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Title: The Guiding Star
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100131.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: February 2011
Date most recently updated: February 2011

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Guiding Star
Author: Fred M White

*

Published in The Kalgoorlie Western Argus, Tuesday, 14 November, 1911.


*


I.



"You'll not do it," the big woman said decisively.

Ethel Carne merely smiled by way of reply. And yet she had lived long
enough in that wild North West to know that a warning like this was not
to be disregarded. Perhaps it was the fitful spurts of sunshine which
gave her courage. Perhaps she derived the strength and inspiration from
the steely blue of the sky, bent like some metal dome above her head.
Already along the fainter blue of the horizon a few pallid stars were
powdered, shining dimly like jewels upon the neck of beauty in the dawn.

"You'll not do it," the mistress of the stores repeated, with finality.
"You'll never reach the Spurs before dark. And the snow will be up in an
hour, happen though it does look so bright and cheerful now. Far best
stay the night."

The big woman with the kindly eyes and shrewd face was speaking no more
than the truth, and very well in her heart of hearts knew it. They stood
together in the doorway of the log store, looking up the sweeping
mountain paths which led by zig-zag stages to the Spurs. It was no far
cry on a summer's day, being a matter merely of a few miles. But when
the snow came down and the north-easter swept across the valleys, then
the swinging pine trees spoke of danger and told of disaster dead and
gone. Away up to the left the dark woods lifted their shoulders high,
the great massed battalions of the pines stood like grim sentinels
watching and warning. Just for a moment they lay like a sombre flash
against the steely blue, steadfast and immaculate, then a flying
squadron of the coming gale beat them almost flat till they roared again
with heads bent over against the fury of the wind. The cold, icy breath
came down the pass, sweeping in through the open door. A million sparks,
crimson and purple and gold, roared up the stove through the hot
chimney.

Ethel Carne set her little white teeth together. "It's very kind of
you," she said, in a low-pitched, modulated voice, so different from the
hard, nasal tones of her companion. "I know you mean well; but I must
get back to the Spurs to-night. I am quite alone. My help left me
yesterday unexpectedly, and my little girl is alone in the house. Oh, I
couldn't rest here, knowing that she was all by herself, and the
Christmas Eve, too. Think of the disappointment! And then she might be
frightened."

The speaker touched the square parcel which she carried under her arm.
She had been down to the Fort making her slender purchases for the
festive season, for it is a poor heart that never rejoices, and it was
one of Ethel Carne's boasts that so far she had lost neither her
self-respect nor her courage.

Who she was and whence she came people neither knew nor did they seem to
care. That she was English went without saying. That she was a lady was
patent to the meanest observer who frittered away his weekly earnings in
the many saloons which tempted miners to forgetfulness and destruction.
All that most people knew was that George Carne had vanished
mysteriously two years before and that he had never been heard of since.
He was by way of being a gentlemanly adventurer. But, then, they were
all adventurers at the Spurs for the matter of that, where each man at
any moment might "make his pile," alluvial gold mining, or incidentally
sweat out the last years of his life for a mere pittance of bread and
shelter. For the most part the latter was the lot of the majority of
them, though occasionally one or two, more fortunate than the rest,
drifted West with their pockets full of money and their heads humming
with the poison--miscalled whisky in that remote spot.

There was no scandal or outcry when George Carne was seen and heard of
no more, for it was part of the unwritten etiquette of the Spurs to ask
no questions when some gentleman of fortune disappeared as mysteriously
as he had arrived. Few men there were properly entitled to the names
they bore, and biography as a pastime or relaxation was sternly frowned
upon by the community who made up the settlement.

And so long as Ethel Carne made no sign it was nothing to anybody else.
There were other women in the settlement, and in their rough,
sympathetic way they were not unkind to the gentle stranger, whom they
recognised as one made of far superior clay to themselves. Gradually,
and by degrees, Mrs. Carne drifted into the position of dressmaker to
the settlement. She had good taste and a deft needle; also, she was the
possessor of a sewing machine, which was an object of interest, not to
say awe, to her sisterhood at the Spurs. As a matter of fact, Ethel Came
fitted into the picture. She learnt to shift and do for herself. She
acquired a strength and reliance which was as unexpected as it was
pleasing. And if down in her heart she felt all the bitterness and grief
of a woman deserted in the full floodtide of her beauty she made no
sign. The blue eyes were as clear and serene now as they had been in the
early days. The mouth was as sweet and tender. There was just a thin,
drawn line between the brows and no more: for Ethel had her child, who
was growing up in that clear mountain air as strong and erect as one of
the pines which tossed its plumes against the everlasting snows. There
were a comfortable home and many friends waiting for Ethel in England
had she but chosen to hold up her little finger. But for the present she
preferred to obliterate herself. She wanted no sympathy and no pity. Her
proud soul would have revolted against the slightest touch on the edge
of the wound which had never yet healed, and never would.

