days of
Van Diemen's Land rose before him, of innocent children murdered, of
helpless women, and a groan burst from his lips as he thought that the
woman he loved was in the power of men like these.

Bessie started forward, though the man at the door pointed his pistol
straight at her.

"Oh, Tom," she cried, "oh, Tom!"

"You go back," ordered the guard angrily.

"Don't be so hard," said Bessie, suddenly. "You've got us safe enough.
What can a lot of women and a wounded man do against you? You look
kind," she added, "do let me give baby to his mother, it's wearying to
everybody to hear him crying like that, and let me bind up Mr. Hollis's
hand, oh, please do."

Her voice trembled at first, but she gained courage as she went on. She
looked the man straight in the face, and she was very pretty.

He told her so with a coarse oath that sent the shamed blood to her
face, and then crossed the room and spoke to the other man.

They whispered for a moment, and then curtly told the woman they
intended to hold Hollis surety for them. If any one attempted to escape,
they would, they said, "take it out of his skin." Then one rejoined his
comrades, while the other lolled against the doorpost, his pistol in his
hand.

Lydia Warner crossed the room and gathered her baby in her arms, and
Bessie stepped to Hollis's side.

"Oh, Tom," she whispered, "oh, Tom--" "Hush, dear, hush--here they
come." They came trooping in with coarse jokes and rough horseplay,
bearing with them spoils from Lydia Warner's well-filled storeroom,
among them an unopened case of battle-axe brandy. This was the centre of
attraction. For a moment even the man on guard craned his neck to watch,
as the leader of the gang, the man they called the Mopoke, produced a
chisel and a hammer and proceeded to open it.

Their prisoners took the opportunity to whisper together, Mrs. Warner
joining her stepdaughter and Hollis.

"What can we do, Tom, oh, what can we do? They are beginning to drink
now, and--"

"Slip away if you can, you and Bessie." "No, no, they will shoot
you--besides, we can't."

Bessie was binding up his wrist, and Mrs. Warner, bending over it,
seemed to be giving her advice. The bushrangers had opened the case and
were knocking off the heads of the bottles and drinking the brandy out
of tea-cups, but the Mopoke looked over his shoulder almost as if he had
heard them, and briefly reminded them that he held Hollis responsible,
and that if any of them "sneaked off" he 'd shoot Hollis "an' make no
bones about it, for we ain't a-come here to be lagged."

"Nevertheless," muttered Hollis, "one of you must go--Bessie, I think.
They'll be mad with drink soon, and once drink's in them there's no
knowing what they 'll do to any of us--go, dear, go--"

"I can't, I can't." The girl's hands were trembling, as she bound her
handkerchief round his wrist, and the tears were in her eyes. Creep away
to safety and leave him to die--how could she!

He said again, "Go, Bessie, go, they'll never miss you; it's really our
only chance--you don't know what they'll do by and by."

"Lydia, you go." Bessie slipped her hand into Hollis's uninjured one and
held it tight. Even in his anxiety and misery he felt in her clasp, he
read in her eyes, a something that had not been there half an hour ago.
Oh, to be safe once more, to be free to woo and win her.

"I can't leave the children," said Mrs. Warner; "the Campbell girls are
no good, and besides, Tom wants you to go, don't you, Tom?"

He nodded. It was true enough; he was wild with anxiety to get her away.
He would risk his life gladly--thankfully lay it down, if only he could
be assured that Bessie was across the ranges safe in the Commissioner's
camp at Tin-pot Gully, and for the other women, their danger would be
the same whether she went or stayed.

Bessie clasped his hand tighter and leaned her face against his arm for
one brief second, while her stepmother went on.

"As soon as it's dark slip out, and I must try and keep them amused.
Dora can sing a little and I can play. Go straight across the ranges,
and if--and if--I mean, tell your father. Oh, Bessie dear, make haste."

She left them and joined the others, pausing a moment like a brave woman
to speak to the leader of the band, and so give Bessie a chance of a
last word with Hollis.

The sun had gone down now and darkness had fallen. The room was wrapped
in gloom, and Bessie mechanically watched her stepmother draw down the
blinds and light a couple of candles on the table, which, while they
illuminated the circle of bushrangers, only threw into deeper darkness
the corners of the room.

"You will go, dear," muttered Hollis, "if only for the sake of that
plucky woman."

"I will do what you tell me," she whispered. "I can't bear to leave you,
Tom; if they should find out they will kill you. Oh, Tom, Tom!"

"They won't find out," he said soothingly. "They haven't counted you, nor
noticed you much yet. And Mrs. Warner is wonderfully plucky. You ought
to try and save her and those girls. Bessie, you don't know what fiends
those men can be."

"Yes I do," she said, and he felt her hand tremble; "that is why I don't
want to anger them. They have made you responsible, and I 'm afraid--I
'm afraid to leave. Don't you think they 'll go in an hour or two--just
take what they want and go?"

"No, I don't," he said. "They are in for a drinking bout now, and God
knows what they'll do before it's ended. Darling, for your own sake--for
the sake of the others, for my sake, even--you must risk it and get away
if you can. We ought to have help before midnight."

"Bessie," said Mrs. Warner, "come and help me to put the two little ones
to bed. Mr.--I beg his pardon--Captain Mopoke says he doesn't mind."

"None of your larks now, missis," said the Mopoke; "you jest mind what
yer about, or I 'll let daylight into yer gallant defender there."

"That's the way," whispered Hollis tenderly; "go now--go, dear."

She lifted his hand to her breast in the obscurity, and stooping, laid
her face against it.

"My darling," he said passionately, "God bless you, my darling; it will
be all right, I know. And remember, dear--you won't be angry--remember,
I have loved you so. I think I have always loved you, Bessie."

The men round the table were in high good humour, joking with each
other and the two Irish servants, who were beginning to think that being
"stuck up" was not so terrible after all, while the cook took her apron
from her face and joined in the chaff. Hollis was thankful for it. It
enabled him to say what he had to say unobserved, for even his guard,
feeling sure of him, gave more heed to his comrades' sayings and doings.
His broken wrist made him feel sick and faint, and it was only by a
strong effort of will he kept his senses at all. If only he could see
Bessie safe out of it!

"Go, dear," he whispered again, "go to Mrs. Warner."

"Tom," she whispered, her face still against his hand, "I love you, Tom.
I did not know it this afternoon, but I do now. I love you, I love you."

"Bessie!" Mrs. Warner's voice sounded imperative. "Are you never
coming?"

"God bless you, my darling!"

He pushed her gently from him, but at the bedroom door, where her
stepmother stood waiting for her, she looked back into the dimly-lighted
room. The light from the two candles shone on the bushrangers' faces,
gleamed on the pistol barrels in their belts, on the dainty china, the
glass, and the silver, but all the rest of the room was in gloom. She
knew the other women were there, knew the children were there--they were
dimly discernible in the corners. She could even see Hollis, but when
she looked again the candles stretched out in long beams which reached
her eyes and blinded her, and she turned to wipe away her tears.

"Now then, Bessie," said her stepmother, "go, dear--quick, quick. You'll
never be missed in the dark, and I 'll light plenty of candles now, and
dazzle the Mopoke. Go, Bessie, go."

There was no time for words. They were very fond of one another, those
two--fonder than women in their position often are--and Lydia Warner
drew her husband's daughter towards her and kissed her tenderly.

"Everything depends on you, Bessie," she said, with a break in her
voice, and then she opened the long French window of her bedroom, and
Bessie stepped outside, and the door was softly shut behind her.

It was very dark now, very dark indeed, and very still. Quite plainly
she could hear the voices and laughter within, and she stood still on
the verandah for a moment to collect her thoughts, and let her eyes
get accustomed to the gloom. It was a perfect summer's night, hot and
still--not a breath of wind stirred the leaves on the trees. Far away
from the reed beds at the bottom of the gully came the mournful wail
of the curlews, and the whimper of the dingoes rose over the ranges.
Overhead in the velvety sky the stars hung low like points of gold. It
was so peaceful, so calm this glorious summer's night, this eve of the
great festival which should bring to all men good tidings of peace and
joy. Could it possibly be that murder and rapine were abroad on such a
night as this? Could it possibly be that those nearest and dearest to
her were in deadly danger?

It was seven miles, at the very least, to Tin-pot Gully, or, as it was
beginning to be called, Toroke--seven miles round by the road, though
it was only three across the ranges. But then she did not know the way
across the ranges, the bush was dense and close, there was no track, and
she might easily be lost for a week there. The only alternative was the
road, and it would take her two hours at least to walk, and what might
not happen in two hours? She could dimly see the buildings in the yard
now, the stable, the cowshed, her father's office, the men's hut, the
post-and-rail fence of the stockyards beyond, with the bushrangers'
horses hitched to it all in a row. It struck her forcibly how secure,
how safe, they must have felt thus to have left their horses, their only
means of escape, alone and unguarded. Should she let them go? Should she
drive them away? And then another thought flashed into her mind. Why not
make use of one of these horses? Whatever she did must be done quickly,
and if only she could ride she might bring help in very little over the
hour. In an hour not much harm could happen, surely. Surely they might
spend their Christmas yet at Warwingie in peace and happiness. Her
father would not return to find his home desolate, and Tom--Tom--but no,
she dared not think of Tom. Only this afternoon she had laughed his love
to scorn, and now there came back to her his face drawn with pain, but
full of love and tenderness and thought for her--the sun-bronzed face
with soft brown eyes, giving not one thought to himself, not one thought
to the life he was risking for her sake. The danger was lest she should
be heard. And then, if they shot him, as she most firmly believed they
would, what would her life be worth. Not worth living, thought Bessie
Warner, as she stole softly up to the horse nearest the slip panels that
led out into the home paddock. She had not been born and bred in the
bush for nothing, and if she could once get the horse out of the yard
half her troubles would be over.

"Woa, horse," she said softly, putting out her hand and patting his
neck, "woa, good horse;" but he started back to the utmost limit of his
halter, and showed his fear so plainly that she shrunk back in terror
lest the noise of his movements should bring out one of the gang.
Trembling she took shelter inside the open stable door, her heart
beating so hard it seemed to deafen her. The big chestnut settled down
quietly again before she ventured out, and this time she picked out a
little dark horse. There was a big, quiet-looking white beside him, but
though he stretched out his nose to be patted she rejected him because
of his colour. Even in the dim light he was clearly visible across the
yard, and his absence would be noted at once, while possibly the darker
horse would not be so soon missed. He was fairly quiet as she unfastened
the reins, which were buckled round one of the rails in the fence. Then
she paused with them in her hand, and the desperateness of the venture
nearly overwhelmed her. The night seemed quite light to her now. The
outlines of the house were plainly marked against the sky, and all
the windows were brilliantly lighted up--evidently Lydia had promptly
carried out her intentions. Then a child's cry, loud and shrill, broke
on the air, and Bessie started. Woa, good horse, go softly now, for life
and death hang on the next few moments. The beating of her own heart
nearly choked her--her own light footsteps sounded in her ears like the
march of a hundred men, and every moment she expected one of those
long windows to open and the bushrangers to come rushing out, for not a
regiment of cavalry, it seemed to her, could have made more noise than
that solitary horse moving quietly behind her. She kept on the grass
as much as possible, but it seemed an age before she had reached the
slip-panels. They were down as the bushrangers had left them, and she
looked back. No, it was impossible to distinguish anything in the
yard. The horses even were one blurred mass; unless they inspected
them closely her theft could not be detected. It was so still and so
dark--never in her life had she been out at night alone before. The
noises frightened her, and the silence was still more terrifying. The
cry of the curlews was like a child in pain, and the deep, loud croak of
a bullfrog from a water-hole close at hand seemed ominous of disaster.
She shrank up close beside the dumb animal for companionship and gave
another frightened glance back. Then she pulled herself together--this
would never do. For Tom's sake, for Lydia's sake, for the children's
sake, but most of all for Tom's sake, she must be brave and cool. If she
would save them she must not give way to such vague imaginings. Surely
she might venture to mount now. She led the horse up to one of the
numerous logs that lay strewn about the paddock, and flinging the
off-stirrup to the near side to form a rest for her right foot, she
climbed on the log and prepared to mount. Often and often she had ridden
so--a man's saddle presented no difficulties; but now to her dismay
the horse started back in affright at the first touch of her woman's
draperies. If he refused to carry her what should she do? Should she let
the horse go? No, that would never do. She made another effort, and at
last scrambled into the saddle, how she could not have told herself,
but once there she kept her seat, for the black, though he plunged and
snorted for a moment, soon settled down into a rough canter towards the
main road.

It was not easy going on the run, and even when she reached the road it
was not much better, for it was only a bush road, unreclaimed, full of
stones and stumps and holes, while the heavy bush on either side made it
so dark there was very little chance of seeing the danger. Lucky for
the girl she was a good horsewoman. She kept urging her horse on, and he
responded gallantly, but more than once he stumbled, and had she not
had an excellent seat she must have fallen. But he picked himself up
sturdily and pushed on. Good horse, brave horse, it can't be more than
four miles now. On either side stood the tall trees dimly outlined
against the dark sky, and the Southern Cross--the great constellation of
Australasian skies--hung right in front of her. She caught sight of it
the moment she turned into the road. It was there every night of the
year of course, but looking straight at the golden stars it seemed
to Bessie it had been sent to her this Christmas Eve to comfort and
encourage her--a sign and a token that all would be well with her and
hers.

Then she heard sounds of voices ahead and the gleam of a fire, and she
drew rein smartly. No one would she trust, no one dared she trust, save
the Commissioner at Toroke, and who would these people be camped by the
roadside? The district had a bad name, the times were troubled, and a
helpless woman might well be excused for pausing; but she had no time to
waste, she must take all risks, and she brought her reins down smartly
across her horse's neck, and he started forward at a gallop. There was
a shout and a curse, and she saw three figures start up round the fire,
and then she found bullocks rising up all round her, and knew that she
had come on a bullock driver's camp. A regular volley of curses burst on
her as she scattered the bullocks in all directions, but she dared not
stop--how could she trust herself to men like these?--and faster and
faster she urged her horse forward. He stumbled more than once in the
rough roadway, but at last the sound of voices died away, and looking
back the fire was but a bright speck in the darkness. On again, up a
steep hill where for very pity's sake she must needs draw rein and let
her horse pick his way carefully, up and up, till after what seemed
interminable now she found herself on top of the ridge overlooking
Tin-pot Gully. The gully was but a narrow cleft among the surrounding
ranges, where in winter flowed a creek the banks of which had proved
wonderfully rich in gold, and the rush had been proportionately great
It had been a pretty creek a year ago, trickling down amidst ferns and
creeper-covered rocks, and so lonely that only an occasional boundary
rider in search of stray cattle had visited it; but now it was swarming
with life, and was reduced to the dull dead level of an ordinary
diggers' camp. The tall forest trees had been cut down, and only their
blackened stumps were left; the dainty ferns and grasses and creepers
had all disappeared before the pick and shovel, and rough windlasses,
whips, and heaps of yellow earth marked the claims, while along the
banks of the creek, now a mere muddy trickle, stood the implements of
the diggers' craft, cradle and tub, and even here and there a puddling
machine. The diggers' dwellings, tents and slab-huts, and mere mia-mias
of bark and branches, were dotted up the hill-sides wherever they could
get a foothold, and of course as close to their claims as possible.
There was no method, no order; each man built how he pleased and where
he pleased; even the main road wound in and out between the shafts, and
its claims to be considered permanent were only just beginning to be
recognized.

The Government camp was on a little flattened eminence, overlooking
the embryo township. They were all alike, those police camps of early
gold-fields days. The flagstaff from which floated the union jack, the
emblem of law and order, was planted in such a position as to be plainly
visible in the mining camp. Opposite it stood the Commissioner's
tents, his office, his sitting-room, his bed tent, his clerk's tent,
comfortable and even luxurious for that time and place, for they were as
a rule floored with hard wood and lined with baize; just behind was the
gold tent, over which the sentries stood guard day and night, and behind
it again were the men's quarters and the horses' stables. Down the
creek, men of every rank were gathered together from all quarters of the
globe; the diggers' camp was untidy, frowsy, and unkempt, but here on
the hill the Commissioner reigned, and law and order ruled supreme.

There was a blaze of light from the Miners' Arms--the tumbledown shanty,
half of bark and half of canvas, where the diggers assembled every
night--and a crowd of men were at the door lustily shouting the chorus
of a sea-song. Here was help in plenty, but she dared not trust them,
and galloped on across the creek, dry now in the middle of summer, and
up the hill again towards the tents of the police camp, which gleamed
white against the dark hillside. A sentry started up and challenged her
as she passed the gold tent, but she paid no heed, and the next moment
she had slipped off her horse and was standing panting and breathless in
the open door of the Commissioner's tent. The light from the colza-oil
lamps fell full on her white face, on her golden hair streaming over her
shoulders, and on her dainty pink gown, somewhat torn and soiled now.
Three young men were seated at the dinner-table, two of them in the
uniform of Gold Commissioners--the braided undress coat of a cavalry
officer--and all three sprang to their feet.

"Oh, Captain Cartwright," she panted, "they have--'stuck up' Warwingie,
and they're going to shoot Tom Hollis."

"What?"

But before she had time to explain, one man--she recognized him as the
Commissioner from the Indigo Valley on the other side of the ranges--had
forced on her a glass of wine, and while Captain Cartwright was shouting
orders to his troopers, he drew from her the whole story.

"We 'll have to be careful, Cartwright," he said, when five minutes
later they were riding over the ranges at the head of ten stalwart
troopers. "It appears Hollis is surety for the lot, but he insisted on
Bessie Warner making her escape at all risks. He is a plucky fellow,
Hollis, but it was the only thing to do. If they 'd been let alone all
night--well, when they're sober I wouldn't trust 'em, and when they 've
drunk they 're fiends incarnate. Close up, men, close up a little to the
right, sergeant, and we 'll dismount before we come to the stockyards."

They rode across the ranges, and it was not long before the house came
into view, ablaze with light, and the troopers crept round it. Then,
when they were all assembled, Captain Cartwright with his revolver in
his hand stepped on to the verandah and pushed open the door, while
Bright, the Commissioner from the Indigo, entered at the other side.

"Bail up, throw up your hands now, or I'll shoot every man jack of you."

It was nearly an hour and a half since Bessie had left, but the
bushrangers were still round the table. The dainty china was all smashed
and broken, and the men were throwing cups and glasses at one another
in very wantonness. There was no one on guard now, and the women were
huddled together terrified in one corner, while still against the wall
leaned Hollis, exactly where Bessie had left him.

"Hurrah!" he shouted as his glance met the Commissioner's, and hardly
had the word left his lips when the Mopoke turned, raised his pistol,
and shot him right in the chest. He slipped to the floor with a great
singing in his ears, and when he came back to consciousness again young
Bright was standing over him holding a glass of brandy to his lips, and
Mrs. Warner had her arm beneath his head.

"Better, old chap, eh?" said Bright, cheerily. "The Mopoke made a
mistake this time, for Cartwright shot him like a dog, and the others
will renew their acquaintance with her Majesty's jails."

"Bessie, Bessie, where is Bessie? If I can only live till she comes!"

"Of course you will. What nonsense Cartwright's going to bring her back
with him."

"It's all up with me, old man," he gasped, "I know. But we 've come out
much better than I expected, and--and--if I don't see--Bessie--you
must tell her--it was worth it. Poor little Bessie, she said--she loved
me--it was only a passing fancy--I hope--I think--"

His eyes closed wearily, and Bright touched Mrs. Warner's shoulder.

"Put a pillow under his head," he said, "and--oh, here's Miss Bessie."

No one asked how she had come so soon--only her stepmother silently
resigned her place to her. Hollis seemed just conscious of her presence,
but he was almost past speech, and they watched him silently. The doctor
came, and shook his head.

"A very short time now," he said. Ten o'clock, eleven o'clock; the moon
had risen over the hills, the midsummer moon, and all the garden was
bathed in the white light. They had opened the windows and drawn up
the blinds to give him more air, but it was very near now--very near
indeed--only a matter of minutes. The clock on the mantelshelf struck
midnight, and he opened his eyes. He could see through the open door
right away down the gully, just as he had seen that afternoon.

"How lovely it is," he said.' "Bessie, kiss me, Bessie. I--was that
twelve o'clock? It is Christmas Day then. I wish you many happy
Christmases, Bessie. Darling--don't you grieve--it was worth it.
Good-bye."




LOST

"Helm, old man, we 've lost the track!"

"Don't be a howling idiot, man. Lost! how could we be lost? Why, there's
the track right ahead, and pretty fresh too."

But Anderson flung himself off his horse on to the dry crisp grass, and
covered his face with his hands.

"I'll tell you," reiterated his mate, leaning forward in his saddle and
shading his eyes, "I see hoof-marks quite plain. Why, they might have
been made yesterday!"

"They were made yesterday," groaned the other, hopelessly. "Don't you
see, my dear fellow, we made them ourselves."

"What!"

Helm raised his head and swore a passionate oath, then sprang from
his horse, stooped over the faint track, ran wildly along it for a few
yards, turned back, and again cried out that the other was playing some
ghastly joke off on him.

"It's too bad, Anderson, too bad. Get up, man, and don't be a fool. Come
on, there 's very likely water on the other side of that ridge. You'll
feel better after you've had a good drink."

"That's the ridge we passed last night, I tell you. Water--oh, yes,
there's water there, but it's as salt as the sea."

"The salt-pan! No, by heaven, no, I won't believe that. That's miles
behind us!"

"Nevertheless," said the other man, drearily, "it's the same old
salt-pan. You 'll see it the moment we cross the ridge."

"Come on, then, come on. Don't sit groaning there: let's know the worst.
I can't believe it, I won't believe it till I see for myself."

"The horses ought to have a spell if we're ever to get out of this,"
muttered Anderson; but he followed his companion's lead, mounted his
tired horse, and rode slowly on after him towards the still distant
ridge.

Out back beyond the Mulligan is No Man's Land. They had gone out to seek
new country, crossed the Queensland border into South Australia, and
now, old bushman as he was, Anderson had only the vaguest idea of their
whereabouts. Ever since they started it had been the same trouble; the
season had been exceptionally dry, and everywhere the waters were dried
up. First one horse had died, then another, until at last they were
reduced to only three; still they had pushed on, for the blacks told
a tale of a magnificent waterhole where the water was permanent, and
Anderson had a certain amount of faith in the unerring wisdom of the
children of the soil where water was concerned. So he pushed on, hoping
against hope, till the younger man, more fearful, perhaps more prudent,
persuaded him to turn back. But it was too late. The weakest horse, the
one they had used as a packhorse, gave in, and had to be left behind the
first day of their return journey; and now, on the fourth, they had just
made the terrible discovery they were going round on their own tracks.
They had been so thankful--so hopeful--when they struck that track in
the morning.

Anderson knew there was another party out better appointed than they
were; these might be their tracks, and possibly they had water with
them. They might even have come across water--and water--water--if only
they had a little water. And so they had pushed on, eagerly, hopefully,
till the terrible truth began to dawn on the older and more experienced
bushman. The weather for the last two days had been dull and cloudy,
they had not caught a glimpse of the sun, and hourly they had expected a
thunderstorm, which would not only clear the air, but would supply them
with the water they needed; but to-day the clouds had all cleared away,
and the only effect of their presence had been that they had lost their
bearings completely. Where and when they had lost them Anderson could
not say even now, and he was loth at first to share his misgivings with
his mate; but the sight of the ridge decided him. If they found, as he
fully expected to, the salt-pan they had passed the night before on the
other side, then most surely were they lost men--lost in a cruel thirsty
land where no water was.

He pondered it over in his mind as he rode slowly after his companion.
"There was no hope. There could possibly be no hope." Over and over
again he said it to himself as a man who hardly realizes his own
words--and then they topped the low ridge, and right at his feet lay the
salt-pan glittering in the sun.

"Cruel--cruel--cruel!" Helm had flung himself face downwards on the hard
ground now, and given way to a paroxysm of despair all the more bitter
for his former hopefulness. Anderson looked down on him pityingly for
a moment, as one who had no part in his trouble, then he looked away
again. Save for the sunshine, it was exactly the same scene, the very
same they had looked upon last night--there lay the glittering salt-pan,
white as driven snow, above it the hard blue cloudless sky, and all
around the dreary plain, broken only by the ridge on which they stood.
And yet in different circumstances he might have admired the landscape,
for it had a weird beauty all its own; miles and miles he could see
in the clear bright atmosphere, far away to the other side of the wide
lake, where a dark clump of trees or scrub was apparently raised in
the sky high above the horizon. He knew it was only the effect of
the mirage, another token, had he needed a token, that there was no
moisture, no water, not the faintest chance of a drop of rain. And yet
there had been some rain not so very long ago, for the mesembryanthemum
growing in dark green patches close to the edge of the salt was all in
flower, pink, and red, and brightest yellow, such gorgeous colouring;
and by that strange association of ideas, for which who shall account,
his thoughts flew back to the last Cup Day, and he saw again the
Flemington racecourse, and heard in fancy the shouts of the people as
the favourite passed the winning-post, On the ground in front of him
were long lines of crows, perched in the stunted boxwood trees above his
head, filling the air with their monotonous cawing. He laughed at the
mockery of the thing. The other man raised his head.

"Old man, what is it? Is it possible that--"

What wild imaginings for the moment had passed through his brain he
could not himself have told; but whatever his hopes might have been,
they were gone the moment he looked in his mate's face.

"Man," he said, sharply, "are you mad?"

Anderson was sobered in a second.

"No," he said, bitterly, "but as far as I can see, it must come to that
before we 've done."

"No, no, we won't give up hope yet. Is there no hope?"

Anderson sat down beside him, and pointed silently to the horses. If
ever poor beasts were done, were at their last gasp, they were, as they
stood there, their noses touching the ground. The bushman's slender
equipment had been reduced to its scantiest proportions, and yet it
seemed cruelty to force them to carry even those slender packs; even
the canvas water-bags, dry as tinder now, hanging at their necks, were
a heavy burden. Wiser than their masters they had crawled beneath the
shade, scanty as it was, of the boxwood trees, and stood there patiently
waiting--For what? For death and the pitiless crows patiently waiting
overhead.

