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Title: Dinky Darbison Author: Edwin J Welch (writing as Alwyn Alverstoke) * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305841h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2013 Date most recently updated: October 2013 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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There has been no attempt in this purely Australian story to construct an elaborate plot—because when a story is told based on actual men and actual happenings known to the author, no such thing is really necessary. The principal characters have been drawn from life, although they are in no sense individual portraits, and the incidents happened when life in Australia was more adventurous, more free, and more strenuous than in the present day.
Chapter I.—At Barumbah Station.
Chapter II.—The Rift in the Lute.
Chapter III.—An Amateur Bushranger.
Chapter IV.—The Aftermath.
Chapter V.—The Story of the Geffels.
Chapter VI.—Evesham Once More.
Chapter VII.—News from the Old Land.
Chapter VIII.—The Blacks at Barumbah.
Chapter IX.—Morrison Promoted
Chapter X.—A Chance Meeting.
Chapter XI.—Darbison and Armstead Meet Again.
Chapter XII.—A Shock for Mrs. Elliston.
Chapter XIII.—The Merry Widow.
Chapter XIV.—Darbison's Dramatic Home-coming.
Chapter XV.—A Surprise for Alice.
Chapter XVI.—Mrs. Elliston's Dilemma.
Chapter XVII.—Robert's Little Flutter.
Chapter XVIII.—The Hon. Alice Maderly.
Chapter XIX.—Alice Remains True.
Chapter XX.—Homeward Bound.
Chapter XXI.—A Somnambulistic Adventure.
Chapter XXII.—Mrs. Elliston's Reward.
Chapter XXIII.—"Joe the Rasp."
BOTH horse and rider were manifestly weary. The scrubby ridges and broken gullies, characteristic of the Upper Dawson country of Queensland, seemed interminable.
Over the ridge, longer and more forbidding than previous ones, the rays of a fast-disappearing sun shed a lustre that made it almost beautiful.
The young man on the flea-bitten grey drew rein mechanically, and muttered an imprecation. He was dressed bush fashion—slouch hat, Crimean shirt, serviceable riding pants, and a belt out of which protruded the handle of a murderous-looking revolver.
His carriage and demeanor denoted connection at some time or other with one of Her Majesty's services. He had the confidence which comes of training and discipline, and the reckless abandon which only youth and excellent health can give.
Turning in his saddle, he glanced around him. "By Jove," he muttered, "this has been a most trying day. It looks like camping out again, and sleeping with one eye open in case of blacks."
The game-looking, leg-weary horse pricked up his ears.
Manifestly he had heard something which had escaped the attention of his master.
The man's hand flew to his revolver, and his eyes searched the surrounding scrub. He discovered nothing, and the horse resumed its listless attitude.
Well, he would plug along a little further. Who knew what the top of the confounded ridge might not disclose? Perhaps the very station he was hoping for.
Harold Armstead, surveyor by profession, and just then in charge of a Government telegraph construction camp, pressed his heels into the sides of his horse and moved onward and upward.
The setting sun bathed the dreary-looking country in splendor. It heartened him.
On the top of the ridge he paused, and, shading his eyes with his hand, looked around him.
He gave an exclamation of unqualified satisfaction. There, right in front of him, with the setting sun flooding the homestead with golden light, was the head station of Barumbah. Moving slightly further forward, he got a full view of it. A glorious picture it made to the eyes of the tired traveller.
The house, a long, low building, was situated on the brow of a low-set ridge which sloped down gradually to the margin of a large lagoon shaded by gum trees, its surface ruffled only by the occasional movements of a large number of water fowl of many varieties. Everything about the place was bright and in a condition of perfect order, except the figure of a man, who looked as if his clothes had been thrown at him, as he wandered aimlessly about the well-kept garden in front of the house.
Armstead, who had been in the saddle since sunrise looking for timber suitable for telegraph poles, gazed on the scene before him, secretly rejoicing at his own good luck.
His journey had been profoundly solitary. He was a long way off the track dignified by the name of the Dawson-road, and had only seen one human being the whole day. The blacks were known to be bad in the neighborhood, and Harold had kept a sharp look-out for traces of them. He saw their tracks and some of their handiwork, but the blacks themselves were never visible.
Memories of the ghastly outrage not long before perpetrated by the natives at Hornet Bank Station, when a whole family, with the exception of one boy, was massacred, were still rife in the district, and every now and then reprisals by native police on the scattered remnants of the tribe which had so treacherously murdered its benefactors served to keep those memories active.
On the sheep stations two flocks were usually accommodated at each out-station hut, each flock having its own shepherd, and, in many cases, a hutkeeper was also provided, his duties comprising those of night-watchman, cooking for the shepherds, and shifting hurdles during the day.
Harold, who was well-mounted and carried his trusty revolver always handy, had kept on his way without misgiving.
During his ride something had moved behind one of the larger trees. He pushed on, revolver in hand, but could see nothing. There were no sheep in sight and no response came to his clear cooee. At any rate, for his own safety, the mystery must be solved. He had circled round the tree at what he considered a safe distance from any chance spear.
No one was to be seen, however, and he began to think that his strained nerves had been playing tricks with his imagination. He could swear he had caught a glimpse of a moving shadow more than once. What on earth could it be?
Angry at being baffled, and with his revolver ready for instant action, he had ridden straight at the tree.
To his utter astonishment a weird-looking figure, with long hair and unkempt beard, jumped out from behind it, and, calling out:—"Vell, vat der teufel vas you lookin' for?" threw the gun he carried to his shoulder.
The man had his clothes over his left arm, and they were scanty enough in all reason.
To his question Harold had replied with another.
"Who the——are you, and what are you doing out here in the bush in that Garden of Eden garb? Are you lost?"
"Nein. I vas not loshdt. Vas you lookin' for blackfellows?" and his eyes sparkled with maniacal glee as he clutched his antiquated musket still tighter.
"No. But what are you doing, anyway, and do you know how far it is to Barumbah?" he had asked.
"Ya, der sdadion is funf miles over dis vay. Der tam togs haf killed some sheeps, und hunted dem avay. If you go to der sdadion you besser dell dem, isn't it? I look for some but I don'd find dem."
"All right, I'll tell them. Better put your clothes on. Good day." And as Harold turned his horse in the direction indicated he had puzzled not a little as to where he had heard a voice like that before.
"I have never set eyes on the man in my life, that I can remember," thought Harold, "and you couldn't see his face for dirt, yet his voice seemed strangely familiar. Mere fancy, I expect."
Still thinking about the man and his weird appearance, he rode forward, wondering if the proprietor of the station, whose name he had been told was Darbison, could by any chance be a connection of his old shipmate. Lieutenant Aubrey Darbison, under whom he had served as a midshipman in the Rodney during the latter part of the old ship's commission on the Mediterranean station.
What if it should be "Dinky Darbison" himself—so called by the irreverent youngsters in the gunroom to distinguish him from a paymaster of the same name attached to the port guardship Hibernia, who was known as "Smouch Darbison" on account of certain little peculiarities of which they disapproved? He knew—and that was all he did know—that Darbison had thrown up the service on the death of his father, a tremendously wealthy manufacturer in the north of England. He had settled down on his property, after marriage with some society beauty of ancient family but sadly impoverished estate, since which he had quite lost sight of him.
Crossing the road below where it rounded the shoulder of the lagoon in front of the house and vanished in a sinuous track of many curves across the plain, Harold passed through the sliprails of the home paddock and headed for the neat garden fence, on the other side of which stood the man he had already seen, apparently in contemplation and taking no heed of the approaching horseman, who moved quietly over the thick carpet of couch grass. Getting within a few feet of the silent figure, whose back was towards him, Harold had barely time to note that the owner appeared to be in some sort of trouble, when the man turned, revealing an unfamiliar face, on which the lines of suffering and ill-health were plainly visible.
In response to the suddenly-acquired note of interrogation implied by his expression, Harold said:—
"Excuse me, but I wish to see Mr. Darbison, if he is at home."
"Yes, sir. Go ahead. I am Mr. Darbison. In what way can I be of service to you?"
"Well, I have ridden rather a long way to-day, and I should feel obliged for your permission to turn my horse out and remain for the night. My name is Armstead, and I am a surveyor in the government service."
"Certainly. With great pleasure, Mr.—Mr.——. Pardon me, but I didn't quite catch your name. I will get someone to take your horse round to the stables and attend to him, and then I will show you to a room."
"My name is Armstead, Mr. Darbison, but let me say that, whilst thanking you for your kindly reception, I cannot but feel a slight chill of disappointment. You see, I have been hoping all day, and against hope as it were, that it might be my luck to meet a gentleman of your name under whom I served many years ago in the Mediterranean. It was only the similarity of name, of course, which gave birth to the hope, for the same is by no means a common one."
"Armstead! Armstead! Surely you are not the Harold Armstead whose name I remember as that of a naval cadet during the last commission of the old Rodney? If so, indeed, you are wonderfully altered, but time brings many changes along in its wake, and we were both a good many years younger then. Ah, me! I have forgotten what Aubrey Darbison was like in those days, but he was a far happier man then than he is now, or is ever likely to be again. Hallo!" he called out, and in response a groom appeared from one of the outbuildings. "Take this horse," he said to the man, "and see it stabled and cared for."
Then turning to Armstead, he continued:—
"Here's your valise, and this is your room; come right through this passage when you are ready. It's like a breath of old times to meet with as old shipmate, and I'm more glad than I care to say to have you here."
The internal arrangements of the house came in the light of a surprise when compared with the somewhat primitive comforts incidental to the general run of way-back stations. The rooms were large and solidly furnished with all appliances of ease and elegance suggestive of ample means, and the general arrangements and decorations testified to the taste and supervision of a woman's hand.
As Harold entered the dining-room, the table of which was laid with scrupulous care and attention to the most minute detail, Darbison stood at the buffet in the act of helping himself liberally from a tantalus bottle of brandy, in which Harold was cordially invited to join.
Just at that moment an attractive and beautifully-dressed woman entered from one of the French lights opening on to the verandah, and came towards them with an expressive shrug of her bare and gleaming shoulders.
Armstead looked at her with undisguised admiration. She was in evening dress, and, indeed, beautiful. Her features were perfect and the wealth of raven-black hair set off a face the beauty of which was insistent and compelling. Her dark brown eyes, shaded by silken lashes, lighted up for a moment with glad surprise, then relapsed into their moody and ill-concealed expression of contempt which the earlier shrug of the shoulders had all too plainly indicated.
"Mrs. Darbison, this gentleman is an old and welcome brother officer of mine. Permit me to introduce Mr. Armstead—Mrs. Darbison."
With a slight, but graceful inclination of the head, the lady sailed round to the other side of the room and assumed a statuesque attitude near the fire, leaving, however, a decidedly Arctic temperature behind her, which Darbison promptly proceeded to thaw with another nip of brandy. Again came the action of the shoulders, which meant disgust if it meant anything, and the sound of the dinner gong from the passage heralded another introduction.
"Mr. Evesham, this is Mr. Armstead, once an old shipmate of mine, now in the service of the Government." He was soon followed by a bright-faced, happy-looking young man named Morrison, of twenty or thereabouts, and the party was complete.
As a dinner the entertainment was perfect. The only attendant was a grey-haired old man in regulation attire, who answered to the name of Robson, and, as it afterwards appeared, he had been for many years butler in the house of Darbison's father. The plate was real and massive, the viands numerous and well-cooked, and the wines beyond criticism. Yet over all there hung an air of depression and mystery which spoilt all sense of enjoyment.
Darbison said nothing, ate very little, but drank very freely. Mrs. Darbison and Evesham exchanged a few common-place remarks at long intervals, and Morrison left at an early stage with some half-muttered explanation about something he had omitted to attend to. The feeling of restraint was becoming intolerable, when Harold suddenly introduced the subject of his meeting with the partially-clad shepherd on the run.
"Ha! yes, that was old Carl you met, and, thanks to the message you were good enough to deliver, I have already sent him help. Niggers' dogs, of course. They are a veritable curse to us," said Evesham.
"I think you referred to him as Carl. Do you happen to know his other name?"
"Can't say I do, but it will be in the store books. He's quite mad, you know, although he behaves rationally enough sometimes."
"Wonder if his name is Geffel? I couldn't think at the time whom he reminded me of, but I know now. A man of that name came out in the steerage of the ship I came in, and that he was mad I well remember. But he was landed in Melbourne, and his wife and a young daughter with him."
"And all three are now on Barumbah," broke in Darbison; "the wife is our cook, and the daughter is Mrs. Darbison's maid; that is, if she is his daughter, which I don't for one moment believe!"
"Aubrey, again I must request you to abstain from making those absurd comments. There it no more foundation for it than for any of your other ridiculous suspicions!"
"All right, madam, so be it." Then, turning to his guest, he said: "Come to my den, Armstead, and have a smoke by the fire. It's too cold outside these nights."
There, by the cheerful blaze, Darbison became more communicative. Referring to the Geffels, he told how they were engaged and sent up to him by his agents in Brisbane about six months before. "The woman is a jewel, the girl a beautiful mystery, but as good as she is pretty. The man had been kept on the place as groom and general knockabout, but was constantly quarrelling with his wife, so we gave him a flock, with more wages, just to get him away from the house. Good shepherd? Yes, as good as the rest of them, but in terror of his life for the blacks. Yes, they are a bit troublesome at times, and then we send for the native police. Have another drop of Martell, old man, it won't hurt you."
"No more, thanks. I'm a trifle tired, and, if you don't mind, I'd rather turn in. I've a long way to go yet, and would like to get an early start in the morning."
"Not if I know it, you don't. Nonsense, man. Why, I've sent your horse out to the big paddock on the river, and you can't get him for a couple of days at the earliest. A bit of the old cloth is not so common out this way that we can part so soon. Besides, I want you to stop for a day or two as a personal favor. You won't say no to that, I'm sure, for the sake of old times."
So the matter was settled, as there was evidently no other way but of it, and the next day began a series of hideous complications, which terminated in wreck and disaster.
Shortly after breakfast, a meal at which Darbison alone put in an appearance, in an unmistakably shaky condition, Robson beckoned to Armstead from the door of his pantry, which he carefully closed on them and said:—
"Asking your pardon, sir, for the liberty I'm taking, but I can't keep quiet any longer. You see sir, it's this way. Man and boy I've been in the family for close on forty years, and Master Aubrey growed up with me from the time he was a little chap so high, except when he was away at sea. Well, sir, Mr. Aubrey tells me you are an old shipmate of his, and I can see you ain't a drinker, so I thought I'd just up and tell you. Things is all wrong here, and they're going from bad to worse, and he knows it, and that makes him keep on drinking, and God knows what the end of it will be. That Evesham, ever since he come here a year ago, have been carrying on with the missus, and it's just shameful. She is a vain, silly fool, and what Mr. Aubrey married her for I could never make out. She married him for his money, I know that, because I know all about her people, and she was a pretty girl, I don't deny, and you know the way it is with sailors, sir, when there's a petticoat around! (a most unjustifiable assumption, by the way, although an extremely popular delusion). Well, they got on all right till this Evesham came, and things has been getting worse ever since. I've got my eyes open, of course, but Alice—and a right good girl she is—sees everything, and tells her mother, and then I get it all, and lately the missus has been making her presents of clothes and things by way of bribes not to let on what she knows, and pretty soon there'll be a great bust up, and what to do I don't know. Perhaps you can help me, sir, if you would be so kind, but whatever you do, don't let Mr. Aubrey know that I have been talking to you."
"This is all very terrible, Robson, but I really don't see how I can help you. It is painfully evident that Mr. Darbison is drinking too much, but he would very properly resent my even hinting at such a thing. Do you think he could be persuaded to take her down to Sydney, or even Brisbane, for a short holiday. That might break the spell, eh?"
"He tried that, sir, months ago, when he first began to get suspicious, but she wouldn't listen to it. Said her health was too delicate and couldn't stand the journey. No, that's no use, sir."
"Well, Robson, I don't see any way out of the trouble at present. I must think it over and watch for an opportunity to speak if I can. Mr. Darbison has pressed me to stay on here for a few days, and after what you have told me I must try and arrange to do so. Now, before I return to the house, I should like to have a little talk with Mrs. Geffel, who, I dare say, will remember me, as we came out in the same ship. Can you arrange that? And, by the way, where is Mr. Evesham just now?"
"He went off to one of the out-stations before sunrise, sir. To give him his due, he don't ever neglect his work. Come this way, sir, if you please."
Mrs. Geffel was found hard at work, "tidying up," as she called it, in the spotless kitchen, and mutual recognition soon took place. She had aged considerably, and her face wore a sad and worried look, but Alice, who soon after made her appearance, was a revelation of the change that a few years can make when the child becomes developed into the perfect woman. The premise of her early youth had been amply fulfilled, the same winning smile, the same honest glance from her bluish-grey eyes, and the same charming, self-possessed manner which was markedly genuine. In figure, stature, and, above all, in the carriage of her well-poised, shapely head, crowned with its wealth of rippling, golden hair, she could have held her own in the stateliest ranks of the world's aristocracy. But this is not a love story, merely a record of everyday facts in the lives of a few everyday sort of people. One of those facts, however, must have been patent to everybody, namely, that Carl Geffel and his wife could not possibly have been the progenitors of such a splendid type of woman-hood.
"Leave us, Alice dear, please, for a little while. I want to talk to Mr. Armstead." Which was true only within certain well-defined limits. Not a word of blame for anybody, merely hints, given with much reticence, that things were not precisely what they ought to be, and that the responsibility, whatever might be its extent, rested chiefly on the shoulders of Mr. Evesham. Evidently that gentleman was no great favorite.
What might have transpired had it been possible to prolong the interview cannot be told, for it was suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Morrison on a hard-ridden horse, from which he dismounted and made straight for Darbison's room with a startling piece of information.
"Old Carl has been killed by the blacks, sir. Mr. Evesham sent me in to tell you. We found him near the Seven-mile, quite dead, with a spear sticking in him, his head battered in, and his flock scattered all over the country. And Mr. Evesham says I am to go up the river at once for the native police, and will you please send a man out with a pick and shovel!"
"Sorry, indeed, to hear that, Morrison, but in the meantime say nothing about it outside, and I'll ask Robson to break it gently to the poor woman after you've gone. Get a fresh horse and start for the barracks as soon as you can, and call at Ivy Downs on your way, and if Mr. Somers is at home ask him to try and come over. Get some lunch before you start, and be off with you."
The dainty luncheon set at 1 o'clock had no patrons except Armstead and Darbison; the latter merely trifled with the food placed before him, but helped himself far too liberally to brandy and soda, greatly to the manifest discomfiture of honest old Robson. Evesham and Morrison were both away, Mrs. Darbison was indisposed, and had not yet left her room, which, by the way, was at the opposite end of the verandah to that occupied by her husband. So that what little conversation there was referred solely to the sad fate of old Carl Geffel and the prospects of a successful raid on the camp by the police. Evesham returned during the afternoon, having buried the remains of the murdered shepherd, and brought with him the spear and what little property the old man had left in his hut. Morrison was not expected until the following day, and Mrs. Geffel was in a state of collapse, with Alice in close attendance, Mrs. Darbison being apparently too unconcerned about the troubles of such very ordinary people to seek to offer consolation. Dinner, as on the previous night, was an even more mournful function, and again Armstead was invited to go to the den for a smoke. They had not been there long before music was heard in an adjoining room, and two voices, harmoniously blended, joined in a duet from "Trovatore."
"They do that sort of thing nearly every night," said Darbison, "but they might have given a thought to the grief of that poor woman in the kitchen, this night above all others. ——it, I can't stand it, and I won't have it. Excuse me a minute, old man, and I'll go and speak to them."
The lull was of short duration, and was quickly followed by angry voices, which momentarily increased in volume until a final shriek in a woman's voice brought Armstead to his feet in a hurry, and immediately afterwards Darbison appeared, white with anger, threw the key of the piano on the table, buried his face in his hands, and said: "—— the scoundrel, and the woman too, and myself for being the biggest fool on this continent. Do you hear me, Armstead?"
"With the deepest regret I do. But perhaps I had better go away. Evidently something is wrong, but nothing in which I can take part. If I could serve you I would gladly, but I fear that is out of the question."
"Quite; but don't go just yet. I must talk to somebody or I shall go mad. Bear with me for a little, old man, and I shall pull myself together directly."
After a short silence and a sharp inward struggle, he went on:—
"I wrote to my agents last week to put Barumbah on the market. I ought to have done so before. But it may take some time to effect a sale, and in the meantime I am helpless. I have smashed one side of his face in to-night, but that only helps to publish my disgrace and show me up as the craven, spiritless thing I am. Good heavens! to think that Aubrey Darbison should have to say that of himself!"
"Stop it at that, Darbison. I positively won't sit here to listen to such talk. If, as I suppose, you are referring to Evesham, why allow him to remain on the place?"