.......

"I tell you I must go," she said. "I am merely wasting the precious
moments here, and that child all alone in the cabin...... with nothing
but the light of the stove......And presently it will be dark."

She turned abruptly away, and grasped the parcel all the more firmly.
She was not in the least tired. Her stride was free and elastic as she
wended her way up the path towards the Spurs. It was curiously still in
strange weird patches. At times she could actually hear the bleat of
sheep and catch the distant voices. Then for a moment the stinging fury
of the gale broke out again, like the headlong charge of white cavalry,
and she bent her supple body, whilst the cold wind seemed almost to stop
the beating of her heart. As she struggled up the path the intervals of
ominous quiet became less and less. A thin, filmy powder came in
whirling drifts across the steely blue of the sky. There was a sting
like whip-lashes on her cheek, and behold, here and there as if in the
twinkling of an eye snowdrifts in the road and white caps weighing down
the soughing branches of the pines. A few more scuds like this and the
path would be wiped out, leaving but the sombre fringe of the trees on
either side. The danger yet was vague and intangible; but Ethel Carne
had lived there long enough to know how real it was.

And yet she was not afraid, though she knew that the mile or so would
tax her strength to the uttermost. But she was not thinking of her child
or herself now, she was not feeling the weight of the white scud beating
freely upon her neck and hair. Her mind had gone back into the past. The
faint, intangible spirit of Christmas was upon her. It was just about
this time two years ago that George Carne had gone off hotfoot and at a
moment's notice, westward. He had left a note to say that he had been
called away imperiously, and that there was no time to be lost. He had
hinted vaguely of some good fortune looming in the distance which he
would keep to discuss with Ethel when they met again.

And from that day to this there had come no sign. It had been very good
of Raymond Raife to stand by Ethel as he had done, for he had been
George's chum, who refused to believe anything but the best of his old
partner. And then, almost unexpectedly, Raife himself had been summoned
home, and from that moment it seemed to Ethel that she was absolutely
alone in the world.

She never stopped to analyse her feelings. She had not dared to ask
herself whether her prevailing emotion was one of contempt or despair.
Commonsense told me that she had been deserted, and she was content to
let it go at that. But she had made no sign. She had known how to take
her punishment.

But now everything seemed to be different. Now she caught herself
wondering for the first time if Raife had not been right. Raymond Raife
had never told her in as many words that he cared for her. A woman's
instinct had filled her with that consciousness. But that was a matter
that would not bear analysis.

She struggled on and on against the increasing fury of the gale, white
and battered from head to foot now, breathing slowly and painfully, with
a prayer on her lips that she might win through and reach the little log
cabin at last. She thought of its warmth and comfort. She thought of the
clear glow of the wood stove, of fragrant coffee and hot cakes, of all
the pleasant things that make the chill blast of the open air a comfort
and a consolation. She thought, too, of the child waiting so patiently
there with her handful of cheap toys and wondering how much longer mummy
was going to be. Then the white fury of the gale came down with a snarl
and a roar, and just for the moment the woman stood there dazed, beaten
and half unconscious. She wiped the white stinging powder from her eyes.
She beat her chilled hands to her breast. She staggered forward again,
peering through the thickness for the first sight of the dull glow that
would show her that home was close at hand. Then, just for a moment, the
white, howling veil lifted, and the hoarse singing roar of the pines
ceased. High on the shoulder of the hill a tiny red glow shone out; the
core of the flame seemed to find its way straight to Ethel's heart and
warm her as some generous spirit might have done. There was a fresh
strength in her limbs now, for she knew that she had won through and
that the goal was reached, She staggered up the narrow path leading to
the cottage, she fumbled for a moment with the latch then the door gave
and she stumbled inwards. A moment later the murderous breath of the
night was shut out, a delicious sense of warmth and drowsiness overcame
her. She sat down to the table with her head on her hands. She was just
conscious of a pair of soft arms about her neck.

"All right, dearie," she said hysterically, "I shall be myself in a
minute or two. Then we shall have some delicious hot coffee and cakes,
and I will tell you all my adventures. Do you think you could get the
lamp for me?"

The child came back a moment or two later bearing two lamps in her
hands. The mother looked at her interrogatively.

"You have forgotten," the child said gravely. "Surely you have forgotten
the beacon lamp which we always put out for daddy on Christmas Eve. You
light the two, mummy."