"Exactly," Helm answered his companion's unspoken thought, "but we can't
sit and wait like that. Man, we must try to get out of this at any rate.
We cant sit here and wait for the crows."

Anderson sighed heavily.

"What can we do?" he asked. "We must spell a bit. The horses are done.
As it is I 'm afraid yours will have to be left and well have to go on
foot. There must be water about somewhere, for look at the crows; but we
can't find it, and we couldn't have searched more carefully."

"Why not shoot the old horse if he's no good? His blood might--"

"Nonsense, man. Aren't you bushman enough yet to know that drinking
blood 's only the beginning of the end? Once we do _that_--"

"Well, after?" asked Helm.

But the other did not answer, for he, too, in his heart, was asking,
"After?" And their lips were dry and parched, and their tongues swollen,
and before them lay the salt-pan, with right in the centre a little
gleam of dark blue water which mocked their misery. There was nothing
for it but to lie down beneath the scanty shade and rest. They were too
weary to push on, all their energy had departed, and Helm, lying on
his back looking up at the patches of blue sky that peeped through the
branches, said with a sigh,

"If we 're done for, I wish to heaven the end would come now. I can't
stand the thought of--of--What's it like, old man? Is it very bad, do
you think?"

"As bad as bad can be."

"And is there no hope?"

What could he say, this man who had lived in the bush all his life? What
hope could he give, when practically his experience told him there was
no hope--that if they would save themselves from needless pain they
would turn their pistols against themselves and die there and at once.
But the love of life is strong in us all, and the hope of life is as
strong. How could they die, these strong men with life in every vein?
No, no, surely it was impossible. An iguana scuttled across in front of
them and Helm started up eagerly.

"There," he said, "there--and I never thought. Look at that beast. There
must be water somewhere or how could he live."

Anderson sighed.

"Yes, there's the bitterness of it. I know there's water about if only
we could find it; but as we didn't find any when we had everything in
our favour there's not much good in our wasting time looking now. After
all I believe those beasts must live without, though they say they
don't. No, old chap, our only hope lies in pushing on to the nearest
water we know of."

"Then don't let us lie here wasting precious minutes. Every minute is of
consequence; let's make a start. We must push on."

Push on! They had been pushing on ever since they left Yerlo station ten
days ago, and this is what it had brought them to.

"It's no good wearing ourselves out in the heat of the day," said
Anderson, "wait till evening and we'll do twice as much."

"Which way?"

"South-east, I think. If we can only hold out we ought to fetch Gerring
Gerring Water. As far as I know this must be Tamba salt lake, and if
so--"

"Karinda's just to the north there."

"A hundred and twenty miles at the very least and not a drop of water
the whole way. No, that's out of the question, old man; our only hope
lies in reaching Gerring Gerring."

"And you don't see much probability of our doing that?"

"Well, we can try."

He felt a great pity, this older man, for the lad--he called him a lad
for all his four-and-twenty years--doomed to die, nay, dying at this
very moment, in the prime of his manhood. They could but try, he said
over and over again, they could but try.

And then as they rested they fell to talking of other things--talked of
their past lives and of their homes as neither, perhaps, had ever talked
before.

"My old mother 'll miss me," said Charlie Helm with a sigh, "though Lord
knows when she'll ever hear the truth of the matter."

"Umph, I don't know, but I guess if we do peg out, it'll be some
considerable time before they can read the store account over us. Have
you got any paper about you?"

"Not a scrap. We can leave a message on the salt though."

"It'll be blown away before to-morrow. Who do you want to write to? Your
mother? That girl?"

Helm turned his face away. The man had no right to pry into his private
concerns.

"Write to your mother, lad, write to your mother by all means. Mothers
are made of different clay to other women; but don't you bother about
the other. Women are all alike, take my word for it. It's out of sight
out of mind with all of them. But write to your mother."

"Some one may pass this way," pondered the younger man, hardly heeding
his words. "It's just worth trying," and he lay silent while Anderson
talked on or rather thought aloud.

"It's of the boy I'm thinking," he said. "The poor helpless little one.
He never throve since his mother died. She didn't go much on me, but the
boy was everything to her though he was a cripple. Well--well--if I were
only certain he was dead now it wouldn't be half so hard. He'd be better
dead, I know, but I couldn't think it before; he was all I had, and
the last time I saw him he put up his little hand--such a mite of a
hand--and clutched his daddy's beard. He was all I had, how could I wish
him dead? But now--now--my God!--if I were certain he was dead and it
hadn't hurt much."

Helm sprang to his feet, and swore an oath.

"We're not going to die," he cried, "not as easily as all that. Come on,
we have wasted enough precious time.

"Not till it's a little cooler. It's no good, I tell you, wearing
ourselves out in the heat."

And Helm, seeing the advice was good, lay down again. Lay down and tried
not to listen to the cawing of the crows, the only sound that broke
the stillness--tried not to think of cool waters; not to think of a
household down south; not to think of the girl who, notwithstanding his
mate's cynical warning, filled all his thoughts. He dozed a little and
dreamed, and wakened with a start and a strong feeling upon him that it
had been something more than a dream, that some one had really called
him, was calling him still. Was it his mother's voice, or that girl's,
or was it Anderson's? Anderson was sleeping heavily, and strong man as
he was, sobbing in his sleep. Helm stretched out a hand to awaken him
and then paused. Why should he? What had he better to offer than these
broken dreams?

He broke a branch from a tree, thereby scattering the crows and stepped
down to the edge of the glittering white salt. It crunched beneath his
feet like sand, and he went on till the hard crust began to give way
beneath him and the thick mud oozed up. Then when he thought it was
moist enough to resist the fierce hot wind, which was blowing from the
north like a breath from an oven, he prepared to write his last message.
And then came the difficulty.

What was he to say? What could he say? Not that he had so little, but so
much. And it might never be read after all, or at best it would only
be read by some station hand who, once they were dead, would give but
a passing thought to their message, only a passing thought to their
sufferings. They had found a skeleton, he remembered, the first year he
had been on Yerlo, a skeleton that must have been lying there years, a
poor wind-tossed, sunbaked thing from which all semblance of humanity
had long since departed, and he, in his carelessness, had thought so
little of it, had never realized the awful suffering that must have been
before the strong man came to _that_.

And now--and now--he took his stick and wrote in large printed letters
on the crisp salt--

STOP.

LOST.

"James Anderson and Charles Helm were lost on the 20th October. They
have gone S.E. from the salt-pan. Will you kindly send word to Mrs.
Helm, The Esplanade, St. Kilda, and to Miss Drysdale, Gipps Street, East
Melbourne."

Then he wrote his name, "Charles Helm."

It seemed so feeble, so inadequate, not a hundreth part of what he felt
did it express, and yet what could he say? Not even in his extremity
could he write tender messages to his loved ones there. They would know,
surely they would know, they would understand, that his thoughts had
been full of them when he wrote that cold message. What more could he
say? But would they ever know the love and longing that had filled his
heart? Would his mother ever know that her boy had thought of her at the
last? Would Mabel Drysdale understand how he had cared for her?--all he
had meant to convey by the mere mention of her name? He stepped slowly
back and wakened his companion.

"Mate," he said, "don't you think we'd better be travelling? It's a
little cooler now, and it 's getting late."

Anderson struggled to his feet wearily and then went down to the
salt-pan.

"So you 've been leaving a last message," he said; "I 'm afraid it's not
much good. Who 's likely to pass this way?"

"It's only a chance, of course," said Helm, "but--well--I 'd like them,
if possible, to know I 'd thought of them."

"And a woman, too," laughed Anderson cynically, "if we get out of this
you 'll learn, I expect, just about how little value she sets on your
care for her."

"You 've been unlucky," said the younger man gently; "there are women
who--but there, I don't suppose we'll come through. Anyhow, it's time we
started.

"Well--well, keep your faith and I'll keep mine. Perhaps here and
there, there may be a woman worth caring about, but they 're few and far
between."

"Don't you want to say anything?" asked Helm.

"Who? I? No. Who is there to care a straw whether I leave my carcase
to the crows or not? There's only the boy, and he's too young to
understand. But, I say, you might have mentioned the name of the
station," and taking the stick from Helm's hand, he walked out on the
salt and wrote;

LOST

"Please let them know at Yerlo," and signed his name, "James Anderson."

"There's my last will and testament," he said. "Come on now."

Helm went up to the horses.

"It's no go," he said. "My poor old beggar's done."

"I expected it, old chap. We'll have to foot it; mine's only a shade
better than yours. Clearly we'll have to leave yours behind. Mine can
carry the pack a little farther, but I really don't think he can carry
me."

It was still very hot, but the shadows of the boxwood trees had grown
longer, and there was just a promise of the coming night in the air.
They must walk, for they had only the one horse now, and it did not
seem likely he could hold out long. The other had lain down to die, and
whether this one could crawl on under the slender pack was a question
Anderson asked himself more than once. That he could carry either of
them was out of the question. They put a blanket or two on his back,
their pistols, and the empty waterbags, and then it seemed cruelty
to force the poor beast to move, but necessity knows no law, and they
started slowly on their hopeless journey round the salt-pan, Anderson
leading the way, Helm following with the horse. So slowly they went,
and their only hope lay in speed. Helm looked back a little sadly at
the dying horse, which had made an effort to rise, as if in mute protest
against being left.

"Poor old beggar," he said, "wouldn't it be kinder to put him out of his
misery?"

"Oh, give him a chance for his life," said Anderson. "I 've known horses
to recover in the most wonderful way. After he 's had a spell he may
find water for himself; anyhow, we 'll give him the chance."

It was a blessed relief when the sun sank beneath the horizon; the night
was still and hot, but the wind dropped at sundown, and the men found
it easier to walk in the dark. The crows had followed them as long as
it was day, but they, too, left as soon as the darkness fell. They were
unaccustomed to walking, and it would have been hard work under the most
favourable circumstances; as it was, it was cruel. They did not talk
much, for what had they to say? An hour or two, and the moon rose,
a full moon, red and fiery, and as she rose slowly to the zenith,
silvering as she rose, the plain grew light as day. Every little stick
and stone, every little grass blade, was clearly outlined, the low ridge
which they were leaving behind, the ridge where they had found their
worst fears realized, loomed large behind them, while the salt-pan to
their left stretched away one great lake of glittering white, which it
seemed to Helm they could never round.

"How long, Anderson," he asked, "before we can hope to reach the other
side?"

"Not before morning, man. I don't see we can do it before morning."

Then they plodded on a little further, neither liking to be the first
to give in, though their mouths were parched, and burning thirst was
consuming them. But still they walked steadily on till more than half
the night was gone; at last Helm flung himself down on the ground.

"I must rest," he said, "if I die for it;" and Anderson sat down quietly
beside him.

Then sleep, merciful sleep, came to them in their weariness, and they
slept till the first faint streaks of dawn began to appear in the
eastern sky. It was a dreary, hopeless waking, the salt lake was behind
them now, and all around was the plain, bare hard earth in some places,
patches of grass in others, not a living thing visible, even the crows
had gone, and, though the foul birds had filled Helm with a shrinking
horror, their absence was still more terrible, for did it not show that
they were plunging farther and farther into the desert, farther and
farther from the water without which they could not live out another
day. The sun rose higher and higher, till the full force of his rays
seemed more than they could bear, and yet the nearest shade was miles
away, a line of trees or scrub dim on the horizon.

Neither mentioned the significance of the absence of the crows, though
both were thinking of it, but at last Helm said,

"The trees, let's go for the trees. This is past bearing."

But Anderson shook his head.

"They 're clean out of the way, man," he said sadly. "Try to hold out a
little longer. The old horse is keeping up wonderfully. I never thought
he 'd hold out so long."

"He's very nearly at his last gasp," said Helm, and they relapsed into
silence again.

On, and on, and on, the thirst was so bad now they could hardly speak to
one another, still they pushed on under the burning rays of the almost
vertical sun, every step it seemed must be their last. Was it really
only last night they discovered they were lost, only last night? Another
mile, and another, and the heat grew unbearable, and Helm, without a
word, turned to the left, and made for the trees. Anderson paused
a moment, and then followed him, though to him it was giving up the
struggle. If they turned out of the path which led to the only water
they knew of, turned into this pathless wilderness, what possible chance
was there for them, and yet how could they stand this terrible heat any
longer?

"I tell you I shall go mad," moaned Helm. "I didn't think I was a
coward, but I can't stand this. Old chap, don't let me go mad; shoot me
if you see I 'm going mad."

"Mad," said the other bravely, "nonsense, man, you're all right. You'll
feel better presently when you've had a spell."

The lines of trees resolved itself on closer inspection into
close-growing gidya scrub, and long before they reached it the crows had
again made their appearance. A little flock kept them company, waiting
on in front, rushing up behind as if perchance they might be late,
wheeling round on either side.

"There must be water there," said Helm eagerly, "look at the crows
again."

"Don't build on it, old chap," said the other. "The scrub is too thick
for us to find it."

But Helm was not to be dissuaded, and he wasted his energies in a
frantic search for water. His mate looked more soberly, because more
hopelessly, but the result was the same, and finally they lay down in the
shade and slept again, slept soundly too, in spite of the crows, which
were more confident, more impudent, than ever. Night fell, and with the
darkness grew in Helm an intense desire to be on the way again.

"We 're wasting time," he kept saying hoarsely, for his tongue was so
swollen he could hardly speak at all, "wasting time. Don't you see they
'll be expecting us in to supper at Gerring Gerring, and I shouldn't
like the crows to get there first. They might frighten her, you know,
she's only a girl and she hasn't seen so much of them as you and me.
Those knowing old crows! they 're not here now. Don't you see that's why
they want to get there first?"

"Be quiet, man. You 're dreaming."

"Dreaming, was I? Anderson, Anderson, mate, I 'm not going mad. For
God's sake, don't let me go mad."

"No, no, old man, it's all right. We 're on the right track now. Here, I
'll take the horse and you give me your arm. There, now then, if we 've
luck we may hit Gerring Gerring before morning."

They walked on in silence, but Helm kept stumbling, and but for his
companion's supporting arm would have fallen more than once. The moon
rose up, and as it grew light as day again he stopped short and looked
solemnly in his companion's face. It was worn and haggard and weary, but
not so wild, he felt instinctively, as his own.

"Anderson," he said, "I know I 'm done for. My head's all wrong. It 's
cooler now, but what'll it be to-morrow? If--if--if I do anything mad
before I die, don't tell her, I 'd like her to think well of me. Just
say I died, don't say how it hurt."

"All right, mate," said the other, for he had no comfort to give.

And then they walked on again in silence till the moon declined before
the coming day, the cruel day, which brought the heat and the following
crows again. Dawn brought them to a patch of "dead finish," as the
settlers call a dense and thorny scrub with pretty green leaves, through
which it is well nigh impossible to force a way even under the most
favourable circumstances; and which presented an utterly impassable
barrier to men in their condition. They turned aside once more, and
Anderson thought to himself that they must indeed have given up hope,
to be stopped by an impassable barrier and yet to make no moan. It was
surely the very depths of hopelessness when all ways were alike to them.
He looked back on their tracks and dismay filled his heart; they were
not firm and straight, but wavering and wandering like those of men in
the last extremity. He had followed tracks like these before now, and
they always led to the same thing. He wondered dully would any one ever
follow those tracks. A little further on Helm let go his arm and ran on
ahead.

"We'll never do any good at this rate," he gasped, "never--never;" and
he pulled at the collar of his shirt till he tore it away. "We must
have something to drink. We 'll die else, and I mean to have a fight for
life. There's the old horse, he can't stagger a step further; what's the
good of keeping him? Let's shoot him--and--and--There's enough blood in
him to--to--"

"No, no, man, no. I tell you that's the beginning of the end--more than
the beginning--the end in fact."

"I don't care. I can't stand this;" and before Anderson could stop him,
Helm had drawn his pistol and shot the horse in the head.

The poor beast was at his last gasp, and for the last hour Anderson had
been meditating the advisibility of leaving him behind, so it was no
material loss; his only care now was to prevent his mate from drinking
the blood, which, according to the faith of the bushmen, is worse than
drinking salt water.

"Poor old beggar," he said, taking his pistols and cartridges from the
saddle, where they had been wrapped among the blankets, "I suppose it
was about the kindest thing we could do for him. Come on, mate, we must
leave him to the crows now," and he caught Helm's arm and would have led
him on.

But the other resisted and breaking free ran back, and before he could
stop him, had drawn his knife across the horse's throat and taken a long
draught of blood.

Does it sound ghastly? But such things are, and his lips were dry and
parched, and his throat so swollen that he could only speak in hoarse
whispers, and so great was the temptation that Anderson, looking away at
the bare pitiless plain, with the mocking mirage in the distance, felt
that he too might as well drink and die; only the thought of the cripple
boy who would be alone in the world but for him, made him make one more
desperate effort for self-control.

He took the younger man's arm and dragged him on, skirting slowly round
the "dead finish" till at length, late in the afternoon, it gave place
to boree. His own senses were clear enough, but Helm was muttering
wildly, and he listened with unheeding ears to his babble of home and
mother and sweetheart. They could not go far, and soon they forced their
way in among the scrub, and though the burning thirst was worse than
ever, the shade was grateful. The crows stopped too, and settled on
the low trees, turning their evil blue-black heads on one side to get a
better view of their prey.

"I can't keep my head," moaned Helm, "I can't. I have been mad all day.
I know I have. It has stretched out into ages this long day and it's not
over yet. When were we lost? Yesterday? The day before? It feels like
years."

"Never mind," said Anderson, not unkindly, "it can't be much longer now.
Try to sleep, old man."

"Sleep! with a thousand devils tearing at me!"

But they did sleep after all, a wearied, troubled sleep, a broken sleep
full of frightful dreams, or still more cruel ones of cooling streams
and rippling waters. Night came, and Anderson awoke from what seemed to
him a doze of a moment to find his companion gone from his side. For a
second the thought came to him that it was not worth while to look for
him. He was mad--mad, and where was the use of troubling about him any
further; and then his better feelings, and perhaps that longing for
human companionship which we all must feel, made him rise up and look
for him. Up and down, he was staggering up and down, a hundred feet one
way and then back again on his own tracks.

"We must get on, old chap," he muttered when he saw Anderson, "we must
get on. You rest if you like though; there isn't anybody waiting for
you; but Mabel, she 's waiting for me and I must try and get back. She
would be disappointed else. Grieve! of course she'll grieve if I'm lost.
All the world isn't a cynic like you."

Anderson took his arm again.

"We'll go together," he said. "If you do care a straw about seeing her
again, come on quietly with me."

He yielded for the moment, but it required one continuous effort on
Anderson's part to keep him up to it. Plainly his reason was gone, and
the other man, growing weaker and weaker, found by the time the sun was
high in the heavens that the effort was more than he could make. It was
the end, or so close that he could only hope and pray the end would come
quickly. The young fellow had struggled on so bravely, so hopefully,
and now it had come to this. They had left the scrub behind them and
Anderson made his way to a tree, the only specimen of its kind in all
the wide plain, and lay down beneath its branches--to rest? No, he felt
in his heart it was to die. Helm he could not persuade to lie down. He
kept staggering on hopelessly round and round the tree, struggling to
keep in the shade, fancying, as many a lost man has done before him,
that he was "pushing on."

It was the same old story. Anderson had heard it told hundreds of times
over the camp fire, one man will lie down to die quietly, and the
other will go raving mad. So Helm had gone mad, poor chap; and then he
remembered his passionate prayer to him, not to let him go mad, to shoot
him if he saw he was going mad, and he lay and looked up at the hard
blue sky through the leaves, and at the watching crows, and knew that he
was only waiting for death, knew that he was too utterly weary to aid in
any way his mate. He listened to him muttering to himself for a little,
watched him as he went monotonously round and round. It was not so hard
after all--not near so hard for him as for Helm. If only the boy were
dead, he thought wearily, if only the boy were dead he would be glad
that this should end it, his life was never worth much, he had failed
all through, he would be glad to be at rest--if only the boy were there
before him; but the boy--the poor little helpless thing, he must make
another effort for the boy's sake, and he struggled to his feet again.
But the burning landscape was a blood-red blur before his eyes, and
then, quite suddenly it seemed to him, sight and hearing left him. He
was dying--was this death? How merciful death was--if only the boy--

*****

Very wearily he opened his eyes. Could it be that some one was pouring
water down his throat? Some one was bathing his face.

"He's coming to," said a voice in his ear. "By Jove, it was a narrow
shave. The other poor chap's done for, isn't he, Ned?"

"Quite dead. He went mad evidently, clean off his head. Why, the poor
chap had begun on his own grave."

When Anderson came to himself he found he had been picked up by the
other exploring party.

"We picked up your tracks away by the 'dead finish' there," said the
leader, "and I thought it must be pretty near up with you. You 've had
the devil's own luck, mate. Why, you were within five miles of Gerring
Gerring Water, and over by the 'dead finish' you passed within three
miles of a very decent waterhole, quite good enough to have kept life
within you. You shot the horse?"

"My mate did. He was mad, poor fellow."

"Poor beggar, he seems to have had a bad time, but it's all over now."

It was indeed all over now. They had wrapped him in a blanket and were
digging a shallow grave. He had begun it himself, they said, and had
been digging with his long knife, though whether it was for water, or
whether it was really intended for a grave, no one could now say. His
sufferings were ended.

They left him there in the desert, the young fellow who had fought so
hard for his life and set so much store by it, and as soon as Anderson
was a little recovered, set out for Yerlo again.

It was over a week before he reached the station, so far had he wandered
out of the track, and as he rode up to the house a stable boy lounged up
to him.

"What a while you 've been away, Boss," he said. "We 'd most given you
up for lost. The mail's in and there's a pile of letters for Mr. Helm.
None for you though."

"Is everything all right?" asked Anderson, feeling like a man who had
come back from the grave.

"N-o-o, there's mighty bad news. I don't like to tell though."

"Out with it, man, don't keep me waiting."

The lad looked away and turned his pipe from side of his mouth to the
other.

"It 's your youngster," he said. "He had convulsions last Sunday. Mrs.
Brook--she said as nothing couldn't have saved him. 'It was a blessed
release,' she said."

Anderson flung the reins to the lad and walked quietly into the house.
It was a mistake, he clearly saw, coming back from the grave. He wished
he had died within five miles of Gerring Gerring Water.




THE LOSS OF THE "VANITY

"You don't care. Oh! Susy, you don't care!

"But I do," she sobbed. "You know, you know I care."

They were standing on a jutting headland, looking away out over the
Southern Ocean, and the sea, blue and calm as the sky above, stretched
out before them. Behind them were the low forest-clad ranges that
bounded the coast line, shutting out the lonely selection from the rest
of the colony of Victoria, and the only sign of human habitation was
the weatherboard farmhouse the girl called home. Even that was hardly
visible from where they stood, hidden as it was by the swell of the
hill, and alone here with this man, alone with the sea and sky around
her, with the soft South wind blowing among her curls, with the
plaintive cry of the seagulls in her ears, the salt savour of the sea
in her nostrils, she was sorely tempted to throw off the trammels of her
education, to do the thing her heart prompted her to do, to tell this
man he was dearer, as she felt in her heart he was dearer, than anything
on earth. But so much stood in the way. For twenty years she had lived
secluded in this lonely corner of the earth, all her thoughts, her
hopes, her fears, bounded by the horizon of her own home, and the narrow
limits of the township, just five miles away on the other side of the
ranges. And now this sailor man, brought home by her young apprentice
brother, had come into her life, bringing new thoughts, new ideas,
new--she whispered it to herself, with a hot blush--hopes.

Five-and-twenty years ago now, Angus Mackie and his wife had emigrated
from the cold and stormy western isles of Scotland to this sunny South
land, and they had brought with them to their new home the stern faith
of the old Puritan, the rigid adherence to the old rules, the hard,
straitlaced life, and so had they brought up the children that grew up
around their hearth. And Susy was the eldest, Susy with the blue eyes
and rose-leaf complexion, and waving chestnut hair. So pretty she was,
this daughter of the South, it hardly seemed possible she could be the
child of the stern Puritan parents, and yet she had grown up in their
ways, grave and obedient, walking in the narrow path set so straight
before her without a question, and without a doubt. Never for one moment
had she looked over the hedges with which she was set about--hardly had
she realized there were hedges--and now this man had come like a fresh
breeze from the sea, and he had taught her--what had he not taught her?
At his glance all the passion born of the blue skies and the bright
sunlight, and the warm breezes of her native land, awoke to life, and
filled her heart with thoughts and longings that she, untutored, and
ignorant of the world's ways, hardly understood. Only she leaned against
the rock that cropped up out of the hillside, and pressed up against it
till the hard stone marked her hands. Perhaps the physical pain brought
her some rest from the mental disquietude which was so new to her.

The man who stood beside her was a sailor every inch of him. Not
handsome perhaps, but certainly good-looking, with honest blue eyes, and
a steadfast strong face. A man who had read and thought, and even though
now at five-and-twenty he was but second mate of the _Vanity_, had lived
his life to some purpose, for the fates had been against him; it had
been an uphill struggle always, and in uphill struggles we have little
time for the niceties of life. And now this girl, this dainty, fair,
feminine thing had come across his path like a gleam of the sunshine of
her own land, and when he felt he had fairly won her, his very honesty
set a barrier in his way.

"You know I care," she sobbed. She would have used a stronger word, but
shyness prevented her, and she put her face down on her clasped hands,
and sobbed aloud.

"If you love me," he said deliberately; he was not shy now, though he
turned away from her bowed head, and looked away over the sea sparkling
in the November sunshine, "if you love me, what is there in God's name
to stand between us?"

"That," she said, in a whisper, "just that."

"What?"

She lifted up her head now, and looked away at the sea too, but she did
not see it, for her eyes were misty with tears. And he did not see that,
for he too looked seaward. Far too deeply moved were they to look each
other in the face.

"You know," she said; and in her voice the trace of the Scotch accent
which still lingered there, inherited from her father, was softened by
the Australian drawl, which, whatever other folks might think, sounded
infinitely sweet in Harper's ears, "you know," she repeated again, "you
know," and there was an appeal in the soft voice, a prayer that he would
not force her too far.

But he had gone too far for pity. In plain words she had told him she
loved him, and in plain words now would he have named the bar that she
had set up between them.

"What is it?" he asked, and his voice sounded cold and hard, "in
heaven's name, what is it!"