"Why? You may well ask why! He has an agreement for three years, only one of which has expired. But I believe he would be perfectly willing to go if she went with him. Without her, he would drag me through the court for breach of contract. He has suggested as much, although I offered him more than double the two years' salary to go. It is a case of diabolical infatuation on both sides, and I see no way of escape from the disgrace. She has her own rooms, and I never see her except at the table, and not always there. She follows him about all over the place, takes long bush rides with him, and laughs in my face when I remonstrate, which, however, I no longer do."
"Had they met before he came here?"
"That's where the infernal cunning of the thing appears, but I only learnt that part of it about a couple of months back, from a dear old friend in London. I knew nothing of the wretch before he was sent up to me by a Sydney firm to whom I had written, and his fitness for the position was extolled to the skies. When he arrived the pair of them met as absolute strangers. That was part of the game. She had been corresponding with him, and he knew when and to whom to make his application. However, to do him but scant justice, he is a good bushman—been out here for many years—and has a certain aptitude for management that carries him through. He was well-connected, and a subaltern in one of the Household regiments when he first met her, and dangled about after her at all times and places. He would have married her, I believe, but she and her people wanted money, and he had little more than his pay, which doesn't go far in a crack regiment. So he took to gambling, came a cropper, and cleared out in a hurry to this country. That's a general outline only—fill it in for yourself."
"May I speak plainly, Darbison, without fear of giving offence?"
"Be sure you may, old chap, but I think I know what you want to say. You think I drink too much? Quite true. I have done, but will do so no longer. I have no love for it—never had—but it served to kill thought and drown memory. After what happened to-night, I realise the danger for the first time."
He touched the bell at his elbow, and old Robson came to the door. "Come in, Robson, you faithful old soul, and do exactly as I tell you. Put that tantalus back in the cellaret, and with it any other bottles or decanters containing spirits, lock it up, put the key in your pocket, and refuse possession to every soul on the place, except Mr. Armstead, if he asks for it. No, I include myself as well. You need have no fear. If at any time I should want it I will come to you for it. Good-night, Robson, it's time you were in your bed."
"Good-night, and thank God, for I never knew you to break your word, Mr. Aubrey," and the old man's eyes glistened as he left the room.
"And about Mr. Morrison," said Armstead, when the door closed behind him. "Has he been with you long?"
"I brought him up here when I bought the place. He's a decent young fellow, has been well educated, and belongs to a well-to-do family somewhere in Tasmania. I understand he will have money some day, and the agents, who knew his people, sent him up to get experience. He's a good worker and worth far more than the small screw he gets, but he appears to be quite contented, and old Robson swears by him. That's a strong point in his favor, and another is that I know there is no love lost between him and that scoundrel Evesham, whose measure, if I'm not deceived, he was shrewd enough to take some time back."
"That's all right, then. But really, Darbison, I must get on with my work, sorry though I am to go just at this crisis, but I can't fake my reports, you know, and I shall be hauled over the coals for this delay."
"Just one more day, there's a good fellow. It won't make much difference, if any, in the coaling process, and there's a lot I want to say to you yet."
To this Armstead at length consented, and the "crisis"—which had not yet arrived—they were destined to face together.
It was nearly noon on the next day when Morrison returned with word that the native police were absent from barracks on duty in another direction, but would come over as soon as possible; and Mr. Somers was away from home, and not expected back for a week.
Evesham had gone out at grey dawn, having previously been to the kitchen and made a cup of coffee in the "conjurer." Mrs. Geffel had peeped out, however, and, seeing his head was tied up, supposed he had "a bad attack of neuralgia!"
Mrs. Darbison remained invisible to everybody except Alice throughout the day, but appeared at dinner time as usual, only a trifle more elaborately dressed. For whose benefit did not appear, as Evesham did not return till after sundown, and had dinner in his own room.
The meal was hurriedly disposed of in silence, which was broken only occasionally by Robson in the performance of his customary duties. An air of restraint was over all until it was interrupted by a piercing shriek from the kitchen.
THE three men jumped from their seats and rushed out, Robson following, after making a vain attempt to assure Mrs. Darbison that there was no cause for alarm, as it was probably one of the women who was more frightened than hurt by some slight accident.
But when they reached the kitchen they found it in possession of a man whose face was concealed by a cloth mask, holding a revolver in his hand, and threatening to use it if the two women, huddled in the farthest corner, uttered another sound. Hearing the men as they reached the door, he suddenly turned, and, raising his weapon, ordered their immediate return to the house, and the frightened women to follow them. Not being armed, they could only obey. When all were safely inside he locked the door, put the key in his pocket, and, looking them all over, exclaimed:—
"Where is that dog Evesham?"
"Mr. Evesham is in his room, sick," said Darbison.
"Very good, I will attend him there shortly. Robson, get me a drink, and be quick about it. Be seated, gentlemen. As long as you attend to my orders you have nothing to fear, but take care that you don't disobey them. Mr. Darbison, I have a long journey in front of me, and I am short of funds. I must trouble you for what cash you have in the house, irrespective of cheques, which would be useless."
"You seem to be well acquainted with Barumbah and its occupants," said Darbison. "May I ask——"
"Ask nothing if you are wise, but produce the money."
"Very well, we are unarmed men, and at your mercy. You will, I presume, allow me to go to my room for it?"
"Sit down, sir, and hand the keys, if they are required, to Robson. If the amount is insufficient I shall be compelled to make a search for myself, but I warn you against trickery of any sort!"
On the old man's return to the room he deposited a considerable sum in notes, gold, and silver on the table, where it was left untouched by the bushranger, who then said:—
"Gentlemen, you will please to remain seated whilst I transact the business which brought me here. I have to interview Mr. Evesham. Thank you, yes, I know the way to his room. Again let me warn you of the consequences of any attempt to follow or interfere with me, as I have no wish to be compelled to use this!"
Pointing the revolver at the group as he spoke, he then opened a French light leading on to the verandah, and walked straight to the door of Evesham's room, which he entered without knocking.
"Who the devil are you, and what do you mean by this intrusion? Armed and masked, too! What is it you want? Money? Because if that's it you'll be disappointed. There's no money here."
"Silence, you anointed liar and scoundrel, and don't move a muscle as you value your dirty, degraded life. Two only of your questions demand answers. I will take what money I can find, presently. In the meantime I shall appropriate this very handsome watch and chain and these diamond studs," lifting them from the dressing table as he spoke. "So much for your second question. Now for the first." Still keeping his pistol levelled at the recumbent figure on the bed, he tore off the mask with his disengaged hand and said:—
"Now I think you will know who I am, Evesham!"
"Yes, I recognise you, Tom Dickson. You are the man who was engaged for the shearing last year and bolted before it commenced."
"Liar again. You knew me, and I saw that you did, the day I came to the station, cunningly as you tried to conceal it. And you know me now, as the poor dupe whom you first rooked and then made a tool of to bring other young idiots into the toils you and your comrades worked so successfully.
"True, I came here as Tom Dickson in the struggle to earn an honest living, but you knew then, as you know now, that I am, or rather was, your brother officer, Chelpont, and I left here the same day I was engaged because I knew that I should kill you if I remained. I knew nothing of your being in this country, or of the name by which you are known here, until I saw you. Your letter to England after that, in which you lied so cruelly about me, is in my pocket now. It was sent to my father and came back to me. Now, before I leave this house, you will write a confession, which will be witnessed by Mr. Darbison, and——"
A rustling as of drapery near the door attracted his attention, and as he turned to look Evesham's hand came from under the pillow. "I'll see you hung first," came the response, accompanied by a shot, and instantly followed by an agonising scream from Mrs. Darbison, whose curiosity, combined with fear for Evesham's safety, had made her follow the footsteps of the masked man, though warned not to do so.
She had but just reached the door, and was in the act of stealthily pushing it open, when the heavy bullet from a single-barrelled derringer missed the mark for which it was intended, passed through her hand, and on into the garden.
All was confusion. For an instant only the stranger hesitated, then replaced his revolver in his belt, and turned to the door as Mrs. Darbison flew past him, flung herself on the bed beside Evesham, screaming all the time with pain, bleeding freely, interspersing admissions of her love for him with denunciations of the bushranger, who, she declared, had fired at and tried to kill her.
"That is another lie! The man who fired the shot is the scoundrel beside you, and here is the pistol from which it was fired," picking up the derringer from the the floor, and turning to the door, where the men he had ordered to remain in the dining-room were now standing, gazing on the scene in bewilderment, but about to rush the intruder, who quickly faced them and said:—
"Mr. Darbison, I do not know how much or how little you may have seen or heard. Probably sufficient to convince you that I am not altogether what I may appear to be. At any rate I was a gentleman once, and a brother officer of that despicable wretch inside there, the crawling thief to whom I owe my downfall. When I came to the station last season to get a job of shearing I knew nothing of his being here, but I recognised him at once, and I saw that the recognition was mutual, although he tried hard to conceal his part of it. If I had remained I must have killed him. But enough of that. During the evening I was at the men's hut, I found out a great deal about Barumbah, and, although I would not pain you if I could avoid it, I must necessarily refer to the fact of the men's knowledge of that of which you appeared to be in ignorance—the infatuation of your wife for the treacherous hound with whom she now is. That, however, was in no sense any business of mine, but I decided to trade upon the knowledge to the extent of using it, and with violence if necessary, to force a confession from him of the hideous wrong he did me and to compel restitution of some part of what he robbed me. To carry out my plan I decided to act the role of a bushranger and risk the penalty. I realise now that I have failed, in part at least, if not in all, and whilst I most earnestly and sincerely apologise to you for the part I have played, I am content to leave him for the present in your hands, knowing full well that retribution must now overtake him."
Having returned to the dining-room, the stranger walked to the table, and, pointing to the money Robson had placed there, and alongside which he deposited the derringer with which Evesham had fired at him, said: "There is the money, Mr. Darbison, which I may say I had no intention of retaining; it was merely taken as part of the game I was mistakenly playing. There is the derringer, and if Robson will oblige me with pen and ink I will leave my name and the name and address of a well-known and reputable citizen of Brisbane, through whom you can communicate with me should you require my evidence at any time, though in the peculiar existing circumstances I scarcely think that likely." Then he walked slowly down the passage, and with a final "Good-night, gentlemen," disappeared in the darkness, shortly after which they heard the sound of a horse's feet on the hard road in front of the house.
Less than an hour had passed since Chelpont's (alias Dickson) first appearance, and after his departure a painful silence followed.
Darbison, with his elbows on the table, and his chin resting on his clasped hands, stared blankly in front of him, but uttered no sound, made no movement. Robson stood directly behind him, wearing a stony look of despair. Morrison tactfully left the room and remained within call on the verandah, whilst Armstead drew closer to his old shipmate, placing his hand on the stricken man's shoulder, as though to assure him of his great sorrow and loyal devotion to his needs.
At the end of perhaps twenty minutes of this depressing scene, Darbison, grey in feature, and, though firm in speech, gentle in manner, spoke.
"Robson, please ask Mr. Morrison to return to the room." This having been done, he continued:—"My friends, for I know each of you merits that name, bear with me for a few minutes. You have been, I know full well, unwilling witnesses to my dishonor. I ask you now to remain until I take some of the kinks out of this tangle of treachery and deceit. Robson, please tell Mr. Evesham that I wish to see him. If Mrs. Darbison is still in his room, send the two women from the kitchen to her, give what assistance you can to bind up her wound, then see that she goes to her own room, and come back and report."
In a few minutes Robson returned, saying:—"Mrs. Darbison is in her own room, Master Aubrey, and Alice is with her. She tells me that the pain from the wound is very terrible, but both she and her mother are doing their best. Mr. Evesham refused to leave his room, and told me to go to the devil. As I turned to go there, or anywhere out of his sight, he said if you wanted him you knew where to find him!"
"Thank you, Robson, that is sufficient. Now, gentlemen, please follow me."
Entering Evesham's room, the door of which was still open, Darbison said: "I have accepted the invitation to visit you because I choose to have these witnesses to my dishonor as witnesses also to my decision. A cheque for your salary will be handed to you by the storekeeper in the morning. Mr. Morrison will have a conveyance ready for you and your traps as soon as horses can be run up after sunrise, and he will accompany you as far as Somerton, and then return with the buggy. I must necessarily allude to the misguided woman who has made her choice and must abide by it. Apart altogether from these men now in the room, I have overwhelming evidence of much that has transpired recently."
"My own fault, did you say?"
"Possibly in the first instance, and in some measure, though to a very limited extent, there may be some truth in that. But I trusted unreservedly the woman who had sworn fealty to me at the altar, and the man who claimed to be a gentleman, who had held Her Majesty's commission, and was treated by me as a friend. Further comment on the subject would be as painful as it is unnecessary. You can, or not, as you please, inform the lady who has thus severed her connection with me that it will be advisable for her to accompany you on your journey, as she can no longer remain under my roof. Should she decline to do this I shall take prompt measures to secure myself from intrusion, and at once instruct my solicitors to proceed with an action against her, joining you in the issues. Not, however, under your assumed name of Evesham, but under that to which I believe you to be entitled, according to my informant of to-night, Seymour Fultenham, late cornet in the regiment you were compelled to leave. I have for some time past suspected you of being a blackguard, Mr. Evesham; now I know you to be a coward as well. See that you and your partner in guilt—if she is prepared to trust you to that extent—are away from Barumbah at an early hour in the morning."
Leaving the room, followed by Robson and the others, Darbison turned to the old man, thanking him and them for their attentions during the succession of harassing scenes.
Then to Morrison he said:—"Have the horses run up at daylight, and have Sambo and Kitten ready for a start. Take the hooded waggon, and carry out my wishes as you have heard them expressed. Robson, you will ask for an interview with Mrs. Darbison and repeat to the letter what you have heard from me. And now, good-night. I must be alone."
All arrangements made overnight were duly carried out the next morning. Mrs. Darbison, with her arm in a sling, and deeply veiled, was handed into the waggon by Evesham, also a pile of luggage, and they were driven off quickly and without any notice being taken of them other than a formal raising of the hat by Robson, and a flood of tears from Alice, which latter were undoubtedly genuine. Darbison came in to breakfast trying hard to appear at ease, but with the same grey and haggard look that he had worn the night before.
What little conversation there was Armstead was responsible for, declaring that he really must get on with his work.
"I am truly sorry to go, Darbison, at this juncture, but I don't see that I could be of any use by remaining, so I must ask you to let me get away in the morning. I think I can finish and be back here in about a fortnight, and by that time you will have steadied down and got back into your old form, and I shall be able to stay for a day or two if you'll have me."
It was nearly a month, however, before Armstead saw Barumbah again, and much had happened in the meantime. The station had been inspected by a possible purchaser, and practically sold. Ken Morrison's services were retained by the new man; Robson was to go with Darbison, bound on a visit to an old friend in Melbourne; Mrs. Geffel was made happy with the promise of a substantial cheque for herself and Alice, but thought she would go to Rockhampton and start a boarding-house. Darbison was entirely contented with the prospect of a speedy departure from his ruined home, and utilised most of his time packing such odds and ends as he desired to retain.
The last evening was spent by the two old shipmates alone in Darbison's now dismantled den, where, over a cheerful fire, they talked freely of the situation and the numerous incidents which preceded and led up to it. Referring to poor old Carl Geffel's fate, and the prospect of success for the widow in Rockhampton, Darbison asked Harold about his first meeting with the family on the voyage out from England, of which he had heard very little from Mrs. Geffel, and was desirous of hearing more.
Glad of the opportunity to distract his attention from present troubles, Harold entered upon the topic with a degree of satisfaction, and the older sailor listened with increasing interest, as the story was told.
"To begin at the beginning," Armstead said, "my acquaintance with the Geffels began on the occasion of Neptune's visit to the good old windjammer Essex on our way out. We were, of course, crossing the line, and when His Majesty came aboard the usual horse-play was indulged in. You know their tricks, old chap."
"Yes," said Darbison, "I have to this day a lively recollection of my first crossing."
"Well, the regular procedure was religiously gone through, and it served, any way, as a break in the monotony of the daily routine.
"The chief feature was the induction of Geffel, who, with his wife and daughter, if she is his daughter, was a steerage passenger. He proved himself a most unwilling victim. He fought wildly and swore volubly in his native tongue, freely enriched with such samples of fiery English, as a year's domicile in a Soho restaurant, as waiter when a young man, had enabled him to acquire. But resistance availed him little in the grasp of the quaint looking athletes who posed as Neptune's court officials, urged to desperation by that monarch's devoted spouse, Amphitrite, a stalwart sailor disguised in an enormous crinoline, flowing skirts, and a huge wig of tow, a raddled face, and a large green umbrella, with which the court was constantly produced to renewed exertions.
"In spite of all his struggles and a perfect volcano of polyglot talk, Carl was compelled to submit to the devices of his captors.
"I can see the old fellow now, as I saw him then, blindfolded, his arms bound, placed on a plank over the coaming of the main hatch, beneath which was made fast by the corners a bellying tarpaulin full of sea water. He was then generously lathered all over the face and head with a white-wash brush dipped in a bucket of some mixture that looked white, but smelt of the hereafter, and the torrent of his eloquence—mainly consisting of threats of awful vengeance on his persecutors—only ceased when the contents of the brush were plastered over his open mouth. Then the court barber stepped up with a gigantic razor, fashioned out of iron hoop, and proceeded to shave him, taking off the rough of the lather only, and then somebody tipped the plank and Carl was spluttering and swearing in the good salt water beneath.
"With his release the ceremony was over. It had been a source of great amusement to the audience, which included most of the cabin passengers, gathered in groups on the break of the poop, and those from the steerage, amongst them being Geffel's wife and daughter. Mrs. Geffel showed no sign of disapproval of the way in which her husband was treated. Beside her stood a short, thick-set man of Jewish type, to whom she spoke frequently. Her hand was clasped in that of a sweet-faced girl of 11, or perhaps 12, years of age. That girl was Alice, then a child of remarkable beauty, more, perhaps, of expression than of actual feature, a small face lit up by large greyish-blue eyes, and surmounted by a wealth of glossy, crinkly hair, the color of ripening grain. The second officer had, in fact, rechristened her 'Cornflower' soon after the ship left port, and it certainly was impossible to trace the slightest resemblance between her and either of her reputed parents."
Here Darbison, who had been listening most intently to Armstead's narrative, interjected.
"I noticed that when they first came to Barumbah. I have said several times since, and still maintain, that there is some mystery attaching to Alice. She behaves in every way with the inmate characteristics of a high-born lady. But excuse my interruption, Armstead, and go on with your story."
"Well," proceeded Harold, "the groups speedily separated and dispersed to their respective quarters, Mrs. Geffel, with the child and her companion, stopping on their way to chat with a group of sailors, one of whom hazarded the opinion that 'that there Dutchy had a bad time in for somebody, if he knowed what it was to see the devil lookin' out of a man's eyes, an' if I was you, missus, I'd see as he didn't carry a wepping of any sort about with him!'
"She merely smiled and said:—'Oh! there's no fear, Carl isn't one of that sort, though I must say his temper don't seem to improve much since we left home. But I fancy the hot weather has something to do with that.'
"Eventually I got on quite friendly terms with Mrs. Geffel and learnt something of her story. Carl had never been what she considered a good husband to her; at least nothing like what she expected him to be when she married him. Then he was a waiter and she the cook in the little Soho restaurant, where foreigners of many nationalities gathered in the evening and spent the greater part of the night in the big room upstairs, drinking all sorts of foreign messes, gambling when they had anything left to gamble with, and invoking the help of the Evil One to destroy all crowns, powers, and principalities that stood between them and the objects of their wide-spread ambitions.
"Carl had been among them, if not actually of them, but be had always been kind and considerate towards her, whose life was persistently drab-colored, and when a police raid on the Soho establishment scattered its occupants, she was easily persuaded to marry him with a view to starting a little business of their own on somewhat similar lines. They did that at the cost of all their small savings, and lost everything. Then, by a lucky chance meeting with an old friend, Carl heard of an opening in a midland county, where the recently-married heir of an ancient and influential family was in want of a trustworthy man and his wife as house servants. How Carl contrived to get his references and testimonials she never knew, but they passed muster, and then all went well until—ah! yes, that was the way of it. She was suddenly stricken down with fever and moved to a cottage on the outskirts of the village, where the doctor came to see her often, and once or twice some ladies she had never seen before. And once she heard the doctor say; 'Yes, quite providential, isn't it?'
"Then she got better slowly, and found her hair had all been cut off, and a beautiful baby was in a tiny cot beside the bed, and everything was provided for it.
"Her baby? No, certainly not! But she was to claim it as hers, and a regular allowance could be paid quarterly for it, and Carl was quite satisfied, and they were to leave Elmcourt and go back to London, where friends would provide for them until the child should be claimed. So, she never knew for certain who the parents were, although almost sure she knew the mother. But the child—that is Alice—had never suspected anything and, please God, never would. For she had always loved the child as though it was her very own, and now it really was, for the lawyer and written long before they left England to say that no more payments could be made, so then they started another little business that failed like the first one they had, and with the few pounds that were left they decided for Australia, the diggings—and fortune.