"Yes," Mrs. Carne whispered, "I'll light the two."



II.


The beacon light stood in the little window with the curtain half drawn.
The soft hiss of the snow drifted against the panes, and Ethel smiled at
her little one's suggestion. After all said and done, it was impossible
that the beacon light might be of advantage to some belated wayfarer
struggling up from the Fort, though few of the miners would risk the
white peril to-night. The stove gave out a cheerful heat. The coffee and
cakes were things of the past, and already Ethel was busy decorating the
walls of the little sitting-room with such evergreens as she had
gathered the day before. She was quite herself again now. There was a
deep, abiding thankfulness in the knowledge that she was safe at home
and that all danger had been left behind. The brown-paper parcel had
been hidden judiciously away with a promise that its many wonders would
be displayed on the morrow. It was getting late now and the mists were
beginning to dance in little Ethel's blue eyes.

"Just a little longer," she pleaded at the mother's suggestion of bed.
"It isn't Christmas Eve every night, and, really, I am not a bit tired.
I want to wake up in the morning and help you."

Ethel Carne yielded weakly enough. She felt a strange desire for human
companionship to-night. She knew how recently she had been face to face
with death and she could not forget it.

"Very well," she said. "But you mustn't dance about any longer. Come and
sit on my knee and let me tell you a story." The child came obediently
enough:

"Please," she asked. "But let it be a real story--one of the things that
used to happen to you when you were a girl at home in England. I like
those stories better than the book stories."

And so it came about a few moments later that Ethel Carne in the spirit
was wandering about English meadows, under the shade of cool trees, and
picking primroses by the brookside. The story came to an end at length,
and with it a sound from without as if someone were knocking feebly at
the door. Just for a moment it occurred to Ethel that her imagination
was playing tricks with her, then came that uncertain sound again, as if
some exhausted animal were scratching for admittance. Ethel put the
child off her knee and drew back the latch. There was a burst of
murderous cold air, a rushing whirl of snowflakes, which came hissing
and spitting as far as the stove, then a form half rose from the
doorstep and staggered into the room. It all happened so quickly, so
dramatically, that for a moment Ethel could only stand there, the air
cutting like knives across her face, her hair dishevelled in the wind.
Then it was borne in upon her that the place was getting icy cold and
that the figure of a man lay there on the floor chilled, unconscious, it
even might be, exhausted to the verge of death. It was a fight to close
the door, to shoot back the bolts into their places, and draw the heavy
portiere of bearskin across the panes. The child stood there
open-mouthed and waiting, but yet not alarmed, for accidents were
frequent in the hard life of the Spurs, and it was not the first time
that Ethel had looked death in the face.

"Get me the brandy bottle, dearie," Ethel murmured, as she raised the
man's head from the floor. She chafed his cold hands vigorously. She
dragged him nearer to the stove by sheer personal strength, so that the
grateful warmth might thaw the cuirass of snow which had frozen on his
breast like armour. She managed at length to coax a few drops of spirit
down the man's throat. He shuddered convulsively, and his eyes opened.
Then he glanced round the room, not vaguely nor confusedly, but with the
air of one who had been there before.

"Ethel," he whispered, "that was a close call."

The woman recognised him. She had recognised him almost before his grey
eyes were turned to the light. She seemed to take it as coolly and
collectedly as possible. Now that he was once back again it seemed the
most natural thing in the world. There was no wild fluttering at her
heart, no overwhelming joy, no contempt, regret, or any other gamut of
emotions which ought, by all the rules of the game to have gripped her
at that moment.

"Yes," she murmured, mechanically, "How was it?"

The man had risen to his feet by now. Every passing instant seemed to
add to his stature and his manhood. The glow crept back to his cheeks
now. His eyes were clear and bright. He stripped off his furs and stood
before the stove, the picture and embodiment of perfect humanity. He did
not seem to see that the child was dancing about his knees now that she
had recognised him, and that she was calling him by name. Without
knowing it he lifted her in his strong arms and kissed her tenderly.

"I always knew you would come back," she said.

"Of course, dear," he said gravely. "I never meant to do anything else,
only I have been a little longer than I expected. And now, don't you
think you had better go to bed. I have much to say to mother, and
to-morrow I shall show you all the presents I have brought you. Oh, I
have heaps and heaps of presents for both, only I had to hide them by
the wayside or else I should never have got here at all. Put the child
to bed, Ethel. As for me, I daresay I shall know where to find something
to eat. I feel as if I hadn't had a meal for years."