"You know," she hesitated, "it is written--that--that we shall have
no--no dealings--with--with the unrighteous."

"Am I unrighteous?" he asked bitterly. "How am I unrighteous?"

"You are an unbeliever. You--you told me so yourself. You don't believe
in heaven or--or--hell--or--or--"

"In heaven or hell, don't I? You know, Susy--good Lord!--Susy, you know
you can make this world one or the other for me.

"Don't--don't," she implored. "I mean you don't think enough about your
eternal salvation."

"Child, how can I? This world is hard enough to get on in, God knows,
how can I worry about the next? Who knows? There mayn't be a next."

"There is, there is!" she cried, eagerly. "Oh! if you would only repent
while there is yet time--if you would only repent and be saved!"

"Oh, child, child, is there anything in the world I would not do for
your sweet face?"

"Not for me--oh, not for me! Because--because--"

He put up his hand to stop her. The religious phrases that she had been
accustomed to from her youth up, and that came naturally to her tongue,
hurt him somehow as the foul-mouthed conversation of the fo'c'sle had
never hurt him. From her lips he would not, if he could help himself,
hear the phrases he had been accustomed to laugh at as canting and
hypocritical.

"Don't dear, don't. I know what you are going to say. It is no good. We
are so different altogether. I can't believe--as you believe--I cannot.
I 'll do my best to be a good man--I 'll never lie to you or--"

"It is no use," she moaned, "no use at all. We cannot prevail by our own
strength."

He laughed bitterly.

"Belief is not a matter of will," he said, "or I would believe just
to please you--just because I want you more than anything in the wide
world. All I can do is to be honest, and tell you I can't believe. It
need never make any difference to you, dear, never, never."

The girl laid her face down on the hard rock again.

"And if--and if--next time your ship goes past here you were to fall
from the mast, and be drowned, you think--you think you would just go
out like a fire--that--that would be all."

He kicked a stone till it fell over the edge of the cliff, and they
could hear it going by leaps and bounds into the sea a hundred feet
below.

"And you think," he said, "I shall be eternally damned, tormented in
fire and brimstone for ever and ever. Upon my word, Susy, mine is the
kinder fate."

"I can't bear to think of it, I can't bear to think of it!" she cried.
"Oh! Ben, Ben! I can't bear it!"

He made a step forward then and caught her in his arms. How could he
resist the upturned face and the sweet blue eyes brimming with tears.
Puritan she might be, the old Covenanter blood might be strong as ever,
but she loved him--there was little doubt of that, and he clasped her
close in his arms and covered her face with kisses.

"What does it matter, dear, what does it matter? Let the future take
care of itself."

She tried to wrench herself from his embrace then.

"No, no, it is for eternity. I can't, I can't."

"Susy," he caught both her hands in his, "do you love me?"

"You know I do."

"Better than any one in the world?"

"Yes." She whispered it under her breath, as if afraid of her own
temerity.

"Then listen. You shall do as you like with me. I 'll give up the sea,
darling. I 'll take up a selection here, you shall teach me your creed
and I 'll do my best to believe. There, my little girl, will that
satisfy you? Who knows, in time I may become as respectable a
psalm-singer as that holy swab, Clement Scott, your father's so fond of
quoting. The beggar's got a tenderness for you, hasn't he, Susy? Why the
first week I was here I was wild with jealousy of the canting brute!"

Gently but firmly she drew herself out of his encircling arms and leaned
up drearily against the rock again.

"Clement Scott," she said, and there was a hopeless ring in her voice
that went to his heart like a knife, "Clement Scott is a true Christian
man, he is father's friend, and--and--oh!--" with a sudden burst of
passion, "I know--I know he is the better man."

Ben Harper said nothing, only moved a step or two further seaward. What
could he say? The girl loved him, he saw that she loved him well and
truly, but she did not love him well enough. She wanted to put him
aside, as her training taught her she ought to put aside all the
pleasures of this life, all the sunshine and laughter of life, as things
hurtful to her soul's salvation. And because she was young, because she
had been born under sunny, laughter-loving skies, his love came to her
with a cruel temptation, and because of its very strength, because of
the pain it cost her, she would put it aside as a thing wrongful and
wicked.

He looked at the silent little figure in its pink gingham frock, leaning
up against the rock with head bowed down on its clasped hands. Dimly he
understood the struggle that was going on in her breast, and clearly
too he foresaw the inevitable end. Her very love for him was an argument
against him. Never, never, never!--the booming sea on the rocks below
seemed to take up the refrain--would this woman be wife of his? Never,
never, never; the play was played out. Down through the vista of years
he looked, and saw her the wife of the man he hated--the man who was to
him the very incarnation of hypocrisy and cant He saw the hard, loveless
life; he saw the lines growing in the fair, young face that was so dear
to him; he saw stern Duty take the place of Love; he saw her life grow
hard and narrow; he read in her face the bitterness of unfulfilled
hopes, and the longing, the unutterable longing for something that might
not be put into words, and a great pity for her filled his heart. Not
for worlds would he add to her pain. She had come into his life, a
dainty, fair, tender thing, and he had only hurt her; by his own pain he
gauged hers.

A step forward and he was looking down at the snow-white breakers
thundering at the foot of the cliff. The sea was his home, the cruel,
fickle sea; he would go back to it and leave the woman he loved in
peace. What right had he to come into her life to spoil it? He would
go back whence he came, and all should be as it had been before. Go
back?--ah! we none of us can go back; surely the Greeks of old were
right when they said that not even Omnipotence itself can alter the
past. For him he felt, as he watched the white gulls wheel about the
face of the inaccessible cliff, there could be no comfort. He had gotten
a hurt that would last him a lifetime, but for her--surely he had not
hurt her irredeemably.

Very slowly he walked back to her side again, and laid a hand on her
shoulder.

"Susy," he said, and he strove with all his strength to banish from his
voice all else but kindness, "are you--do you--are you going to marry
Clement Scott?"

But she would not raise her face.

"My father--he--I mean--" and so low was her voice, he had to stoop his
head to hear, "father said I should--he is a Godfearing man--my father
said I--I should beware that I chose--the--the better man. It--it--would
be for my soul's salvation."

"Susy--Susy, child, I would not harm you, not for all this world or the
next could give me. See now, my darling, I must go and leave you, must
I?"

She raised her face now, and the bright sunlight showed it to him white
and strained. She was paying for her love, if ever woman was. It went to
his heart to see her quivering lips, to read in her eyes that voiceless
appeal to him, not to tempt her beyond her strength.

"My poor little girl!"

He put out his arms and drew her close to his breast again, and at
the sound of his voice, at the tender touch of his hands, she broke
down--broke down and cried passionately with her face hidden on his
shoulder. He pushed back her hat, and some strands of her hair fell
loose across his hand. He held it lightly and tenderly, noting how it
shone in the sunlight, noting that it looked like spun gold.

"Don't cry like that, my darling, it breaks my heart to hear you."

But he knew there was no hope for him in those tears. There was
resignation, heartbroken resignation to the inevitable, but not a touch
of yielding, not a spark of hope for him.

"My poor little girl!" he said again. "My poor little girl!"

"It is my poor boy, I think," she sobbed, "if you care, my poor, poor
Ben!"

She was so close and yet so far, so very far away from him.

"Susy, child, I can't bear this," his voice was hoarse with the passion
that now he could not keep under control, "you must let me go--now."

She raised her face and looked with her tear-dimmed eyes straight into
his.

"Ben, Ben, I love you, I _will_ tell you this once, whether it's right
or wrong. I love you, I love you, I love you!" And she flung her arms
round his neck, and drawing down his face to her own covered it with
kisses, hot, passionate kisses in which the future, which for her
stretched away into eternity, was forgotten.

"I must go. Susy, Susy, if you will not have me, in pity's name let me
go!"

"Go then, go, my darling."

She drew herself out of his arms firmly, sadly, and they stood for a
moment looking into each other's eyes, only for a moment though, then
with a long-drawn sigh she turned away and covered her face with her
hands.

He stood a little apart and took a long farewell to all his hopes.
Would the picture ever fade from his mind, he wondered. There it all
lay before him, blue sea and sky and dark bushland, and the only living
thing visible the trembling girl in her simple pink frock, her face
hidden in her hands, and the sunlight bringing out lines of gold in her
fair hair. So it ended--his month-old romance. To-day he must go back to
the old dull routine that makes up the sum of a sailor's life, and this
brief madness must be but a tender memory of the past.

"Susy," he whispered, "Susy," but the little figure never raised its
head.

"Susy, won't you wish me good-bye. Say something to me before I go. Must
I go?"

He had no hope she would change her mind. He had learned her
steadfastness only too well in the last four weeks, only he asked
because it gave him the faintest shadow of an excuse for stopping at her
side.

"Yes, go, go!" And the command was almost prayerful in its intensity.

"But--but--one word--one word--you--"

"God bless you! God keep you! Go, go!"

He turned away then, away from the bright water sparkling in the
sunlight, away from the woman he loved with all his strength; but a
chimera, it seemed to him, a vague fancy, stood between them, yet it
was stronger than iron bars, and with a heavy sigh he turned his face
towards the dark ranges and went down to the township, five miles
beyond.

The good ship _Vanity_ had lain three long months at Port Melbourne
Pier, but they were weighing anchor at last. Standing there on the poop,
the second mate listened sadly enough to the chanting of the men as they
walked slowly round the capstan. There was almost a wail in the tune,
though the words were the essence of common-placeness, and related how
the singers had courted Sally Brown for seven years, and when she had
proved obdurate, with great complacency had taken her daughter instead.

     "Seven long years I courted Sally,
     Ay, ay, roll and go!
     Seven long years and she wouldn't marry,
     Spend my money on Sally Brown."

"Ay! ay!" it rose loud and clear above the noise of the busy pier, above
the voices of the men at work there, above the creaking and groaning of
the crane that was loading the great iron tank that lay next them, "ay!
ay! roll and go!"

Yes, he was going now, leaving all the sunshine of his life behind him,
the best part of his life and--

"Now then, mister, bear a hand there, ain't there longshore lubbers
enough wi'out you?"

"Ay! ay! roll and go!" It was only another way of saying "Blessed be
drudgery," only a reminder that work is a universal panacea for all ills
and heartaches. And after all the second mate of the sailing-ship is not
likely to have much time for idle dreams--regretful or otherwise--for
the life of such men is monotonous enough; and two days later when they
had come through the Rip, and were out in the Southern Ocean sailing
along eastward, there was little enough to remind Ben Harper of the
events of a week before. True it was on this stern, forbidding coast lay
the Mackie selection; it was over this expanse of sea they two had stood
and looked when they said farewell--he had even heard tell that the
lights from their cottage window, the bright glow from the kitchen fire,
were plainly visible to ships at sea, so close was she. And he wondered
to himself should he see those lights to-night. Hardly. He lay there in
his bunk and listened to the row in the rigging. Things had not mended
evidently since he went below. Gone was the summer and the bright
November sunshine, the wind from the south was coming up cold and chill,
and the prospect of four hours to-night on a very cold, wet, bleak poop
was anything but inviting.

"It 's just going eight bells, sir." He scrambled out of his bunk and
into some clothes and oilskins, and was standing alongside the mate
under the lee of the weather cloth in the rigging, by the time the watch
got aft. They were the average crew of a sailing ship, men from every
nation under the sun, and as they passed slowly round the capstan, their
shoulders hunched to their ears, each man answered sullenly to his name.
Not that they bore the second mate any ill-will, but Jack ashore spends
his last weeks in riotous living and suffers a slow recovery for the
first few days of the voyage. Besides the night was bitter cold, the
wind that whistled shrilly through the rigging already bore on its chill
breath drops of icy rain; there was no prospect of things mending, and
after the hot summer days at Port Melbourne extra wraps--indeed
any clothes in the fo'c'sle beyond what each man stood up in--were
conspicuous by their absence. Merchant Jack is a thriftless beggar at
best, and who could have foreseen wintry weather like this?

"Andersen!" called the mate, as a tall, fair haired Swede, his hairy
breast bare to the cold night air, stepped forward.

"Sir."

"Muntz!"

"Herr."

"Reed!"

"'Ere, sir."

"Portross!"

"Sah-h."

What a motley crew they were! Swedes and Germans, cockneys and niggers,
they passed on till the two watches had answered to their names, and the
last man was a Russian Finn, black-haired and swarthy, with a flat face
and eyes like a Tartar.

"They Finns," said the bo'sun confidentially to Harper, "is just pisen.
Never knew no ship come to any good as carried em.

"Pooh!" said the second mate, who was not troubled with superstitious
fears; besides the bo'sun made the same remark every time the watches
were mustered, then he shouted, "Relieve the wheel and look out. Keep
yourselves handy there, the watch."

"She 's got the main-to'g'll'nts'le on, mister," said the mate, "and the
outer jib. It's been like this all the watch, steady enough. The sea's
getting up a bit, and having the spanker set makes her steer so badly,
but the old man wouldn't let me douse it;" and muttering something
about the "glass going right down into the hold" the oil-skinned figure
departed down the companion.

It was dark, very dark indeed, for though the moon was nearly full,
heavy clouds obscured the sky, and only now and then she managed to
pierce them, showing as clear as day the deserted wet decks--for the
watch had all stowed away--the few sails set and just under the foot
of the foresail the lookout man, banging his arms to and fro to keep
himself warm.

The second mate paced briskly up and down the poop, for'ard was the
lookout man, aft the man at the wheel, they three seemed to compose
the whole ship's company, and it gave him for a moment a sense of
loneliness. Hardly a week ago and he had hoped for such different
things.

He had lost nothing, nothing; he told himself so over and over again, as
he drew his oilskins close round him, and yet there was a sense of loss
in his life, a great and terrible loss. She would be nothing to him, the
girl he loved so well, she would marry Clement Scott, she had as good as
told him so--because--because he was the better man. The better man--the
better man--the words formed themselves into a sort of rhythm that his
steps kept time to--"the better man, the better man."

"Binnacle light's goin' hout, sir," said the man at the wheel, breaking
in on his sad thoughts.

"Below there. One of you boys trim this light."

Young Angus Mackie answered his hail, unshipped the light, and lingered
for a moment.

"We 'll be right aboard t'auld place in an hour or two, sir."

"What?"

"I was sayin' that goin' on this tack we 'll be awfu' close in shore.
Ye could pretty nigh chuck a biscuit in at the kitchen door. I wonder if
they'll be thinkin' o' us."

"E--h--h?" muttered Harper, for had not his thoughts been taking the
same road, though not for worlds would he have owned it.

"I'm thinkin' Susy will. Ye see I 'm thinkin' Susy was a bit gone--"

"You boy, trim that lamp," said Harper angrily. "Look here, my lad,
you just keep your tongue lashed amidships, and don't go gassing about
things that don't concern you in the least, or you and I 'll part brass
rags."

The boy scurried below and returned with the lamp retrimmed. He slipped
the light into the binnacle and looked doubtfully at the second mate. It
was dull and he was inclined to talk, but after his late rebuff hardly
dared. Harper began to pace up and down again, and the boy stowed
himself under the lee of the house, volunteering the information as he
passed the mate.

"Bo'sun says the wind 's goin' to shift ahead."

"You be hanged, and the bo'sun too!"

But before an hour had gone by he was obliged to acknowledge that the
bo'sun's weather prophecies were very correct, for the wind shifted
point after point till it was right ahead and blowing half a gale.
Harper looked aloft and noted the clouds scurrying across the sky.
Heavier and heavier they were growing to wind'ard.

"By Jove!" he muttered to himself, "we 're in for a nasty night."

Suddenly the lookout man reported, "Light right ahead, sir."

Harper stepped forward to the skylight and peered down into the cabin,
dimly lighted by an oil lamp. It was a bare enough little place at best,
but it looked comfort itself as contrasted with the wet decks above. The
skipper was lying on a settee sound asleep, one hairy arm thrown out,
and on the table meditatively surveying him was Dinah, the ship's cat.

"Hallo there!" reported the mate through the skylight; "light right
ahead, sir."

Very lazily he rolled off the sofa, scared puss out of her senses by a
rough sweep of his hand, and came up on deck.

"Great Scott!" he growled, "what a night!" Then he took a squint through
his night glasses.

"Oh, yes, mister," he said, "that's all right. It's just a small
light--a leading mark for the small craft going into the creek there for
lime. Fixed white light, I heard of it the day before we left. It's deep
water right up. We'll go right in, mister, and make a long board of it
on the next tack."

The moon was completely hidden now, and both men hanging over the break
of the the poop could see nothing but the bright light right ahead.

"It looks small, sir," ventured Harper, taking another look through his
glasses.

"Didn't I tell ye it was small? If ye will be for ever--"

Harper still looked steadily through his glasses.

"By the Lord! sir, that looks uncommonly like a line of breakers!
There--to port!"

The skipper made one hesitating step forward, and then the truth flashed
on him like lightning.

"Great Scott!" he cried again, "so it is! Call all hands. Hands 'bout
ship!" Then he turned to the man at the wheel, who was the Russian Finn
the bo'sun objected to as unlucky, "Keep her clean full for stays."

The men came tumbling out from the holes and corners where they had
stowed away, and the watch below came up growling audibly at having
their rest disturbed, but none apparently understanding the danger
of the situation. It is all in the day's work that a sailor should be
disturbed before he has had more than a taste of the bliss of sleep. The
wild tumbling waters and the shrieking wind told them no tale; they
only thought the wind had gone round and freshened a bit since they went
below.

Harper standing on the fife rail at the crojack braces could have told
them a different story. Clearly he saw the danger. There ahead, a little
to leeward, were the long line of breakers; even in this pitchy darkness
he could see their white foam-topped crests against the inky water; he
fancied that even above the roaring of the wind through the rigging he
could distinguish the crash with which they flung themselves hungrily
against the rocks, the long-drawn sob as of disappointment with which
they fell back into the sea again, there to gather strength for a fresh
onslaught. Above them was the loom of the land showing only like thick
cloud-bank against the horizon, and the bright light beckoning, it
seemed, with friendly hands.

"Ready about!" shouted the skipper.

"O--o--oh, o--o--oh, o--o--oh!" sang the men at the braces in mournful
monotone. Bang went the wet sail against the mast, and the second
mate from his vantage point watched her slowly come up to wind.
Slowly--slowly--the towering seas came pouring aboard--she took it in
by the deck-house by ton loads, and the men all hung on to the nearest
thing handy for dear life. Slowly, slowly her nose came up to the wind.
Would she go round? Would she? Would she?

"Gummy!" he heard the bo'sun's voice near him in the darkness, and above
all the din; "she is a blanked old bathing machine, ain't she?"

Nobody disputed the fact. Would she come round? Would she? Would she?
Surely she was coming.

Then there was a pause for a brief second. Every man in that pause, it
seemed, realized the gravity of the situation.

By Jingo! Will she come? Will she not?

Then the hoarse voice of the skipper broke in.

"Up with your helm, hard up! Flatten in your head sheets! Haul in your
weather cro'jack brace!"

"Jammed, by G--d!" said the bo'sun, taking a squint over the side at the
racing water and the ship rolling helplessly in the trough of the seas,
"jammed, by G--d! like Jackson's cat."

The ship was in irons. "Would they ever get out of this fix?" thought
Harper, while he listened to the skipper shouting orders to the man at
the wheel, as she gathered stern-way and heard the Russian Finn's hoarse:

"Helm's amidships, sir," in reply. He was a plucky old man, old Alick
MacDonald, given to carrying on as long as he dared, which was a good
deal longer than most men would have dared, and his second mate had
seen him in some very tight places already, but his good luck had always
stood him in good stead; would it hold good once more?

Gradually the ship paid off, slowly her nose came round, and Harper,
looking at the foaming line of breakers, thought how perilously close
they were. But--but--surely after all she would come through scot free,
a moment more--only a moment more. The moon came from behind the heavy
clouds paling the light ashore before her bright rays, and showing them
just for a second the seething white water all around. So close was the
danger, every man held his breath.

"We're clear!" The words were on Harper's lips, then--crash--the ship
struck with a sickening shock that shook her from stem to stern, and
brought down the foreto'g'll't mast from aloft with all its tackle,
and strewed the deck with wreckage. In a moment the men had dropped the
ropes and rushed as one man aft to be clear of the falling top hamper.

"Stand fast, men, stand fast!" sung out Harper. "Where are you off to
there?"

"Well," growled the bo'sun, who still stood by the second mate, "hell's
the next port, if you ask me!" And his companion could not but wonder
at his coolness. He too, clinging for life, realized that the good ship
_Vanity_ was a total wreck, and as he realized it, he raised his eyes
and saw the light, which had been their guiding star till now, go
suddenly out and leave all the cliff in pitchy darkness.

Crash went the ship again, bumping heavily and bringing down more hamper
from aloft to add to the confusion on deck, and sea after sea swept over
her. The two men scrambled aft, and above the thunder of the seas
that fell aboard and the roar of the breakers that were not to be
disappointed of their prey, heard the skipper shouting orders for the
launching of the life-boat. It seemed to Harper no boat could live in
such a raging sea, of a surety no boat could land on such a coast--at
least not the coast as he knew it, the coast where was the Mackie
selection--and the Mackie selection was somewhere hereabouts, you might
see the light of their kitchen fire from--Good God! it came upon him
like a flash--was that the light that had led them to destruction?

But there was no time for questions like that. The idea passed through
his mind as he heard the skipper shout,

"Port watch, rig tackles! Starboard watch, see port life-boat all clear
for going out!"

The raging wind and sea seemed to have gone down for a moment, now they
had accomplished their end. The moon came out again, and he saw the
watch at the skids, and the tall figure of the first mate as he stood on
the boat, ripping off the covering with a sheath knife. One step forward
he made to go to his assistance when there rose a towering wall of dark
water to wind'ard.

"Stand from under--stand from under!" yelled every throat, but it was
too late. It was doubtful if they heard, it was certain they had no
time to get away. The wave came on resistlessly, and when the water had
passed over them, boat and skids, part of the bulwarks, the first mate,
and half the starboard watch had been swept away. There was a wailing
cry above the roar of the seas, but it was impossible to say who had
gone.

"Gone to port," muttered the bo'sun, "an' darned quick too!" And
that was their requiem, for now it was each man for himself. The old
skipper's voice was silent, and the second mate feared he too must have
been carried overboard by the last sea.

"Jump for a blue light," he said to a boy next him, who was clinging to
the broken skylight, "they're in the locker in the cabin."

The lad hesitated, then swung himself down, and in a minute or so
returned, clambering back through the skylight holding two blue lights
in his hand. He struck the end of one and illuminated the whole place
with the ghastly glare. The _Vanity_, but a few minutes before a trim,
smart ship, lay there on the reef a total wreck. The bright light showed
her broken bulwarks with the seas making clean sweeps through them, the
decks one mass of wreckage in hopeless confusion, cordage and rigging,
splintered yards, and shattered deck-house--all alike had suffered a sea
change. The foremast and the mainmast were gone, and their stumps stood
up jagged and torn, but the mizzen lower mast still remained, and the
men--those of them that were left--were in the rigging, for the deck
every moment was becoming more untenable. The wheel was broken and the
Russian Finn lay dead beside it, killed by a falling gaff, his swarthy
face, white now in the bright light, turned up to the stormy sky; and a
little farther for'ard, close to where Harper himself was standing, lay
the skipper, jammed against the skylight by a heavy hencoop.

He bent over him and attempted to move the hencoop.

"All right, mister," said the old man bitterly, "better leave it alone.
The old barkie's clean done for, an' I'm thinkin' we 're all bound for
the same port."

As the blue light died down the lad lighted another, and one or two men
dropped from the rigging and crawled to Harper's assistance.

"I ain't worth much now, mister," moaned the old man again; uwe 'll
never get out of this fix; "but they succeeded in dragging him aft
and lashing him in the rigging. The boy who had burned the blue lights
scrambled after them, and then, clinging there, hardly out of reach of
the hungry waves, commenced their long wait for daylight.

"What 's the time, sir?" asked the lad next the second mate.

"About eleven."

The boy drew a long sigh.

"Oh, Lordy! we can never hold on till morning, can we?"

"God knows."

A light started out of the darkness against the cliff--a light that grew
and grew till it was a great flame even from where they stood, and the
men in the rigging raised a shout.

"They see us ashore! Hurrah! hurrah!"

"Mighty little good their seeing us ashore 'll do us," said the bo'sun;
"hell 's between!" And looking at the strip of seething boiling water
that lay between them and the coast, Harper was obliged to acknowledge
the man was right.

Still it lent them some comfort--that bright fire. They were a handful
of men clinging there, drenched to the skin already, and every wave
wetted them again with its salt spray, the wind whistled through the
rigging bitter and cold, the icy rain like spear points cut their faces;
there was no hope for them, no hope at all save in that blazing fire on
shore.

Who shall describe the thoughts of men in extremity? Who shall say
whether they thought at all--those men half dead with cold, clinging for
dear life with numb hands to a slender rope that might give way at any
moment? Would they see the morning light?

Harper was surprised to find he took it so quietly. There was none of
the despair he had fancied he should feel in like case--or rather, he
questioned, was it not despair that made him take it so calmly, utter
despair? And after all what did a few years more or less of life matter
to him? If death only came quickly without much pain, would it not be
well with him? What had he to live for? Bitterly came back to him the
last time he had looked over this raging sea. If it was not here, it was
somewhere hereabouts, somewhere quite close. He could not help thinking
of it, and contrasting it, that lovely summer's afternoon, and this
bitter winter's night, with just ten days in between them. He looked at
the fire on shore, now dying down, now blazing up brightly, replenished
by willing hands, and between it and him came Susy Mackie's fair face.
So sweet and dainty and fair, all that a man might long for, and yet she
would give no thought to him. No thought! A wave higher than its fellows
drenched him through and through, and made him wonder was the Vanity
settling down, slipping off the reef into the deep water beyond it. No
thought! What did it matter? It was only a little nearer the inevitable
end, and if she had given him thought--if she had given him her heart,
it was in despite her better judgment; her narrow up-bringing had won
the day, and only that morning he had thought that life was not worth
living without her. Why should he repine now that fate had taken him
at his word? Then a great wave of tenderness came over him. His little
girl, his sweet, pretty little girl, who made even of the stern, hard,
unlovable faith of her fathers, a thing that was holy and beautiful.
His little girl! He remembered--and the very thought sent a warm glow
through his chilled veins--how she had wept over his possible death,
wept bitter tears because she thought her God was harder and more cruel
than the children He had made with His hands. His little girl, his
darling!