"Oh! yes, Carl was fond of Alice in his own queer way, but he was always a man of most uncertain temper, although, she supposed, as good enough husband as husbands go.
"I thought it just as well to give her a hint about her apparent preference for the society of Sim Garcia, the chap who stood by her side when her husband was put through by Neptune.
"'Garcia,' she said. 'What nonsense!' Why, of course she never cared a straw about him, and her husband knew it too. He and Carl got to be chummy in the old Soho days, and after she was married Carl brought him home sometimes to tea. 'Sim,' as they called him, wasn't a bad sort at all, outside that club nonsense that he and Carl were mixed up in. As for his going out in the same ship, that was just pure accident. He seemed to have struck hard times the same as themselves, and they never knew he was on board till days after they sailed.
"She admitted without hesitation, that Carl had been absurdly jealous of her friendship with Sim Garcia, for which there was absolutely no reason whatever."
"And he manifested that unreasonable jealousy at times here," broke in Darbison.
"It was the suspicious nature of the man," continued Armstead, "backed by his desire for vengeance against those who had subjected him to such rough treatment at the hands of Neptune and his satellites, that prompted him to take the first opportunity of soothing his ruffled dignity, and that was not long in presenting itself. He began by attacking his wife on the subject of her evident preference for the company of Garcia, as shown by the fact that together they had evidently enjoyed his sufferings at the hands of 'dose tam picks of sailor mans,' and he had seen them laugh heartily 'ven der pick vomans knock him off der shtool into der vasser.'
"Then he called her evil names, and she escaped from the cabin, and took refuge under the open hatch, which was immediately over their quarters. Following, he tried to drag her back, but she clung with desperation to an iron standard, appealing piteously to be let go, he all the time denouncing her in deep, harsh gutterals for her supposed perfidy.
"In the middle of the altercation, and before any of the other occupants of the quarters appeared to consider it necessary to interfere, one of the first cabin passengers, little more than a boy, was making his way aft, disgusted with his futile efforts to use the grains on a dolphin from a perch on the bobstays, and was attracted by the noise.
"Looking down the hatchway, he quickly grasped the situation, and, shouting:—'Let the woman alone, you brute!' was soon between them, and speedily received the reward of his temerity in the shape of heavy blows from the fist of the surprised but athletic Carl.
"However praiseworthy the impulse which had prompted him to interfere in a quarrel between a man and his wife, the youngster had yet to learn the unwisdom of such action. The woman grasped him by the hair with both hands, screaming, 'Let go my husband!' and fell prostrate on the deck at the same moment that Sim Garcia appeared on the scene and tried to get between the combatants.
"Let the boy alone, Carl, he's no match for you, and you know it. Let him go, I tell you. By heavens, I think the man has gone mad! If you don't let him go, I'll——"
"'Ha! Sim, you verdamte dog, it vas you, eh? Ya, I am mat, isn't id? Vell, dis dime I do nod any misdake make. You haf make me kill mein vife, und now I vill also kill you.'
"And the two men were locked in what looked like a life and death struggle, in which Carl's powerful frame gave him every advantage. In the meantime, Mrs. Geffel, in an unconscious condition, had been removed by some of the other women, and Sim had succeeded in planting one or two blows in the face of his adversary, when a voice was heard from behind:—
"'Look out. Sim! He's got a knife!'
"It was a fact. The now infuriated Carl had drawn a butcher's knife from its sheath on his belt, and with upraised arm was in the act of striking, when his wrist was seized in the sturdy grip of the chief officer, who had been carrying out the captain's orders to shorten sail, and was only just in time to drop suddenly down the hatchway and help to wrest the weapon from the maniac's grasp.
"Geffel's struggles, furious as they were, availed him nothing. A couple of sturdy sailors quickly had his arms pinioned, in which manner he was haled before the captain.
"As the latter listened to the narrative of his chief officer his whole demeanor changed. He was no longer the genial skipper, but the stern, uncompromising dispenser of quarter-deck justice. The evidence of Sim Garcia, the would-be dolphin striker, and some of the steerage passengers was taken, and then, with all a British sailor's horror of the knife as a lethal weapon, he turned to the prisoner with:—'Now, my man, what have you to say in answer to this serious charge?'
"'I say nodings. Dis verdamte schvine haf bin make lofe vid mein vife."
"The captain did not hesitate. He ordered that Geffel should be placed in irons and handed over to the authorities the moment the Essex reached Melbourne, on a charge of attempting to commit murder on the high seas.
"The former part of the sentence was immediately put into effect, and that the latter part was not also carried out was due chiefly to the earnest pleadings of his wife, who had a long interview with the captain, during which she succeeded in conveying the impression that perhaps she was not entirely free from blame in consequence of the unconventional terms of the long association between her husband, Garcia, and herself.
"But it took a long time to shift Carl from the obstinate position he had taken up, and to make promises for the future, hard though wife and child tried to induce him to do so.
"Alice was nearly broken-hearted over the estrangement, and on more than one occasion endeavored to induce her friend, Mr. Parkin, the second officer, to intercede with the captain for the release of 'poor daddy.' 'Mother is fretting herself to death over it,' she said one day. 'Oh! please, dear Mr. Parkin, do tell the captain that you are quite sure daddy is very sorry, and will never be so wicked again.'
"'No use, Cornflower. I can't talk to him like that. He wouldn't listen to me. Why not do it yourself, lassie? He has little girls of his own, and I'm sure he'd be kind to you. He's just gone into his cabin, go and knock at the door.' And she did, and the result of all the pleadings was that Carl was eventually allowed to return to his cabin, not, however, without warning of what would happen in the event of another outbreak.
"'You owe your release solely to the pleadings of your unfortunate wife and child, Geffel,' said the captain to him. 'You are evidently a man of suspicious nature and violent temper. Better curb it before it is too late. Mrs. Geffel is, I feel sure, a really good, honest woman, and if you are not ashamed of yourself you ought to be. You can go back to your berth now, but take care not to break out again. If I have to put you in irons a second time you will stop there until I can hand you over to the police. Go below, and make your peace as best you can.'
"'Dank you, gaptains. I do not any more haf some irons, and I makes you no more droubles.'
"Neither did he, and Melbourne was reached in due course, and the Geffels vanished from sight with the crowd, only, however, to be met with again, as you have seen, after the lapse of many years, in Queensland, and under even more exciting conditions. Truly, the currents of human lives are strangely intermingled."
"A strange and most interesting story," said Darbison. "I have always felt that there was more than a tinge of mystery about the Geffels, and more especially as to their daughter Alice. Some day, perhaps, the full and true story will be known. Until then we can only wait and watch the ever-changing events that circle round them.
"And now," added Darbison, rising, "as we both have to face the road to-morrow, we had better turn in. It is to be our last night at Barumbah, and, hang it all, I like the old spot, despite the sad memories it must always have for me."
"Perhaps, some day, who knows, we may meet again under conditions that will effectually efface the very bitter events that have so recently occurred.
"So (extending his hand), good-bye, old chap."
Early in the bright sunshine of an autumn morning, on a Riverina plain, a buggy drawn by a steady old grey horse, and carrying two men, was moving at a slow pace, and apparently without any definite object or ultimate destination, at some distance from the road which led to the township. A stranger to the locality might well have been puzzled as to their object, but there was no mystery about it; they were merely enjoying an early drive in the fresh morning air, and carrying a gun on the chance of a shot at a plain turkey on its favorite feeding ground. The sun, not yet high above the horizon, lit up the iron roofs of the buildings through the scattered timber which marked the fringe of the lagoon past which they had come, and the long, yellow-tinted grass through which they drove spoke plainly of the fierce heat of the preceding months—except in patches where it had been either wholly consumed or blackened by fire and the last partial thunderstorm had started a faint tinge of green among the blackened stalks of the old growth.
The grey-haired but still vigorous man who held the reins broke a rather long silence by remarking:—
"You are quite right, Darbison. My sudden removal from Melbourne to this part of the world was a very serious matter for me, but I never allude to it within Mrs. Passmore's hearing, for, brave as she was, and is, she was naturally much cut up over it, and is only now becoming somewhat resigned on finding that it is not quite as bad as she expected, and that there are several nice families on the neighboring stations who have shown great cordiality. At the same time the move was a heavy expense to me and a nasty semi-official slap in the face which I felt I did not deserve."
"But what had you done, or what were you supposed to have done, to deserve it?"
"That's just it. Nothing that I was ever made aware of, but a new Ministry had just come into power; the chief was not an Englishman, nor was he of the same faith as myself, and the man appointed to succeed me was his brother-in-law—a good man, too, as far as my personal knowledge of him went. But you know as well as I that such things have been done before, and I suppose always will be. In the meantime my work as police magistrate here is not very arduous, and I am trying to be content. Look out! there's a turkey—you can just see his head over there poking up over the long grass; he sees us too, but he won't move until we get nearer. Keep your eye on the place, and have the gun ready. I'll drive round him in a narrowing circle; wait till he rises, and give him the No. 4 Eley cartridge."
"A fine bird, and a heavy one," said Darbison as he picked him up soon after; "but, do you know, I'm beginning to feel quite hungry."
"All right! One of those fellows is quite enough for a family, so we'll jog quietly back to breakfast, for which I am as ready as yourself."
As they turned to get back to the road, Passmore said:—"I'm sure you'll give me credit, Darbison, for absence of any desire to arouse unpleasant memories, old man, but I've wanted several times to ask you what became of that scoundrel Evesham after he left the station. Did you ever hear anything?"
"Very little. Stevenson, with whom I went to stay in Melbourne, as you know, told me that he had been seen on the boat leaving for New Zealand a few weeks afterwards, and that a lady was with him. Beyond that I know nothing. Then I went to Tasmania with Robson, and stayed over the summer, and when Campbell, of the Nelson, told me about you, I wrote, and—here I am—glad enough to have met you again and to talk about old times in the Leander in the Black Sea, when I was senior middy of your watch, and we had such a glorious time in the Sea of Azov. I could scarcely credit my luck when Campbell told me he knew you so well, and that you were the same man. You will remember that I threw up the service shortly after that, when the dear old governor died; but I couldn't stand the old place all by myself. Jeannie, that's my little sister, you know, was finishing her education in Belgium, staying with a dear friend of her mother's. I paid her a visit, let the property on a long lease when I got back, made Robson come with me—he didn't take much pressing, by the way, for I was always his white-haired boy—married, came out here, bought Barumbah, and—well, you know the rest! But what happened to you after I discarded the gold band and crown?"
"Oh! the same old routine. A lot of powder burnt and a lot of lives sacrificed uselessly until Sebastopol fell. Then when peace was declared in 1856 and they started to put both services on a peace footing I was placed on the retired list with the rank of commander, and came out here to get something to help the half pay along, but—hallo, what's this coming out of the timber in such a cloud of dust and hurry? I expect it's Cunningham. I heard he came into town late last night and was to leave early this morning."
"And who may he be? Anyone you know?"
"No, I can't quite say that. I have only met him on one occasion, and that was about a couple of months ago, when he was in search of some information about land. For I must tell you that I am district land agent as well as police magistrate."
"What is he? One of your squatters on the river?"
"Oh! dear, no. A bit of an adventurer, I suspect, and a fellow who certainly does not appeal to you on a first acquaintance. He has been out looking for country on the Bulloo and thereabouts, I understand, somewhere on Howitt's and McKinlay's tracks to Cooper's Creek when they went out to take relief to that unfortunate man, Burke. But here he comes. Yes, it's Cunningham right enough."
"Good morning, Captain Passmore. I was unfortunate in learning, when I called at your house this morning, that you were out for a drive. I particularly wanted to see one of those maps, which I expect you keep somewhere."
The speaker was a travel-stained-looking man, wearing a long beard, and goggles with fly protectors. He was splendidly mounted on a powerful bay horse, leading another lightly packed with the usual bush equipment.
"Mr. Cunningham, if my memory serves me? Yes, I thought so. Well, Mr. Cunningham, the district maps are not kept in my private house, neither are they accessible at this hour of the morning. The Lands Office will be open at the usual time, which is ten o'clock. If you will call in after that hour I will attend to you. Good morning!"
"That be blowed for a yarn. I shall be a good many miles away by that time. And I don't think you need have put on such an infernal lot of side about it either. It's generally the way with you tinpot Government officials, though. Most of you are too big for your hats and boots." Saying which, he turned his horses' heads, rammed the spurs home, and disappeared in another dust cloud.
Passmore, naturally a very quiet man, was angry. So much so that a few minutes passed before he ventured to speak. When he did it was to ask his companion what he thought of that exhibition of gratuitous insolence; but, getting no answer, he turned towards him and was about to repeat the query when he was startled by the look on Darbison's face.
"What's the matter, old chap? Are you ill? One would think you had seen a ghost!"
"No ghost, Passmore, but the man who broke up my home! That man who has just left us is Evesham! I felt it the moment I heard his voice. I knew it when I was able to catch a glimpse of his face under that flapping cabbage-tree hat he wore. No, I am not mistaken, and I kept my head turned lest he should recognise me. What might have happened I don't know, and with a loaded gun close to my hand I don't like to think. Pray God I may never meet him again. Truly it is, as people say, a very small world."
And, still talking over this unexpected meeting, they arrived at their destination.
Directly breakfast was over and Passmore gone off to his daily routine of duties, Darbison walked down the street to the post office, which he discovered to be nothing more than an excrescence attached to one of the general stores that supplied the wants of the township. Some pigeon-holes, containing a number of letters and papers, surmounted by a neatly-built-up pyramid of bars of coarse yellow soap, and festooned at the sides with tin candle moulds, constituted the entire contents of the small room, with the exception of a counter, built of old cases, which served as a barrier to inquirers. His knock was answered by the appearance, from behind a curtain in one corner, of a smart, active man of about fifty years of age, with iron-grey hair, pleasant manner, and, as remained to be discovered, an overwhelming flow of talk.
"Good morning. Are you the postmaster?"
"That's my name in this office. In the store it's just Billy Buchan, proprietor of the most extensive assortment of general merchandise on the river. See what I mean, eh? You understand, don't you know!"
"Yes, I think so, and beg to be allowed to congratulate you, Mr. Buchan. My name is Darbison. I am on a visit to Captain Passmore. Would you kindly see if there are any letters for me by last night's mail?"
"Of course, of course, Mr.—er—er—Darbison? Yes, of course, thank you. And you are staying with the captain, eh? Good old shellback, the captain, sir, straight as they make 'em—you understand—Hampshire man, I believe—one myself—turned out of Eastman's Academy on account of being, as they said, more suited to holy orders than the sea—only their joke—you understand—afraid I was a bit wild in those days—boys will be boys, sir—eh? You understand, don't you know. Letters? eh, ah, yes, of course. Darbison, I think you said the name was? Yes, here's one, but I'm almost sure there was another, with the London postmark on it, came last night." And then, as he turned out the contents of all the pigeon-holes, he muttered to himself, "—— that man Cunningham!"
"Cunningham, did you say? What has he to do with my letters? And who is he? I know no man of that name."
"No sir, I shouldn't suppose you did—horse thief, cattle duffer, bushranger for all I know—roused me out of bed early this morning for his letters, or any for his mate, Evesham! 'And, —— your eyes, be quick about it,' he says, 'I'm in a hurry!'—called me an old crawler, too—me, Billy Buchan—a better man of my inches than ever he knew how to be—Billy Buchan a crawler! But it's this way you see—he put me in a fluster, looking for his infernal letters, and the boxes seem to have got all mixed—you understand."
"Yes, I think I do. But did you say his name was Evesham?"
"No. He said that was his mate's name, who was camped down the river. But now I come to think of it, he opened them same as if they was his own—only I didn't take as much notice as I might ha' done on account of being mad over the names he called me—he was a sight too big for me, or I'd have plugged him on the jaw there and then—you understand, don't you know. Ha! here's your letter, Mr. Darbison, and here comes the constable for the captain's mail. Sorry to have kept you so long—but it's this way, you see, if that infernal Cunningham, or Evesham, or whatever his name is, comes bouncing along here again, he'll strike a pretty big snag—you understand, don't you know."
And as Darbison walked away with his letters, he shivered a little as he recognised that the writing on one of them, almost obliterated by numerous postmarks, was suspiciously like that of the woman whom he had once called wife.
"So I am not done with this wretched woman yet," he thought, as he wandered slowly back. "I feared as much when I recognised that scoundrel Evesham this morning, on the plain." And, instead of returning to the cottage, he continued his walk along the bank of the river until he found a quiet resting place in a shady spot. For he had need to be alone.
Opening the letter of evil omen first, he read:—
Aubrey, oh! that I dare write dear Aubrey, but I feel and know that can never be again. I have been too vile and my sis has found me out. Evesham left me months ago, and left me penniless here except for the few articles of jewellery I had to sell. For God's sake, help me. I have tried to help myself and failed. For a short time I was a governess, and after that got a few music pupils. My health broke down, and now I am almost dependent on the charity of some kindly people whose acquaintance I made at first. I only want enough to get back to Queensland; the climate here is killing me, and I am afraid to die. If I can get there I will go north, where nobody knows me; and when I am better I will earn my own living and never trouble you again. I am sending this to your club at Brisbane, for I have no means of finding out where you are, but I know you will not desert a woman in her sore need, even a woman who has treated you as vilely as I have.
Send me a few pounds—just enough to let me get away—in a registered letter, addressed to Mrs. Evesham (how I loathe the name, but must retain it here), Post Office, Wellington, N.Z., and I will bless you for your goodness as earnestly as I curse my own folly and wickedness.
Your once honored wife,
Folding the letter up, and placing it in his pocket book, he said aloud:—"Awful, but only what might have been expected. Lucky for him, and still more so for me, that I didn't know the contents of that letter some hours ago. Surely that villain's fate must await him, but I—well if I had shot him as he sat there on his horse, insulting Passmore, this morning, they could scarcely have found a jury in all Australia to convict me in the face of all the known facts. Do I feel grateful for the escape? Yes. No. Well, perhaps I do."
It was some time before Darbison could regain his composure, which had been sadly upset by the reading of the appeal for help from the woman who had once been his wife. Then he remembered his second letter, and, taking it from his pocket, he said:—"Now I'll see what dear little Jeannie has to say."
You dear, darling old Aubrey,
Of course you will snort like the charming old grampus you are when I tell you that this is the last letter you will ever get from Jeannie Darbison. You monster! Why didn't you come home to me after that awful affair at Barumbah, and bring old Robson back with you to manage my domestic affairs. Because of course you knew I should get married some day, and that highly interesting event is now only fourteen days distant, so you can address your next letter to Mrs. Chelpont, Chelpont Manor, Tydsleigh, Somersetshire.
And now to tell you all about it. No, it's not a bit sudden, although I really don't think it would have been quite so soon only for Aunt Chelpont's health, and the poor old dear is, I am sorry to say, failing very fast, and grandma is always saying:—"Why doesn't my darling boy, Aubrey, come home and see his poor old grannie before she dies," and she fears that you will be persuaded into forgiving that wicked woman, and taking her back some day when she finds out her mistake, for she says:—"God knows how I love that boy, but ever since he went away to sea he has been an awful fool over girls," which, of course, you learnt in some of those outlandish foreign places. Well, now, I'll try and get back to the subject.
Of course, you remember old Miss Chelpont, the rich old maid where you used to go when you were a boy, to play with Horace, her nephew, who was deformed in some way. (Grandma told me all this). Well, she was wrapped up in that boy, and he was to have been the heir to all her property, for she had no other relative in the world, except a younger brother of his, who, it appears, went into the army, got into some terrible trouble in London, something to do with horse-racing or gambling, I fancy, though I never heard the rights of the story, and went out to Australia, where he was lost sight of for years. Then Horace died, and poor old Miss Chelpont nearly went too, through grief. She tried lady companions for a time, but they didn't suit, and at last she got some clever people in London to try and find the other nephew in Australia.
It cost a lot of money, and took a long time, but they succeeded at last in discovering him on a sugar plantation somewhere in Queensland. After a lot of persuasion, they got him to come home, and he and his aunt got along together splendidly. Grannie and I drove over to see the old lady one day—I was always a favorite of hers—and she told me what a splendid fellow he was, and asked me to go and spend a few days with her. Of course, grannie said yes, and I wanted to see his majesty, who was said to be possessed of all the virtues, very badly. Now do you see where we are?
When I met Bertie Chelpont my fate was sealed, and the dear old lady said:—"My child, it is the dearest wish of my heart that you two should marry. Everything I leave will be his. This place has never belonged to any but a Chelpont, and I was determined that it never should." What was your poor little Jeannie to do to get out of such a tight corner? How dare you laugh, sir! What would you have had me do, pray? Not that it matters the veriest little bit, because I did it, when he asked me, and I am afraid that I hadn't even the decency to show an atom of surprise or disinclination when the fatal moment arrived. Grannie is naturally delighted, though not quite pleased with such an early celebration of the ceremony. That, however, is the earnest desire of "Aunt Chelpont," as she insists upon being called. Her health is far from being good, and she wishes it; so on that subject there is no more to be said. Bertie, of course, does too, and I—well, I may as well admit that I am unable to suggest any rational cause for postponement.