The man spoke cheerfully and naturally enough, and yet there was a
certain constraint in his manner which Ethel did not fail to notice. Her
lip curled somewhat contemptuously, but she obeyed the suggestion
without demur. And then, when once the child was between the blankets, a
certain demure shyness came upon her and it was a long time before she
had the courage to return to the sitting-room. George Carne was seated
by the stove, his head in his hands, evidently deeply immersed in
thought.

"Come and sit down," he said. "We have a good deal to say to one
another. There is so much to explain. And yet I don't think you would
blame me if you knew everything."

"Perhaps not," Ethel said mechanically.

"No, we had better go back for a bit. You will remember the day I went
away. You were away from home for the time, and I had not a moment to
spare. It was Raymond Raife who brought me the news--- a cablegram from
home, saying my father was dying and desired to see me without delay. I
can never understand--in fact, I shall never understand--my father's
bitter opposition to our marriage. I suppose we were both too proud to
ask for explanations, and that is the real reason why we drifted apart.
But when Raife brought me that cablegram I began to see hope ahead. It
seemed to me that I was going to be taken back into favour again, for my
father would hardly have sent for me all that way if it had not been to
give me his forgiveness on his deathbed. Then we would go back to
England again and renew our proper position in society. I was more glad,
I think, for your sake and the child's sake than my own. I did not
hesitate a moment. I went off there and then. I made up my mind to say
nothing to you till I could send you some really good news. My idea was
to get matters settled in England and then come and fetch you two home
again. I hope you won't think I am hard and callous; but I have never
ceased to regret what I brought you to here, all the more so because you
were always so brave and uncomplaining."

Carne paused, but no reply came from Ethel.

"And when I got home I found, to my surprise, that my father had been
dead for the last year or more. He had made no sign. He had made no
attempt to communicate with me, but, at the same time, he had made no
alterations in his will, so that I found myself master of the whole
property. They had been advertising for me everywhere, and it was only
by pure good fortune that I discovered the truth. But the strange part
of the whole thing was this:--I could find nobody ready to admit the
dispatch of that cablegram. I was too busy to write to you. I was saving
it all up for a glad surprise later on. I never dreamt for a moment that
anything was wrong. I never dreamed that I was the victim of a false
friend who had played the vile conspiracy on me. How should I know that
the cablegram had been deliberately concocted by Raymond Raife to get me
out of the way! How could I guess it?"

A sudden, leaping crimson flamed into Ethel Carne's face. In an
illuminating flash she saw the true inwardness of many things now.
Burning letters of flame scorched on the arch of memory which had been
so many trivial words in the twilight of innocent misunderstanding. For
the first time Ethel saw.

"Is this true?" she stammered.

"Oh, it's true enough. I was to be got out of the way and it was to be
inferred to you that this action on my part was nothing else than a
cold-blooded desertion. But Raymond Raife found you impervious. He
recognised the hopelessness of his ambitions and he came back to England
to find me. As a matter of fact I found him lying in a hospital with a
broken spine, and on his deathbed he told me everything.... Well, I
forgave him everything, for I could do no less. Still, I grudged the
wasted years.........Ethel, surely there is no occasion for me to say
any more. You believe me?"

The woman rose tremblingly from her seat beside the stove. Then she
crossed the floor, and her arms went like two white wreaths round her
husband's neck. She wanted no more. She was content to know. And in that
instant it seemed to her that she had never doubted George Carne's
return. For a long time there was silence between them, a blissful
silence filled with a pleasing spirit of the happy Christmastide.
Neither wanted more than that.

"My word, it was hard work to get here," Carne said more cheerfully, as
he stretched his long arms out to the blaze. "They warned me down at the
Fort that I couldn't do it. But I laughed at them and pushed on my way.
I would have come to-night if all the powers of darkness had barred my
path. But I don't mind confessing that I was beaten more than once. In
the ordinary way I should never have managed it. And I struggled on and
on, dazed and half-blinded by the snow, until at last the beacon light
shone out clear and bright, like a guiding star to beckon me on. I tell
you it was like new blood--like sparkling champagne in my veins. And yet
even then it was a close call. But for that light and the grace of God I
should be lying out in the snow now stark and stiff."

Ethel Carne colours guiltily.

"Let me make a confession," she said, in a whisper, her head close down
to her husband's shoulder. "I had forgotten all about it. For two years
I have been growing more and more callous and forgetful. For two years I
have been steadily losing the hope which I tried to stifle. It was
little Ethel who brought me the lamp, little Ethel who reminded me that
I always lighted it on Christmas Eve. And now, if you can only forgive
me----"

"Forgive you what?" Carne asked. "My word! if you can take me back to
your heart again like this it is little I have to complain of. But, all
the same, it is going to be a really happy Christmas for us three,
sweetheart."


THE END


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