The boy next him began to moan, and in spite of the shrieking wind and
the howling sea Harper made out that his hands were aching, that he was
perished with cold and could not hold on any longer.

"Nonsense, lad, nonsense!" and he took off his strong leather belt and
buckled it round the shroud and round the boy's body, "there, that 'll
give you a helping hand. Hold on now." Then as the boy thanked him, he
saw by a stray and watery moonbeam it was young Angus Mackie.

"It's right on your own coast, Angus, we 've come to grief."

"I 'm thinking," said the lad, "it's right on our own place. I 'm
thinkin' yon light--not the fire, the one we saw first--is our ain
kitchen fire. Mony 's the time I 've been seein' it an' me out fishin'
here."

"But the fireplace doesn't face the door," wondering to himself why it
was he discussed such things now.

"Naw, but there 's a bit mirror agin the wall, it reflects things. Oh,
mony's the time I've seen it. Mither, she wanted it in the parlour; but
Susy, she was saying we were living in the kitchen, and it made things
brighter like. Dad, he was for sayin' it was a snare o' the Evil One;
but Susy, she had her way."

So after all it was his sweetheart's natural girlish longing after
pretty bright things that had lured them to destruction. Should he
die to-night it was her innocent hand that had dealt the blow. The boy
beside him was thinking the same thing, and presently he said, "When she
comes to know, what'll she say?"

Harper said nothing. If it had been possible he would have prayed the
boy to keep the knowledge from her; but he knew it was not possible. If
any man escaped from this wreck, he would surely tell of the light
they had mistaken for the new leading mark, and if they all
perished--well--then there would be no need to plead for silence. The
sea keeps her own secrets.

"Susy is gone on ye, sir," said the boy again, "why wouldn't ye have
her?"

It hardly seemed strange to him now, the question he would have resented
fiercely at any other time.

"Have her!" he repeated, and looking down, he noted that the last wave
had left behind it a great crack in the deck, and he heard the skipper
moaning, "Oh, the poor barkie, the poor barkie!" and knew that he too
had seen it. "Have her? She wouldn't have me."

"But--but--she--"

"She didn't think I was good enough," explained Harper hastily.

"She told ye that!--oh, Lord! They 've been at her about that pious
psalm-singer Clement Scott. Ye try again when we get ashore. She's goin'
to stop a bit wi' Aunt Barnes, at South Yarra, this Christmas. T' auld
girl hates t' psalm-singer, an' she 'll do the job for ye. Oh, Lord! oh,
Lord! I 'm starved wi' the cold."

"It 's not so long now," said Harper, and suddenly he felt as if the
night were stretching itself into interminable years. The bar that Susy
had thought so hopeless, so insurmountable, was it really but a thing of
straw? Was there really a chance for him yet? Was there really anything
in the lad's careless words? And hope awoke again in his breast, and
with the hope a raging bitterness against the fate that was putting a
barrier once more between him and the attainment of those hopes. She
loved him, she had acknowledged that she loved him, and now to be free
to win her! The eagerness for life awoke in him again. Who said the
world was dreary? Who said life was not worth living? A bright,
fair world stretched enticingly before him, and he was dying. Yes,
dying--they were all dying, the old ship was breaking up fast, and if
succour did not come quickly--He drew a long breath and looked down
through the rain, that was falling in torrents now, at the decks below.
One moment all was hidden by the raging seas, the next by the faint
moonlight he saw the cracks widening--widening--then came another great
sea, and he felt the ship bump heavily on the rocks. No, it was the
poorest chance that she should last till morning, they--these men
hanging to the rigging--had no chance whatever of living in the sea that
boiled around them. Wider and wider grew the cracks on deck, the water
was pouring into the hold, and the cargo was being washed out of her.
One bale of wool--two--three--rose up on the next wave. A bale of wool!
What is a bale against a man's life? And yet the skipper was moaning
pitifully over their loss.

"My great Scott! eighteen hundred bales of wool gone! What will the
owners say? The poor old barkie! The poor old barkie! How shall I face
the owners?"

So! so! and his chances of facing those owners seemed so pitifully
small, and yet the old man's thoughts were full of it. Sometimes he
moaned over the wife and children in faraway England, but not as one
who gives up all hopes of seeing them again, only as one who maybe had
brought them to bitter poverty and pain by his mischance, for would the
owners give him another ship, now he had lost the old _Vanity?_ "Hardly
likely," he muttered to himself. "Hardly likely." And so the bitter
night wore on. There was nothing to mark the hours as they passed. Now
a man moaned a little, now another cried aloud that he could hold on no
longer, that he must fall and die before morning. Always there was the
sea, sweeping over the decks and halfway up the mast towards them, with
wearisome monotony. Great squalls of rain came up every now and then,
blotting out all else and making all round inky-black; then they passed,
and the pale and watery moon showed them the shore quite close, and the
raging waters between. The tongue of the ship's bell had broken loose
somehow, and the wash of the sea made it toll with mournful cadence. It
rose clear and loud, even above the shrieking of the gale, and Harper
fitted its notes to his own words. "Never more," it seemed to say; and
then, as a heavier sea than usual swept over the wreck, shaking her down
to her very keel, "Never, never more."

And yet on shore the fire leaped and danced. Kindly anxious hands were
feeding it, and it was impossible not to think that the men who would
stay out on such a bitter night, were not doing all they knew for the
help and succour of these helpless men. There were rocket apparatus
stationed along the coast, and if the ship would only hold together long
enough, why should they not all be saved? If she only would. Ben Harper
was feverish in his desire for life now. He must live; he must see Susy
once again, he must--he must! And eagerly he watched for the dawn.

So long the night, so long, so long. Is it a truth that our hours of
gladness and our hours of pain are all of a length? Surely not. The
night wore on, and it seemed to those waiting men that the longed-for
morning would never come. But gradually the moon sank behind the dark
mass of the land to leeward, and in the east came the first faint
streaks of dawn.

A shout rose up from the weary waiting men, a shout Harper fancied he
heard echoed faintly from the shore. Then the day was born, stormy and
cold, and the light only showed them a handful of men clinging to a
wreck, which each sea threatened to break into a thousand pieces.

"Merciful God!" cried the skipper, as the daylight showed him the full
extent of his peril, "my poor wee wife!"

But if the daylight showed them their danger it showed them too that
those on shore had not been unmindful of them. The ugly cliffs, steep
and inaccessible, were not very high, and on the nearest point to the
wreck, not indeed one hundred yards away, a little knot of men were
getting ready the rocket apparatus. There were women there too, with
shawls thrown over their heads, and Harpers heart beat as he thought of
seeing his love again. Surely now--now that he came to her from the very
jaws of death--cast up out of the cruel sea--she would not reject him.
Would she not rather take it as a sign from her God that she was to wed
this man? Surely she would. In another few minutes he would be by her
side--a little longer and he might hold her in his arms again. How
long--how long? O God! if they would only make haste. Could they not see
that every moment was precious, that the old ship was breaking up fast?

He began to count the men in the rigging, nineteen of them, men and
boys, and the skipper was helpless with a broken leg. It would take them
some time to get off. And yet not so long though--once they had the rope
aboard.

They got the apparatus fixed at last, and then "swish." They could not
see anything, for it was broad daylight now, but they heard the sigh of
the rocket as it passed and knew it had missed. A despairing cry went
up from the perishing men, for they, like the second mate, were counting
their chances and reckoning them poor indeed. It almost seemed a matter
of minutes now.

Again the men on shore tried, and this time the shout that went up was
one of triumph. The thin line lodged beautifully over the mast, and the
men in their awkward position hauled it in, and it seemed as if they had
home and happiness within their grasp when the block came along.

Very carefully they made the thick rope fast round the mizzen lower
masthead, the bo'sun still brisk and cheerful after the terrible night
which he had spent in the rigging, his only covering a pair of torn
dungaree trousers.

"None of your darned men-o'-war slippery hitches about this," said he;
and Harper, as he saw the breeches-buoy come along the stout cable,
could have shouted as the men were doing. Here was happiness and
safety--here was the woman he loved--nay, should he not say rather the
woman who loved him--waiting on shore for him, and would she deny him
now he had come through so much? His little girl, his darling! One by
one he watched the men go, he watched the breeches-buoy swallowed up in
the raging waters, he watched them received on shore as men risen from
the dead, and he counted eagerly the moments till his turn should come.
They knew now on shore the name of the ship. Was that woman on shore
looking seaward, his Susy? She had a red shawl, he remembered, as we do
remember trifles in the supreme moments of our life. That must be Susy,
and she was thinking of him. Only six now. And now only five. For
one brief moment he felt as if he were tasting the bliss of perfect
happiness. Could he have doubted that a merciful God ruled this world
of ours? Ah, little girl, you shall learn a newer, purer, more pitiful
faith, and Ben Harper will be your teacher, and then--and then---- All
the exultation went out of his heart, for his eye fell on the tail of
the block and he saw that it was stranded. It had lain there--that thick
rope--in its house, carefully kept against the day of need, day after
day, week after week, year after year, and the long waiting had told on
the stout rope, slowly it had rotted, slowly--and no man knew it. And
now in the day of need when a good man's life depended on it, it was
failing. Was it though? Only three more men. And now only two--only the
old skipper and himself. No one had noticed the rope, and where was the
good of speaking of it. He watched the breeches-buoy, coming back to
them, and clearly, clearly he read as in letters of fire that one of
those two must die. Twelve hours ago he would have given his life for
the skipper's, gladly, willingly; but now--now it was different. It was
his right to live, he' told himself fiercely--his right, just as it was
the right of the skipper to be the last to leave the ship. He was an old
man, what was his life to him?--loyal enough to his owners--a rough
old sea-dog, hard and even cruel at times--he was old, he had lived
his life, he must be the one to stay. Even for the wife and children's
sake--the owners were not hard men--they would see they did not starve.
And he must see Susy again--just hold her in his arms once again.
Sweetheart, sweetheart, who so dear in all the world? It was his right
to go, he told himself again. Then he cut the lashings with which they
had bound the skipper to the mast, the breeches-buoy was so close now
and it was easier for him to do it. The old man might find a difficulty
by himself, and he would want to be all clear when next the buoy came
back. When next the buoy came back! He looked at the stranded rope and
knew that the buoy would never come back. Hardly would it reach the
shore. Certain it was it would never come back, and the wreck was
breaking up fast. It was his right to go, and no one would know. And
even if they did, he was only taking his rights. How could he give his
life, with all its fair possibilities, all its high hopes, for this
worn-out old shellback? And the buoy was here!

"You go, sir. It'll only make a few minutes' difference, and I can help
you. You're hurt, and you'll find it hard to manage by yourself."

The old man demurred a moment--staunch old sailor, he would have stuck
to the ship to the last, but the mate said again, "It only makes the
difference of a minute or two, sir. That's nothing."

He could not send a message--not one. Why should he? They would never
understand. The fair-haired girl would never know how he had longed for
her this night.

Down, down went the buoy, and the waters swallowed it up. A great
wave--another--he had done with life, for the rotten rope had parted at
last!

But on shore there was great rejoicing, for they hauled the skipper up
out of the sea, bruised and hurt and half drowned, but still alive; and
the cry went round that he was the last man left aboard the Vanity.

Then the bo'sun put up his hands and squinted through them seaward.

"Jimini! there's the mizzen mast gone! Poor old girl!"

"An'," said another voice, the voice of the man who had left before the
skipper, "there was two men aboard when I left, an' one of 'em was the
second mate. Where is he?"

"Gone to ----," but a woman's bitter cry cut short the bo'sun's speech.




DICK STANESBY'S HUTKEEPER

"Hallo! Dick. You here! Why, I thought you were away up tea-planting in
Assam."

"And I thought you were comfortably settled down on the ancestral acres
by this time."

"No such luck. The ancient cousin is still very much to the fore. Has
taken to himself a new wife in fact, and a new lease of life along with
her. She has presented her doting husband with a very fine heir; and,
well, of course, after that little Willie was nowhere, and departed for
pastures new."

"Make your fortune, eh! Made it?"

"Of course. Money-making game riding tracks on Jinfalla! Made yours?"

"Money-making game riding tracks on Nilpe Nilpe."

The two men looked at each other, and laughed. In truth, neither looked
particularly representative of the rank and aristocracy of their native
land. The back blocks are very effectual levellers, and each saw in the
other a very ordinary bushman, riding a horse so poor, the wonder was
he was deemed worth mounting at all. Both were dusty and dirty, for the
drought held the land in iron grip, and the fierce north wind, driving
the dust in little whirls and columns before it, blew over plains bare
of grass and other vegetation as a beaten road.

Around them was the plain, hot and bare of any living creature, nothing
in sight save a low ridge bounding the eastern horizon, a ridge which
on closer inspection took the form of bluffs, in most places almost
inaccessible. Overhead was the deep blue sky, so blue it was almost
purple in its intensity, with not a cloud to break the monotony. Sky and
desert, that was all, and these two Englishmen meeting, and the shadows
cast by themselves and their horses, were the only spots of shade for
miles.

"Sweet place!" said Guy Turner, looking round. "Warmish too. Wonder what
it is in the shade?"

"In the shade, man. There ain't any shade, unless you count the shadows
of our poor old mokes, and mine's so poor, I 'll bet the sun can find
his way through his ribs. I 've been in the sun since daybreak, and I
reckon it is somewhere about boiling point."

"I suppose it must be over 1600. What the dickens did you come out for?"

"Well, seeing it's been like this for the last three months, and is
likely to go on for three more, as far as I can see; it ain't much good
stopping in for the weather; besides there's this valuable estate to be
looked after. But to-day I rode over for the mails."

"What, to the head-station?"

"Lord, no! The track to Roebourne passes along about twenty miles off
over there, and I get the boss to leave my mail in a hollow tree as he
passes."

"Trusting, certainly. There 's some good about this God-forsaken
country."

Dick Stanesby, or, to give him his full name, Richard Hugh De Courcy
Stanesby, shrugged his shoulders scornfully.

"Evidently, Dick, that mail wasn't satisfactory. Has she clean forgot
you, Dick, the little white mouse of a cousin, with the pretty blue
eyes? She was mighty sweet on you, and------"

But there was a frown on Dick's usually good-tempered face. He was in no
mind to take his old chum's pleasantry kindly, and the other saw it, and
drew his own conclusions therefrom.

"Chucked him over, poor beggar, I suppose. Hang it all! Women are all
alike; once a man's down, he's forgotten," but he did not speak his
thoughts aloud. He looked away across the sweltering plain, and said
casually,

"Where do you hang out, old man?"

Stanesby pointed east in a vague sort of manner, that might indicate
South Australia, or far distant New South Wales.

"Got a shanty on the creek there," he said laconically.

"Creek, is there a creek? The place looks as if it hadn't seen water
since the beginning of the world."

"Oh, there's a creek right enough. I believe it's a big one when it
rains, but it hasn't rained since I 've been here, and there ain't much
water in it. Just a little in the hole opposite the hut. The niggers say
its permanent. Springs, or something of that sort."

"Niggers! That's what I 've come over about. They've worried the life
out of us on Jinfalla. Taken to spearing the cattle, and the men too if
they get a chance. Old Anderson thinks we ought to have some 'concerted
action,' and settle the matter once for all."

"H'm. Wipe 'em out, I suppose he means?"

"It's what a squatter generally means, isn't it, when he talks about the
blacks? Sounds brutal, but hang it all, man, what the devil is a fellow
to do? They 're only beasts, and as beasts you must treat 'em. Look
here, there was a young fellow on our run, as nice a boy as you 'd wish
to see--his people were something decent at home, I believe, but the
lad had got into some scrape and cleared out, and drifted along into the
heart of Western Australia here. He was riding tracks for old Anderson
about two hundred miles to the west there. He didn't come in last week
for his tucker, so they sent word for me to look him up."

"Well?" for Turner paused, and drew a long breath.

"Well--same old nip, of course. His hut was burnt, and he and his
hutkeeper--I tell you, Dick, it won't bear talking about--he was a lad
of twenty, and the hutkeeper was an old lag, might have been seventy to
look at him, but when I found their bodies down by the creek, I couldn't
tell which was which."

"It's bad," said Stanesby, "very bad. What did you do?"

"Buried 'em, of course, my mate and I, and shot the first buck we came
across skulking in the bush. What would you have us do?"

"It's all bad together," said the other man, with an oath. "The blacks
about here are tame enough if you let 'em alone, but these young fellows
get meddling with their women, and--well----"

"That 's all very well, but you didn't find a mate too ghastly a corpse
to look at, or you wouldn't take the matter so coolly. You 'd have done
just as I did. Something must be done, old man, or the country won't be
habitable."

They had been riding along slowly, side by side, one man eager, anxious,
interested, the other evidently with his thoughts far away. The mail he
had got that morning was stuffed into his saddlebags, and the news it
brought him made him think longingly of a home in far-away England, a
creeper-covered house, and a cosy room with a bright fire, and the rain
beating pleasantly on the windows. Rain--he had not seen rain for three
long years. Always the hard blue sky and the bright sunshine, always the
dreary plain, broken here and there by patches of prickly bush and still
more thorny spinifex, always the red bluffs marking the horizon, clean
cut against the cloudless sky.

Habitable? Such a country as this habitable? It had given him bread for
the last three years, but--but--he felt burning in his pocket the letter
summoning him home--telling of the death, the unexpected death, of his
young cousin, that made him master of that pleasant home, that filled
his empty pockets. What did anyone ever dream of living in such a
country for--driving the unlucky niggers back and back? What need
for it? What need? Far better leave it to the niggers, and clear out
altogether.

Had Gladys forgotten? He wondered. The little white mouse of a cousin,
as Turner called her, who had cried so bitterly when he left, and even
now answered his letters so regularly, those letters that had come to
be written at longer and longer intervals as home ties weakened,
and the prospect of seeing her again slowly died away. Had she
forgotten--had she? She looked like the sort of woman that would be
faithful--faithful--well, as faithful as any one in this world could
be expected to be, as faithful as women always are to their lovers in
distant lands. Turner had been sweet there once too, curious he should
meet him just now; he had forgotten her surely, or he would never have
referred to her so casually. Yes, Turner had forgotten, and yet he had
been very bad too--strange how completely a thing like that passes out
of a man's life. Could he take up the broken threads just where he left
off--could he? So sweet and tender as she was, so quiet and restful.
There was that other one, who loved him after her fashion too, but--pah,
it was an insult to Gladys to name her in the same breath--she--she--The
country was not habitable--a doghole unfit for a European; what was
Turner making such a song over the niggers for?

"Old man," said Turner, he had been telling to unlistening ears the tale
of how the blacks had speared, in wanton mischief, a mob of two hundred
cattle on Jinfalla, not fifteen miles from the home station, "old man,
you see it would be just ruination to let this go on. Either they or we
must clear out. We can't both live here, that's certain."

"Always the same old yarn wherever the Englishman goes, always the same
old yarn. Poor niggers!"

"Well, what'd you have?" said the other warmly; "something's got to be
done."

"I 'm going to cut it all."

"What?" Turner stopped his horse and looked his companion full in the
face. "Cut it all?"

"My cousin 's dead."

"John Stanesby?"

"John Stanesby."

"And Heyington 's yours?"

"And Eastwood too."

"Good Lord!"

There was silence for a moment. Then Turner said again:

"You can marry Gladys Rowan now."

"Yes."

Then he added, as if as an afterthought, "If she 'll have me."

"No fear of that," said Turner with a sigh. Then he turned to his old
chum, and stretching over laid a kindly hand on his arm, "I congratulate
you, old chap."

"Thank you." And they rode on in silence, the one man thinking bitterly
that if ever he had cherished a spark of hope of winning the woman he
had loved he must give it up at last, the other trying to realise the
good fortune that had come to him.

And an hour ago he had been as this man beside him--only one little hour
ago!

"How far do you reckon it to the head-station? Fifty miles?"

"Fifty? Nearer eighty I should say."

"Then I guess I 'll put up at your place. How far's that?"

"About ten miles."

"All right. Lead on, master of Heyington."

To refuse a man hospitality in the bush--such a thing was never heard
of, and, though Stanesby said no welcoming word, it never occurred to
Turner to doubt that he was more than welcome.

"It's right out of your way."

Turner stared.

"Good Lord! What's ten miles, and we haven't met for years. I must say,
old chap, you don't seem particularly pleased to see an old chum."

"I--they ain't so plentiful I can afford to do that. No, I was thinking
of going in to the station with you."

"Right you are, old man, do you? Only we'll put up at your place for the
night--my horse's pretty well done--and go on in the morning."

Stanesby said nothing, only turned his horse's head slightly to the
left. Save the red bluffs away to the east there was nothing to mark the
change of direction. There was no reason apparently for his choosing one
direction rather than another.

They rode in silence, these two who had been college chums and had not
met for years. Possibly it was the one man's good fortune that raised
a barrier between them. It was not easy for Turner to talk of present
difficulties and troubles when, as Stanesby said, he was going to "cut
it all"; it was not easy for him to speak of bygone times when the other
man was going back to them, and he would be left here without a prospect
of a change. And Stanesby said nothing, he could only think of the great
difference between them; and yesterday there was nothing he would have
liked better than this meeting with his old friend, which to-day fell
flat. No, he had nothing to say. Already their paths lay wide apart.

An hour's slow riding brought them to the creek Stanesby had spoken of.
There was no gentle slope down to the river, the plain simply seemed to
open at their feet, and show them the river bed some twenty feet below.
Only a river bed about twenty yards wide, but there was no water to be
seen, only signs, marked signs in that thirsty land, that water had been
there. Down where the last moisture had lingered the grass grew green
and fresh, and leafy shrubs and small trees and even tangled creepers
made this dip in the plain a pleasant resting-place for the eye wearied
with the monotony of the world above it.

"By Jove!" cried Turner, surprised.

"Told you so," said his companion, "but it ain't much after all. Fancy
calling that wiry stuff grass in England, and admiring those straggly
creepers and shrubs. Why we wouldn't give 'em house-room in the dullest,
deadest corner of the wilderness at home."

"Lucky beggar!" sighed the other man. "But you see they 're all I 'm
likely to have for many a long year to come. Hang it all, man, I bet you
'd put that shrub there, that chap with the bright red flower, into your
hot-house and look after him with the greatest care, or your gardener
would for you."

"It'd require a d----d hot house," said Stanesby laconically, wiping his
hot face.

They did not descend into the bed of the creek, the ground was better
adapted for riding up above, and a mile further along they came upon a
large blackfellows' camp stretched all along the edge of a water-hole.

"The brutes," said Turner; "bagging the water of course."

"They 'd die if they didn't, I suppose. This, and the hole by my place
is the only water I know of for forty miles round. After all they were
here first, and if I had my way they'd be left to it."

"All very well for you to talk," grumbled Turner. "Do they look worth
anything?"

Certainly they did not. The camp was a mere collection of breakwinds
made of bark and branches, more like badly-stacked woodheaps than
anything else, and the children of the soil lay basking in the sun,
among the dogs and filth and refuse of the camp, or crouched over small
fires as if it were bitter cold. The dogs started up yelping, for a
blackfellow's dog doesn't know how to bark properly, as the white men
passed, but their masters took no notice. A stark naked gin, with a
fillet of greasy skin bound round her head, and a baby slung in a net on
her back, came whining to Turner with outstretched hands. She had mixed
with the stockkeepers before, and knew a few words of English.

"Give it terbacker along a black Mary. Budgery{1} fellow you," but he
pushed her away with the butt end of his whip.

"My place's not above a mile away now," said Stanesby, as they left the
precincts of the camp behind them.

"I wouldn't have those beggars so close, if I were you. Some fine
morning you'll find yourself--"

"Pooh! They're quite tame and harmless. I 've got a boy from them about
the place, and he's very good as boys go. Besides, I 'm off as soon as
possible."

     1 Means "good."

"Well, I bet you the man who takes your place thinks differently."

"Very likely."

"Got a decent hutkeeper?"

"What? Oh yes. Pretty fair."

Clearly Stanesby was not in the mood for conversation, and Turner gave
it up as a bad job. It was about two o'clock now, the very hottest hour
of the day, and all nature seemed to feel it. Not a sound broke the
stillness, not the cry of bird or beast, nothing save the sound of their
horses' hoofs on the hard ground was to be heard.

"By Jove!" said Turner, "this is getting unbearable. I vote we get down
and shelter for a spell under the lee of the bank."

For all answer, Stanesby raised his whip and pointed ahead.

"There 's the hut," he said. "Better get on."

It was hardly distinguishable from the surrounding plain, the little hut
built of rough logs, and roofed with sheets of bark stripped from
the trees which grew in the river-bed. Down in the creek there was
a waterhole, a waterhole surrounded by tall reeds and other aquatic
vegetation which gave it a look of permanence, of freshness and
greenness in this burnt-up land. But that was down in the creek, round
the hut was the plain, barren here as elsewhere; no effort had been made
to cultivate it or improve it, and the desert came up to the very doors.
The only sign of human life was the refuse from the small household--an
empty tin or two, fragments of broken bottles, and scraps of rag and
paper, only that and the hut itself, and a small yard for horses and
cattle, that was all--not a tree, not a green thing. The bed of the
creek was their garden, but it was not visible from the house; its
inmates could only see the desolate plain, nothing but that for miles
and miles, far as the eye could see. So monotonous, so dreary an
outlook, it was hardly possible to believe there was anything else
in the world, anything but this lonely little hut, with, for all its
paradise, the waterhole in the creek below.

Turner said nothing. It was exactly what he expected; he lived in a
similar place, a place without a creek close handy, where the only water
came from a well, and undiluted, was decidedly unpleasant to the taste.
No, in his eyes Stanesby had nothing to grumble at.

The owner of this palatial residence coo-eed shrilly.

"Jimmy; I say, Jimmy!"

A long, lank black boy, clad in a Crimean shirt and a pair of old riding
breeches, a world too big for him, rose lazily up from beside the house,
where he had been basking in the sun, and came towards them.

Stanesby dismounted and flung him his reins, Turner following suit.