Do you expect me to tell you much about Herbert? Well, I just won't, beyond the fact that he is my ideal of everything a man ought to be. He seems to have been and done all sorts of things out there—miner, shearer, cook, bullock-driver, bushranger (whatever that may be), and finally sugar-boiling, but you wouldn't think so to look at him. He fancies he met you once, but has doubts about whether you would be likely to remember him. You can settle that when you meet; and do, Aubrey dear, come home soon. How I should have loved to have you here for the wedding. You can send me a present, though. No stupid jewellery, I have plenty of that, but I should dearly like to have a teeny, weeny live kangaroo for a pet. Do you think you could manage that? I'm sure you can if you come with it, and that's what we all want. So do come, Aubrey, for "your pretty little sister," as you used to call me, wants you worse than anybody. Grannie sends fondest love to her dear boy, and I'm to tell you that she only keeps on living in the hope of seeing you soon.
Your loving sister,
(for the last time).
As Darbison folded up the lengthy document he soliloquised:—"Well, I'm——, no, not that, yet people often remark on the foolishly improbable plots of the modern novel. If that letter doesn't beat the best or worst of them may I be yarded with a mob of brumbies! And if Herbert Chelpont and the Barumbah bushranger are not one and the same man, then I don't know who I am myself. And he is to be—is by this time—my brother-in-law! Well, I don't care, he behaved like a gentleman, anyhow. Yes, I think I'll go home, for a trip at least. I don't dread the thought of it now as much as I did. But what a comedy of errors it would all be if there were no tragedy in it."
When he got back to the cottage, luncheon was on the table, and the morning's interview with Billy Buchan formed the staple of conversation. Passmore described him as a well-meaning man of no mean qualifications, honest in his dealings, and of much worldly experience, but a talkative infliction on the least provocation; laughingly adding:—"As a stranger you must have been a perfect gift to him. But you have the satisfaction of knowing that you were not mistaken in your recognition of the man Evesham."
After Passmore returned to his office Darbison wrote the following letter.
Madame,—By the same post instructions are being forwarded to my solicitors. Messrs. Edmonds and Marshall, Queen-street, Brisbane, to send you the sum of fifty pounds, and thereafter, that is to say, as long as you can satisfy them that you are living apart from the man whose name you at present bear, the sum of twenty-five pounds will be placed to your credit on the first day of each quarter at whichever bank you may elect to name. No attention will be paid to any future communication you may think fit to make, unless made direct to them with reference to these payments, and on that subject only.
"The last act, I sincerely trust, in this sordid and disgraceful drama. Now I'll go and have a romp with those two dear little kiddies inside, and begin once more to try and forget the past. I suppose I shall end by going to England, but the climate will drive me back. Those deadly winters! Well, I'll talk matters over with Passmore after dinner. He's a real good old sort, in spite of his rather strained evangelical notions, which don't somehow seem to fit in with the world's necessities nowadays. Sheep? No, never again. Cattle? Don't fancy them. Business? No knowledge, no capacity, no adaptability. Sugar? By Jove, my esteemed bushranger brother-in-law was at that game when they found him. He may be able to tell me a little about it. Yes, I'll make the trip, for I must do something. Capital lying idle all this time, except for beggarly bank interest, and idle myself. It won't do. Better wear out than rust out!"
"Ha! Mrs. Passmore, I was just going to look for the kiddies, to have a romp with them. May I?"
And soon afterwards he was being rolled about and trampled upon on the grassy lawn, and enjoying it thoroughly.
That evening, after all the other occupants of the cottage had gone to bed. Captain Passmore and Darbison sat up late discussing the situation from all points. The letters received that day by Darbison were read and re-read, also the one written by him to the woman who had been his wife. Referring to it, Passmore said:—"You were never in a lawyer's office, Darbison?"
"Of course not. Why?"
"Why? Because I don't know which to admire most, the extreme accuracy of your legal phraseology in that letter, or your splendid generosity with regard to the woman who has treated you so shamefully. No doubt you can afford it, but I am inclined to think that few men would have been so magnanimous."
"Oh——the money part of it! That's nothing. I couldn't let her starve. Now, I'll tell you what I propose to do, as the end of my very pleasant visit here is close at hand. It is too late to think of going to England this year, with the winter so close upon us. So I shall arrange to leave about the end of March and dodge the cold weather. In the meantime I intend to take a run up to North Queensland and see what prospects the sugar industry has to offer. A lot of good men have lately invested up there, two of whom at least I know already, Charlie and Ned Rawson, who sold out their place near Mount Perry and have since bought a big slice of country somewhere up on the Pioneer. I met them at the club the last time I was in Brisbane—two splendid fellows, English gentlemen, with the unmistakable hall-mark; and coupled with their advice to go up and have a look round was a cordial invitation to make 'The Hollow,' as their place is called, my home during the visit. I am beginning to weary for occupation of some sort, and a trip up there will fill in the time before I leave. Robson, too, is beginning to grumble at being left so long in Melbourne, and I shall take him with me. He's a bit of a nuisance sometimes, with his fidgety care for my comforts, but a faithful old soul, whose one and only trouble is that I may forswear the resolution I made when the trouble hung over me like a pall in those last bitter weeks at Barumbah. You know what I refer to. But there is not the slightest danger of it, and never has been since the black shadow of misery was lifted. What do you think of the programme?"
"Lucky beggar to be in a position to carry it out. I can only envy you, whilst wishing you every happiness and success in all things. It's superfluous to say that we shall miss you, and equally so to say how delighted we should be to have you with us again on your return, if circumstances will permit. Now, let's go and turn in."
IN the meantime what of Barumbah and its fortunes? Although Darbison had completely severed his connection with the station, there are others there whose fortunes are intimately connected with this story.
The purchaser, a wealthy man, but recently arrived from the Old Country, and possessing only the experience which had enabled him to successfully manage a large estate there, was charmed with the prospect offered by Barumbah. He had come accompanied by two other men, one a grey-haired lawyer of unimpeachable status in his profession, who attended to all the business details connected with the transfer of the property, and the other an elaborately got-up young man of about 25, strongly recommended by the agents who had conducted the sale, and introduced as "my future manager, Mr. Custance." Ken Morrison, highly spoken of by Darbison for his intimate knowledge of the run and the stock on it, was engaged as overseer at a good salary, with instructions to render every assistance to Mr. Custance; Mrs. Geffel and Alice were retained, the first-named to continue as cook, and Alice to be house and parlor maid, and to obtain what additional assistance might be required. When everything had been satisfactorily arranged, the new proprietor, promising an early return, took his departure, accompanied by the solicitor who had attended him.
Morrison had, in the meantime, received a message from the officer in command of the detachment of Native Police, regretting his unavoidable detention in another part of the district, where the blacks had again been giving trouble, and promising to visit Barumbah as soon as possible.
And two days only after the proprietors departure they came in a somewhat dramatic fashion, having surprised a small camp in the scrub which broke up in confusion upon being discovered. Two of the buck niggers, both of whom were badly wanted on account of a strong suspicion of being connected with the murder of poor old Geffel, bolted, but were promptly overtaken by the well-mounted troopers, and headed for the open plain in front of the station, when they made for the lagoon and disappeared in the weeds which bordered it. A very old trick, but not one calculated to cause any anxiety on the part of the experienced officer in charge, who merely said:—
"Now, you know what to do, boys, and see that you don't let either of them escape!"
Three of them stripped at once, the others remaining on the bank with carbines at the ready. The hunters were as much at home as the hunted, and the result was a foregone conclusion.
One of the latter showed his face momentarily on a level with the water, to get breath, and sank without a struggle as a ball from the nearest carbine found its mark. Nothing was visible of the other for some minutes, but before long ripples were seen in the still water at the margin of the weeds, followed by signs of a struggle down below. The boys on the bank made for the spot, one of them saying, with a chuckle:—
"Look out! Toby bin get 'im that fellow," and the head and shoulders of a powerful man modelled in shining ebony came to the surface, holding at arm's length the head of another, tightly gripped by the hair. Three carbines spoke together, and Geffel was avenged.
Toby dragged the body out after him, and left it on the bank, resumed his uniform, and stretched himself under a tree, with his mates, for a smoke, as the officer cantered up to the homestead.
Now it so happened that the new manager and Morrison were just finishing breakfast when the sound of shooting attracted their attention, and the former exclaimed:—"Who the devil is that shooting so close to the house? I won't allow the wildfowl on the lagoon to be shot by anybody. Find out who it is, Morrison, and let me know at once."
"Here is the Native Police officer coming up to the house now. I expect he will be able to tell you all about it."
"I don't care what he is. I will allow no one to shoot on this property without my permission."
"Well, perhaps you had better tell him so yourself. I hear his footsteps in the passage now." And a tap at the door was followed by the entrance of a tall, sunburnt young man in the regulation undress of the force, with the cheery salute of "Good morning, Darbison; same to you, Morrison. Got 'em both, by Jove!" By which time he realised the presence of a stranger at the head of the table, and said:—
"Beg your pardon—expected to find Mr. Darbison here—where is he, Morrison, eh?"
"Mr. Darbison has sold out, sir," said the manager, "and I am in charge of it, and I should like to know who gave you permission to go duck-shooting on my lake!"
"Duck-shooting! duck-shooting! Ha! ha! ha! Oh, Lord! Hold me up, Morrison."
"Ducks, did you say? Niggers, man, niggers. There's a couple down there you can send and bury as soon as you like. Morrison, just explain matters to this new chum, like a good fellow, while I go out to the kitchen and beg a cup of coffee from Mrs. Geffel."
And off he went, for he was no stranger to Barumbah, where he had often been the welcome guest of Darbison.
Presently Custance appeared on the scene, in a most atrocious temper, addressing him in heated language with a request that he would leave the station immediately after burying the bodies of the unfortunate men he had murdered.
"I shall report this outrage to the Government, sir, and insist upon your instant dismissal!"
"And I shall lay my whip across your shoulders if you don't keep your fool's tongue off me. Not another word out of your head, you miserable barber's clerk!" With which he went back to the kitchen, finished his coffee, paid Alice a pretty compliment, and cantered off with Morrison, who was on his way to an out-station.
That was the first rift in the lute, and except that Morrison well knew the story would soon spread throughout the district, and create laughter all round, no great harm was likely to accrue. But worse was to come. The pompous young fool became infatuated with the pretty face and engaging manners of the fair Alice, and, in place of going about the run with Morrison, who was necessarily absent for the greater part of each day, hung about the house and missed no opportunity of accosting her with fulsome compliments and suggestions of his own importance.
This conduct on his part distressed her greatly, for she not only disliked him extremely, but certain tender passages connected with Ken Morrison, much esteemed by both her and her mother, were not of a character to be easily forgotten. Alice was as simple a girl as she was attractive, but the unwelcome attentions of the new manager became at length so oppressive that she determined to speak to her mother about it.
"I have suspected this for some time, Ally dear," said her mother, "I am neither blind nor deaf, you know, and it must be checked at once. I shall go and speak to him now, and give notice to leave if there is any more of it. You have not told Mr. Morrison, I hope."
"Why, no, mother, of course not. And if Ken—Mr. Morrison, I mean—even suspected it I believe he would kill him, for I know—that is to say, I believe—Ken hates the sight of him. But you like Ken, don't you, mother dear?"
"Oh! Ally, Ally! What a transparent child you are! Yes, my dear, I do like him very much, because I believe him to be a worthy and honorable young man, who will make his way in the world. But all that goes for nothing, my darling, because I am quite sure he doesn't want to marry me!"
"Oh, mother, for shame," said Alice, as she kissed her hurriedly and vanished.
Mrs. Geffel's interview with Custance was far from being satisfactory to the anxious mother, who ended it by saying:—"Very well, sir, if I hear of any more of this conduct I shall leave the station at once and send a full account of it to your employer, who, I am quite sure, would not approve of it." So saying, she walked out and left him to think it over.
But the fool was not yet through with his folly. Three or four days afterwards Ken, who had been out on the run all day, and did not get back till after dark, went to the kitchen for a cup of tea and a bite to eat. Alice was not there, nor did she appear at all, and when he inquired about her Mrs. Geffel, in an agitated voice, said:—"Well, I didn't mean to say anything about it to you, Mr. Morrison, but we really must get away from here, and soon, too. That wretch inside has been saying things to her I wouldn't like to repeat, and she is in the bedroom now crying her eyes out, and vows she will never go inside the house again till Mr. Cartwright comes back. What to do I don't know, but I will not stop here to have her insulted by that beast every time he sees her. But please don't you make any trouble about it. I expect she'll be all right again in the morning."
"All right, Mrs. Geffel. Now give me that cup of tea, please, and I'll go to bed soon, for I'm tired." Instead of which he walked about the paddock, smoking and thinking furiously. Then to the house, and on opening the dining-room door saw that Custance was stretched on the sofa reading. Locking the door and putting the key in his pocket, he walked over to him as he looked up from his book, exclaiming:—"Here, I say, Morrison, what the devil do you mean by that?"
"Keep cool, and you'll know directly. Get up off that couch, Mr. Collars and Cuffs, and I'll explain it to you fully. Get up, or I'll drag you up—do you hear?"
"Haw—yes, of course I hear, but are you mad? You forget that I'm the manager here. Leave the room at once!"
"Yes, when I'm through, but I'm the manager just now. Get up, you useless, loafing, white-livered tailor's dummy! You won't, eh? Well, we'll see about that, you low-down persecutor of a respectable girl." And, getting his hands in the fellow's collar, he dragged him to his feet, and then threw him against the wall.
"Now, stand there, and listen to what I have to say to you. If you dare speak to Alice Geffel again on any subject whatever I'll thrash you as long as I can keep my feet. Take this second warning to heart if you are wise. Mr. Cartwright will return next week, and as he trusted me to look after his interests I shall continue to do so until that happens, when either one or other of us will leave Barumbah, as he may decide. Till then I warn you not to interfere with anything. Neither Mrs. Geffel nor her daughter will enter the house again while you remain in it. I shall get my meals in the bachelors' quarters; you can get yours when, where, and how you please, but I will see that they do not attend upon you. Now you can go back to your book, if you have a mind to, but don't think to escape punishment if you disobey me."
And Ken opened the door and went off to bed, merely saying, as he looked in the kitchen:—"Mrs. Geffel, will you please let me have my meals in the quarters until Mr. Cartwright returns next week, and you will not provide any for the house till then, neither will you or Alice attend to the house or take any instructions from Mr. Custance. Those are my orders, and I will see that you are held blameless. Good-night."
And for nearly a week this state of things continued, although Ken was well aware that the soft-hearted woman kept Custance going in the matter of a food supply. But Alice never entered the house, and Custance rarely came out of it.
The work of the station went on as usual without interruption, for a knowledge of the trouble had spread among the hands, amongst whom Morrison was a favorite, on account of his manly, genial disposition, coupled with the fact that he never shirked work of any sort.
The cook in the men's hut voiced the general opinion when he expressed his own, that, "that there Custard bloke is a dood and a waster, that's what he is, and the best thing to do with him is chuck him in the washpool!" A suggestion which might have easily been converted into an accomplished fact, and, probably would have been, but for the timely arrival of Mr. Cartwright; for even the roughest of bushmen is chivalrous in his treatment of women, and quick to resent any insult offered them—more particularly when the woman is young, pretty, and as great a favorite as Alice was.
However, Mr. Cartwright's return heralded an entirely satisfactory solution of the imbroglio, for he held a calm, exhaustive, and judicial inquiry into all the facts of the case, after much the same fashion as that to which he had become accustomed as squire and chairman of the Bench in his native parish. The result may be summed up in few words:—
"I fail to understand the grounds on which you were so strongly recommended to me, Mr. Custance, though I shall certainly endeavor to do so later on. But you have shown yourself totally unfitted for any position of trust, ignorant as to your duties and responsibilities here, and unworthy of any consideration at my hands. You will, therefore, arrange to leave Barumbah at once, facilities for which will be provided. A letter received by me from Lieutenant Owanson of the Native police, would, of itself justify me in taking this course, and if I experience any regret whatever in connection with you, it is that Mr. Morrison, instead of threatening, did not actually carry those threats out in practice at the time. You may go sir, and I have no desire to see you again. Mr. Morrison will attend to the settlement of your claim against the station, and arrange for your speedy departure."
Subsequently, at a private interview, he said:—
"I am very pleased with the manner in which you have conducted affairs during my absence, Mr. Morrison. It is my intention to remain here now, and I shall be glad to retain your services as manager under me. All details connected with such arrangement I have no doubt can be made with your approval. For the present I am much concerned with Mrs. Geffel's expressed desire to leave, for the purpose, she has faintly outlined, of taking up some business on her own account. I have heard nothing but good of Mrs. Geffel from my predecessor and she certainly impresses me most favorably, as also, I may say, does her pretty and remarkably well-behaved daughter, who strikes me as being in all respects superior to her station. Will you, therefore, be good enough to use your persuasive powers to induce them to remain, for a time, at least. The difficulty of obtaining suitable servants for these distant stations is great, I am told, so please do this if possible, bearing in mind the fact that I have no objection to a reasonable increase in their wages over the current rate, whatever that may be. Oh! and see that a correct settlement of Mr. Custance's account is made, and send the storekeeper to me with the cheque for signature. I think that is all for the present, thank you, Mr. Morrison, and I shall expect you to join me at dinner at the usual hour this evening. Just a moment more, please. I omitted, though I did not forget, to tell you that my one and only daughter will arrive with her husband, in the course of the next two or three months. He is a barrister, of much promise in London, but, unfortunately in very delicate health. Their arrival will, however, necessitate no change in our business relations. That is a matter which is entirely in your own hands. And, now that I can see you are anxious to be off somewhere, I will say 'good morning.'"
The outcome of all which was, that Mrs. Geffel, incited thereto in a great measure by Alice, who said:—"Oh! mother, I am sure we can be happy enough here now!" consented to remain for a time; or at any rate until she saw what the new mistress promised to be like.
By one of those strange decrees of Fate which are for ever puzzling human brains to unravel, the lady who had once been Mrs. Darbison, but who now passed as Mrs. Elliston, had decided upon Rockhampton as her future place of residence. In like manner to the choice Mrs. Geffel had made long before. Not that Mrs. Elliston had knowledge of that fact, but, she felt it absolutely necessary to get into a warmer climate, and a doctor who had attended her, and had himself been a resident of that torrid spot, assured her of its suitability. This he was honestly able to do from his own experience, although he candidly admitted that the word "warm" was scarcely an adequate description of it at all times.
She was satisfied, however, to get away to where no one knew her, and for the rest to trust to chance, being now secured against want, thanks to the kindly help extended to her by the man she had so basely deserted. She had wept bitterly over that letter, which brought home to her so vividly the cruel wrong she had inflicted upon him. And although her wounded hand was healed long since, it had caused her a martyrdom of pain during the process. For the bullet had passed clean through midway between the knuckles and the wrist, and at certain times it still caused much suffering.
A rough passage across, and a yet rougher one up the coast, round Cape Capricorn, almost completely prostrated her, and she landed in a wrecked condition, with only just enough strength left to reach the boarding-house to which the Wellington doctor had directed her, where for a time at least we must leave her to ponder over the unhappy past and strike out some plan for the future.
Aubrey Darbison reached Brisbane in due course, and on arrival at the club found a large packet of letters awaiting him, with only two of which this story is concerned. The first opened was a long, breezy communication from his sister Jeannie, now Mrs. Chelpont, describing the wedding festivities and the number of beautiful presents received, at great length. The honeymoon in the Riviera was "just too lovely for words," but her chief stock of adjectives was reserved for her husband. Bertie had shown himself to be everything that the most exacting woman could hope to deserve, or had any right to expect. In fact, two whole pages were devoted to his perfections, in the usual strain affected by young brides in those halcyon days which are but often the forerunners of doubt and disenchantment, that come, alas! in too many cases to shatter woman's faith and destroy the roseate dreams on which it was founded.
However, Jeannie's letter was so conclusive on all points that her brother had every reason to be well pleased, as he naturally was, albeit that he was unable to resist the temptation of saying to himself:—"Now I wonder if that fellow is really my friend the bushranger, or is it merely a strange coincidence?"
Well, he carried himself like a man, anyhow, and behaved like a gentleman, in spite of the fool's game he played. Few men, face to face with his enemy under such provocation as he had, would have exercised as much restraint after Evesham fired at him.
"Bah! Why can't I let sleeping dogs lie?" The one sad note in the letter was contained in the final paragraph. Aunt Chelpont was much worse and gradually fading out of existence, but happy and contented. She and Bertie were established at Chelpont, where, of course, he, Aubrey, would go as soon as he arrived, and he was to be quite sure and bring the little baby kangaroo—and so on.