"All gone sleep," said Jimmy, nodding his head in the direction of the
hut, a grin showing up the white of his regular teeth against his black
face.

"Come on in, Turner."

The door was open and the two men walked straight into the small hut.

It was very dark at first coming in out of the brilliant sunshine, but
as Turner's eyes grew accustomed to the light, he saw that the interior
was just exactly what he should have expected it to be. The floor was
hard earth, the walls were unlined, the meagre household goods were
scattered about in a way that did not say much for his friend's
hutkeeper, a shelf with a few old books and papers on it, was the only
sign of culture, and a rough curtain of sacking dividing the place in
two, was the only thing that was not common to every hut in all that
part of Western Australia.

"Howling swell, you are, old chap! Go in for two rooms I see."

The curtain was thrust aside, and to Turners astonishment, a girl's face
peered round it. A beautiful girl's face too, the like of which he
had not seen for many a year, if indeed, he had ever seen one like it
before; a face with oval, liquid dark eyes in whose depths a light lay
hidden, with full red pouting lips, and a broad low brow half hidden by
heavy masses of dark, untidy hair, which fell in picturesque confusion
over it. A beautiful face in shape and form, and rich dark colouring,
and Turner started back too astonished to speak. Such a face! Never
in all his life had he seen such a face, and the look turned on his
companion was easy enough to read.

"Come here, Kitty," said Stanesby in an unconcerned voice. "I want some
dinner for this gentleman."

Then she stepped out, and the illusion vanished. For she was only a
half-caste, beautiful as a dream, or he who had not seen a woman for
many a long day--he never counted the black gins women--thought so,
but only a despised half-caste, outcast both from father's and mother's
race.

Not that she looked unhappy. On the contrary, she came forward and
smiled on him a slow, lazy smile, the smile of one who is utterly
contented with her lot in life.

"Whew! So that 's our hutkeeper, is it?"

"Dinner, Kitty."

The girl took a tin dish from the shelf and went outside. She walked
well and gracefully, and Turner followed her with his eyes.

"By Jove!" he said, "talk about good looks. Why, Dick, you--"

"Hang it all, man," said Stanesby. "I know well enough what you 're
thinking. The girl _is_ good-looking, I suppose, for a half-caste. The
boss's sister, old Miss Howard, found her among the tribe, a wild little
wretch, and took her in and did her best to civilise her; but it wasn't
easy work, and the old lady died before it was done."

"And you 're completing the job?"

Stanesby shrugged his shoulders.

"I saw her, of course, when I went in to the head-station, which wasn't
very often, and I suppose I told her she was a good-looking girl. She
mayn't understand much, but she understood _that_ right enough, trust
a woman for that. Good Lord! I never gave her a second thought, till I
found her at my door one night. The little beggar had had a row with 'em
up at the house and came right off to me. It wasn't any use protesting.
She might have done worse, and here she 's been ever since. But she's
got the temper of a fiend, I can tell you, and it ain't all skittles and
beer."

The girl entered the room and Stanesby began turning over his mail
letters, making his companion feel that the subject had better be
dropped between them. He had explained the girl's presence, he wanted no
comments from his old friend.

He filled his pipe and sat down on the only three-legged stool the hut
contained, watching his friend seated on a box opposite and the girl
passing in and out getting ready the rough meal. She was graceful,
she was beautiful, as some wild thing is beautiful, there was no doubt
whatever of that. Her dress was of Turkey red; old Miss Howard had had a
fancy for dressing all her dark _protegées_ in bright colours, and they
had followed in her footsteps up at the station, and Turner mentally
appraising the girl before him, quite approved her taste. The dress was
old and somewhat faded, but its severe simplicity and its dull tints
just set off the girl's dusky beauty. Shoes and stockings she had
none, but what matter? any touch of civilisation would have spoiled the
picture.

Stanesby apparently took no notice of her, but began to read extracts
from his letters and papers for his companion's benefit. He was hardly
at his ease, and Turner made only a pretence of listening. He could not
take his eyes from the girl who was roughly setting out the table for
their meal. "The temper of a fiend," truly he thought it not unlikely,
judging by the glances she threw at him whenever she took her eyes
from Stanesby. She could hardly have understood what he read, but she
listened intently and cast angry glances every now and then on Turner.
He and these letters, she seemed to feel, were not of her world, they
were taking this man away from her. Yes, he could well believe she had
the temper of a fiend. But she said nothing. Her mother had come of a
race which from time immemorial had held its women in bondage, and
she spoke no word, probably she had no words in which to express her
feelings.

The table was laid at last, and a piece of smoking salt beef and a great
round damper brought in from outside and put on it.

"Dinner," said the girl sullenly, but Stanesby went on reading, and paid
no attention, and Turner felt himself watching to see what would happen
next. He caught only snatches of the letter, just enough to know it was
a description of a hunt in England, of a damp, cold, cloudy day, of an
invigorating run--the contrast struck him forcibly--the stifling, hot
little hut, and the jealous, half-savage woman standing there, her eyes
aflame with anger at the slight she fancied was put upon her.

She stole over and touched Stanesby lightly on the arm, but he shook her
off as he would a fly and went on reading calmly.

The other man watched the storm gather on her face. She stood for one
moment looking, not at Stanesby but at him; it was very evident whom she
blamed for her lover's indifference; then she stretched across to the
table and caught up a knife. Her breath was coming thick and fast and
Turner never took his eyes off her, in between her gasping breath he
heard his friend's voice, slow and deliberate as ever, still telling the
tale of the English hunting day, still reading the letter which put such
a world between him and the girl standing beside him. Then there was a
flash of steel, Turner felt rather than saw that it was directed at him,
and, before he even had time to think, Stanesby had sprung to his feet
and grasped her by the arm.

"Would you now? Would you?" He might have been speaking to a fractious
horse. Then as Turner too sprang to his feet and snatched the knife from
her hand, he flung her off with an oath.

"You little devil!" He sat down again with an uneasy laugh, and the girl
with an inarticulate cry flung herself out of the open door. In all
the half hour that had elapsed, she had spoken no word except when she
called them to their dinner; but in that inarticulate moan the other man
seemed to read the whole bitterness of her story.

"I told you," said Stanesby, he seemed to feel some explanation or
apology were necessary; "I told you she had the temper of a fiend. I
hope she didn't hurt you, old man?"

"No, no. She meant business, though, only you were too quick for her.
But I say, old man, it isn't well to have a good-looking young woman fix
her affections on you in that ardent manner. There'll be the devil to
pay, some day."

The other laughed, and then sighed.

"I tell you it was no fault of mine," he said.

"Come on and get something to eat. There's whisky in that bottle."

Virtually he had dismissed the subject; with the disappearance of the
girl he would have let the matter drop, but he was not at his ease, and
his old chum was less so. It was all very well to talk of old times,
of college days, of mutual friends, each was thinking, and each was
uncomfortably conscious that the other, too, was thinking, of that
dark-eyed, straight-limbed young savage who had forced her personality
upon them both, and was so far, so very far, removed from the world of
which they spoke. There was another thing too, a fair-haired,
blue-eyed girl, as different--as different as the North Pole from the
Equator--each had loved her, to each she had been the embodiment of
all earthly virtues, and each thought of her as well, too--the one
man bitterly. Why should this man, this whilom friend of his, have
everything? And the other man read his thoughts, and unreasoning anger
grew up in his heart against his old chum. It has nothing whatever to do
with Dick Stanesby's hutkeeper, of course, nothing whatever; but it is
nevertheless a fact, that these two old friends spent what should have
been a pleasant afternoon, devoted to reminiscences of old times and a
renewal of early friendship, in uncomfortable silence. The monthly mail,
which Stanesby had brought in, contained many papers, and after their
meal they lighted their pipes and read diligently, first one paper
and then another. At first they made efforts at conversation, read out
incidents and scraps of news and commented thereon, but as the afternoon
wore on, the silence grew till it became difficult to break it. The
sunlight outside crept in and in through the open doorway. There were no
shadows because there was nothing to cast shadows, save the banks of the
creek down below the level of the plain and the red bluffs, thirty
miles to the eastward. But the sun stole in and crossed the hard
earthen floor, and stole up the wall on the other side, crept up slowly,
emphasising the dull blankness of the place. So did the sun every day
of the year, pretty nearly; so did he in every stockkeeper's hut on
the plains of Western Australia; but to-day he seemed to Turner to be
mocking his misery, pointing it out and emphasising it. Such his life
had been for the last three or four years; such it was now; such it
would be to the end. He could see no prospect of change, no prospect
of better things: always the bare walls and the earthen floors for him;
unloved, uncared for he had lived, unloved and uncared for he would die.
And this man beside him--bah! it would not bear thinking of. He pushed
back the stool he had been sitting on, and strolling to the door looked
out. Nothing in sight but the black boy, who wasn't a boy at all, but a
man apparently over thirty years of age, lolling up against the verandah
post, like one who had plenty of time on his hands.

Stanesby got up and joined him. The hot wind that had blown fiercely all
day had died down, and now there hardly seemed a breath of air stirring.
It was stupid to comment on the weather in a place where the weather
was always the same, but Turner felt the need of something to say, so he
seized on the well-worn topic.

"It's getting a little cooler, I think."

"Confound it, no."

Stanesby looked round discontentedly. The untidy, uninviting remains of
their midday meal were still on the table, pushed aside to make room
for the papers they had been reading; it gave the place a dishevelled,
comfortless air, which made its dull blank-ness ten times worse.

Turner noticed it, but he did not feel on sufficiently good terms to
rail at his friend's hutkeeper, as he would have done in the morning. He
only shrugged his shoulders meaningly when Stanesby called out,

"Boy! I say, Jimmy, where's the girl?"

Jimmy turned lazily and showed his white teeth.

"Sit down along a creek, you bet."

"Go and fetch her."

Jimmy showed his white teeth again, and grinned largely, but he did not
stir.

"My word! Baal{1} this blackfellow go."

"Much as his life is worth, I guess," said

     1 Means "not, no."

Turner grimly, "judging by the specimen of her temper the young lady
gave us this afternoon."

Stanesby muttered something that was hardly a blessing under his breath,
then he caught up his hat and went down the bank to the waterhole. The
other man felt more comfortable in his absence. He sat down, lighted his
pipe, and taking up the paper again, began to read with fresh interest.

Half an hour passed. The sun sank below the horizon, gorgeous in red and
gold, and Turner watched the last rosy flush die out of the western
sky. Darkness fell, and he sat on smoking and thinking sadly, till his
comrade loomed up out of the gloom.

"Is that you, Stanesby?" he called out.

"Who the devil should it be?" Then remembering his hospitality, "Why you
Ye all in the dark! Why didn't you light a candle!"

The girl did not make her appearance, and Turner did not comment on her
absence. Stanesby said nothing. He lighted a candle, and calling Jimmy
to his assistance, began clearing the table and washing up the dirty
plates and pannikins. Turner offered to help, but was told ungraciously
that two were enough, and so went on smoking and watched in silence.
He did not feel on intimate enough terms to comment; but he knew well
enough Stanesby had gone out to find the girl, and either failed to find
her, or at any rate failed to bring her back. It was no business of
his any way, and he sat smoking till he was called to the evening meal,
which was a repetition of the mid-day one, with milkless tea instead of
whisky for a beverage.

Stanesby apologised.

"I 'm clean out of whisky, I 'm sorry to say."

"It's all right, old man. I don't often manage to get it at all on
Jinfalla."

They discussed station matters then, discussed them all the evening,
though Turner could not but feel that his host's thoughts were far away.
Still they lasted, they interested the man who was bound to live on
here, till at length Stanesby got up with a mighty yawn and suggested
they should turn in.

There was a bunk fixed against the wall, and he threw his comrade's
blankets into it.

"It's all I can do for you to-night, old man. Come to Heyington next
year, and I 'll treat you better."

"Thanks," said Turner. "No such luck for me." Then he spoke the thought
that had been in his mind all the evening.

"I say, that girl hasn't come in."

"She's all right, she can sleep out then. I can't say it'll cool her
temper, for it's as hot as blazes still. Good night, old chap."

Turner lay awake long after the light was out, staring up at the
unceiled roof, at the faint light that marked the open doorway and the
window, thinking, thinking, wondering at his own discontent, thinking of
the fair-haired, blue-eyed girl he had loved so well and so long. It
was all over between them now, all over; there had never been anything
except on his side, never anything at all, and now it was not much good
his even thinking of her. She would marry Dick Stanesby and never know,
never dream----

His thoughts wandered to that other girl, it was no business of his, but
it worried him nevertheless, as things that are no concern of ours do
worry us when we lie wakeful on our beds, and the _girl's_ beautiful,
angry face haunted him. He thought of her there down by the creek,
alone in her dumb pain, so young, so ignorant, so beautiful. There was
something wrong in the scheme of creation somewhere, something wrong,
or why were such as she born but to suffer. His life was hard, cruelly
hard, he had known better things; but she--she--hers had been hard all
along. Had she known any happiness? he wondered. He supposed she had if
she cared for Dick Stanesby. When first she came, unasked and unsought,
he had been good to her; he knew his friend, he had known him from
a boy, easy-going, good-natured, with no thought for the future for
himself, how could he expect him to think for another? He had been good
to her--oh, yes, he knew Dick Stanesby--very good to her, but he had
taken no thought for her future any more than he would for his own. He
would go into the head-station with him to-morrow morning, he very much
doubted if he would come back. He would intend to at first, but it would
be very much easier to stay, and he would stay, and the girl--what
would become of her? He found himself saying it over and over again to
himself, what would become of her? What could become of her? till he
fell into an uneasy doze and dreamed that he was master of Heyington
and had married Gladys Rowan, who was no other than Dick Stanesby's
hutkeeper, and crouched in the corner with a long, shining knife in her
hand. Then he awakened suddenly and heard the sound of voices, a woman's
voice and Dick's, Dick's soft and tender. He could not hear the words,
but the tones were enough. It was the same old Dick. He did not want
her, he would rather be without her: but since she was there, he must
needs be good to her. So she had come back after all! He might have
known she was sure to come back. Why couldn't she stop away? Why
couldn't she join her relatives down by the creek? Alas! and alas! The
barrier between her and them was as great as it was between her and the
white man. Greater, if possible. Poor child! poor child! How was it to
end?

He tossed and turned and the voices went on softly murmuring. He thought
of Gladys and grew angry, and finally, when he had given up all hope, he
fell fast asleep.

Next morning he found that peace reigned. The girl came in and quietly
cleared away the remnants of last night's meal and began making
preparations for breakfast. Her mind was at ease evidently. She had
no doubts about the permanency of her heaven; and when she saw him she
smiled upon him the same slow, lazy, contented smile with which she had
first greeted him, apparently forgetting and expecting him to forget all
disagreeable episodes of the day before. How long would this peace last?
asked Guy Turner of himself.

The meal done, Stanesby called to his black boy to bring up the horses,
and touching the girl on the shoulder drew her aside, evidently to
explain that he was going into the head-station and wanted provisions
for the journey.

"We'll take a packhorse between us," said he to Turner, "it'll save
trouble; and I 'll show you a decent camping-place for to-night." Then
he followed the girl outside, and his companion began rolling up his
swag.

He came back a few moments later, the girl following, and Turner could
not but note the change in her face. It was not angry now, there
was hardly even a trace of sullenness on it. Fear and sorrow seemed
struggling with one another for the upper hand, and she was sobbing
every now and then heavily, as if she could not help herself.

"Good Lord! Stanesby, what the dickens have you been doing to the girl?"
he said.

Stanesby looked at him angrily.

"You seem to take a confoundedly big interest in the girl," he said.

"Well, hang it all, man, she looks as if she had been having a jolly bad
time, and really she's only a child."

"A child, is she? A child that's very well able to take care of herself.
I haven't been beating her, if that's what you 're thinking. I suppose
I may be allowed to go into the head-station occasionally without asking
my hutkeeper's leave."

"Oh! that's the trouble, is it? Depends upon your hutkeeper, I should
say. I don't ask mine, but then--"

Turner paused, and Stanesby answered the unspoken thoughts with an oath.

"Oh, if you feel that way," began Turner, but his companion flung
himself out of the hut angrily.

Then the girl turned round, and Turner wondered to himself if she were
going to repeat the performance of last night. But no, she was quiet and
subdued now, as if all hope, all resentment even, had left her.

"Going to the head station?" she asked, and her voice was soft and low
and very sweet, with just a trace of the guttural enunciation of
her mother's race; but she spoke good English, far better than her
appearance seemed to warrant, and did no small credit to old Miss
Howard's training.

"Yes, yes, of course. We're going to the head station, but Stanesby 'll
be back in a day or two," he added soothingly, because of the sorrow on
her face. And then he hated himself for saying so much. What business
was it of his?

She stepped forward and laid both hands on his arm.

"Don't take him away, don't, don't!" she pleaded.

Her big dark eyes were swimming with tears, and there was an intensity
of earnestness in her tones that went to the young man's heart. Besides,
he was young, and she was very good to look upon.

"My dear child," he said, his anger against his old friend growing,
"I have nothing in the world to do with it. He must go into the
head-station sometimes. He must have gone often before."

She dropped her hands and leaned back wearily against the wall.

"No," she said, "no, not when the myalls are down along the creek."

"Good Lord! Those d----d black fellows! I never thought of them. But
they won't touch you!"

She looked up and smiled faintly, as if amused at his ignorance.

"Kitty tumble down," she said, relapsing into the blackfellows' English.

"Oh! come, I say," said Turner, "this'll never do." And he went outside
in search of Stanesby, whom he found strapping their swags on to the
packhorse.

"Look here, I say, old man, that poor little beggar's frightened out of
her wits of the myalls down by the creek there."

Stanesby shrugged his shoulders.

"All bunkum! I know her ways. She wants to get me to stop. She seems to
guess there's something in the wind. The myalls! pooh! They 're as tame
as possible. They steal any odds and ends that are left about--that's
about their form."

"But the poor child is frightened."

"Frightened! Get out. There wasn't much fright about her when she took
the knife to you last night! She knows very well how to take care of
herself, I can tell you."

"But those myalls. On Jinfalla we--Well, it really seems to me risky to
leave her all alone. Even if there isn't any danger--the very fact of
being alone--."

"Pooh! Considering she tramped from the head-station here all the eighty
miles on foot, just because of some breeze with the cook there, she must
be mightily afraid of being alone. However, if you don't like her being
left, it 's open to you to stop and look after her. I 'm going to start
in about two minutes."

"Oh, well, if you think it s all right--"

"Of course it's all right. There 's Jimmy got your horse for you. Come
on, old chap."

Turner mounted, and Stanesby was just about to do the same, when with a
quick cry the girl ran out of the hut and caught his arm.

She said no word, and before he, taken by surprise, could stop her, she
had wound both her arms around his neck and laid her face against his
breast.

Turner put his spurs into his horse, and rode off smartly. It was no
affair of his. The whole thing made him angry whenever he thought of it.

As for Dick Stanesby, though usually never anything but gentle with a
woman, he was thoroughly angry now; he had felt angry before, but now he
was roused, which did not often happen, to put his anger into words.

"Confound you, Kitty! Do you hear me? Don't be a fool!" and he roughly
shook her off, so roughly that she lost her balance, staggered, and
fell. He made a step forward to take his horse, which was held by the
stolid black boy, but she was too quick for him and, grovelling on
the ground at his feet, put out her arms and held him there, murmuring
inarticulate words of tenderness and love. Stanesby stooped down, and
caught her wrists in both his hands.

"Get up!" he said roughly, and dragged her to her feet. She stood there,
leaning all her weight on his supporting hands, looking at him with
reproachful eyes.

They were beautiful eyes, and there was need enough for her sorrow had
she only known; but what Stanesby was thinking of was the awkwardness of
the situation. He did not mind the black boy, he counted him as so much
dirt--but Turner! Already this girl had made an exhibition of him, and
now it was worse than ever. Every moment he dreaded he would turn
round, and even though he did not it was equally bad, he kept his face
purposely averted.

The girl broke out into passionate prayer to him not to leave her, then,
seeing he was still unmoved, she began to call him every tender name her
limited vocabulary contained, though there was little enough need to do
that, her eyes said enough.

"Kitty, go back to the hut this moment! For God's sake, don't be such a
fool! One would think I was going to murder you."

"The myalls will," she said. Then she paused, and added solemnly,
"to-morrow."

"What confounded rot!"

He let go her hands suddenly, and she fell to her knees and tried to
put her arms round him again; but with a quick movement he stepped
backwards, and she fell forward on to her face. He pushed her aside
roughly, angrily, with an anger that was not all against her, and
mounted hurriedly, snatched the packhorse's rein from the black boy, and
was off at full gallop after his friend before she could regain her feet
But she did not try to, once she realised that all hope was gone. He had
left her, it was all over with her, she might just as well lie there.

At the sound of the galloping horses behind him Turner looked round.
Through the haze of the early morning, the haze that promised fierce
heat later on, he saw the horses coming towards him, and beyond,
half-veiled by the dust they made as they passed, a dusky red bundle
flung carelessly out on the plain, of use to no one. The black boy
walked away, it was no business of his. There was the lonely hut and
the far-reaching plain, nothing in sight but the bluffs far away to
the east, nothing at all, only that red bundle lying there alone and
neglected.

He had no words for his comrade when he did come up. That dusky red
heap seemed to fill all his thoughts, and about that silence was best.
Stanesby checked his horses, and they rode on slowly as men who have a
long journey before them. The sun climbed up and up to the zenith, but
there was no shelter, no place for the noonday rest. Then away in the
distance arose a line of trees raised up above the horizon, and Stanesby
pointed it out to his companion.

"We can spell there a bit," he said. "It's only that beastly prickly
bush, for all it looks like a forest of red gum at the very least from
here, but there'll be a scrap of shade, and I'm getting tired. There's
water there sometimes, but it was dry as a bone last time I passed."

"It's a grand country!" sighed Turner.

"By George!" said Stanesby, "I never will come back this way. Why should
I, now I 'm free to do as I please?"

Why, indeed? And Turner's thoughts immediately flew back to the
dark-eyed girl, and the solitary hut as he had last seen it through the
haze of the morning, with that red heap lying there carelessly flung
aside, and the black fellow stalking away. Why should he go back? Why
indeed? Only to have that scene repeated. Better go straight on to
England, and home, and pretty, fair-haired, blue-eyed Gladys Rowan.

So they lay there in the scanty shade and spelled, and built a small
fire of dry sticks, and filled the billy from the waterbag that hung at
each horse's neck, and boiled their tea, and ate their humble mid-day
meal, and dozed the afternoon away, lazily watching the hobbled horses
as they searched on the still damp edges of the shallow clay pan for
such scanty grass as the moisture induced to grow there. They
hardly spoke, they had nothing in common now; once they reached
the head-station, they would part never to meet again. Each felt it
instinctively, and each was thankful that it should be so. The sooner
the parting came, the better now.

The shadows of the thorny bushes began to grow longer and longer as
the sun sank in the west, and they mounted their horses and started off
again. Then the sun went down, and the colour faded out of the sky as
the stars, bright points of light, came out one by one. The new moon was
a silver rim clear cut in the west, and not a sound broke the stillness.
How lonely it was, how intensely lonely! Turner thought of the poor girl
alone in the hut miles behind them, and wondered if his companion too
were thinking of her. After all, surely the very loneliness gave safety.
At any rate, she was safe at night. If the blacks did not attack at dusk
they would leave her alone for the night. But the morning--next morning!
Was it right to leave her? He himself had no faith in the myall blacks,
they were treacherous, they were cruel. Had he not come over to arrange
some plan of campaign against them? And yet he went away and left that
girl at their mercy, completely at their mercy. He felt strongly tempted
to turn back. If they could not stop with her, at least they might
have brought her along with them. She was defenceless; her blood was
no protection, rather the reverse. And then, when he turned to speak to
Stanesby, the recollection of his scornful, "It's open to you to stop
and look after her," tied his tongue. After all, it was not likely
Stanesby would have left if there was the slightest danger; he had lived
among these blacks, he understood them thoroughly; it was an insult to
the man he had known all his life to suppose anything else; and yet the
thought of the girl's loneliness haunted him. The moon set, and by the
starlight they saw looming up ahead some rocks, isolated rocks, roughly
piled together by some giant hand.

"We'll camp there," said Stanesby, "there's a little water down under
the rocks--about enough to keep life in the horses; there's some grass
and a bush or two to make a fire. What more could the heart of man
desire?"

Out in the bush not much time is wasted, and soon after they had halted
their blankets were spread, and they were asleep, or lying, if not
asleep, staring up at the bright starlit sky of the southern hemisphere.

But Turner could not sleep, it was worse than it had been the night
before. Why should he be haunted in this way? Why should he take
Stanesby's sins on his shoulders? The girl was all right, she must be
all right; why should she haunt his dreams, and keep him wakeful on
his hard bed, when he had a long journey still before him? Stanesby was
sleeping peacefully as a child. He could hear his deep breathing; if
there was anything to be feared he would not sleep like that. It was hot
still, very hot. This was an awful climate, a cruel life, and Stanesby
had done with it all. No wonder he slept soundly.

He sat up restlessly. A sound in the distance broke the stillness, then
he started, surely it was the trotting of a horse. He rubbed his eyes.
Their own three horses were there close beside them, he could see them
vague and indistinct in the gloom. They were there right enough. What
could this be? Who could be riding about at this time of night? They
were still a good forty miles from the head-station, and this horse was
coming from the opposite direction.

He put out his hand, and shook his companion awake.

"Some one's coming," he said shortly.

"Some one! Gammon! Good Lord!--"

There was no doubt about it, and he rose to his feet It was the other
side of the rocks, and they walked round quietly. They were only
curious, there was nothing to fear. In the dim starlight they saw a man
on horseback advancing towards them.

"Hallo!" called out Stanesby, as he came quite close, "who the devil are
you?"

The horse was done. They could hear his gasping breath, and the man bent
forward as if he too had come far and fast, but he did not answer, and
as he came closer Turner saw he was a blackfellow.

Stanesby saw it too, and saw more, for he recognised his own black boy
Jimmy.

"Good God! Jimmy, is it you?"

There must be something wrong, very wrong indeed, that would bring a
black-fellow, steeped in superstitious fears of demons and evil spirits,
out at dead of night.

"Jimmy!" Stanesby caught him by the shoulder, and fairly pulled him from
his horse, "What's the meaning of this?"

Jimmy did not answer for a moment. He was occupied with his horse's
bridle, then he said carelessly, as if he were rather ashamed of making
such a fuss about a trifle.

"Myalls pull along a hut."

"My God!" cried Turner. It seemed like the realisation of his worst
fears.

But Stanesby refused to see any cause for alarm.

"And you 've ridden like blazes, and ruined the mare, to tell us rot
like that. What if they do come up to the hut? They've been there
before."

The answer was more to his companion than his servant, but Jimmy
answered the implied reproach.

"Blackfellow burn hut," he stated.

"Nonsense!"

"This fellow sit down along a bush," he went on stolidly.

"Well--if you did! I wish to heaven you had stopped alongside your
confounded bush before you ruined my mare."

"Bungally you!" said Jimmy, who was no respecter of persons, meaning
"you are very stupid." "Blackfellow put firestick in humpy and--"

"Good God! Stanesby, I knew it. The myalls are going to burn down the
hut, and this beggar's got wind of it."

Jimmy nodded approvingly.

"All gone humpy," he said, stretching out his hands as if to denote the
deed was done.

"But the girl, Jimmy, the girl!"

"Poor gin tumble down."

"I--Jimmy," Stanesby caught him by the shoulder, and shook him
violently, and Turner knew by the change in his voice that his fears
were roused at last, "how did you know this? When did you hear it?"

"Sit down along a bush," said Jimmy again. His vocabulary was limited.

"But when--when? It must have been all right when you left?"

"Blackfellow pull along a humpy to-night," said Jimmy, nodding his head
solemnly, feeling that at last he had got a serious hearing, and hoping
to hear no more about the mare.

"But the girl--the girl! Where's the girl?"

"That one myall hit him gin along a cobra big fellow nulla-nulla? Gin
tumble down."{1}

"But--my God! what 'd you leave her there for?"

"Myall got 'em nulla-nulla for this fellow."

"You brute!" cried Turner, "why didn't you bring her with you?"

"Only got 'em one yarramen," said the blackfellow nonchalantly. There
was only one horse, he had taken it and saved his skin. He had come to
warn the white man of the destruction of his dwelling, but he did not
count the half-caste girl of any value one way or another. The blacks
would attack the hut at sundown when they saw the coast clear.

     1 A blackfellow has hit the woman over the head with a big
       stick or club.   The woman is dead.

The white man would be angry at the destruction of his hut, he had
ridden after him to tell him, and also because safety lay with the white
man; but the girl--if there had been a horse in the little paddock, he
might possibly have brought her out of danger, but even as a blackfellow
he looked with contempt on a half-caste; and as a woman--well, a woman
was worth nothing as a woman. There were plenty more to be got. He lay
down on the ground, and lazily stretched himself out at full length.
There was nothing more to be got out of him.

Stanesby kicked him, and went for his horse.

"This is terrible!" he said, in a hoarse, husky whisper. "That poor
child! Old man, I ought to have taken your advice. My God! Why did you
let me leave her?"

Turner was saddling his own horse, and asking himself the self-same
question. That girl's blood was on his head he felt, and yet--and
yet--it was no business of his. Stanesby had declared all safe.

"What are you going to do?"

"Going straight back, of course."

"We'll be too late. Jimmy certainly said at sundown."

"He may be wrong, you know; besides, there's no trusting these devils.
They might have changed their minds. You 'll help me, old man, won't
you?"

"Of course."

It took but a few moments to prepare for that journey back. Each man saw
that his revolvers were loaded, saddled his horse, and they were ready.
The horse Jimmy had ridden was done.

"Shall we leave him?" said Stanesby, contemptuously stirring him with
his foot.

"No, by Jove! no," said his companion, "we must have him. He knows all
the sign."

So they forced the reluctant Jimmy to mount the packhorse, and
distributed his load between them, taking only what was absolutely
necessary.

When they were quite ready Stanesby looked at his watch.

"Ten o'clock," he said. "We must be there before daylight if we want to
do any good;" and Turner could not but note that there was a more hopeful
ring in his voice. Evidently he thought that perhaps all would be well
after all.

They rode in silence, each man busy with his own thoughts. They had
to ride judiciously too, for their horses were poor, and they had
done forty miles already that day. Could they ever get back to the
out-station before breakfast? Could they? And would they be in time if
they did? Turner asked himself the question again and again, and he felt
that his companion was doing the same thing. Whenever he touched his
horse with the spur till the poor beast started forward with a fresh
burst of energy, his companion felt he was thinking that the girl's life
was forfeit by his carelessness, was wondering would they ever be in
time.

Dawn would be about six o'clock. Forty miles to go, and eight hours to
do it in. Forty miles straight ahead, with absolutely nothing to break
the monotony except the little patch of prickly bush where they had
spelled that afternoon. They went farther before they spelled to-night,
and they did not stop then till it was very evident to both that the
horses must have a rest, if it was only for half an hour. Turner lay on
the ground and stared up at the starlit sky, and listened to the deep
breathing of the black boy, and the restless pacing up and down of
his companion. Then he fell into a doze from which he was aroused by
Stanesby, and they were on their way again.

"We can't stop now till we get there," he said. "Old man, we must be in
time. We must!"

But the other man said nothing. He could not judge, he could only hope.
And now at the end of the journey, weary and tired, his hopes had gone
down to zero.

The first faint streaks of dawn began to show themselves in the eastern
sky, and Stanesby drew a long breath.

"My God! we Ye still a mile away."

"If they weren't there last night we'll be in time."

"Poor little girl! How thankful she 'll be to see us. It's all right, it
must be all right."

And the light broadened in the east, the rosy light grew deeper and
deeper, then it paled to bright gold, and behind, and all around, the
world looked dark against that glowing light. Up came the rim of the
sun, and Stanesby, urging his tired horse forward, said, "We ought to
see the hut now. The confounded sun 's in my eyes."

Turner rubbed his own. But no, against the golden glowing rising sun the
horizon was clean cut as ever, only the boundless plain, nothing more.

"Jimmy!" Stanesby's voice was sharp with pain and dread.

Jimmy raised his head sullenly. He was tired too, and considered himself
ill-used.

"All gone humpy," he said.

Brighter and brighter grew the sunlight, another fierce hot day had
begun. And there was nothing in sight, nothing. The plain was all around
them, north, south, west, only in the east the red bluffs.

"All gone humpy." Their haste had been of no avail. The tale was told.
They had come too late.

What need to ride for all they were worth now? But so they did ride,
revolver in hand. And when they arrived at what had been Dick Stanesby's
hut, an out-station of Nilpe Nilpe, there was nothing to mark it from
the surrounding plain but a handful of ashes; even the hard earth showed
no sign of trampling feet.

Stanesby flung himself off his horse like a madman.

"She may be all right. She must be all right. It may have been an
accident. She is hidden down by the creek."

Turner said nothing. What could he say? His thoughts flew back to the
lonely hut, and the girl lying there on the hard ground in her dusky red
dress, alone, cast off, a thing of use to no one. Well, she was dead,
he expected nothing else, and she was avenged. Surely this home-coming
would haunt the man who had left her all the days of his life.

He laid his hand heavily on the black boy's shoulder.

"Track, you devil!"

And Jimmy led the way down towards the waterhole.

They followed him in silence.

The tall reeds looked green and fresh after the hot dry plain, but
they also suggested another idea to Turner, and he tried to check his
companion's headlong career.

"Look out! You don't know. They might be in those reed beds."

"All gone blackfellow," said Jimmy, and stolidly went ahead.

Then at last he brought them to what they sought. Dead, of course. Long
before they started on that mad ride back her sufferings had been over.
Dead! and Turner dared not look his companion in the face. No peace, no
tenderness, about a death like this. It was too terrible! And this man
had left her; in spite of her prayers he had left her!

They avenged her. The blacks had not gone far, but they could not follow
them up that day. They spent it in the shade down by the waterhole, and
Turner did not try to break his companion's silent reverie. Then when
their horses were recruited they set out for the head-station of Nilpe
Nilpe. There they told their tale. It was not much of a tale after all.
Only a half-caste girl murdered, and a hut burnt. Such things
happen every day. But the blacks must be punished, nevertheless, and
half-a-dozen men rode out to do it, Stanesby at their head.

He was very silent. They said at the station, coming into a fortune had
made him stuck-up and too proud to speak to a fellow, only Turner put
a different construction on his silence. And the vengeance he took
was heavy. They rode down among that tribe at bright noonday, led by
Stanesby's black boy, who had been one of themselves, and when evening
fell it was decimated, none left but a few scattered frightened wretches
crouching down among the scanty cover in the creek bed, knowing full
well that to show themselves but for a moment was to court death swift
and certain. So they avenged Dick Stanesby's hutkeeper.

They count Dick Stanesby a good fellow in his county. He is a just
landlord, well beloved by his tenants. He is a magistrate and stanchly
upholds law and order; and withal he is a jolly good fellow, whose
hunting breakfasts are the envy and admiration of the surrounding
squires. His wife is pretty too, somewhat insipid perhaps, but a model
wife and mother, and always sweet and amiable.

There have been found men who were Goths enough to object to Mrs.
Stanesby's innocent, loving prattle about her eldest boy and her third
girl, and the terrible time they had when her second little boy had the
measles, and they were so terrified for the first twenty-four hours lest
it should turn to scarlet fever; there have been men, I say, who
have objected to this as "nursery twaddle," but their womenkind have
invariably crushed them. They believe in Mrs. Stanesby and in Dick
Stanesby too.

"Their story is too sweet," says Ethel De Lisle, his sister's
sister-in-law. "It reminds one that the chivalry of the olden times has
not yet died out among true Englishmen. Only think, he loved silently
because he was too poor to speak. He went away to Australia, and he
worked and waited there all among the blacks and all sorts of low
people, and at the end of four years, when his cousin died and left him
Heyington, he came back faithful still and he married her. I call it too
sweet for words.".

But Mrs. De Lisle has never met Guy Turner. He is still "riding tracks"
on Jinfalla, and consequently she knows nothing of Dick Stanesby's
hutkeeper, or of a solitary grave by the Woonawidgee creek.




THE YANYILLA STEEPLECHASE

My dear, my dear, so you want to know why I am an old maid?

Well, nobody asked me to marry them, I suppose that must have been it.

No? What? You think I must have been pretty. Pretty, was I pretty?

They said I was then, dear, but you see there wasn't another lady within
fifty miles, and that made the difference, just all the difference. You
've a pretty little girl, Hope--it wasn't fair to have called you Hope,
it's such an unlucky name--but if you'd been young when I was they'd
just have raved about you.

Had I lovers, dear?

Of course I had lovers. Every woman who isn't downright repulsive has,
I think. Willie Maclean doesn't come here to see me, does he? Ah! I
thought--

There, never mind, there's no harm done. It's thirty years since the men
used to ride across the ranges just to stay the night at Yanyilla, and I
don't _think_ it was wholly for your grandfather's society they came. Of
course I had lovers. It's so long ago I can tell you about them now; but
mostly, dear, I don't think a woman should tell. She gets the credit of
it, I know, but she ought not to, and I do think there are many things a
nice woman, I mean a good woman, keeps to herself.

Oh yes! I had lovers, like every other girl, but there was only one I
cared about--and I cared--I cared--I believe I care still, for all I
lost him three and thirty years ago. I used to look forward to dying and
meeting him in heaven, dear, but I was young then, and after I passed
thirty, and began to go down hill, I got to know that he'd never
recognize in an old woman the girl he loved on earth. It troubled me
sorely, sorely, for he was only thirty when he died, but afterwards
I thought we must have been put into this weary world for some good
purpose, and surely if there is a great God he won't let me waste my
life for nothing. I have tried to do my best, but somehow my life has
been a failure all round; I 'm not much use to anybody. They say love
doesn't last, but I think they are wrong; I know it has lasted me all
these years, and the thought of seeing him again--well, well, you will
think an old woman foolish, dear, but it makes my heart beat like a
young girl's. Suppose--suppose I should not be quite all he thought me;
suppose he should have changed.

Why, Hope, you're smiling at my foolishness, but isn't that the way
every woman feels when she's in love; and I 'm in love still, after
three and thirty years, God help me, and a woman in the main is always
the same, whether her hair is golden, or whether it 's grey and she
hides it under a cap.

But this isn't telling you my story, is it, child?

Not that there's much to tell. You know Yanyilla. You know what a
station was like in the old days. They have been described over and over
again. But Yanyilla was always a nice place. A hundred and eighty miles
from Melbourne is a good way even now in these railway days, and it was
much further when we had to do the whole journey by Cobb's coach. Oh, we
were very much out of the world, and at first I used to feel lonely. My
father--well you know pretty well what kind of a man your grandfather
was, so it's no use my trying to gloss over his character--and your
grandmother, ah, my poor mother, I was always fond of my mother, but she
had a hard life, and it made her fretful and not much of a companion for
a young girl. She thought the world was a hard place for a woman to
live in, and the sooner I found it out and indulged in no vain hopes the
better for me. I thought then, rather vaguely to be sure, that she was
wrong, and I know it now. But she is dead long, long ago, and perhaps
she too knows it. Then there was my brother Ben, your father, Hope, he
was always a dear good boy, but he was so much younger than me, I don't
suppose he ever thoroughly understood it all.

The homestead was just on the slope where the hills ran down into the
plain country. Away to the west and north stretched the dull grey plains
far as the eye could see, and behind us to the east and south were the
ranges; dull and grey too, I used to think when first I went there,
but I changed my mind afterwards. When the sun shone he transformed all
things, and the sun shone very often in those days--he does so still
maybe, if only I could see with the same eyes--and I loved those ranges.
I liked to steal away on a hot day into the deep fern gullies, where the
tall green tree-ferns were high over my head, and the dainty maidenhair
grew among the rocks and stones at my feet. And someone else loved those
gullies too--it's all part of the story, dear, the same old story which
comes to every woman at least once in her life.

The boundary between Yanyilla and Telowie was among those ranges, and
Paul Griffith was the overseer at Telowie. I met him once or twice at
musters at our place, and then we met again once or twice by accident in
the gullies, where he was looking for stray cattle and I was gathering
ferns. It was only once or twice it was by accident, afterwards it was
by design. I can't tell you now exactly how we made the appointments
without putting it into so many words; but you are a girl, I dare say
you will understand thoroughly. Ah! he was so good-looking, my Paul, so
tall and fair and strong, and he had such kind blue eyes. Ah dear, ah
dear, how different my life might have been!

Well it went on and on all through the months of August and September,
and each time we parted the parting grew harder, and each time we met it
was--I can't tell you--just heaven to me, I think. Then one day--shall
I ever forget it?--he told me that he loved me, but he told me too how
poor he was, far too poor to ask my father for me; for though we were
very poor ourselves, my mother had a way of always saying that never
should her daughter be as badly off as she had been, so he knew and I
knew it was hopeless to think of our being engaged. He said he ought
not to see me again, and he would go away; but I cried then, I could not
help it, the world seemed such a dreary place without him. Then--it was
my fault, I suppose it generally is the woman's fault--he took me in his
arms and called me his little girl, and kissed me again and again. He
ought not to have kissed me if we were to part, he ought not. You know
the old couplet:

     "Take hands and part with laughter,
     Touch lips and part with tears."

And so it was with us, but it was not his fault I loved him, I loved him
with all my heart, and I wanted to be kissed, and those kisses have cost
me--no matter what they have cost me--I know now they were worth it.

But we could not make up our minds to part I was young and so was he,
and first I made him tell me he loved me better than anything on earth,
and then I laughed and said if it was only his poverty that stood
between us, I would wait for him all my life. I wondered afterwards at
my boldness--it did seem terribly bold, but there was nothing else to
be done--it seemed the only thing, I believe it was the only thing, as
I should have found it so utterly impossible to take my mother into
my confidence, and so you see, my dear, we two embarked on that most
foolish of all things, a secret engagement. But the fault was not his,
it was mine entirely. He wanted to go and tell my father all about it;
it would be better, he said, to be open and above board, and he didn't
think my father would mind much; but I wouldn't let him.

I can excuse myself even now, for I was young, and I felt I could not
stand my mother's perpetual moan. She would have spoiled my Eden with
her prognostications of possible evil. We met in the nearest gully
whenever we had the chance, and after all it was not so bad. Now I look
back on those two months of spring as the very happiest of my life. If
anything went wrong at home, and things did go wrong very often, for my
father was sure to be drunk once a week, and my mother's misery made me
unhappy, I always consoled myself with the reflection that Paul would
understand, that Paul would pity and comfort me. And he never failed me,
not once, my darling, not once.

Then there came upon me a new and unexpected trouble, one I might have
foreseen had I been a little older and known something more of the
world's ways. Stanton of Telowie owned all the country for miles back,
and consequently was a well-to-do man. I do not think he was a
very reputable man, though he was my father's great friend and boon
companion. My mother, usually so hard on men who drank ever so little,
and, as she said, led my father astray, would never blame Dick Stanton.
It was for my sake he did it, she said, and I don't know now whether she
was right or not; he sold out and went to England thirty years ago,
and I have never heard of him since. But I do know Paul Griffith, his
overseer, hated him with a bitter hatred, and what Paul did I did. I
was not a bad-looking little girl, and he may probably have meant to
be kind, but it was not his kindness I wanted. Like many another man
in those days, he wanted a wife, and this my mother dinned into my
unwilling ears morning, noon, and night.

"But, mother," I said at last, driven to bay, "how do you know he wants
me?"

"My dear," she answered, "do you think I have lived all these years in
the world for nothing? What do you suppose the man comes here twice a
week for?"

"To see father," I answered hotly, "and I hate him for it. Why can't
he let us alone? He comes, and it's always 'Another bottle, Hope; open
another bottle for Mr. Stanton.' I hate him, mother, I hate him."

"Oh, Hope," she went on unheeding, "it would be such a great thing for
you. He's worth at least three thousand a year, and he's head over heels
in love with you. Think what it'd be, child, never to be worried about
money again," and she sighed; my poor mother, she had been worried about
every conceivable thing, and more especially this weary money, all her
life, and she never expected to be free from care again.

"Think what it 'd be like to be tied to a brute like Dick Stanton all
your life!" But she only shook her head and said again, "he was so much
in love with me I could do what I liked with him;" and then she added,
that if I did not know what was good for me, she, my mother, did, and
she would take care my interests did not suffer. It was her duty to look
after them as my mother, and she would. Oh! that little word "duty"! It
seems to me all sorts of petty cruelties are committed in the name of
"duty." And after that Dick Stanton never came to the house, but I, more
unwilling than ever, was sent for to entertain him. Even now I don't
know whether he really cared, or whether it was simply that he wanted a
wife, and I was the only decent-looking girl within reach. And I hated
him for it with all my heart, and at last, as things got worse, for my
mother had told him that my coldness was all shyness on my part, I was
so miserable and perplexed I cried my heart out in the gully, and Paul
came and found me and got the whole truth out of me. How angry he was!
I can see him now walking up and down talking to himself, and I dried my
eyes and began to think things were not half so bad, since I had thrown
all my cares on him.

"But Paul," I said, with an attempt at a smile, "you know after all it's
very foolish of me to make such a fuss. They can't make me marry a man
I don't want to. And I hate him, I hate him. You just don't know how I
hate him."

"My darling," he said, sitting down on a log and drawing me towards him,
"how am I to help you? I can't have my little sweetheart's life worried
out of her in this way. Hope, I had better go to your father and tell
him all about it."

"And that would end it all effectually," I sobbed. "Mother would say I
was too young to know my own mind. She would say once you were away I
would forget you, and she would get Dick Stanton to--to--"

"Give me the sack," said Paul bitterly. "Who knows; perhaps it might be
best for you. I 'm not bringing you much happiness, dear."

"Yes, yes, yes; what should I do without you, Paul? I wish I had not
told you! You know--you must know--you're all the happiness I have in my
life."

"I 'm sure," he said, kissing me fondly, "you make all the brightness in
mine. But what am I to do to help you?"

"Just nothing. As I said before, they must give me a say in the matter
before they marry me right out."

"My colonial oath! Here 's a nice deceitful piece of baggage! Upon my
word, Miss Hope! So you 're the shy little girl who's quite overcome if
a fellow so much as looks at her!"

He was standing on the rise of the hill close above us, and how he had
come there without our seeing I 'm sure I don't know, except that lovers
always are caught sooner or later, and I suppose it was our fate. I 'd
rather almost anybody than Dick Stanton had caught us though; for he was
a vindictive little wretch, I always felt, and whether he cared for me
or not he would not like to find himself cut out by his own overseer. We
two sprang apart guiltily, and I saw my lover's face grow red and angry,
but not as dark and threatening as the one above me.

"So Mr. Griffith," said our unwelcome third party, "it's you who 've
been poaching on my manor. What the devil do you mean by it, sir?"

Paul, I saw, was too angry to trust himself to speak, only he waved his
hand to me as if he would have sent me home; but I was too frightened to
go. I was not twenty remember, and it seemed to me the two men were on
the brink of a violent quarrel, and vaguely I hoped my presence might
restrain them. I was wrong, I know now; I ought to have gone, and
perhaps--who can tell? But there--all the misery of our lives is just
summed up in thinking whether we might not have acted differently.
And so I took no notice of Paul, though I saw he wanted me gone, and
I stayed. Then Dick Stanton, seeing Paul did not speak, for the moment
lost all control of himself, and raged and stormed and used such
language as I had never heard in my life before, and I was well
accustomed to bad language; for my father, when he had pretty well got
to the bottom of the brandy bottle, didn't care much what he said, but
he never spoke as Dick Stanton did; oh, never. He was a gentleman at
least, my father. Paul stood it just for a minute; I think he was too
dumb-founded to speak, and then he made one step forward and caught the
other man by the neck--he was so tall and strong, my sweetheart--and
shook him as if he had been a child. It was Dick Stanton's turn to look
surprised then, and at first he swore harder than ever; then all at once
he looked up in Paul's face and burst out laughing.

"What the devil are we quarrelling about, Griffith?" he said, and his
voice sounded amiable, though I never would have trusted him.

Paul was still very angry, and only made some unintelligible reply, and
Stanton went on with a smile which I thought rather forced.

"I say, Griffith, old chap, you needn't cut up so blessed rough. It's
me who ought to cry out, I think. I go courting a girl; I've made that
plain enough in all conscience. All the country round knows it, and her
father and mother go dinning it into me that she 's awful fond of me,
but she 's young and she 's shy--oh so shy!--and the first time I come
across the ranges I find this--this--"

I really think he was too angry to think of a word to call me, for
he skipped out my name altogether, and went on, "and there I find her
cuddled up in your arms."

"She has a right to choose," said Paul, a little sullenly.

"And she has chosen. Just my blooming luck all over."

"And seeing she has chosen," said Paul, still angry, "suppose you leave
me to see her safe home."

"And what'll papa say, Miss Hope? He'd rather have the rich squatter for
a son-in-law than a poor roustabout, I 'll bet."

"It's no business of my father's," I said hotly, and then he laughed
sneeringly.

"By Jove! Dan Forde 'll have something to say to that, or I 'm very much
mistaken. Just you wait till to-night," and he turned away and ran up
the hill to where, I suppose, he had left his horse. Some one must have
told him to come and look for us, of course; he 'd never have come to
that lonely gully, and on foot, too, else; but to this day I don't know
who it was.

Paul comforted me all he knew; but still I went home very frightened,
though I wouldn't let him come with me. I did not quite believe Dick
Stanton would be quite so mean as to carry out his threat and tell my
father, and if he did not, I was glad, now that it was all over, that he
should understand how unwelcome were his attentions to me.

That night he came round as usual, and as usual I was sent for to pour
out their brandy for them, and to make myself pleasant to the guest. He
did not say anything to make me feel uncomfortable, indeed he was almost
kind and I had never liked him better, only I saw in his eyes he had
not forgotten the meeting of the morning and did not mean that I should
either. Presently they began to talk about the race meeting. We always
had a race meeting at Yanyilla once a year, just about the beginning of
November. I forget whether there was a cup in those days, but I know all
the people about were quite as much excited about the Yanyilla meeting
as you are now about the cup. The township was on our run, only three
miles away, and took its name from the station, and the paddock we used
as a race course was just within sight of the house. We always took
great interest in the races, more especially those for the station
horses, which were all supposed to be grass-fed, and therefore, when my
father and his friend got on the subject of the entries, I felt quite
safe and breathed quite freely for the first time that evening.

"I 've entered Boatman for the Yanyilla Steeplechase," said my father,
"but I 'm blest if I know who I 'll get to ride him. The beggar's an
awful powerful brute, and all the boys are afraid."

"And grass-fed! Surely not. He can't do much harm."

"Oh, he 's a brute, I must confess," said my father, "and no mistake;
but he's all there, and if I can get anybody to risk it, I 'll put the
pot on him."

"You think he's good to win, then? Can he beat my Vixen?"

"Beat her! He 'll beat any horse this side of the Dividing Range, once
he gets started with the right man on his back. But there's just the
difficulty."

"Now, I 'll find you a man to ride. He thoroughly understands horses,
I 'll say that for him, though I have no cause to love him. He 'll ride
for you, but I don't believe Boatman is as good as Vixen."

"I 'll lay you anything you like he is, if only I get the right man up."

"Done with you, then. You shall have the right man, that I promise.
Mind, you said anything I liked. You won't go back on your word?"

"Anything to within half my kingdom," laughed my father, who was getting
a good way down his bottle, or I 'm sure he never would have agreed to
what Dick Stanton asked.

"That's settled, then, for I suppose you don't count your daughter near
half your kingdom," said Stanton, and he looked at me as if he would
have said, "See how I pay you out. Then if Vixen beats Boatman I
marry your daughter out of hand; that's the arrangement, isn't it?"

To this day, in spite of after events, I don't believe he was in
earnest, for no man could seriously want to marry a girl who had just
shown him as plainly as possible she was in love with another man. I
think he just wanted to torment and frighten me by showing me his power,
as part punishment for my behaviour of the morning. But I didn't think
so at the time. For the moment astonishment took my breath away, and
then, when I found my voice, I vehemently protested.

"No! no!" I cried, "I will never marry you! Never! never! I hate you! If
you only knew how I Hate you!"