The other letter was from Ken Morrison, at Barumbah, describing all that had happened on the station since the break-up, and giving a highly amusing account of the Native Police incident, with the assumption of dignity by Custance, and his threatened horse-whipping by Owanson, the officer in charge of the detachment. Chuckling to himself as he read, with a recollection of Owanson's athletic form in his mind accompanied by a vivid picture of the predicament into which the new manager had floundered through ignorance; then, reverting to Morrison, he muttered:—
"Fine, manly young fellow that. Must see if I can't get hold of him when I settle down again. Didn't think there was as much in him when he first came on the station. By Jove! he's a brick."
A short visit to the Downs in fulfilment of a promise to his old friend "Billy Allan" of Braeside, near Warwick, had to be paid before he left for the North, but that lasted somewhat longer than he anticipated; for the Hon. William Allan, M.L.C., was not the sort to be easily parted with. A most deservedly popular man with all classes, he was the owner of a splendid property and the proprietor of the only flock of all-black sheep in the colony. They were his hobby, and he revelled in it, and he nearly succeeded in infecting Darbison, who remembered in time his promised trip to England and the uncertainty of his future movements. However, the visit was prolonged for some weeks amid the attractions of Braeside, which were not inconsiderable, including, as they did, the charming personality of his hostess, and musical evenings of a character with which competition was out of the question.
On his way north the steamer in which he sailed had the misfortune to take the ground in the Fitzroy River, a by no means uncommon occurrence, and being stuck there for two days, he decided to have a look at Rockhampton. His visit extended over little more than a couple of hours, but was, unconsciously to him, the cause of some excitement.
Strolling up East-street, paying little attention to the attractions of the shops, and still less to the people who thronged that central thoroughfare, he was suddenly aroused from his reverie by a cry of alarm coming from a spot he had not long passed. He turned at once, but a crowd had already collected, and he was only in time to see a prostrate figure, apparently that of a woman, lifted into a cab by two men, under direction of a constable. His request for information from a bystander met only with the curt response:—
"Oh, nothing much! Only a woman fainted and fell off the sidewalk on to the roadway. Had a narrow squeak, though, from being run over by that cab they've taken her away in to the hospital. Cut about a bit, too, I fancy, for she was bleeding."
Unfortunate Mrs. Ellison, for she it was, out to make some small purchase, was leaving the shop and found herself face to face with Darbison. He knew nothing of her presence in Rockhampton, merely stepped aside to allow her to pass, and walked on. It seems more than probable that he would have failed to recognise her had he seen her face, for she was sadly altered since they had been so effectively separated. And the next morning when he read a short account of the occurrence in the local "Argus" it conveyed no information to him. The woman had recovered, a wound in her head had been dressed, and she was able to go to her home. She was a stranger in the town, and her name was Ellis, or Ellison. That was all, and Darbison's interest in the affair was exhausted.
Had Robson gone on shore with him that day the result might have been different, but the old man was absorbed in a game of deck quoits when Darbison left the ship, and he would not disturb him, which was doubtless the best thing that could have happened.
When the steamer anchored off Flat Top Island, at the mouth of the Pioneer River, a day or two afterwards, and the smart little Bronzewing took off her passengers and landed them on the Mackay wharf, Charlie Rawson was already there to greet his friend.
"Come on, old sport, the buggy is up at Mother Cook's. We'll have a swizzle, just one, you know, while the groom is putting the horses in, and we'll just have time to get to 'The Hollow' before the dinner bell rings. What! not a swizzle? Ha! but you haven't been introduced to them yet. Sworn off, have you? Well, I respect your scruples, but I can't help being downright sorry for you. Come along, Toussaint, just in time, old man; allow me to introduce my friend—Mr. Darbison, Mr. Toussaint, of Oxford Downs—you'll know him better before you go south again. In the meantime, accept my assurance that he is perfectly harmless. Come out to 'The Hollow' with us, Toussaint. Ned is anxious to see you about the swindle you worked on him over that last draft of fat wethers you sent down, and the missus is just pining away for a sight of you!"
"Dank you for nodings. I do not any more go out to-day. I haf business to look about at der stores. Maybe I gome in to lunch to-morrow ven I go me back to der station."
"That's right, old man, mind you do. Here's luck. Come on, Darbison, the ponies are outside."
"Goot-bye, Mr. Darbison, I see you some more anoder time. Perhaps you come to Oxford Downs, isn'd it, some day? But you dake my advice. Don't you trust dis tam fellow Rawson, he is most allertime mat. Goot-bye, Sharlie. Tell Ned I make some rows mit him ven I comes oop."
And the ponies were started off, in high fettle, on their well-known road up the river.
Darbison had not been many hours at The Hollow before he discovered the charming character of his surroundings; the roomy bungalow cottage and its occupants, the hostess, whom he had yet to learn was a popular favorite among all classes throughout the district; in every direction evidence of plenty, but nowhere a sign of vulgarity. Good taste ruled all over, and the sense at being not only a welcome guest, but of being actually at home, appealed strongly to that side of his nature which had for so long lain dormant and been so cruelly crushed by the tragic ending at Barumbah.
Wandering through the well-kept garden, bounded by a curve in the rippling waters of the Pioneer River, dreaming of all that had been, and of what the future might possibly yet have in store for him, he suddenly became aware of the joyous voices of children at play, and making plenty of noise too, although nothing could be seen of them. Continuing his search in the direction from which the sounds came, he at last found them under the shade of a gigantic Poinciana regia. Its lower branches drooped nearly to the ground, enclosing a generous area of dense shade, in which they were at all times protected from the direct rays of the tropical sun. Then his sailor instincts came into play, and for the time being he became one of them, until, warned by the first bell, he found his way to the bathroom to get ready for dinner. Visitors dropped in at intervals during the evening, and the musical talent some of them developed was another surprise for Darbison, who was compelled to admit that, although very fond of music himself, he was absolutely unable to produce any on any known instrument, unless, perhaps, they might trust him with the drum and arrange a code of signals for his instruction when to thump it. The walls of the music-room were adorned with almost every known instrument of orchestral capacity, both in brass and wood. Nearly everybody who dropped in at odd times did his or her level best to uphold the reputation of The Hollow for musical evenings, and it was no mean one either.
At the end of a week Darbison had become fully persuaded that he had reached "the haven where he would be;" he would give up sheep and invest his capital in sugar, if his friends thought it would be safe to do so. He had already seen two or three of the principal mills, and been courteously shown a great deal that was worth seeing. Many more pleasant visits remained to be paid, and as he still had a couple of months to spare before it would be safe to start for England with reasonable hope of escaping the cold, wintry weather there, he was not required to come to a hurried decision.
This was all the more satisfactory as there were no sugar properties in the market at the time; sugar was paying well, labor was plentiful, and the troubles which were even then in store for the planters were not yet visible above the horizon. The labor schooners came from the New Hebrides and Solomons with full passenger lists of willing and contented workers. They returned with time-expired boys clad in gorgeous raiment, paid for in golden sovereigns out of their contract wages handed over to them in the presence of a Government inspector. But the golden sovereigns were of small value to take back to their native villages. The money had to be spent where it was earned, and as every boy had not less than eighteen of those coins to get rid of, and as drink to those halcyon days had no charm for them, some of their investments were more conspicuous for external appearance than for positive utility.
Ridiculous as the description may appear to be. It was no uncommon slight to see a strapping lump of a boy, who had never before worn the garb of civilisation, strutting along the main street clad in a light tailor-made suit, wearing kid gloves—not often a good fit—carrying in one hand a gilt-edged morocco-bound "Church Service," and with the other shading his already deeply-bronzed complexion under an umbrella or parasol covered with alternate stripes, of red, white, and blue—their favorite colors—built to order for these occasions.
This was all intensely interesting to Darbison, who found himself in an entirely new world. The great surprise in store for him on driving into town one day was to come suddenly upon Harold Armstead, sauntering up the street as if the whole panorama belonged to him.
"Why, Harold, wherever did you spring from, and what the mischief are you up to now?"
"Same to you, Darbison, only with more emphasis on the latter half of your query. But it's just glorious to meet you again, old man, and to see you looking so fit. Where are you staying?"
"At The Hollow for the present. And you?"
"Better still. I'm going out there for a day or two when I've settled about the yacht. The Rawsons are old friends of mine."
"Yacht! What yacht? Have you come into money, or what has happened? What are you here for anyhow?"
"Oh, the same old game, only this time it's a cable-laying job out to Flat Top. Come down to the wharf and let me introduce my friend and fellow yachtsman, Mr. Schepper, to you. Quite an original, I assure you. You are bound to like him!"
Just as they turned the corner of the street leading to the river bank, a crowd became visible on the wharf, and the voices proclaimed that a fight was in progress somewhere, although the combatants could not be seen. Cries of "Good for the cook!" "Bully for Schneider!" "At him again, slushy!" and others of similar though more forceful import, caused them to quicken their pace until they reached the scene of conflict, and a novel and interesting scene it was.
Several feet below the level of the wharf lay a bluff-nosed, flush-decked steam barge, on which the struggle for mastery—for it could not be called a fight—was proceeding between two men who were locked in a close embrace—each man evidently determined to throw the other overboard at the first chance, as they swayed violently from side to side on the unsteady platform. One was a long, lean warrior in a dungaree jumper and dirty white pants rolled up above the knees, barefooted, and bleeding from the mouth; the other a short, stout, red-headed and red-faced man, decently clad in a suit of blue serge and patent leather shoes, better adapted to a colder climate. The first glance conveyed to Armstead all necessary information, which, punctuated by explosions of laughter, he gave to Darbison:—
"The short, fat man is Schepper, our really clever electrician; the other is the cook of the 'yacht,' as I called her just now. What they are fighting about I can't imagine. The atmosphere was peaceful when I left her an hour ago to go up town and interview the Customs people, but they have been snarling at each other all the way up from Brisbane. We have been nearly a month on the way, averaging about three or four knots, and hugging the coast in that beastly old cable tank all the time. Schepper has been horribly seasick all the way, and unable to tackle what he calls the 'shdoo,' the cook's standing dish, and the only one I suppose the poor devil had the necessary ingredients for, or accommodation for cooking in that wretched little caboose. By Jove, they'll both be overboard directly if they don't watch it. Schepper has the strength, but the long fellow has the wind and the leverage. Wonder where the captain is—not that he could do much if he were there!"
"How many were there of you altogether?"
"Well, there was the skipper, and the chief officer, who was also engineer, and that long fellow yonder, who was cook when he wasn't at work in the stokehold, and a great lout of a boy who did nothing in particular and everything wrong.
"There they go!" And a roar went up from the crowd as the two men, in close grip, rolled over the low freeboard and into the water together.
The cook was the first to bob up, and soon after, a few feet astern of him, Schepper appeared, blowing like a grampus. Both were swimmers, and were quickly hauled on board by ropes in the willing hands of the spectators, amongst whom was the just-arrived captain. He assumed the most severely judicial expression of which he was capable, and demanded a prompt explanation from his subordinate as to what the devil he meant by fighting with a passenger and bringing disgrace on the ship—that was what he called the old barge!
The reply was ready, and to the point: "Well, you see, captain, it came about this way. I was a-settin' down there on a bucket, peelin' the spuds and things ready for bilin', jest whistlin' to meself an' sayin' nothin' to nobody, when that there old Bismarck, what had bin up the town givin' the gals a treat with all his shore-goin' clobber on, comes aboard, me takin' no more notice of him than if so be he was a nigger. He sneaks up behind me round the caboose, and lands me one on the jaw, tumbles me off the bucket, and upsets all the green stuff what I has in the tin dish, and the awful way he cussed an' swore at me would surprise you. Was I goin' to take that quiet an' ask for more? Not me! So I jest up an' tackles him. What would you ha' done, I'd like to know?"
"Well, Mr. Schepper, you know you had no business to strike this man, he's not in your employ. What made you do it?"
"Vat make me do it? Vell, I dell you. I have allertime had for mineself nodings to eat on dis tam ship only shdoo, und dis time I haf seen dis man make some shdoo like vat I haf hat to eat. He cut some bodado und bumkin und oder dings in a basin mid vasser, und ven he vos make his dirty foots hot on der deck he puts first dime one foots, den anoder foots, in der cold vasser mid der shdoo, und ven he see I vas lookin' at him he say, 'Tam you, 'oldt Bismarck, I punch you in der head, isn'd it?' Den he make me feel sick some more, und I hit him mit mine handt, und he trow me oferboard, und I haf lose mein vatch und some moneys. Und den he make some lies apout me und some gals, und I do not any gals know. Und ven der gables is all out I do not any baper sign if I mein vatch und moneys do not get back!"
Choking with suppressed laughter, Darbison helped Armstead to get him up to the hotel and into some dry clothes. The watch was recovered by a kanaka diver during the day, and some sort of peace was patched up with the captain, who was anxious to avoid further trouble. But Schepper was not easily pacified until he had been made the recipient of sundry swizzles, coupled with repeated assurances of his valor in the combat and his entire justification for entering upon it.
Darbison remained in town for the sake of a long talk with Armstead, which the latter would gladly have avoided if only to shun all reference to the trouble at Barumbah, but much of that was happily glossed over in referring to matters of more recent interest.
"But, I say, Harold, whatever induced you to take such a long trip in that awful specimen of marine architecture?"
"The chief's orders, old man—another queer specimen, by the way. Said he would have been but too glad of the chance to go himself, and therein proved his kindred with Ananias. He knew that he lied, but what seemed to please him most was the certain knowledge that I knew it, too. A most worthy man, I believe, in many respects, but it was less his fault than that of those who put him there that he was an astounding revelation of the folly of plugging up a square hole with a round peg. However, he died from natural causes, chiefly swelled head, I fancy, about a week after I steamed away from Moreton Bay in that gallant bark, and I bear no ill-will to his memory. Now, what about yourself, have you any plans for the future, and, if so, may I know them?"
"None, beyond the fact that I leave for England in March, and shall certainly return before the cold sets in. After that I can't say, but I have a great notion of this part of the country, and may eventually settle here if a good opening presents itself. Will you come out with me to The Hollow to-morrow?"
"No. Can't leave till the cable is landed."
"I see! Well, hurry up, my boy, and come as soon as you can, and don't let old Bismarck get into a clinch with that cook again. Feed him up here and keep him off 'the yacht.'"
When the cable was laid and in working order, Harold and his friend Mr. Schepper had a good time at The Hollow. The latter was a constant source of amusement to the family and their numerous visitors, being frequently called upon for a description of his fight with the cook and an account of the preparation of "shdoo," and although he seldom succeeded in telling the story twice in the same way, he never failed to convince his audience of his genuine horror for all time of all "shdoo," no matter how artistically composed or carefully prepared. "Id is a good vorld, laties, und mein vife is a goot voomans, but she does not any more make shdoos ven I get me home again. Efery dime I valk mit mineself in der shtreet und shmell von of dem I see dat dirty schweinkopf mid his foots in der mittle of it!"
After their departure for the south in the Black Swan, Darbison settled down to a thorough exploration of the district, and, as a guest at The Hollow, met with a most cordial reception everywhere. He visited all the large plantations and mills, including River Estate, Alexandra, Foulden, Pleystowe, and others, as well as the most prominent among the smaller ones; spent a pleasant time at Mount Spencer Station, and a week at Oxford Downs. At Mount Spencer he met with another old Mediterranean acquaintance in the person of Captain Bosanquet, who had retired on half pay and purchased a small grazing property adjacent. That, of course, meant another invitation, for those two had a common interest and much to talk about.
"I suppose you are about the only old naval man around here, Bosanquet?"
"Yes, I believe so. There was another, up to a few weeks ago, but I am thankful to say he has cleared out, and I don't think he is likely to come back."
"Who was he?"
"A retired paymaster, with plenty of money, but mad, I should say. At least that is the most charitable supposition."
"Why? What did he do?"
"Rather what didn't he do? He came here first about twelve months ago with a son, a very handsome boy I'm told, about sixteen years of age, a wilful young beggar, who was sick when he landed, got rapidly worse, refused to obey the doctor's instructions, and died within a month. The old man was terribly cut up, and carried on top ropes for a spell. Then he went back home to get proper fixings for the grave; said there was nothing to be got in this infernal country fit for a Christian to lie still under, and came back with a fit-out that must have cost a pretty pile. Knocked the cap off the cemetery gates with the first piled-up load and hammered the carrier for doing it. Found the grave overgrown with tall grass, and the corner fence of a recently defunct Chinaman in his way, said fence being decorated after customary fashion with a selection from the deceased's wardrobe and a lot of grub in an advanced stage of decomposition.
"Whilst busily engaged in throwing the whole lot, including the sapling fence, overboard, outside the cemetery boundary, the official caretaker appeared on the scene and remonstrated with such vigor that he was promptly hunted into an adjacent paddock. But on the following day the now distraught shellback went after him again with a heavy hunting crop, and the end was police interference. He didn't stop long after that—people shied at him, and his remarks were terribly discursive!"
"Ever hear of him afterwards?"
"Once only, from a man who had been a quartermaster on the same ship with him—the Spy brig on the coast of Africa; caught in a squall and thrown on her beam ends; a carronade slide to leeward lifted, he was washed under it, got his head badly jammed; was invalided, and in Haslar Hospital for months. May-be that accounts for some of it. It is the most charitable view to take, anyhow, and perhaps a few extra swizzles helped him along a bit!"
"Hm! Yes. Any more remarkable people around here?"
"Not in that sense. You seem to have already met a few of the men worth knowing, and they are all pretty much of the same stamp. To me they are simply remarkable as being about the best crowd of white men I've had the luck to chip in with since my legs were last under the wardroom mahogany of the old Queen. To sum them up in Jack's expressive phraseology, their hearts are as big as the dome of St. Paul's! By the way, I heard you were going Home again shortly."
"Yes, but only for a summer trip, and I have serious thoughts of settling down somewhere about here when I got back, if I can get a sugar patch at a reasonable figure."
"Good business, as our mutual friend Charlie puts it. I sincerely hope you will. In the meantime, can't you manage to put in a few days here before you leave?"
"Glad to, if I can, but I must get away south in a fortnight or so, and really this is the most hospitable corner of the globe I ever drifted into. I must really be off now, but you may be quite sure I shall look you up before I start. Oh! and I say, old chap, if there are any little matters I can attend to for you in the Old Country, just jot them down."
Although living in a populous city, and having ample means for her support, Mrs. Elliston, as she was now called, was inexpressively lonely. She knew no one, nor had she any desire to make acquaintances; in fact, with the exception of the kindly old widow lady with whom she lodged, she rarely spoke to anybody. Her memories were bitter, and her health was imperilled by the constant regret for the criminal folly of which she had been guilty. And to be dead to the world was her only ambition. Correspondence with her only living relative in England had long since been neglected. All hope for the future was banished. The income which she regularly received from the solicitors of her injured husband was a constant source of self-reproach. At length she decided that she would make a desperate effort to earn her own living, and until that could be accomplished use no more of the money than would actually be required for her support.
Armed with this decision, she at once commenced a search for employment, only, however, to discover how unfitted she was for the acceptance of such work as occasionally offered. True, she was a skilled musician and vocalist, though much out of practice. The publicity incidental to that life appalled her. She had no special gifts, and the prospect seemed daily more gloomy, until hope dawned with the offer of a housekeeper's place in the home of a bachelor Government official on the Peak Downs.
Glad of the opportunity to escape once more into the bush, and so lessen the chances of being recognised by any of those who had known her in happier times, she accepted this after some preliminary correspondence of a most satisfactory nature. The salary was good, the position such as she felt a lady might fill. Inquiry established the fact that the gentleman who required her services occupied a good position in society, and was in every sense a most estimable person, added to which she entertained no doubt about her ability to preside over such an establishment as the one described.
After a long and somewhat monotonous journey in Cobb's coach, Mrs. Elliston reached her destination, and was most agreeably surprised to find her pleasantest anticipations realised. Her employer received and behaved towards her with the greatest consideration, handed over the complete domestic control of the establishment, and specified her duties in a manner which, though a trifle arbitrary to her unaccustomed ears, placed her completely at ease and left no loophole for anxiety. But the anxious moments were yet to come; though many weeks passed before their cause was suspected. Small dinner parties were of frequent occurrence, and invariably took place when strangers were in the township. Not that there was the least difficulty at any time about the dinners themselves; the supply of everything requisite was of the best, and she was free to engage additional assistance for the one servant and the boy who comprised the regular household; but the evenings were invariably devoted to card-playing, which frequently lasted far into the small hours, and on more than one occasion words ran high, muttered threats and accusations were overheard, and the party broke up and separated under conditions which pointed direct to high play and angry discussions. This caused her a feeling of discomfort, and as her uneasiness increased and the term of her engagement was drawing to a close, she wrote to the agency through which she had obtained the situation, and besought their interest in some other direction.