And the two men only laughed at me. My father was more than half through
his bottle, or he would never have shamed me so, but the other man was
sober enough, he knew what he was doing, and I think was pleased to move
me, for usually I would not look at him. I think sometimes now it was
the sight of my helpless anger made him carry the joke so far.

"Well, well, you shall have her if you're first past the post," said
my father, leaning back in his chair, and laughing heartily, "but I 'm
thinking there 'll be two Vixens over at Telowie then, and I know which
I 'd rather have the riding of."

"Oh! trust me. Gently does it. Ride her with the snaffle, with just a
touch of the spur now and then, just to show her you mean business,"
and he looked me full in the face and laughed, as if he were taunting me
with my helplessness.

If I shut my eyes I can see them now, for all it is so long ago. The
long, low, poorly-furnished room, badly lighted by one colza oil lamp,
the head of a dingo and two brushes crossed, over the mantelpiece,
the only attempt at ornament, and the two men seated at the table, the
decanter between them, gambling away my life and happiness. Maybe it was
only in jest; I try to think so now, but the consequences were so fatal,
there must have been just a spice of earnest in it even then, at least
on Dick Stanton's part. But not on my father's. Even now I pray that my
father was not in earnest.

The more I protested, the more determined they grew, till at last my
mother came in to see what all the laughter was about, and promptly sent
me to bed, and the last thing I heard as I made my escape through the
door was Dick Stanton's mocking voice calling, "Well, we needn't fear
but there'll be plenty of entries for the Yanyilla Steeplechase, once
the boys get to hear that Miss Hope Forde is to be the prize."

My mother followed me to my room. I think she, too, was a little angry,
but she wouldn't allow it to me, she only scolded me for stopping in the
parlour so long.

"You ought to know better at your age," she said. "It was wrong and
foolish of you to stop when you saw they were getting excited." My
mother always glossed a disagreeable truth over to herself in that way.
She never said, "Your father has had too much to drink," though he had
at least once a week, but it was always, "Your father is excited,"
or "over-tired." My poor mother; I have learned to pity her for those
deceptions that deceived nobody, since I have grown older and wiser.
Still, that night she was hard on me. Perhaps because she felt I had
been hardly dealt with, and she had nobody else to vent her anger on.
That is the way with some people.

"Don't be silly, now, and cry," she said, for I had flung myself down
on my little bed, and was vainly trying to suppress the sobs that would
come, "It's not the least good in the world to cry. You shouldn't have
stopped so long. It's entirely your own fault. You have nobody to blame
but yourself. There, there, for heaven's sake, child, don't cry like
that, they 'll have forgotten all about it to-morrow morning, when their
heads are clear. I don't know what was the matter with Dick Stanton, I
never saw him so excited."

I could have told her, but I held my peace, and she went away, and I
cried myself to sleep.

But the matter was not forgotten next day, for my father told us, as if
it were a huge joke, that he had bet me against a hundred pounds that
Boatman could win the grass-fed steeplechase.

"So you see," he said, laughing at the recollection, "it cuts both ways.
If I lose I get my daughter comfortably settled in life, and if I win I
'm at least 100L. to the good."

I looked at my mother appealingly, but she only shook her head. My
father was not a man whose whims could be lightly crossed, and she would
not let me even try. Ashamed! oh, child! I was never so ashamed in my
life! I hung my head all day and was afraid even to look the servant
maid in the face. I felt she must despise a girl whose own father held
her so lightly, And Paul, there 's where the hardest part of all came.
How was I to tell my lover what my father had done? And how was I not
to tell him, for I knew that Dick Stanton was not the man to keep such a
wager to himself; he would bruit it abroad, if it were only for the sake
of angering his rival. I was ashamed, ashamed, ashamed. It seemed to me
I could never hold up my head again, and oh, how was I to meet Paul! I
thought of nothing else for the next two days, and I had not a chance
of seeing him or telling him, for posts were not in those days. And so,
though he was only ten miles away, I had to wait two whole days before
I saw him again. Then we met in the gully under the shade of the tree
ferns. I remember now how the sunlight, coming through their great
fronds, made a pattern as of dainty lace work on my white dress, and I
studied that pattern carefully, and tried to make out what it reminded
me of, though I heard quite plainly a man crushing through the bracken.
That is just like a woman though, she longs and longs, and when at last
the longed-for hour has come, she is frightened at her own temerity, and
half wishes herself back again. I was not often afraid to meet Paul, but
I was to-day, and I never looked up till I felt his arm around me and
his dear voice in my ear.

"Why, my little girl, my little girl, what is the matter with my little
girl?"

Then I told him, with my face hidden on his broad shoulder, I told him,
and he was very angry. I knew he would be, but I had not realized how
angry, and I was fairly frightened.

"Oh, Paul!" I could only gasp, "Oh, Paul!"

He swore an oath when he saw that I was trembling, and recovered himself
a little. Just occasionally, I think, a woman likes the man she loves
to be thoroughly angry, and if he does swear then she accepts it as
a relief to her own feelings as well as his. So I did not mind Paul
swearing, seeing that he was not given to that sort of thing. I felt he
was entirely in sympathy with me, and was glad of it.

"What a fool I have been," he said, "what an utter fool. I might have
known there was something up when Stanton came to me so confoundedly
civil all at once. He made me a sort of apology for his rudeness to you
the other day, congratulated me on my good luck in winning you, and then
finally suggested that I should ingratiate myself with your father by
offering to ride Boatman for him in the grass-fed steeplechase, and of
course--"

"You said 'No!' Oh, Paul! you said 'No!'"

"No! darling, of course I said 'Yse.' What else could I say? And I
wanted to please your father. How could I know--that--that--what the
fellow was up to."

"But now, Paul, you won't ride him, now you do know, will you, my
dearest?" And because I was afraid he would, I put my arms coaxingly
round his neck and tried to draw his face down to mine. It did not want
much trying, he was always ready enough to kiss me, my dear love, but he
shook his head when I tried to dissuade him from riding Boatman.

"After all, sweetheart," he said, "I really think I'm the proper person
to ride the grey. If you're to be the prize, well it can't make any
more talk, my riding, and, of course, it will give me a sort of right to
you."

"But--but--you mustn't ride Boatman, you mustn't--you mustn't--you
mustn't. He baulks, and he runs down his fences, and he pulls,
and--and--oh, my darling! you mustn't ride Boatman!"

"What a list of crimes," he said, smiling at my vehemence. "Still, I
have ridden a horse or two in my life, and I'm inclined to think I 'm
equal to this one. He can beat anything, your father tells me, this side
of the Dividing Range. I had a trial this morning, and I 'm inclined to
think the old gentleman hasn't put too high a value on him. Boatman's
an out-and-outer, once one gets on good terms with him. And there 's the
difficulty no one can manage him."

I knew then it was little good my speaking; dearly as he loved me, nay,
for my sake even, he was determined to ride Boatman. And after all,
looked at from his point of view, I think he was right.

Stanton's Vixen was the only horse in the running, the only one in
the least likely to win, and if I was to be the prize, as my father
insisted, not once but twenty times, then, indeed, it was very necessary
that our horse should be well ridden, and I knew, and he knew, nobody
could do that so well as Paul. Then I don't know what dark presentiments
filled my mind, but something told me he should not ride in that race,
something told me all was not fair and above board, and with all my
strength, with all my powers of persuasion, I tried to stop him. I
coaxed him, and he only stroked my hair fondly, told me I had nice dark
eyes and pretty hair, and said if I made myself so sweet and dear, it
only showed him all the more clearly I must be won by fair means or
foul. Are you smiling, Hope? Ah, my dear, it is three-and-thirty years
ago, and the remembrance of days like those is all I have. Then I
stormed and raged, every unkind term I could think of I heaped on him,
and that is like a woman too, I think--when all other means fail she
tries anger.

Did he think, I asked, I was so slight a thing as to be bought and sold
in that manner? Did he think that my father could give me away in that
way, as if I were a horse or a bullock; and then, of course, just as I
would have given anything to be dignified and grand, I spoiled it all,
for my voice failed, and I burst into tears.

He was good to me! oh, he was good to me! He would not give up his
point, but he comforted me, and he was good. Once I had fairly started
I could not stop; all the pent-up misery of the last three days seemed
bound up in those tears. Heaven knows never had woman greater cause for
tears, though I only dimly felt it then, and never since have I cried
as I cried that day. Paul was frightened at first, I think, for he said
nothing but, "Poor little girl, poor little girl," and held me closer
than ever, but he would not give in, and at last, tired out, I could
only sob.

"Must you ride him, Paul, must you ride him?"

"I must, my darling. I really think it is the only thing to be done,
both for your sake and my own. It was a brutal thing to do, but it was
none of my doing, and when Boatman passes the winning post with Paul
Griffith up, why that settles everything, doesn't it, my sweet?"

Ah, yes, that would have settled everything; and as he stood there
beside me, so tall and straight and strong, I made up my mind my tears
were idle tears, and it would all come right in the end. And before I
went home we were both more than half convinced that there was likely to
be more good in my father's foolish wager than at first sight appeared,
and we two would turn it to our own advantage. Paul, indeed, was
jubilant, once he had got over his anger. He had come to tell me he
had got the offer of the managership of a station across the border in
Riverina. He would take it at the end of the year; there was a house
a lady could live in--and--well--would I go? After he had won--fairly
won--the Yanyilla Steeplechase, should he go to my father and ask for
the wife he had won?

And he was so confident, so happy, so certain of success, how could I
fail to be happy and confident too? I went home that night with a far
lighter heart than I had carried for many a long day. My mother saw the
traces of tears, and asked what I had been crying for, but I kept my own
counsel, for where was the good of enlightening her till I could tell
her everything was settled? There are many in the world who can rejoice
with them that rejoice, many, quite as many, thank God for it, who will
weep with them that weep; but to very few is it given, I think, to share
another's anxiety sympathetically. Fear and hope, we hardly know which
predominates, and the pain, which is of necessity the result, is best
borne in silence and alone. And at first with me hope reigned supreme;
but not for long though.

One morning, a few days after Paul and I had settled matters so very
much to our own satisfaction, the boy who brought up the milkers fell
sick, and Ben, who took his place, failed to find them. It was a thing
of not infrequent occurrence, and I turned out as usual to help him.
As usual, too, those wretched cows had turned up the creek and lost
themselves in the gullies among the ranges to the south. As the grass
grew dry-on the plains they would wander along the sheltered creek,
where in patches it was still fresh and green. And this day they had
wandered farther than usual. We rode on and on, our horses stumbling
among the rough ground, till at last we heard the cracked old cow bell
and knew they were found.

"Coming towards us too," said Ben. "I wonder what started 'em."

"They knew it was time to come home," I suggested; but Ben wouldn't
agree with me, and he knew a good deal about cattle for a boy of his
age. Then we turned a shoulder of the hill, and there were the four
wanderers making straight for us. There was something else besides, a
tent pitched on a nice green patch of grass, and a horse feeding out of
a bucket close beside it. A man at the door snatched up the bucket as we
appeared and carried it into the tent, but I saw it as clearly as I see
you now, and if I could not trust my own eyes there was Ben, and he saw
it too.

He was quicker than I too, for he had been about among the men and heard
them talk about such things.

"O my!" he said. "Here's a go! That's Vixen, Stanton's mare. She's a
regular take down, ain't she? She looks like an awful old stock horse,
don't she? Look here, Sissy, I believe they 're feeding her on the sly.
What was she drinking out of that bucket?"

We turned the cows homewards, and then went towards the little tent. It
was Vixen sure enough, and Stanton's man, Dan O'Connor--Ticket-of-leave
Dan, as they called him--was in charge. He bid us "Good morning" in
the oily, slimy tones of the old convict, and said he was just going to
bring back our stray cows.

"I seed the Yanyilla brand on 'em, and I guessed some one 'd be around
lookin' for 'em soon, as they was milkers," he said, and what could I
say.

We and our cattle were the trespassers, for this bit of country belonged
to Telowie, and Dick Stanton was only doing as others did when he sent
out his horse to a picked bit of sweet grass in order to fit her for the
coming race. She might have been drinking water out of the bucket. I had
no possible means of knowing that she had not, and yet I felt sure, with
Ben, that there had been oatmeal in the bucket, and that Vixen, who,
until it had got about that Paul Griffith was to ride Boatman, had been
first favourite for the Yanyilla Steeplechase, was being fed. I rode
right up to the tent in order to be quite sure, and saw on the grass
where the bucket had stood, a few white grains as of oatmeal, and Ben,
whose eyes were keener for that sort of thing, saw them too. But what
could we do? It was quite the thing for the horses that were going to
run in the grass-fed steeplechase to be carefully fed by their owners
or backers on some place where the grass seemed fresher, greener, and
sweeter than anywhere else. About twenty horsts were entered, and all
along the banks of the Yanyilla and Telowie Creeks, just before the race
meeting, you might come across camps such as Ben and I had struck this
morning. Boatman himself was camped not a mile from the house by the big
water-hole, and thither went my father and Paul every day to see that
he was getting on all right. Even now I don't understand my father's
conduct; you 'd think no sensible man would have seriously considered
the foolish wager he had made, and yet I had a feeling that he cared
very little about his own horse's chances and a great deal about
Vixen's. He used to laugh to Paul and say, "He's good enough; he's good
enough." But in the evening, after a glass or two of Battle-axe brandy,
my mother and I heard quite a different story. Boatman's chances grew
very small, and Boatman's vices were so magnified that I could not sleep
for fear. And when I told my sweetheart he only laughed, and said he
knew the old horse now a good deal better than his master, and though he
was a bad-tempered old brute there was not a horse in the colony could
touch him, once you took him the right way. It was like a woman to be
so full of fears and forebodings, and this morning, now that I seemed
to have good ground for them, my fears redoubled, and Ben and I, in our
excitement, fairly raced those milkers home, for which my mother very
properly scolded me well. That troubled me little enough. I was all
anxiety to see Paul, and waited down at the little camp watching Boatman
crop the grass till he paid his daily visit, and then I poured into
his ears all my fears. And Hope--he only laughed, turned up my face and
kissed me, and laughed at my discovery and my fears.

"So that 's his little game, is it?" he said. "Well, I always knew he
was a pretty bad lot, but I hardly thought he'd descend to that. Let him
feed her. The little corn they dare smuggle into the mare won't make any
difference in the end. So cheer up, my little girl. Only a week more now
and then we 'll see."

That week, that week, my last week of happiness, and to think I wished
it over! Oh! Hope, Hope! never wish the time gone child! you may be
wishing away the last happy days of your life, as I did!

Every day now I saw Paul, every day we met at the camp where was
Boatman, and after seeing he was all right wandered away into the
gullies together. I could not help being anxious, very anxious, and as
the time grew nearer it grew worse to bear; but still it was a happy
time with Paul by my side, with his strong arm to lean on, with his kind
face so near to my own. I wonder why one's happy days in this world are
so brief. It has often seemed to me the arrangements of Providence are a
little hard.

We always managed to have three days' racing at Yanyilla, and all the
country side for miles round gave itself up to the delights of racing;
and of course that meant a week's dissipation, just like "cup week" in
Melbourne now. The last day was always an off-day--an afterthought--not
arranged for in the original programme; I don't know exactly for what
reason they held it, except that they thought it a pity not to make out
the week. I fancy the races on the last day were very poor affairs, only
got up because the men had got the racing fever on them, and wanted to
bet on something; but I ought not to say much, for I really don't know.
My interest in racing came to an end for ever that first day, and I
have never seen a race run since, and never shall in this world. I don't
suppose they ever have races in the next.

The eventful day came at last, the first Tuesday in November, the day
that would be "cup day" now-a-days. Monday was an exciting day for us.
The stewards came out and saw to the preparing of the racecourse,
which was ordinarily simply a piece of flat paddock close to Yanyilla
homestead, and it seemed the entire population of the township
accompanied them, to see that it was properly done, I suppose, and not
only the entire population of the township, but of all the district
round I think. My father was in his glory. He was a most hospitable man,
and everyone he came across he asked up to the house, regardless of the
fact that we were already as full as we could possibly be, and that long
before mid-day my mother and I were weary washing and rewashing our very
limited stock of glasses, for the visitors who came, if they did nothing
else, partook very freely of our brandy. That is the way with many
good-natured people, I think; my father was voted a jolly good fellow
by his guests, and I don't suppose anybody ever thought that the hardest
part of the work fell on us two women. I ought not to complain now, it
is all over so long ago, but I have always felt it a terribly hard thing
that the last happy day I had should have been so utterly spoilt. Paul
and I had arranged to spend it together down in the gully where we first
made each others acquaintance; he had come to the house for me; he had
grown bolder now that he was to ride my father's horse, and there he
sat on the verandah, waiting more than half the day, while I washed and
wiped that seemingly endless array of glasses.

Do you wonder that I complain, Hope?

Even now, if I shut my eyes, I seem to see the glorious November
sunshine beckoning me out, to hear the impatient shuffle of my lover's
feet as he sat and waited, and yet there seemed no prospect of release
for me. At last, I suppose my mother guessed something of my feelings,
for when the kitchen clock was on the stroke of four she said--

"You can go now, Hope. If they want any more they 'll just have to drink
it out of dirty glasses," and I went gladly, and selfishly too, for I
knew whatever she might say, I had left her to bear the burden and heat
of the day alone. Still I am glad--even now I am deeply thankful to
my mother--for those hours of happiness she gave me, almost, I think,
unconsciously.

Down in the gully Paul and I watched the shadows grow longer as the day
crept on towards evening, and I tried once more to dissuade him from
riding Boatman. I might just as well have spoken to the winds.

"My dear child," he said a little severely, "you must know you are
asking an impossibility. All the district round has put its money on
the horse because I 'm riding, and they say I 'm the only man in the
district that can ride him. I never could play it so low down on your
father as to desert him at the last moment. Don't you see, my darling?"

I didn't see. But what was I to do? I saw he was still a little weak
from the effects of an attack of fever and ague he had had some time
before, but when I urged that as a reason he only laughed, and said
I was a very Job to worry myself about such trifles; as for the fever
there was hardly a trace of it left, and it was tact, not strength,
Boatman wanted to ride him. Then there was nothing more to be said. I
could only put my arms round his neck and tell him it was only my love
for him made me foolishly anxious, and he must not think badly of me for
it. After all, it was only natural I should be anxious; he would have
had more cause to grumble if I had not been.

I got little enough sleep that night. Early in the evening my father and
the most of his guests went down to the principal public-house in the
township to look at the general entries--why I 'm sure I don't know, for
they must have known well enough for weeks beforehand what horses were
going to run--and then late at night they, or rather my father and one
or two choice spirits, came home, and through the thin partition I could
hear them talking and shouting, and drinking interminable healths,
and when I heard them drink the health of "the Prize for the Yanyilla
Steeplechase," I covered my face with the clothes and tried to hear no
more, for I knew by the shout of laughter that accompanied the toast
that they were thinking of my father's foolish wager. The summer dawn
crept in through the windows before they reeled off to bed, and I,
wearied and tired, realised that at last the day I dreaded so was here,
and a few more hours would put me out of my misery.

That is what Paul said when he met me on the verandah soon after
breakfast, for he had stayed the night in the township, so as to be
close at hand, and the smile I gave him in return was very near to
tears. I think he saw that, for he hastily directed my attention to the
crowd of people already assembled, and laughed, and said there was no
fear but Yanyilla Races would be a success this year.

They were content with very primitive arrangements in those days, my
dear. How the secretary of the least flourishing turf club in Victoria
nowadays would stare if he could see the humble shed where the riders
weighed out, and the still more humble judge's box made of boughs, a bad
imitation of a blackfellow's mia-mia. And more primitive even than
the judge's box was the refreshment booth, where the landlord of the
_Bushman s Rest_ dispensed drinks to all who could afford to pay for
them, or could get others to do so in their stead. The racehorses, I
remember, were merely hitched up to a post and rail fence in the most
ordinary fashion. But the people--there were all sorts and conditions of
men there, and a small sprinkling of women folk, for women were scarce
in those days.

As the sun rose higher the crowd grew thicker, till I think there must
have been fully fifteen hundred or two thousand people there. Deadman's
Creek, the goldfield nearest us, was in full swing, and it seemed to me
the place must be deserted that day, for though it was thirty miles away
as the crow flies, nobody had thought much of that distance in glorious
weather like this. Some of the red-shirted diggers were fine-looking
fellows enough; indeed, they ought to have been, for in those days
the finest gentleman was not ashamed to try his luck with the pick and
shovel like the labouring man who was his neighbour. If he got an honest
labouring man he was lucky, for, my dear, the times were rough, and they
did say there were a lot of old hands from Tasmania and the Sydney side
on Deadman's in those days, and their room would have been better than
their company. But those things didn't concern me much. All I thought of
was Paul. He stayed with me all the morning, taking me round, showing
me how fit and well Boatman looked, pointing out to me the bookmakers
already at work, and the men with the three-card trick, and various
other devices for passing away the time, and getting at the money of the
unwary. Some unfortunate had already got himself into trouble, for what
I know not, but I suspected it was too close an acquaintance with the
wine when it is red, for over on the other side of the paddock from the
house I saw an unfortunate chained to a tree with a stout bullock chain,
yelling with all his might, a solemn warning to others not to go and do
likewise. The police in the old days were often obliged to make use of
such primitive methods of detaining their prisoners--there was no help
for it, and nobody minded, not even the unlucky prisoner himself. I
suppose he looked upon it as all in the day's work or pleasure, if you
will. I tried to take an interest in everything for Paul's sake, but I
couldn't.

What did it matter to me how the day went off? What if the howling
bookmakers did win the district money? What if it was rumoured that Ben
Shepherd's mare was a little off, and not in her usual form, and she
was first favourite for the "Telowie Handicap?" It didn't matter to me,
nothing mattered to me, if only Boatman was first past the post, and his
rider safe and sound at my side again. No, no, what did I care whether
he came in first or last? It would make no difference to me, in spite
of my father's wager; I wanted the race over, and then, whether Boatman
were first or last, Boatman's rider was my sweetheart in the face of
all the world, no matter what my father or Dick Stanton should say. Dick
Stanton was there, a regular bush dandy, for he was going to ride his
own horse, but I would not look at him, though he came over and wished
me "Good morning" as if we were the best of friends, and I hated him for
it, and I know now my hatred was well founded, for if it had not been
for him, I should have been a happy woman this day.

How slowly the morning wore on. It seemed to me it must be somewhere
about five o'clock, when there was a stir and a bustle, and the clock
struck twelve, and they were preparing for the "Telowie Handicap." I
know nothing whatever about that race, though I watched it from the best
vantage point on the course, our own verandah. My eyes were too dim to
see it, though I heard quite plainly the hoarse roar of the people as
the favourite passed the post just a length ahead, and I knew that Paul
by my side was shouting with the rest. I was thinking all the time
that the next race I should be standing there alone, while my lover was
riding the worst-tempered, most unmanageable brute in the colony.

Then, when the race was over, Paul turned to me with a smile, and I felt
that the morning, instead of crawling, had taken to itself wings.

"I must go now, dear," he said, and I put my hand on his arm, and
without a word drew him into the house, empty now, for everybody was too
interested in the racing to stay inside.

"Oh, Paul! Paul! I do try to be brave, but do be careful. For my sake,
do be careful."

Perhaps if I had begged of him then, he might have given up the thought
of riding. I reproach myself sometimes with not having asked him, but
after all, I don't think it would have been any good, only it is the
bitterest thing in the world to think "it might have been."

He was so good to me, so good. No one has been so good to me since. He
stroked my hair, and kissed me, and comforted me.

"I am a brute," he said, "to bring the tears into those pretty brown
eyes."

And I brushed away the tears and tried to tell him again how dear he
was to me. But what is the good of going over the old story once again,
child. It is just the same old story for every man and woman, with
variations so slight as hardly to be worth counting. And yet it is
natural that every woman thinks her own love story the most interesting
on the face of the earth. No one was ever like her lover, no one was
ever loved like she was. I think it is well it should be so. If it is
only a fancy, it is a pretty fancy, and the world, or rather the women
in it, are much happier for it. I don't know whether it's the same with
men. All the years I have lived I don't understand what a man thinks; I
don't suppose any woman ever does.

"I shall see a bright face watching for me when I pass the post. Not
half an hour now, sweetheart," he said, as he gave me a last kiss, and
again he paused on the verandah to wave his hand and to tell me once
more not to be afraid.

They were shouting for him as he ran across to the corner that did duty
as saddling paddock, and I watched his bright red shirt anxiously. I
could keep my eye on him though I found it impossible to see anybody
else. My mother called me to attend to something--to lay the cloth
for lunch, I think it was--but one glance at my face showed her I was
useless.

"Go, child, go," she said, not unkindly, "I 've been afraid of your
making a fool of yourself over that man. He's not worth it, as you 'll
have found out for yourself before the year is out. Now go and see the
race; I'll lay the table."

I went quietly back on to the verandah, and watched the riders being
weighed, and the weights being adjusted to the saddles; very primitive
were the weights in those days. I saw them wrap up an iron bar in a
blanket and strap it on to Boatman's saddle, for though Paul was a
fairly heavy man the horse was still more heavily weighted, and then
I watched the fifteen horses as they came out and paraded before the
assembled crowd. How plainly it seemed to me Paul Griffith stood out
from the rest, with the big iron-grey horse. He waved his hand to me as
he passed, as one who would say, "There now, you see, there's nothing
to be afraid of," and almost for the moment I felt I had exaggerated my
fears. I waved my hand in return and watched them as they passed on to
the starting post. And then before they got there, there was trouble.
The big grey horse, even though he was on the outside, apparently
objected to the presence of his kind, and I saw him fallen behind and
making desperate efforts to get his head between his forelegs. He kept
them all waiting at the post, and the starter called several times; but
it was all to no purpose, Boatman was determined to have his own way,
and it was fully a quarter of an hour before, very sulkily--for a horse
can be sulky--he condescended to walk slowly up to the others. It seemed
to give me confidence, that brief respite. Paul was so much master of
the situation, in spite of the contrariness of the beast he rode, that I
was at once convinced of the foolishness of my fears, and for a moment I
felt quite content and free from care as the horses got in line.