An immediate reply reached her to the effect that, provided she could obtain the requisite credentials, an opening presented itself in the home of an elderly widower in the Diamantina country, to take charge of two growing girls, teach music, and generally superintend their education. The receipt of this letter was quickly followed by an interview with her employer, who expressed unfeigned regret at her decision. He suggested his willingness to increase her salary, or make any other arrangements that might induce her to remain with him.
"I am sorry, very sorry indeed, to lose you, Mrs. Elliston, and as you really must go I shall take a melancholy pleasure in recommending you favorably to old Mr. Barthgate, a most estimable man, who is an old acquaintance of mine, and generally calls upon me when passing through the town."
"I thank you, sir, for that and for the kindly consideration with which you have invariably treated me, and would beg you to believe that my only object has been to obtain more congenial employment."
So that matter was settled, and when the time of her departure drew near, Mr. Barthgate himself arrived and took him with her, in a covered waggonette behind a good team of horses, to Barthgate Downs, during the long journey to which she had ample opportunity of studying him. To begin with, he certainly was not an old man. His hair being of snowy whiteness, the adjective had become firmly attached to him. Not being able to boast of much education, he was one of nature's gentlemen, solid and quiet in manner, possessing no interest in life beyond the welfare of his two motherless girls and the proper management of his small station and the fifty thousand sheep on it. Her comfort and convenience were his first care during the journey, and from the cordial welcome extended to them at their various stopping-places it was evident that he enjoyed the respect of all the residents over a wide area of country. Barthgate Downs took her fancy at a first glance. The house was pleasantly situated on the bank of a running creek and standing in the midst of a fairly well-kept garden. It was a large, homely sort of place, devoid of all pretensions to anything but solid comfort, and the room assigned to her use was large and plainly but neatly furnished, adjoining that of the two girls. Clara, the eldest, a bouncing healthy lassie of fourteen, and Ethel, a shy, retiring child, some two years younger, were duly introduced, and for the first time since her flight from Barumbah, Mrs. Elliston realised that she had at length found a home.
Life passed very happily for them all at Barthgate Downs. Mr. Barthgate trusted her entirely. The girls were her constant companions when away from their studies, and took her all over the run at odd times, teaching her in return from their ample stock of bush lore, in which she was sadly deficient herself. Clara became quite adept on the piano under her skilful guidance. The musical evenings, which were of almost daily occurrence, appealed strongly to Mr. Barthgate, who was particularly fond of music, and was the possessor of an excellent bass voice, which brought him into constant requisition.
In this way the months and seasons rolled on until there came a sudden shock which, although it had no direct bearing on the peaceful current of their lives, was nevertheless, sufficiently terrible to prostrate Mrs. Elliston in its vivid reproduction of a past memory.
Seated in a shady corner of the verandah one afternoon, doting over an old volume of travel, she was suddenly aroused by the arrival of Clara, exclaiming:—"Oh! Mrs. Ellison, the most awful thing you ever heard of has happened; perhaps you know the man, as you lived there. Mr.—— someone on the Peak Downs has been arrested for the murder of two constables and robbing the gold escort!"
"My dear, do you know what you are saying? It is wildly impossible. What is his name?"
"I don't remember just at this minute. Father read it out of the paper just now when the mail came in. Dear Mrs. Elliston, don't look so frightened. It mayn't be anybody you know after all. I'll go and see if I can get the paper."
When she returned with it, the unfortunate lady caught sight of the name, gave one gasp as she exclaimed: "This is horrible!" and went off into a dead faint.
Horrible indeed it was, but only too true. The evidences of the crime appeared overwhelming, and at the subsequent trial were shown to be so. Even if such had not been the case, his own confession made his fate certain. He was ably defended by three of the leading barristers in Brisbane, one of whom, was the present Chief Justice of the Federal High Court, then on the threshold of his brilliant career. A prolonged and patient trial was brought to a close by a verdict of guilty, and the prisoner was sentenced to death, the judge remarking that the crime had no parallel in Australian history. Needless to add, it caused a thrill of horror to permeate the whole community, and has never been forgotten in Queensland.
Strange to say, the condemned man persisted in asserting his innocence to the last, and that in spite of the fact that his own confession had enabled the police to recover a sum of nearly £4000 from where he had himself planted it in an old stump in the bush.
So the trusted official and social success went to his doom on the Rockhampton scaffold, bearing himself manfully to the end, clad in a suit of dress clothes, and lifting his long beard with one hand to facilitate the adjustment of the rope!
Many weeks passed before Mrs Elliston recovered from the shock thus caused. She had great respect for the man, who had always treated her with studied courtesy and shown kindly appreciation of her efforts to make his home comfortable.
At the same time she had a vivid recollection of those evening dinner parties, and the gambling which had almost invariably followed thereon, and to them attributed the awful fate which ultimately overtook him. She may have been right.
However, the old routine of Barthgate Downs was gradually resumed, and in the enjoyment of a happy, peaceful home, Mrs. Elliston may now be left, doing her best for the motherless girls, of both of whom she had become very fond, and determined to lay the spectre of the past on the altar of present duty.
AS the homeward-bound mailboat passed Fort Denison and sped along on her course to the Heads, her decks were crowded with passengers taking a final glimpse at the rapidly shifting panorama of the familiar scene. Once outside, and the old Ballarat plunging her nose into the heavy rollers following in the wake of a recent strong south-easterly, at least seven-tenths of them vanished into their berths.
Not seasick already?
Oh, dear, no, but the luggage had to be sorted up and opened out, and the good offices of the cabin stewards arranged for, and the children were demanding attention, and a number of other emergencies pressed for immediate notice, in connection with which the women were even less transparent humbugs than the men, who, pretended to whistle, and professed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves like the veriest old sea-dogs, until rebellious nature gave the signal for collapse and compulsory retirement.
Standing in the waist, with his feet firmly planted and his body swaying naturally to the motion of the ship, was Darbison, engaged in earnest conversation with the butcher, upon whom he was impressing his desire for special attention to be paid to the extensive collection of pets he was carrying with him for Jeannie's benefit. A promise of a substantial tip if all were safely landed in London was met with an assurance that nothing the butcher could do would be wanting to deserve it. And as this was followed by a small gold coin on account, Darbison was assured of the fact that he was "a gentleman, an' I allus knows when I has dealin's with that sort. But you see, sir, it don't allus rest with me. Doin' the best I can, there's providence at times that will take a hand in the game, an' you can't go for to expect that they'll all be landed in good 'ealth an' sperits, so to say. Them cockatoos and the other birds will pull through all right, I dessay, if we don't get too much bad weather off the Leeuwin, but I misdoubt me if all the animals will. Them native bears is a 'andful theirselves. I've had experience of them before to-day, an' the possums and things ain't much better. But you can depend on me, sir, to do my best, an' thankin' you for the gratooity as well as what's to foller."
Then Darbison went to his cabin, completed his own personal arrangements, and returned to the deck for a smoke. Here he made the acquaintance of a jolly, portly old gentleman, rolled up in rugs, seated in a deck lounge, reading, who hailed him cheerily and insisted upon his joining him in a "peg."
"Seems to me, sir, that we are about the only two passengers able to remain on deck, though there's really nothing yet to drive people below. Possibly a sailor, sir?"
"Yes, I was in the navy for some years. But are you one also?"
"No. Permit me to introduce myself as Colonel Methvyn, of the Bombay staff, just returning from a six months' furlough in Australia—fine country, sir—very fine country, but wants a lot more people in it. And you, sir?"
"Aubrey Darbison, at your service, and very pleased to meet you. Glad you like Australia. What part of it have you been chiefly in?"
"Well, I spent a very jolly part of the time on a younger brother's station on the Murrumbidgee, then he induced me to come to Melbourne with him, to show me the ropes, as he called it. Wish to the Lord I hadn't!"
"You don't like Melbourne, then?"
"By gad, sir, but I do. Splendid city—great future—but I had to leave, sir, and leave it, by gad, in a hurry, too!"
"Why? Anything serious happen?"
"You may well call it serious, sir. That's precisely what it was. Deadly, sir; —— dangerous, that's what it was. Now kindly tell me, do I give you the impression of being a man who would shirk danger—run away from it, in fact?"
"Assuredly not! Why?"
"Why, sir? Why, because that is exactly what I am doing at the present moment. Running away from a woman, sir, a woman, or a she-devil, who, I am told, has sworn to marry me within six months! Personable woman, too—stacks of money—husband was some sort of a contractor fellow. Swindled the Government out of most of it! Admitted into society over yonder? Oh, yes! Government House, too, I understand. Hasn't more than six consecutive words of grammar in her whole basket. Smokes cigarettes. Dresses like a Punch and Judy show—and calls for gin and bitters when she's thirsty. Lots of men after her, for her money, of course. Not the sort she wanted. Wanted me! Me! Said the poorer I was the more she'd love me, and she'd never marry again if she couldn't get a milingtary man and a hofficer!
"What would you have done, sir? I put it to you straight. Wouldn't you have cut and run, too?"
"I expect I should. But you're all right now, you know. She can't very well come after you to Bombay—unless a memory of some tender passage drives her!"
"No such thing, sir. No what you are pleased to call tender passages were ever possible. I've avoided the infernal woman, sir, been positively rude to her at every opportunity. And now I will only ask you to treat this subject as entirely confidential, sir, as in fact between two brother officers, and I shall hope to see a great deal of you before we have to part."
"No necessity for the caution, colonel. You have my entire sympathy, and the subject need not again be referred to. There goes the first dinner bell, and I'm hungry."
The morning after the steamer left Adelaide a steward came to Darbison with "Colonel Methvyn's compliments, sir, and could you make it convenient to see him in his cabin?"
"Certainly. Say I will come at once. Nothing wrong. I hope?"
"Can't say, sir. He didn't tell me. But he's cussin' about two knots an hour off the ship's way."
So that Darbison expressed no surprise when his entrance to the cabin was accompanied by a burst of sulphurous fulminations.
"Hello, colonel, what's the matter? What's all this about?"
"Shut that door like a good fellow, and tell me what the blazes I'm to do. That infernal woman is on this ship! Came aboard at Melbourne, and been shut up in her cabin, sick, till yesterday. Saw her late last night when she came back from a prowl in the city, and she pretended she didn't know I was on this boat. The dem catamount says she's on her way to visit some friends at Colombo. She's after me, I know right well. Stick to me, Darbison, and tell me what I ought to do."
"Ignore her, colonel. Cut her dead! Confound it, man, she can't marry you on board, and I don't suppose she'll try to have you kidnapped at Colombo!"
"By gad, sir, you don't know what a woman like that can be capable of."
"Cheer up, sir. Cheer-up. I'll try and entertain her to the best of my ability, so as to keep her off you. That is if she has no prejudice against the navy."
A day or two afterwards he was in a position to give the old gentleman more solid comfort.
"It's all right, colonel, you are saved. The lady, I think I may safely say, has transferred her affections to me, and I expect you to be properly grateful though even that won't compensate me for my utter disregard of truth, nor for the certain prospect of my peace of mind being shattered until we reach Colombo. I managed to get into conversation with her in the music-room last night, and we had quite a long and most confidential yarn. I encouraged her to pump me freely about myself, and when she turned the conversation on to you I told her of your extremely delicate state of health, and referred gingerly to the alarming attack you had had after leaving Melbourne, which, it was feared, had left you permanently deaf, and possibly a chronic invalid for the rest of your days. She had the grace to say she was sorry, but that you were a foolish old man who had persecuted her dreadfully in Melbourne with your ardent protestations of love, and so forth."
"Don't interrupt me or I'll never get through. She couldn't prevent you caring for her, of course, but really she never did 'cotton to sogers.' Sailors were her weakness all the time, although her poor dear 'usband what was dead and gone used many a time to say to her, 'Don't you never trust one of 'em, Maria, more partickler them navy chaps; the other sort is bad enough, but them fellers is too permiscus altogether in affairs of the 'eart!' How I kept my countenance I don't know, but when I told her she was too charming and unsophisticated to be travelling about this wicked world without a male escort, she purred like an old maid's tomcat, and admitted that she knew it, and that you had told her the same thing often."
"Be quiet, and let me finish. I'm to take charge of her at Colombo, and see her off in the train to her friend's tea plantation, somewhere up in the hills, and I'm to have her address and go to see her on my way out. So I think your penny-farthing rushlight is fairly extinguished, whilst my electric bull's-eye shines brilliantly. Does that comfort you, my poor afflicted, soger?"
"By gad, Darbison, I'm speechless with gratitude. You must really come on with me to Bombay and give me a chance to show it. But what sort of a woman is she at all?"
"Which reminds me that another of the pearls of wisdom the dear departed left behind was that 'men was fools most of the time, but women was a sight bigger fools all the time!' So I conclude the defunct contractor was a keen observer in his day. Oh! and she brought her jewel case out to show me. The contents were costly, but barbaric to a degree. If I've done you a service, old man, I'm glad, and if the tea man doesn't freeze on to her before I get back—well, it's my chance, eh?"
"Ring that bell, Darbison, I'm dry. I'm positively appalled at the contemplation of that female's iniquity!"
It was not until they rounded the Leeuwin that Darbison was able to realise that his intervention on behalf of the colonel was likely to prove productive of considerable inconvenience to himself, if not of something actually more serious. There are few better fields or more ample opportunities for incipient flirtations, or even for straight-out declarations of ardent passion in defiance of all the canons of orthodox conventionality than can be found ready made to order or engineered with a little tact and skill on a crowded passenger steamer on a long voyage. All travellers know this, and few neglect chances of passing the time as pleasantly as possible and breaking up the deadly monotony of the daily routine.
Darbison had entered gaily, and without a thought of possible consequences, upon the defence of the colonel from what he conceived to be the artifices of a designing woman, and every day served to convince him of his folly. He had been actuated solely by the prospect of a little harmless fun, and had all the time been playing with fire without knowing it. The widow had, in fact, done what he had laughingly pictured to the colonel—that is to say, she had "transferred her affections" from the soldier to the sailor, and the latter had plenty of time in which to be sorry for it.
His insistence upon the truth of the statement that he was already a married man was received with incredulity.
"Yes, of course, I know all about that. My poor, dear, dead 'usband always said that Jack had a wife in every port he sailed to, but that needn't trouble you, dear. I know what the position of a true wife is, and that's what I mean to be to you. You don't need to worry about them others."
Darbison, it must be clearly understood, had on no single occasion given the lady the slightest provocation for these lively protestations of attachment, and in conversation with the colonel he was at length constrained to say:—"You are a good old sort, colonel, and I can't help liking you, but from the very bottom of my heart I wish you had never crossed my hawser with your infernal love affairs. This has put me in a hole I don't clearly see my way out of. I honestly believe the poor woman is mad, but she has avowed her determination to marry me now, and, by Jove, I've got to find some means of escape, for I'm blowed if I'm going to commit bigamy for her, or any other woman. Moreover, if I were a free man, and she owned ten times as much money as I believe she really has, I wouldn't go within a crossjack yard's length of her for it all."
The climax was reached when a stiff westerly gale was encountered after the ship's head was turned on a northerly course for Colombo. A heavy beam sea caused her to roll alarmingly, and broke on board at intervals. Boat lashings carried away, crockery smashed, the galley flooded, women screamed and ran about the cabins in their night-robes, appealing for help where no help was available. Darbison, just descending the companion from the upper deck, wet, but satisfied that there was no danger to be apprehended, went below with the intention of allaying the terror even if unable to calm the excitement.
In a paroxysm of fear the widow clung to him, calling him her darling husband, with a variety of other terms of endearment, the while imploring him to hold her tightly, to the end that they might perish together. The utter absurdity of the position, strongly as it appealed to him at the time, became more fully revealed to the bystanders when the ship's course was altered to meet the heavy seas end on, and comparative quiet was restored.
Very little harm had been done, but by this time Darbison realised the full extent of his own danger. How to escape was the next consideration, and this was eventually effected through the friendly offices of the ship's doctor, who pronounced him to be dangerously ill, and ordered close-confinement to his cabin till he could be landed at the first port of call. She pleaded to be allowed to nurse him "back to life and love," but the doctor was inexorable. The colonel spent most of his time with him; the captain, who was now posted up in the details of the case, looked in for an occasional yarn and a sorrowful disquisition upon she-dragons in general, "who were always trying to lead poor, simple-minded Jack astray out of the path of honor and virtue!" So matters continued till Colombo was reached, and Darbison's imprisonment was ended by her departure in tears because she was not allowed a final farewell on the grounds of the doctor's dread that the disease might develop into something highly infectious, and he dare not accept the risk.
Her final message was: "I'll come and see you, darling, at the 'orspital as soon as they'll let me in!"
And three months afterwards she married the tea man!
The colonel landed to pursue his voyage to Bombay in the branch mail boat, and the two parted with mutual feelings of friendship and goodwill, after a vain effort on the colonel's part to induce Darbison to accompany him to Bombay, and they were destined never to meet again. But correspondence between them was maintained until the colonel's death, some years afterwards, in which the old gentleman rarely omitted to refer to the narrow escape they had both had from inevitable matrimony, and his undying gratitude to Darbison for the splendid efforts he had made to save him.
One letter concluded with: "My married daughter, of whom you have frequently heard me speak, lives close by, and she often says how delighted she would be to meet you. She admires pluck, and thinks you must be a pluckier man than she ever read of in history, to face the risk you took with that poor, demented woman."
The remainder of the voyage was devoid of special incident. Darbison landed with most of his live stock in good condition, and, piling them up in top of a growler, drove off from the Liverpool-street Station to the hotel at which he had always been in the habit of putting up.
"Get those cages and the other traps down carefully, my lad, whilst I go in to see the manager about them," he ordered the cabman.
As he spoke, an imposing-looking man in a sort of undress military uniform came from the hall, and asked:—
"What do you think you're going to do with all that truck? This isn't the Zoo! You can't bring it in here!"
"Why, James, don't you remember me? Oh! I see it isn't James. A stranger, eh? Well, leave them there until I see the manager," and he ran up the steps.
"What's happened here that I can't have my traps brought inside?"
"Why, bless my soul, it's Mr. Darbison, I do believe, come back after all these years. Glad to see you again, sir."
"Well, just tell that second-hand warrior of yours in the hall to lend a hand and get my dunnage inside. He is raising merry hell with the cabman now."
"Right you are, Mr. Darbison, but that ain't no second-hand warrior, sir. Bless your heart, he's one o' the few survivors o' the Balaclava charge!"
"Is he really? Well, I don't expect ever to get out of the road of those fellows. As far as I can remember, less than one hundred and fifty brave men escaped out of that inferno, and I've met more than two hundred of them in Australia alone, to say nothing of all those who are adrift in other parts of the world."
"But this one has the medals and things, Mr. Darbison."
"Maybe, but he hasn't the manners. As for the medals, you can buy them in any pawnshop! No matter, just give him your orders, will you, and if there's nobody here to look after those birds, etcetera, I'll see to it that a competent man is sent round from somewhere. They'll all be taken away to-morrow."
And the next day he started for the nearest railway station to Chelpont Manor, sending no word of his coming, for the reason that he was contemplating something in the shape of a dramatic surprise to announce him.
It was late in the afternoon when he reached the village inn, about a mile from the manor house, and learnt all the particulars about the family from the garrulous dame who presided over it.
"Yes, she knew them very well; why wouldn't she, when Mrs. Chelpont was one o' them wimmen what everybody had to love whether they wanted to or not? And hadn't she been up there to see the new baby what had just arrived—the new squire that wus to be, and one o' the loveliest babies that ever was? And she'd see that his birds would be attended to, so she would, the same as if they was in their own nests. And he could have a fly to take him over to the manor when he wanted to go, but she didn't know that they was expectin' company. All the same she knowed there was plenty of room there"—and so on.
Then he told her he was Mrs. Chelpont's brother, but not to speak of it for the present, and have the fly ready for him in about an hour.
A rustic-looking youth brought it at the appointed time, and they arrived at the gates just as darkness was gathering. There Darbison got down, telling the boy he might go back, which he started to do in a terrible hurry.
For the man who spoke to him was not the same man with whom he had started.
This was a fierce-looking man, wearing a huge beard, his face hidden by a black mask with eye-holes in it, and a murderous-looking pistol in his hand.
With a wild yell the boy whipped up his horse furiously and disappeared down the road.
Darbison crept cautiously along the avenue towards the distant lights, fervently hoping to find the proprietor alone, lest he should alarm his sister. Fortune favored him, for she had shortly before gone upstairs with the nurse to put the precious infant to bed. Peering cautiously around, he saw at length through an open window, the man he was in search of. Better dressed, and in every sense, more respectable in appearance, there sat the bushranger of Barumbah at the head of his own table, conning the pages of a pamphlet and leisurely eating fruit.
Dinner was plainly just over. A man-servant came into the room, removed some dishes from the buffet, and went out again. This was his opportunity. With one hand on the sill of the low-set window, he was in the room before the slight noise he made attracted the attention of its occupant, who looked up to find himself covered by a heavy navy Colt, and to hear the harsh demand:—
"Bail up, and don't move, or I'll give you the contents of this. Where do you keep the money?"