It was the race of the day, and there was a hush for an instant, then
down went the starter s flag, there was a roar, and a shout from the
crowd, "They 're off," and I saw the line of horses stretch themselves
out across the plain. The big grey was on the inside striding along
about three quarters of a length clear of the others, and just behind
came a front rank--so to speak--of half-a-dozen horses, and among them
gleamed the dazzling black and yellow stripes of our chief opponent,
Vixen. They raced for that first fence at a tremendous pace, and I would
have shut my eyes had I not had so much at stake, for the fences were
stiff as they are now, and the horses were only grass-fed. But I looked
on with a sickening fear at my heart and I saw that Boatman had not
forgotten his old trick--right across the line of horses he swerved, and
for a moment they were all in confusion, for he collided with two just
as they were taking off, and there was a cry of, "He's down, he 's
down." "No, no," cried a man alongside me, who was half wild with
excitement already, "well picked up, sir; that's the bully boy. Stick to
it, old pard, stick to it," and I saw with a beating heart that almost
suffocated me, Boatman clear of the ruck, safe on the other side of the
fence, and as in a dream I heard the people shouting, "Billy Craig's
pony's down, and the Coyote," and I saw two horses wildly careering
across the plain,--Billy Craig--I knew him by his green and yellow
shirt, made out of his wife's old curtains--pursuing one, while the
Coyote's rider had only managed to struggle to his knees, and was slowly
rocking himself backwards and forwards with his head in his hands. How
could I care for these things; love is so selfish! Only a little while
now and the race would be over, and I had no power to think of another's
possible pain. All I thought was that the first fence was safely over,
and it gave me courage for those that were to come later. One more
fence, and then came the jump right in front of the verandah which did
duty as a stand, and I held my breath as the horses came up to it in a
lump, except the big grey, which was leading by about a length. Quite
plainly I saw him, and he was pulling double, but Paul sat like a rock,
slightly leaning forward, true bushman as he was, and the old horse
jumped beautifully, and got away with a clear lead of about six lengths
ahead. I put my arm round the verandah post, for I felt I could hardly
stand without support. Speak I could not; all sorts of hopes and fears
were madly coursing through my brain, and I listened as a woman beside
me put my thoughts into words.

"Oh," she said, with a long-drawn breath, "what an awful pace! And
they've got to go round again, too! That horse in front will be done
before they've gone much farther."

"Not much," said the man on the other side, scornfully, "that big grey
can keep it up for a week. He's all there as long as Griffith can keep
him quietly in front. Oh, he's a beautiful jumper, he is, when he's
properly ridden, but he's got the devil's own temper. Go it, old pard!
go it!" he shouted again, and his enthusiasm gave me such comfort, I
would have thanked him had I dared speak.

All around the course I watched them, and at every fence my heart gave
a bound of thankfulness as I heard the man beside me shouting hurrahs at
Boatman's success. Gladder and gladder I grew, and nothing else in the
world mattered to me so long as the big grey was still sailing along,
even that he was ahead gave me only a momentary joy, so thankful was I
that he was still safe, and likely to be safe.

"He's the best rider that ever I seed, Jim, sure," said the woman beside
me, and I could have kissed her for the praise.

"Best rider this side of the Murray," said the man laconically, and
Hope, Hope, before me stretched my future, bright, and happy, and
smiling, such happiness as I had never dared dream would come into my
life. A horse fell, another refused; what was it to me? There was Paul
still ahead. Then, at the other side of the course, he was joined by
Mick Power's Bangle, and another that I did not recognize, and Vixen's
yellow and black stripes went up to within a couple of lengths of the
leaders, and a length behind her came the ruck.

"Ah! I told you so," sighed the woman, "they 've collared 'im. Boatman's
beat."

"The race's a gift to him," reiterated the man, "if he can only stand up
to these three fences. Why, that boy's riding Bangle to keep him in his
place already."

A roar went up from the crowd.

"Boatman wins! Boatman! Boatman!"

"Vixen! Vixen!" cried a voice here and there, but they were drowned in a
universal cry of, "The grey wins, hands down. Boatman! Boatman!"

I was a happy woman for those brief seconds, the happiest woman in all
the wide earth; not a fear for the result troubled me. Already I seemed
to feel the glad clasp of Paul's hand, to see the light in his eyes,
that would say to me, even though others were present, that he had won
his bride, and I watched them coming down to the last fence, the fence
that led into the straight, without a tremor.

How could I? How could I? It makes me sick to think of it now, but then
I was so certain of success, I put my hand to my throat and took off
the little silk handkerchief that I wore there, that I might wave it
in triumph, and all round me the people, wild with excitement, were
shouting, "Boatman wins! Boatman wins!" It seemed as if they were all in
sympathy with me, and in my heart I blessed them for it.

Then, then, oh, Hope! how can I tell you? I didn't understand it for
many a long day, and though I saw it with my own eyes, I could not tell
you how it happened. All of a sudden the glad shouts of "Boatman wins"
changed to one of "They 're down, they're both down," and then, before
I had thoroughly grasped the situation, while I still held my little
scarf ready to wave, the shout went up just as joyously, oh, just as
joyously, "Vixen wins, Vixen! Vixen!"

Even then I did not understand the full extent of my misfortune; other
men had fallen and been all right, why not Paul? On my left, the man who
had put his money on the grey, swore an oath through his clenched teeth
that made me wonder had he as much at stake as I.

What happened? Oh, it was simple enough. They told me afterwards, when
it was nothing to me whether a race was ever run again in this world.
The grey had the race easily, they said, and was going strong. Paul
steadied him for the fence, but in the last couple of strides the Vixen
came with a tremendous rush, at the risk of his own neck, they said, and
the grey stood off his fence. Such a little thing, dear, such a little
thing. Boatman stood off his fence, landed on top, and turned clean
over on to his rider. Vixen hit all round, but by rattling good
horsemanship--as good as Paul's own, they said--was kept on her legs,
and came in winner of the Yanyilla Steeplechase.

I wanted to go to Paul, to rush across to where already a little crowd
were collecting. Why should he be hurt--so many had fallen already, and
not one was badly hurt--why should he be? No, I told myself, I need not
fear, and yet I was afraid to move, and I stood there, and listened to
the woman beside me counting the horses as they came in.

"Vixen first, Sandy second, the Dingo--no, Bones third. 'Ard luck on Mr.
Griffith, ain't it, Jim? I don't believe the 'orse as got up. Couldn't
have killed 'im, eh?"

The whole place was swimming before my eyes, but there came to me a
feeling I must know the worst, and I put the little kerchief that was to
have waved for my lover's triumph over my head, and started out into the
brilliant sunshine towards the little crowd that was collecting round
the last fence. The woman tried to stop me.

"Don't 'ee go, dearie, don't 'ee. Jim 'ere'll go," but I pushed her
away. Why should she try and stop me, what right had anyone to come
between me and my love? Then the crowd parted, and I saw a little
procession come towards me. What was that borne by four men? I just
caught the gleam of a scarlet jacket, and then some man's voice said,
not unkindly:

"It's his sweetheart. For God's sake take her away."

But some one else--the doctor I think--put in a word.

"It can't make any difference. She must know sooner or later, poor
child. Lay him down here, under this tree. I doubt if we get him to the
house alive."

They laid him under a big blackwood tree, and the doctor put his head on
my lap. Such a still white face as it was, with the eyes closed and just
a drop or two of blood round the corners of the mouth.

"Oh, doctor," I said, and it seemed to me my own voice was far, far
away, farther even than those of the men who were standing around me,
"he will get well, he will, he must! He can't be much hurt."

But the doctor said nothing, and the fear that was in my heart grew and
grew as I stooped over my lover and, careless of onlookers, kissed him
again and again.

"My darling, my darling, my darling, you must get well soon," for I
would not see that there was much amiss; ten minutes ago he had been
full of life; half an hour ago I had been in his arms.

Very wearily his eyes opened and I saw he knew _me_.

"My poor little girl," he said, "My poor little Hope," and his hand
clasped mine as I had dreamed a moment ago it would, as if he would care
for me and guard me all through life.

And then--and then--Hope, dear, there isn't any more to tell. He died
there in my arms, and at first I could not believe it, but the doctor
took me away to my mother, and she was kind to me--yes, she was very
tender to me; but what can anyone do when all the happiness has gone out
of one's life. Then I began to grow old, dear, though I was not twenty,
and I have been growing old ever since.

Why, there 're tears in your eyes, child! Don't cry; I am old now and
some of the bitterness has gone. One doesn't understand why the good
Lord should let life be so bitter for some of us, but I suppose it
is for some good reason, only--only, you see it was another man's
wickedness spoiled my life. Yes, yes, I know there was foul play. Dick
Stanton rushed his horse down on Boatman like that, just to spoil his
chance of the race, and many there were who thought as I did; but who
could prove it? No, I don't think even now he meant to kill him.

But there--there is my story, Hope. It is many a long day since I told
it. You wanted to know why I am an old maid; you understand now, don't
you, dear. I couldn't have married anybody else, how could I? But don't
be an old maid, Hope, it is a dreary life--a lonely, hopeless life,
and--

Yes, I thought so. Willie Maclean coming up the path. What, blushing,
child, or is it my old eyes deceive me? Run away then and bring him
in here. I knew his father in the old days, before the Yanyilla
Steeplechase was lost and won.




A DIGGER'S CHRISTMAS

It was on the Tinpot Gully diggings, now known to fame by a far more
euphonious title, that early in the fifties I spent my first Christmas
in Australia. There were all sorts and conditions of men there, men
from every nation and every class. Englishmen and Italians, Russians and
Portuguese, Persians, Chinamen, and negroes, sons of peers and London
pickpockets, all rubbed shoulders on the Tinpot Gully diggings. But they
came naturally enough to me in those days. At one and twenty nothing
astonishes one, and I took things as I found them, and questioned not,
and barely wondered at the mixed company in which I found myself. Very
peaceful looked the scene as I stood at my tent door, or rather curtain,
and surveyed it thus early in the morning. All the camp was sleeping.
Most of the diggers had made a night of it the night before in
anticipation of the holiday, and now were sleeping off the effects,
so that I had it all to myself, and spite of the havoc wrought by the
diggers, the gully was pretty still. We were all camped on the flat that
bordered the banks of the creek, and away beyond on all sides stretched
the hills, standing out clearly now in the brilliant morning sunlight,
range upon range, in a series of blue ridges, till they faded away in
the bluer distance. The Union Jack--emblem of authority-floated from the
staff in front of the Commissioner's tent, and from my outlook I could
see the sunlight gleaming on the carbines of the troopers who stood
sentry over the gold tent, and digger as I was, and sworn foe to all
troopers, the sunbeams on those carbine barrels gave me a comfortable
sense of security, for (for the first time in our diggings' experience)
my mate and I had lodged a little chamois leather bag full of gold dust
and small nuggets--part of the fortune which we trusted in days to come
was to take us back to the old land--with the Commissioner, and I was
glad to feel in those wild times that he was fully alive to the nature
of his trust. Having satisfied myself as to the safety of my property, I
re-entered the tent and roused out my mate.

"Rouse out, Dick, old man! Merry Christmas to you, my boy! Merry
Christmas, and many of 'em!"

Dick turned over sleepily, rubbed his eyes, and went through exactly the
same performance I had done, before he could rouse himself sufficiently
to accompany me across the hills to another creek, where, the bottom
being of bed rock, the crystal water was still pure and unsullied by the
digger's desecrating hand. Our dip was refreshing; we could only find
time for it on Sundays and holidays such as this, and probably we
appreciated it all the more for its rarity. Our toilet was simplicity
itself. We each arrayed ourselves in a red flannel shirt and moleskin
trousers, clean to-day in honour of Christmas, tucked into our high
boots, while a slouch hat and a revolver in the belt completed the
costume. On our return I proceeded to prepare breakfast, while Dick
looked after the sick boy. Breakfast was not sumptuous; all my energies
were reserved for dinner, and Dick had to make out as best he might on
damper left from the night before, and the cold remains of a nondescript
joint of mutton. He came back just as I had got the rough meal ready,
reporting poor Wilson as a little better and awfully hungry. Then
he tipped the tea--post and rails we used to call it--into our tin
pannikins, and proceeded to boil part of a cabbage in the billy for the
invalid. I laugh now when I think that in those days we counted a
common cabbage a luxury fit to tempt a sick man's appetite; but, indeed,
luxuries of all kinds were scarce, and as for that cabbage it had been
procured with infinite pains and at great cost; and the odour that rose
from the pot--the very offensive odour of boiled cabbage, as I now think
it--appeared to us most appetising.

I went with Dick to give poor Bob Wilson his breakfast. It was a
very thin, white, pinched face that looked out from among the rough
bedclothes, and a skeleton hand that grasped mine.

He appreciated the cabbage, however. I have been told since that it
ought to have killed him, but it didn't.

"By Jove!" he said, "it's splendid, splendid. It must have cost a lot to
get it. You fellows are good to me. If it hadn't been for you two, I 'd
have died like a dog,"--not quite true, for if we hadn't looked after him
someone else would--"and before the next year's out I 'll try and show
you how grateful I am."

And before the next year was out the poor boy was dead--murdered by some
miscreant for the handful of gold in his possession, down in the lonely
bush about Reedy Creek.

Wilson's wants being attended to, Dick and I began our preparations for
the all important dinner. This was to consist of roast scrub turkey and
plum pudding, washed down by Battle axe brandy. And here the good old
cookery-book adage came into play, for as yet our bird was running wild
in the scrub, and it was a case of first catch your turkey. The morning
was hot, but not too hot, with just a pleasant breeze stirring in the
bush, and I rather desired to go on the shooting expedition. I ventured
to suggest mildly that Dick was a better hand at pudding than I was, but
he saw through my little game. Pudding was not an absolute necessary
of life, he said, which the turkey really was, and as I was a bad
shot--there was no denying the fact, I was a very bad shot--he had
better go while I stopped at home and manipulated the pudding.

Dick always had his own way in the end, and I watched him enviously as
he tramped up the opposite hill-side until he was lost to view, and then
I set to work on the pudding.

The whole camp was astir by now--some busy preparing their morning meal,
some like me, beginning on dinner, and many too sick and seedy to think
of anything but more brandy, while one or two were good enough to come
and favour me with their views on the pudding. We had laid in all the
necessaries at least a week before, and then I set to work to stone
raisins for the first, and I trust, the last time in my life. It is
laborious work. I 'd rather use a pick and shovel any day, but I knew it
ought to be done, I had heard my mother say so many a time; so I stuck
to it gallantly, and with sticky and aching fingers worked through that
pile of raisins. Everything comes to an end at length, and at last I
came to the end of those raisins, and poured them into the bucket,
where the flour and currants, and sugar and candied peel were already
reposing. To these I added a billy of water from the creek, and stirred
the lot together with a big stick. My wife informs me that a good plum
pudding can't be made without a certain proportion of suet, some spice,
and six or seven eggs, but I assure you that was a very excellent
pudding, and we never even thought of such things. I don't suppose we
could have got them if we had, so it was just as well. After I had
mixed my pudding I had one moment of deepest despair. There it lay, a
yellow-looking mass at the bottom of the bucket. So far all was
well, but how was that yellow mass to be turned into the orthodox
jolly-looking plum-pudding? I was cudgelling my brains over this enigma
as I lighted up the fire, when one of the admiring crowd round--I
suppose he must have, been a past-master in the art of cooking--solved
the difficulty for me.

"Ain't you got a pudden-cloth?" he asked.

"By Jingo!" I thought, "of course." But I am thankful to say I did not
betray my ignorance.

"A pudding-cloth," I said, as if I had known all about it all along.
"No, I haven't a pudding-cloth; I 'm going to use a shirt."

Thereupon I retired to the tent, and procured a red flannel shirt--one
of Dick's--which, with the top cut off, answered admirably.

"Don't ye, don't ye now tie it too tight, else it won't 'ave room
to swell," implored my self-constituted adviser, and I followed his
advice--was only too thankful for it, in fact--and by the time my mate
returned with the turkey, the pudding was bubbling away in the bucket
which did duty as saucepan as jolly as possible.

Our Christmas dinner was a decided success. The turkey was splendid, and
the pudding, bar a slight grittiness, occasioned by my not having washed
the currants, which I am told should always be done, was also good, and
our guests--we had three besides Bob Wilson (guests who brought their
own tin plates and knives and forks)--thoroughly appreciated it.

Nowadays I can't eat wild turkey until it has been hung a certain time,
and unless it is served up with gravy, port wine, red currant jelly, and
piquante sauce, but then--well, that was an excellent fellow we had for
dinner that Christmas Day; I shall never look upon his like again. After
dinner, Battle-axe brandy and other drinks, varying only in degrees
of strength, being plentiful, the camp became somewhat rowdy, and we
quieter spirits therefore retired to a shady nook a little way up the
creek, where, flat on our backs among the grass and ferns, we spent the
early part of the afternoon yarning over other Christmas Days, spent
in far different fashion in a far distant land. We too had Battle-axe
brandy as a sort of afternoon tea, and this roused Dick up to such an
extent that he burst forth into song. Unfortunately he chose for his
theme, "The Old Folks at Home," and as we joined with his clear tenor
in the chorus of the pathetic old song, there was a lump in more throats
than mine as we thought of our old homes, and the very small chance the
most of us had of seeing the dear old folks again. When the song was
done, there was a dead pause, which no one seemed inclined to break,
till Left-handed Bob astonished us by singing at the top of his voice,
"Christians, Awake." We were mightily taken back and astonished,
but somehow the grand Christmas hymn harmonized well with the
surroundings,--the green grass, and ferns, and creepers, the trickling
water, and the deep blue cloudless sky, and the murmur of sounds,
softened by distance, which came up from the camp below made a splendid
accompaniment.

As the afternoon wore away, and the shadows grew longer, some one
suggested we should go up and visit old Father Maguire, whose labours,
we opined, would probably be over for the day by this time. The holy
father lived about a mile up the steep hillside in a small one-roomed
hut, more than half hidden by great rocks and boulders, which in
primeval ages some volcanic upheaval had scattered around. It was not
very easy to find the father's hut at all; he might have been a priest
of Reformation days, so hidden and secluded was his dwelling, and after
partaking of the old man's hospitality, it was well-nigh impossible to
find your way out of the maze again. As we approached, the volume of
smoke that poured out of the chimney assured us our friend was holding
high revel, and sure enough, when we opened the door, the atmosphere
that rushed out was like that of an oven, for the place was barely
fifteen feet square, and in the fireplace was a roaring fire, large
enough to roast a bullock. In the middle of the room, on a small table
on which were spread the remnants of a somewhat meagre feast, sat the
owner of the cabin in his shirt sleeves, while beads of perspiration
trickled down his jolly red face. His right hand grasped a pannikin, and
his left beat time on the table to the strains of the "Shan Van Voght,"
which he was shouting at the top of his voice. Father Maguire was a
kindly, jolly old soul, who loved not to mortify the flesh. The weekly
Friday fasts were a sore trial to him; and it was rumoured, with what
truth I know not, that he went down to the camp at Deadman's Creek,
there to hold mass, and afterwards invariably called upon the
Commissioner, who was not one of the faithful. That young gentleman was
glad enough to entertain the jolly old priest, and always invited him to
dinner, an invitation always cheerfully accepted, for the host was a man
of taste, and his dinners, besides being abundant, had a refinement and
a variety about them which most other dinners at that time lacked.

"By me sowl," Father Maguire would say, as he rose from the table, "by
me sowl, but it's Friday, and it's meself has forgot that same." And
as long as those dinners lasted the father continued to eat them, and
invariably made the same remark afterwards. Peace be to his ashes--he
has long since been gathered to his fathers. He was a jovial, merry old
soul, fulfilling to the letter the Pauline behest, "to think no evil."
and if he did eat some few more dinners than the rules of his Church
allowed, good dinners did not often come in his way, and I trust he will
not be hardly judged for them.

The moment he saw us he dropped the pannikin, and rose to greet us, a
funny round tub of a man, with his braces dangling behind him.

"Och, sure, an' it's the bhoys! Come yez in, an' a merry Christmas to
yez. Come yez in, an' I 'll brew yez some scaltheen in honor av the
day."

Scaltheen was what Father Maguire was famous for, and exactly what we
had come for. It was, in truth, rather a potent drink, consisting as
it did of whisky, sugar, butter, and water, all boiled together in the
little black kettle now singing away on the hob, and assisted materially
in raising fresh difficulties round that already difficult path through
the rocks.

As the old gentleman bustled round mixing his scaltheen, we became
aware of another occupant of the cabin, a tall, thin, dark-haired,
cadaverous-looking young priest, just fresh from All Hallows'. He sat
there solemnly on an upturned brandy case in the corner, and glared
disapprovingly out of his hollow black eyes at the revel going on round
him. Father Maguire remembered his existence after a bit and introduced
him.

"Sure an' it's Father Mahoney, bhoys, jist out from ould Ireland.
Faix an' he's falin' a bit lonesome. Sure, now, Father dear, sing,
sing--it'll do yez good. The 'Wearin' o' the Green,' Father, or
'Garry-owen.' Come now. His voice it's jist beautiful, bhoys; och, but
ye should jist hear him," and the poor old father nodded confidentially
at us, fell back in his chair, his eyes gradually closed, the pannikin
dropped out of his hands, and the whiskey trickled down on to the
earthen floor.

Father Mahoney evidently felt that the time had now come for him to
speak or for ever after hold his peace, as the marriage service has it.
He rose from his seat, and stalked across the room, a tall thin figure
in his long black coat, and stood over his prostrate brother.

"Father Maguire," he said in the broadest of Cork brogues, without the
ghost of a smile on his grave Irish face, "is it a song yez wantin'?
Well, thin, it's just a jeremiad I 'd be singin' yez, an' not another
song at all, at all."

Then, without deigning to take any notice of us, he flung open both door
and window--the atmosphere stood greatly in need of a little freshening,
I must admit--and went out on to the hillside, leaving us irreverent
youngsters convulsed with laughter. The fun was over now as far as we
were concerned, for Father Maguire, overcome by his own magic brew, was
calmly sleeping, and no efforts of ours could elicit more than a grumpy,
"Arrah, thin--be still now--will yez?"

So as the shadows were growing longer and longer, and Christmas Day was
rapidly drawing to a close, we turned towards the camp again. Bob Wilson
had spent rather a dreary afternoon all by himself, but we cheered him
with a graphic account of our visit to the two priests, got him some
tea, and then when the sun had set behind the hills, adjourned to the
public house, the Eldorado Hotel as it was called, there to take part in
one of those festive entertainments, known as a "Bull-dance "; that is
to say, a dance at which women were conspicuous by their absence. In
this case, though, we were in luck, for there were actually four women
among about a hundred men, namely, the landlord's wife, a buxom matron
of fifty, weighing about fourteen stone, but "game yet," as she herself
said, "to shake a leg with the youngest;" his two daughters, fair,
freckled, sandy-haired damsels, who were the objects of far greater
attention than their very moderate charms appeared to sanction; and
pretty Lizzie, the barmaid. We always called her "Pretty Lizzie," and
if she had any other name I never heard it. She was a dainty little dark
thing, with soft dark eyes and bright pink cheeks, and seemed somehow
above her station. What adverse fate had drifted her into the service of
old Long Potter I 'm sure I don't know, for she had bewitching ways, and
a gentle voice that won all hearts. I don't think it was the absence
of all feminine society that made us find "Pretty Lizzie" so specially
charming. I even think, looking back now with all the accumulated wisdom
of more than thirty years, that there was something wonderfully sweet
about her. Anyhow, I, along with some hundred others, was very much in
love with Lizzie, and, like them, had the pain of knowing--it was really
a very keen pain in those days--that my love was unrequited.

The Eldorado was but a shanty, part calico tent, part corrugated iron.
The room we danced in had only a hardwood floor, and for all furniture
had a counter running across one end, on which were arrayed glasses,
pannikins, and bottles, Behind this, Long Potter stood, dispensing
refreshments to his guests, for which they paid in coin of the realm or
gold dust. The music was provided by an old sailor with a fiddle and two
concertinas, and if the guttering tallow candles and evil-smelling oil
lamps did not provide light enough, outside was the glorious moon, now
at the full, a round yellow disc poised in the dark, velvety sky. They
were a rough crowd, those diggers, rowdy and foul-mouthed, and they
squabbled not a little over their partners. First and foremost each man
wanted to dance with Pretty Lizzie; Long Potter's two daughters came
next, and failing them their buxom mother proved a bone of contention;
the non-successful ones, and their name was legion, having to dance with
each other.

And dance they did with a will. Never before or since have I seen such
energetic dancing as we used to have at those bull-dances of diggings
days. As the evening advanced and the liquor began to take effect,
disputes became more frequent, disputes that were as a rule, promptly
settled outside by a round of fisticuffs; but perhaps the best hated man
there was the trooper, who came in about nine o'clock, and monopolized
Pretty Lizzie. He was a big, fair man, this trooper--a gentleman
evidently, down on his luck, as many a gentleman was in those days, and
as evidently he was in love with Lizzie and she was in love with him.
Oh, the adoring glances she cast at him as they went down the room
together at a mad gallop. He got drunk as night advanced, and before I
left I was dimly conscious of a dark corner where a sobbing woman was
putting a pillow beneath the head of her insensible lover. Poor Pretty
Lizzie, spite of it all, she married him; and ten years later I saw her
again, the weary looking, draggle-tailed landlady of a wayside shanty,
with half a dozen small children hanging on to her skirts and a drunken
husband lolling in the bar. Poor Pretty Lizzie, she was worthy of a
better fate.

I 'm afraid I must confess I don't remember much about the close of the
evening. I wanted to dance with Lizzie, and when she would have none of
me I consoled myself with the flowing bowl to such an extent that when
by-and-by Dick, suggesting we should go home, took me by the arm and led
me into the open air, I found the ground was rising up to meet me, and I
remarked to my mate I thought that the moon must be getting old, she was
so remarkably unsteady on her legs. I retired to my tent to wake up next
morning with a splitting headache, as a pleasing reminiscence of the
revel of the night before.

I am not a digger now. Long since I abandoned the pick and shovel for
more lucrative employment--so long since that it is only occasionally I
look back on my early days in the colony and my first Christmas on the
diggings.


Brendon and Son, Printers; Plymouth




THE END





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