After a moment's hesitation the threatened man said:—"Oh! that be —— for a yarn. This isn't Australia, don't you know. Who are you, anyhow?"
"Don't matter who I am, hand over the money or I'll——"
"No, you won't, my friend, for two reasons, the most important of which is that your revolver contains no cartridges, and mine does!" producing as he spoke one from a table drawer close to his hand. "The other reason is of no consequence for the present, but I may tell you that when bushrangers are out on business their revolvers are always loaded!"
"Allow me to congratulate you on your intimate acquaintance with the customs of the criminal classes, and at the same time to remind you that your revolver was also empty when you stuck up Barumbah Station!"
"Ha! Now I begin to smell a rat. Kindly remove that mask, Mr. Darbison, and if you are, as I now suspect, that gentleman himself, let me have the pleasure of extending a hearty welcome to an old acquaintance and a new brother-in-law!"
"Euchred, by Jove," said Darbison, who at once revealed his identity, and was soon after hugged in a close embrace by Jeannie, and promptly dragged up to the nursery to admire his very small nephew and namesake, Aubrey Chelpont.
"You are a bad, wicked villain," she said, "to spring in upon us in this fashion. Why didn't you let us know the steamer you were coming by, so that we could have sent to meet you? And where is my kangaroo and the rest of your luggage?"
"Jeannie, my dear, you may have improved somewhat since I saw you last. In personal appearance I am inclined to think you have, but you certainly are not altered in other respects. Still the same animated question box as of old. I didn't let you know the name of the boat because I wanted to return the formal call I received from your husband at Barumbah in correct official style. I suspect you don't know all the ins and outs of that story yet, but you shall. Your kangaroo and some birds and curios are with my traps at the village inn, where you can send for them in the morning. Anything else, my dear?"
"Yes, if I may. Where is Mrs. Darbison?"
"I don't know, nor do I want to know. I have heard nothing from her since that scoundrel deserted her in New Zealand, but as my lawyers inform me that she still draws her allowance I presume she is still alive."
"Now, one more, and that's all for to-night. How long are you going to stay with us, and do you think you are likely to marry again?"
"That is not one. It's two separate questions, on two totally distinct subjects. To the first, I reply that I intend to have a holiday until the cold weather drives me back again; and to the second, well, I can only say that I have no present intention to commit bigamy—a remark, by the way, which, I made for the first time a week or two ago, when a most estimable but crazy lady on board the steamer insisted upon becoming my wife, whether I wanted her or not."
"For shame, Aubrey, you shouldn't say things like that. It's not nice, you know, but do tell us how it happened."
"Come on out to my den and smoke, Darbison," said Chelpont, "and you, Jeannie, my pet, go and look after the son and heir. I can hear him yowling, I think, from here; perhaps he is cutting his teeth!"
"Babies that age don't have teeth, sir; besides, the nurse is with him. Go and smoke; you are both very rude. Don't stop long, Aubrey."
Remembering the conditions under which these two men first met in the dining-room at Barumbah Station, in Queensland, it only remains to say that Darbison's love for his sister and only living relative was the main-spring of their present meeting, and that Chelpont's, open, manly nature, was quickly responded to by Darbison, who had already learnt from Jeannie what a devoted and affectionate husband he had proved himself to be. So it was not to be wondered at that they soon became firm friends, and eventually inseparable companions. The talk in the smoking room, and many others which followed, revealed much of the true character of each man to the other, and there were no reservations. When Chelpont was questioned as to the past, he spoke freely.
"No, Darbison, I was never what you could honestly call wild when I was out there. Working for my living among total strangers, I struck a few rough patches at times, but neither drink nor gambling had any attractions for me, so I pulled through somehow. Tried the diggings for a bit, but without any luck, and finally took to a bush life for the freedom and certainty of subsistence it offered. Took any job I could get, first shepherding, then fencing, bullock driving, droving, shearing and so forth, but I never felt real mean till my father's letter reached me and I knew for the first time the depth of degradation it was possible for a scoundrel like that fellow, Evesham, to reach.
"Of course, I know that I made an ass of myself over that business, which ended so disastrously for you. Still I didn't know how to get at him just then in any other way. You see, for the time being I wasn't in your set, and I was determined that you should know him for what he was. I can only hope that you have quite forgiven me for my share in the abominable trouble it brought about."
"Entirely, and don't let us refer to the subject again. It is a painful one for both of us, but your share of the responsibility is small as compared with my own; for I knew later what I did not even suspect at the time—the end was inevitable, and your appearance on the scene only precipitated it. Now, tell me, if you will—Jeannie, in one of her letters, said something about you having been sugar growing out there. Was that so?"
"Just like a woman! Bless her little heart, no. Among a lot of other occupations I had a shot at, I mentioned sugar, I expect, but I was one of the smallest cogs in the machinery. I had wandered up north, and was disappointed in not getting a job of droving with a mob of cattle coming in from the west, so I turned in to the coast and took the first chance I could get, which happened to be that of a mill hand on the Pioneer—feeding cane into the rollers, you know, and that sort of thing—and I liked the place and the people so well that I stuck to the work and learnt all I could, until at last I got a billet at one of the leading mills, in charge of the centrifugals——"
"Which mill was that?"
"Foulden. Amherst's place, and I stopped on there until these people advertised for me, and here I am!"
"And pretty comfortably settled too, I should say."
"Yes, the old lady left me everything, and I've been trying hard to adapt myself to circumstances ever since. Got to, you know; because I'm a county magistrate, as well as a fairly large landed proprietor, for there are seven big farms on the manor estate, and a good spread of woodland. And I don't mind telling you, Darbison, that there are times, when I'm in what my steward calls 'the justice room,' serving out law to some miserable poacher, that between me and the culprit stands a vision of myself, armed and masked in the Barumbah dining-room, grinning derisively at the absurdity of the situation. There are times, too, if it wasn't for the dearest little wife in the world—not to mention the baby—that I could chuck up whole business and get back to the old free life in Australia!"
"Nonsense, my dear fellow. But, of course, that's impossible. I wish to heaven it were not, for I may tell you that I have almost, if not quite, made up my mind to go in for sugar myself when I get back. Friends up where you were are on the lookout for a place for me now. You know I spent some months up in the Mackay country before I came over, and I expect you have come in contact with most of the men I met—the Rawsons, Meyneil, Amherst, Bob Walker, the Longs, Spiller, Davidson, Lacey, the Macartneys, Finch Hattons, King, Bell, and a host of others?"
"What an extraordinary coincidence! No, I don't remember that you told us where you had been. But you know you have not been quite a model correspondent of late! Naturally, I know the names of the men you have mentioned, and from repute, as well as personal knowledge of some of them, I know that a better, straighter lot of white men are not to be found under the British flag. But you must remember I was only a mill-hand, and not on the same terms of intimacy with them as you must have been. All the same, they never failed to treat me like the gentleman they were."
"I couldn't have put it better myself. They are all that and the rest. But what do you think of the prospect as an investment? The life would exactly suit me; but will sugar continue to pay? It will take a pot of money for a start."
"There you have me. Most certainly, sugar will always pay, but in the north the extent to which it will do that must of necessity depend upon a constant and sufficient supply of the right kind of labor—about which I fancy there is beginning already to be some uneasiness——"
And here they were interrupted by the hurried entrance of Jeannie, with the anxious query:—
"Aubrey, whatever did you bring this nasty, smellful thing for? What is it?"—holding at arm's length, on a stick, the skin of which some animal had recently been bereaved.
"Ask your husband, my dear. It once belonged to one of his old mates in the bush. It's all that's left of the poor little native bear I was bringing home for you. Have it rolled up tightly and put outside. I intend to send it to a taxidermist in London and have it stuffed. Are the birds all right?"
"Oh, yes, they are just lovely. But one of the cockatoos keeps on saying things that sound like swear words. Stevens says they are, and he recognises the Australian accent!"
"All right, then we'll have him stuffed too. I can't have that nephew of mine brought up in an atmosphere of profanity. The man I bought him from, in Sydney, assured me that he was a bird of an exceptionally high moral standard, and all I have ever heard him say was something that sounded like 'Onward, Christian Soldiers.'"
"Now then, Darbison, are you ready? The groom is bringing the horses round." And away they went to join the meet at Garston Hall, three miles away.
Darbison's English visit was a series of pleasures to be remembered. As Mrs. Chelpont's brother he was sure of a welcome everywhere, for that little lady was already firmly established as a prime favorite in her part of the county. But when to that was added the mysterious rumor that he was a wealthy Australian on the look-out for a wife to take back with him, there was no room for surprise over the number of the invitations which came to Chelpont. Outside the family circle his domestic trouble was a sealed book, and utterly in vain did the faithful Jeannie declare that: "My brother has sufficient means, and nothing more; he is a confirmed bachelor; and even if that were not so, there are certain complications, I understand, with a lady in Ceylon who has the first claim to him. He is one of the best men in the whole world, but I do wish I could induce you to believe me when I say that I am quite positive he has no matrimonial intentions whatever."
Which was well meant, and the latter part of it, at least, strictly true. Jeannie knew the whole story of the contractor's widow, about whom she frequently chaffed Darbison in private; but it was hopelessly inconclusive in the estimation of many a fair damsel, who listened to it with a sigh of regret, whilst deciding at the same time to bring all her heavy artillery to bear in the struggle for conquest. More than one deliberately aimed dart missed him by a hair's-breadth, compelling him to fly the field in disorder.
He shot, fished, and rode to hounds at every opportunity. He broke his collar-bone through a spill over a hedge which hid an ugly take-off in the shape of a bramble-covered ditch, and was assiduously nursed by Jeannie. Several times he visited London to meet old shipmates and friends, and signalised every visit by the despatch of a large box of expensive but hopelessly unsuitable toys from the Army and Navy Stores to his little nephew and namesake at the manor, who had found a way to an especially warm corner in his heart. And when the time came for his return, which was put off from week to week, genuine regret pervaded the household.
He had decided from the first to go back by way of America, his explanation being that he was anxious to see that country, and, above all, to visit Niagara, thereby giving Jeannie a chance for a last sly dig:—
"Yes, Aubrey dear, of course! But I don't see how you can possibly meet the widow that way. Unless she happens to be advised of your intention!"
Neither of them knew that she had already been embalmed for the second time in the holy state of matrimony, two months before. Chelpont went with him to Liverpool and saw him safely off in the Alaska, bound for New York.
On arrival in Australia Darbison remained in Sydney only a few days, and went on to Brisbane, where much news awaited him. A compact little plantation which he had visited on the Pioneer was under offer and awaited his decision, and so anxious was he to be once more settled that, although the price was high, he promptly wired provisional acceptance.
Mrs. Elliston had written to his agents declining to accept further payments of her allowance, as she was now in a position to support herself; and a long letter from Ken Morrison contained several unexpected items of news among them being:—
Mrs. Geffel and her daughter left the station three months ago, and are now keeping a boarding-house—a very, nice one, too—a little outside Rockhampton. It has been the dream of the old lady's heart ever since you went away. Will it surprise you very much, I wonder, to learn that Alice and I are engaged, although we are not to be married for some months yet? The mother approves of me, but thinks it hardly fair to Alice to marry sooner, as the girl has had no chance hitherto of seeing anybody else. Of course, I had no option but to submit, and may-be it will turn out for the best after all. I am not the least bit afraid of Alice going back on me. She is a dear, good girl, and as true as steel. Besides, it will give me time to look out for something better to do, so if you should by any chance see or hear of anything you think I could undertake, please keep me in mind—and so on.
"Now, I wonder," soliloquised Darbison, "if that isn't right into my hands. If I complete this purchase, which I probably shall do, Morrison would be just the man for an overseer. What he doesn't know about the work he can soon pick up—as I shall have to do myself—but the one thing that commends him above all others is his thorough trustworthiness. I'll write him to-night and be off north by the first boat."
Seated at tea in the well-furnished room of a comfortable house on the outskirts of Rockhampton were three gentlemanly-looking young men. Two of then belonged to one of the banks, and the third was a clerk in a Government office. Just as the meal was finished, Alice came into the room, and one of them, taking a letter from his pocket, handed it to her, saying:—"Please, Miss Geffel, give that letter to your mother. I only received it this morning, from an old acquaintance in Brisbane, who is coming here on some business of importance and wants private accommodation for a week or two. He is a real good fellow, very quiet and unassuming, and if your mother can manage it, I'll send him a wire first thing in the morning."
The matter being arranged, Mr. Preston, the new arrival, was met at the steamer by his friend, and directed to the house.
"What did you say the landlady's name is?"
"Has she any family?"
"Only one that I know of, a daughter, I should say about twenty, a very superior sort of girl."
"Where is her husband, or has she one?"
"Widow, as far as I know. Old man killed by the blacks on a sheep station somewhere, long ago. But why so much curiosity?"
"Precisely, I expected that. Well, if things turn out as I fancy they will, I'm in luck. Can't tell you any more, but very many thanks for your assistance. Now I'll go and look her up."
The following morning Preston asked his landlady to grant him a private interview, when, much to her astonishment, he said:—
"Mrs. Geffel, I want to introduce myself to you as a private inquiry agent, sent up here by a leading firm of solicitors to obtain information which I am assured you can give, and the results of which must be most advantageous to you. Will you, therefore, permit me to ask you a few questions to enable me to decide as to your identity with the person I am in search of?"
"Certainly, Mr. Preston; ask anything you like. I have nothing to conceal, but I shall only tell you what I think you have a right to ask."
"That is quite right, madam, and to begin with I will, with your permission, quote from my instructions and ask you to be good enough to check me when you find that I am straying away from facts. She nodded her acquiescence, and, producing a document, he went on to say:—
"Your maiden name was Amelia Ruston, born at Barnstaple, Devonshire, father a grocer. You lived for some years, first as housemaid, afterwards as nurse, in the family of Lord Callenton. In the latter capacity you were entrusted with the care of a young infant of whose parentage you knew nothing, but the child, a girl, was to be treated as your own, and brought up as Alice Geffel. When this child was eleven years of age, or thereabouts, you, with her and your husband, came to Australia, at the instance of Lord Callenton's lawyers, who continued to pay an annual sum for the child's maintenance until you were altogether lost sight of in the Queensland bush somewhere. Is that correct, madam?"
"Every word of it, sir. Alice is, I am thankful to say, still with me, and a better daughter no woman ever had in this world. Perhaps you would like to see her?"
"I should, indeed, madam, and the more so that I have reason to believe I am a sort of herald of the good fortune in store for her, although I am unable to specify what it may be."
"First, please gratify my curiosity to know how, after all these years, you have been able to find us?"
"Oh! that would appear to have been the result of pure accident. A gentleman named Darbison, who has recently been on a visit to some relatives in the west of England, mentioned your name in the course of a casual conversation in the presence at Lord Callenton's solicitor, who at once pursued the subject and learnt that you were at a station on the Dawson River. I was sent there to interview you; and a gentleman named Morrison told me the rest."
A gentle knock at the door announced the presence of Alice, in search of her mother, and her surprise upon learning the nature of Mr. Preston's business may be imagined. Her only comment, however, was:—
"I don't care what they say, or what they want me for. Please tell them, sir, that nothing shall ever induce me to leave my own dear mother, the only one I have ever known, and I positively refuse to know any other. I am sorry you found us, Mr. Preston; please go away and leave us alone. We are quite happy as we are, and I'm sure I'm not at all suited for aristocratic surroundings."
"That is all very much to your credit, Miss Geffel, but please remember that I am only an instrument in the hands of other people. Having been successful in my quest, I shall return to Brisbane by the first boat, and place the result in the hands of my employers, with whom future action rests."
The two women sat in silence, with hands clasped, for some time after he left them; than Alice ventured:—
"What does it all mean, mother? Have you no clue to the mystery? Tell me what you know, or what you suspect! Anything would be better than this uncertainty. At any rate, promise me that nothing shall separate us, for you are my own dear, loving mother, are you not?"
"Of course I am, child, and as far separating us, that is entirely out of the question. You will be of age and your own mistress in a few months' time, and nobody can interfere between us then. I feel quite sure that we have nothing to fear, but I have a sort of ill-defined recollection of the time when you were born that might, if I could explain it, which I certainly can't, let us into whatever the secret may be. Mr. Preston said that he knew nothing more than what he told us, but was quite satisfied that the inquiry was being made in your interests, so for the present, at least, I don't think we need worry, and after all we may never hear any more about it."
That view of the matter was, however, shaken by the receipt of a letter a few days afterwards, from a firm of solicitors in Brisbane, addressed to Mrs. Geffel:—
"Dear Madam.—Mr. Preston has, we are pleased to say, been able to furnish us with full and entirely satisfactory evidence of your identity and that of the young lady who passes as your daughter. On this subject we shall probably be in a position to afford you further information in a few months, that is to say, when we are permitted to do so by our London agents.
In the meantime, pray accept our assurance that nothing but good is intended towards you or Miss Geffel, and to beg that you will at once inform us of any change of locality into which you may see fit to remove. We are, dear madam, etc., etc."
After which matters fell back into their accustomed groove, and the boarding-house became an established success, although Alice never quite recovered her serenity in the contemplation of that mysterious reference to "the young lady who passes as your daughter!"
Darbison met with a warm welcome at the hands of his Mackay friends. Allerton was found to be a small but compact property, a little distance from the river, but well developed in all respects, and it chanced to be for sale solely on account of the death of one of the late partners. Backed up by good advice and the practical experience of men who knew the game, a few days decided him, and the property became his. A letter from Ken Morrison, gratefully accepting the offer made to him, was soon followed by that gentleman himself, who had, however, taken advantage of the opportunity to pay a visit to his lady love on the way up, and arrived in a much perturbed condition of spirits in consequence of the threatened change in her social condition. Alice made no secret of her distaste for the prospect, and vehemently declared her intention "to stick to him through thick and thin, come what may, so long as she had reason to believe that he wanted her worse than anything else in the world." That was the way in which he described the position to Darbison, who was, however, naturally astonished to learn that on his shoulders rested the entire responsibility of the supposed discovery.
The services of the late manager of Allerton were engaged to carry on the work of this plantation, and Darbison and Morrison set themselves determinedly to forget all about sheep and learn all they possibly could about sugar, and as they were both enthusiastic, and highly pleased with the prospect before them, and their neighbors were at all times ready with practical help, as well as advice, everything favored the decision.
During all this time matters were rapidly approaching a climax at Barthgate Downs, where that unfortunate lady, Mrs. Elliston, had firmly established herself in the affections of both the girls, and, as she could not well help discovering, also in the eyes of her employer, Mr. Barthgate. This caused her no little uneasiness, and made her position a delicate one, because she was unable to conceal from herself the fact that he was by no means indifferent to herself, and the dread of an avowal from him grew into a source of constant fear that she might at any moment be compelled to seek another home. But there was yet another element of discomfort, in the shape of the Hon. Vincent Trasmere, the scion of an old but impoverished family in the Old Country, who had been sent out by his friends, mainly with the object of getting rid of an undesirable, though ostensibly that he might learn sheep farming and aspire to the giddy height of becoming, at some time or other, a full-blown squatter himself. This young gentleman was a jackeroo on a neighboring station, and the first pleasant evening spent by him at Barthgate Downs had converted him into a constant visitor. He was only nineteen, but stood over six feet in his socks; had nothing whatever to recommend him except a very good taste in music, a good tenor voice, and considerable ability as a pianist.
Those were his sole attractions in the eyes of Mrs. Elliston, who gladly welcomed visitors in the light of temporary escapes from the danger which ever loomed before her. She had always treated him as the boy he literally was, but had at length to realise was positively making love to her and this intensified her fear lest Mr. Barthgate should imagine her capable of giving him encouragement. With all a woman's artifice she stayed off the announcement she was in daily terror of from the love-lorn youth, but was ready armed for the occasion, and when it came at last, accompanied by the usual protestations and grimaces specified as being correct in the pages of the latest society novels, she received it with a proper amount of grateful appreciation and the query:—
"Have you such a thing as a Church Service, Mr. Trasmere?"
"Haw! What an extraordinary question, don't you know. I think there is one among my traps on the station, and I'll bring it over if you really want it, don't you know."
"Don't trouble, thank you. I merely wanted to refer you to the ordinance which says that 'a man may not marry his grandmother,' and I am almost old enough to be yours, you know. Let us continue to be friends, if you will, and put this nonsense out of your head once and for all."
Which crumpled the Hon. Vincent up most effectually, and sent him home declaring that life was for him henceforth a wilderness, from which only a bullet through what he was pleased to call his "brain" could release him. The young gentleman's premature confession of love was, however, the indirect cause of affecting Mr. Barthgate in the same direction.
The girls heard of it, and it drifted round to him in the natural course, though only in the light of a good Joke. But when he came to analyse this, it became apparent that real danger was to be apprehended from some more eligible suitor, possibly, in which case his pleasant home might be again broken up and his own peace destroyed. However, altogether apart from such selfish consideration he found himself compelled to recognise that he entertained far other and warmer feelings for the lady than he had yet been able to gauge, and that he could not contemplate the prospect of parting from her without serious distress.
Accordingly, at the first available opportunity, he referred to the incident with many apologies; and, in a straightforward, manly way, introduced the subject of his own hopes and fears. Amid tears which she was unable to restrain, Mrs. Elliston at length said:—
"You pay me the highest compliment a man can pay to a woman, Mr. Barthgate, and especially to a woman in my position. You have been consistently kind and considerate to me throughout. I have become sincerely attached to your daughters, who have done so much to make my life happy, and for yourself I should indeed be ungrateful if I entertained less than a most sincere regard. At the same time I am compelled to say that I am so unhappily situated that I have no choice but to decline the very flattering proposition you have made to me. At some future time, and when my feelings are more under control, I will, if you will let me, try to tell you somewhat of my sad story, but for the present I only wish to say that I have no intention or desire to leave Barthgate Downs in opposition to your wishes or without your entire approval. With reference to Mr. Trasmere, I can but say that I am entirely innocent of having given him the slightest encouragement to provoke such an outburst of sentimentalities. I looked upon it as mere boyish folly, and treated it as such. For the sake of our pleasant musical evenings, which the girls enjoy so much, I trust that you will not deem it necessary to refer to it in any way, or allow it to influence you in your future reception of that gentleman. Poor boy, I do hope he won't suffer for any length of time, nor do I suppose that he will!"
Thus vanished another pleasant dream, although it may not have destroyed absolutely all the hopes it had engendered. The woman, as usual in such cases, was the keenest sufferer. But the verdict of all distinctly proper persons must, had they been aware of all the circumstances, have been hostile to her from the fact that her troubles had been brought into existence by her own disregard of the strict laws of propriety, which are such a comfort and support to all civilised nations.
In the meantime what was the faithful Robson, who was left in Melbourne to act in his domestic capacity in Stevenson's household pending Darbison's return from England, whither old Robson had no desire to go, dreading as he did the double sea voyage, and having no relatives alive in that country? There was, moreover, a strong suspicion that Robson, who had been a widower for many years, had fallen an easy victim to the charms of a certain Mrs. Pinkam. She was a sort of lady pensioner of the Stevensons, and came to their house for a couple of days in each week for the purpose of assisting in certain domestic arrangements necessitated by a constricted supply of the description of labor required for the purpose. Mrs. Pinkam was a robust widow of an admitted age of 35 years, to which her enemies—and she had a few—tacked on another ten. Her husband had been captain of a small schooner engaged in the coasting trade, but had met his fate during some heavy weather in "The Rip," when foolishly endeavoring to force his way into port with an early cargo of Tasmanian potatoes. A heavy green sea came on board and went over the other side, with him in the middle of it. They were a childless couple, and she usually went with him on his short voyages, being fond of the water and greatly preferring it to being cooped up alone in what she called "a poky little hole of a cottage at Sandridge."
In this way, Mrs. Pinkam became acquainted with the management of the schooner, and was accounted by the captain's mate to be no mean sailor herself, she having shown her capabilities in more than one case of emergency when "that there husband o' mine had too many aboard, an' didn't know the ship's cat from the companion hatch!" Similar experiences oft repeated may have been the reason why she swore off matrimony for the rest of her days. "Not me, my dear," she told a neighbor, "not unless I can't help myself. I had a fair handful with Billy Pinkam for a matter o' six years, good sort though he was when he kept away from the booze, but so long as I've got a pair o' loose hands I ain't goin' to take no more chances!"
Which sounded like finality, but was not yet backed up by the ability to refrain from attempting the capture of every unprotected male creature who attracted her attention; and poor old Robson, in an unguarded moment, was one of her first victims. She was a bright-eyed, plump, merry little woman, and so very companionable and sympathetic that he fell straightway under her spell, and began to think things that might well have been possible had he been many years younger than he was. Though, fully aware of the condition of comparative imbecility to which he had become reduced, any attempt on his part to express the feelings that increased in violence with each of her weekly visitations was promptly either ignored or utterly crushed by some such comment as:—
"Keep your luff, Mr. Robson! Keep your luff, sir, you're a'most three points off your course, an' a rocky shore to loo'ard!"
"Dear Mrs. Pinkam, may I say, my dear Susan, will you please put that into English so as I can understand it?"
"No, sir, you mayn't. Your dear Susan, indeed! Not if I know it. Billy Pinkam cured me o' that complaint long ago. What I meant was this. You're carryin' too much canvas, that's what you're doin', an' you best get on the other tack before you come to grief. Put your hellum down, Mr. Robson, hard down, sir, an' stan' by to ease off your jib-sheet. Now you've got the breeze fair amidships, an' off you go, sir, an' don't let me hear no more o' sech rubbitch. Your dear Susan! What next, I wonder?"
That outburst finished it, and when, shortly afterwards, Robson got word that his services at Allerton would soon be in demand he regained some of his lost spirits, but, like a true son of Adam, he laid the whole blame of his cruel disappointment on the shoulders of the woman. And when Darbison afterwards got an inkling of what had transpired, in a letter from Stevenson, all the explanation vouchsafed by Robson was that he supposed "she couldn't help it, you know, Mr. Aubrey; you see, her first husband was a sailor, and we know what that means, don't we, sir?" The only response to which unthinking comment was: "Go to blazes, you old villain, and try to keep out of mischief for the future!"
By the time Robson arrived at Allerton, everything was progressing favorably. The house itself being too small for their requirements, a contract had been let and a fine, roomy bungalow cottage was now on the eve of completion. Darbison was making himself intimately acquainted with all the stages of production, from the planting of the stools to the final stages in the mill, under the tuition of the manager. Ken Morrison was keeping his end up well in looking after the growing cane, and attending to the work of the kanakas, who were a source of never-failing interest to him.
Visitors, too, were frequent and numerous from among the wide circle of friends whom Darbison had made before he went to England, and Ken was daily becoming more pleased with the change he had made and the prospect it opened up to him of providing a comfortable home for Alice when the term of his probation should be completed. Robson had quite naturally resumed his old role of dictator-general and custodian of everything and everybody on the place, and if he had not yet entirely forgotten the fascinating Mrs. Pinkam, he at any rate abstained from making any allusion to her, and treated any chance playful mention of her name by Darbison with lofty unconcern.
Nearly four months had passed since Mr. Preston's visit to Rockhampton and the receipt of the lawyer's letter which followed it, so that by this time Mrs. Geffel and Alice had arrived at the, to them, comforting conclusion that the whole business had originated in some mistake or misapprehension; and, as the boarding house had continued to improve as a speculative investment, they were both happy and contented. But this satisfactory condition of affairs was not destined to continue, and the time was not far distant when the bolt was to fall. A grey-haired, kindly-faced old gentleman put in an appearance shortly after breakfast one morning, and asked for an interview with Mrs. Geffel. Shown into a private room, he began by saying:—"Pray be seated, madam. I have called on a matter of private business of serious concern to yourself. My name is Cortledge, senior member of the firm of solicitors of that name who had the pleasure of communicating with you some months ago on the subject of Mr. Preston's visit, which was made for the purpose of establishing your identity. I am now in the happy position of being the bearer of good news regarding the future welfare of the young lady who is known as Miss Alice Geffel, who has hitherto passed as your daughter and benefited so largely by your maternal care of her. Naturally, I am unaware of the extent to which I may be allowed to assume that your knowledge of the actual relationship between you existed, and I should feel grateful for your assistance in determining that point; although I may say at once that we are in possession of the most direct and conclusive evidence that the young lady is in fact the daughter of the late Hon. Roland Maderly, the then heir to the title and estates now held by the present Lord Callenton."
"You must pardon my agitation, sir, over this extraordinary revelation, which I cannot possibly believe to be true. As for being of any assistance to you in the matter, much as I should like to help in forwarding my darling's good fortune, I am worse than useless. When the child was born I was delirious for days, and remember nothing. The only faint memory I have is that of certain gossiping remarks made by the nurse in my hearing when I got better, which seemed to apply to the child as being "born with a silver spoon in her mouth," but I did not understand them at the time, for you know, sir, that my husband was only a gardener on the estate, and we were too poor to know much about silver spoons."
"And did the fact that you were afterwards supplied with money for the support of the child create no suspicion in your mind as to the reason for such generosity?"
"Not the least. My husband had been on the estate nearly all his life, and worked at the castle almost from boyhood. All the family were kind to him, and when the proposal was made that he should go to Australia to better himself, we thought it very kind of them to help us as they did, but then I must tell you that little Alice was a great pet of Lord Callenton's only daughter."
"And did your husband never speak of the matter afterwards?"
"Oh! yes, often; but his people were German, you know, and he was strange in his ways at times. Always good to me, though, and fond of the child in his own way, but whatever he knew he kept it to himself, and before he was killed by those horrible blacks he was very peculiar in his fancies. Kept to himself a great deal and that was why he had a liking to go shepherding. Mr. Darbison often said that poor Carl must have had a sunstroke at some time or other without knowing it."
"Mr. Darbison? Oh! ah! yes, of course. Your old employer, and the gentleman through whom our agents in London were enabled to trace you. Well, Mrs. Geffel, I can assure you that no possible hitch can arise in connection with your daughter's identity. For even if your admissions had been less satisfactory than they are, there remains the indisputable evidence of the nurse who attended you, who is still living in the village, and, though quite an elderly woman, in possession of all her faculties; and that of Lady Hodgkiss, the widowed sister of the present peer, who was intimately concerned in the substitution of the living child for the dead one."
"But I don't understand! Whose child was 'the dead one?'"
"I am instructed that the infant born dead was yours, my dear madam, so that there can no longer be a shadow of doubt about the fact that the young lady known for so many years as Miss Alice Geffel is actually the Hon. Alice Maderly."
"But she was baptised as Alice Geffel."
"That is so, but it is, I can assure you, of no legal importance, in view of the information now at our disposal."
"And why has all this been kept secret for so many years? Alice will be twenty-one in a few months' time."
"That, madam, is outside my province to answer, but it affords me much pleasure to tell you that you will not have long to wait for an answer to your question. Lord Callenton is now in Rockhampton, and awaits your pleasure to receive him. He arrived from England by the last mail steamer and came on at once, picking me up in Brisbane. And now as I think I have exhausted my commission, which was simply to prepare you for his lordship's visit, whilst guarding his interests, I will return to him, for he is most anxious, as you may well suppose, and with your permission I will return with him shortly."
"And may I tell Alice all about it, Mr. Cortledge? The poor child will be in an agony of wonderment all this time. But I warn you that neither she nor I will listen to any proposition Lord Callenton may have to make if it means separating us."
"Pray tell her everything, and to expect her uncle, Lord Callenton, in the course of an hour or so. Put the very thought of separation out of your head. Such cruelty as that has never been contemplated. It would be entirely foreign to his nature."
"Who is it, mother dear? What is it? Has the shadow actually fallen upon us at last?"
"Nonsense, child, there is no shadow. Nothing but great good fortune for you, my darling!" And then, bursting into tears, she added—"though may God help me to stand the shock that I dread may come."
"What shock, mother? Whatever happens they shall never separate us, and I will never give Ken up unless he asks me to!"
"You will never be asked to do either, dear; but what will you say when you learn that I am not your mother? And the time has come when you must learn it, as the truth has been forced upon me within the last hour."
"Is that all? Why, you dear, silly old mother, that is just nonsense, indeed. It's impossible, of course it is. But even if it were true, what difference would it—could it make? There, sit down quietly and tell me all about it."
And, resting in each other's arms, Alice listened gravely to the whole story. At the end, with a sigh of relief, she said:—
"That leaves me quite happy. They can't find a new mother for a girl as old as I am, and not one in the whole world could take your place in my heart. Besides, you know, if it's all true, dearest, you'll never have to work any more; and if we don't like it, or approve of them—whoever they may be—why, we'll just take up the old life as though nothing had ever happened, and see it through together to the end. My mind is quite made up about that and one or two other things. So cheer up, dearest, and I'll go and get ready to show my claws to this mysterious uncle if he thinks there is nothing left for me to do but bow down before his high and mighty will. For shame, mother, dry your eyes this instant, and try and look as pleased as you can when he offers me his pitiful bribe to desert you!"
But nothing of that sort happened. Alice had not been in the room more than a few seconds when a tall, spare, gentlemanly-looking man, wearing glasses which failed to hide the glad welcome he felt, rose from his seat, and, taking her by both hands, exclaimed:—"A living reincarnation of your dead mother, my child, who was one of the loveliest girls in England. As your uncle I am proud of you, and, old man as I am rapidly becoming, I shall hope to live long enough to persuade you to love me."
Turning to the elder woman. He said:—"My friend and adviser, Mr. Cortledge, here, assures me, madam, that he has given you all the information at his disposal, but I shall be most happy to supplement that to the full extent of my ability and your wishes before we enter into business details. My one desire is to obtain the trust and confidence of yourself and my niece, without which my long and somewhat wearisome voyage would, I fear, be resultless."
"I thank you for us both, sir. You are, as I understand, the Mr. Noel Maderly, the younger son of the late Lord Callenton. I often heard of you as a boy, but I have no recollection of having ever seen you. Can you explain the reason for what seems to me to have been the extraordinary substitution of one child for another, and the secrecy with which it was conducted and has since been maintained?"
"Quite so, madam. Your request is a most reasonable and proper one, but, as you very truly say, I was young, and, moreover, nearly always away from home at the time, so that much of what I am able to tell you is gathered from hearsay, fortified, however, by some scant family records. At that particular time I was travelling with my tutor on the Continent, so that I only knew of what was happening at Callenton through occasional letters from my sister, and only learnt the whole truth from my father long afterwards. My brother, Roland, my senior by some years, and heir to the title and estates, made a foolish runaway marriage with a beautiful but penniless girl, the only daughter of Lord Callenton's most inveterate enemy. My father—I regret to have to say it—was a man of autocratic temperament and obstinate nature; he refused to acknowledge them, and—as I think—mistakenly opposed all attempts to effect a reconciliation. He was a thoroughly disappointed man, and, I fear, vindictive in showing it. When the time of the lady's trouble arrived, the infant, that was you, my dear"—bowing to Alice—"was deprived of a mother's tender care by the hand of death. My brother was practically insane for the time being and disappeared soon afterwards. He never wrote to us, but we heard of him once in connection with one of those frequent disturbances among the South American republics. Then, after a lapse of some years, an official report of his death in some disastrous engagement was received from the British Consul, and you, my dear niece, became doubly an orphan. With regard to the disposition of the two infants, the one living and the other dead, I can give you no other information than that supplied by my friend, Mr. Cortledge, who has with him a sworn statement made by a nurse who effected the exchange, and it is substantiated by the recollections of my sister, Lady Hodgkiss; but any doubt—if such can possibly exist—is still further removed by an examination of this"—saying which he produced a highly-finished photograph of the unfortunate Lady Roland, taken immediately before her marriage, which Alice no sooner saw than she fell into her foster-mother's arms, wailing. "Mother, mother," and had to be taken from the room in a state of complete collapse.
UPON Mrs. Geffel's return alone she said: "It is impossible to question the truth or accuracy of your statements, sir, but this girl could not be dearer to me than she is if she were, indeed, my own. Her happiness is the only care I have in life, and I consider it is my duty to tell you that she is engaged to be married to a very worthy young man who has been for some years with Mr. Darbison, and is still with him on that gentleman's sugar plantation."
Lord Callenton's expression changed as he said: "Dear me, I am very sorry to hear this, although not in the least surprised. In fact, I may say that I have been in constant dread of some such admission. The disappointment is no less acute, though, for with her advantages, and introduction by Lady Hodgkiss into the best circles in London, she could not fail to make a brilliant match."
"Well, I can only hope that this is not the beginning of trouble, Lord Callenton, but I am very sure that Alice will not give up Ken Morrison for the most brilliant marriage you could arrange for her. She is an honest-hearted girl, true as steel, and with no pretensions to be anything but what she has been brought up to be."
"Trouble, my dear lady! I arrange for her! You mistake me entirely. She will remain as she now is—a perfectly free agent. But surely you can understand my anxiety to secure her future. I shall hope to make the acquaintance of Mr. Morrison before I leave."
"And when do you think of leaving, sir?"
"Not until I can induce you and Alice to return with me. The position is simply this. I am a great sufferer, and my tenure of life more uncertain than that of most men. My home is a very lonely one, and I can never marry. Lady Hodgkiss, my widowed sister, is a companion only for a few months in each year; she has her own jointure, and spends most of her time travelling abroad. The title becomes extinct at my death, and the estates pass to a distant branch of the family. Without being actually poor, I am far from being a wealthy man, but I earnestly desire to straighten out the wrong that has been done to this innocent girl whilst the ability to do so is still in my power. My hope is, therefore, Mrs. Geffel, that you will permit me to install you as the domestic head of my household, and to introduce Alice into the world she belongs by the name which is hers by birthright, the Hon. Alice Maderly. Mr. Cortledge wishes to return to Brisbane as soon as possible, but before he does so he will attend to all the purely legal requirements of the case, whilst I shall hold myself at your disposal pending such arrangements as you have to make. My cheque is at your command to enable you to do this without inconvenience, and to provide requisites for the voyage. In the meantime, and when Alice feels well enough to resume our confidential relations, I shall, with her sanction, visit Mr. Darbison, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in London, and, with his assistance form my opinion of Mr. Morrison as a husband for her. In any case, my dear madam, my only share in that delicate matter would be to offer advice which they would be perfectly free to accept or reject at discretion. And about how long do you suppose it will take you to make the necessary arrangements, Mrs. Geffel?"
"That I shall be better able to tell you, sir, after I have had a long talk with Alice, but a month at least, I should think."
"A month will suit me very well, and I shall at once go on north and take advantage of the opportunity of seeing the sugar country, of which I have heard so much in England."
So the mystery which had oppressed them both for so many months was solved at last, and there was no cause for any but pleasurable anticipations for the future; tempered for Alice, however, by keen sorrow for the untimely fate of her parents, and, perhaps, some little anxiety as to the way in which Ken Morrison might receive the revelation. She felt no uneasiness about her ability to occupy the new position with becoming confidence—she had been too long in Australia to entertain any doubts on that score—but Ken must be warned of his intending visitor in order that he might appear to the best advantage.
Lord Callenton's name appeared on the passenger list of the Black Swan's next trip north simply as Mr. Maderly, for he was not a man to force his social position on the notice of other people, neither did the precarious state of his health permit him at all times to share in the amusements of his fellow passengers, but, like most travellers on that scenic portion of the Australian coast, he was much impressed by its natural beauties and the unexpected novelty of a voyage through a perfectly smooth sea. Arrived at Mackay, he took up his quarters at the comfortable hostelry of the well-known veteran, Korah Wills, and sent a messenger out to Allerton with a request to be allowed to pay his intended visit. As a truly conservative Englishman and a total stranger to the country he was as much unacquainted with the free and easy hospitality of the region in which he found himself as he was surprised at the practical promptness of the reply. This came in the shape of a stylish dogcart driven tandem by Darbison himself, into which the transfer of the visitor and his belongings were soon effected, and Allerton was reached in good time for the evening dinner.
To refer in detail to Lord Callenton's experiences during the fortnight which followed his arrival would necessitate a repetition of much that has already been told. Suffice it to say that he was shown everything worth seeing, and found a warm welcome at the hands of a host of genial, good fellows to be met with in all directions, but his pleasure was greatly enhanced by Darbison's enthusiastic commendation of Morrison's character. "He is a thoroughly good lad, Maderly, in every capacity, and from my intimate knowledge of him and from what I remember of your newly-discovered niece, I should consider them both to be favorites of the gods, if those mythical beings do, indeed, continue to interest themselves in the fortunes of the human race." It was, therefore, easily arranged that Ken should return with Lord Callenton to Rockhampton for the purpose of bidding a temporary farewell to Alice, and during that trip they came to a definite understanding with regard to the future.
What this was may be gathered from Ken's reply: "I quite understand, Lord Callenton, that my position as a suitor for the hand of your niece gives me no right to criticise your proposal that no decisive arrangement shall be concluded between us until she has occupied her new sphere of life for at least twelve months. However hard that may be on me, I accept it, subject to her approval, on the ground that it is fair to her and eminently reasonable, but I cannot for one moment entertain the suggestion that you should be the final arbiter of our destinies. We have been engaged now for more than two years, and with the entire approval of her foster-mother. The only objection to our marriage to which I am prepared to submit must come from Alice herself, and that, I feel quite confident, will never arise. She is a noble-minded, true-hearted girl, and I must ask you to believe me when I say that my feelings towards her are in no way affected by the revelation of her aristocratic birth, any more than my cupidity is aroused by the contemplation of the money you propose to leave her, or the society into which she is about to be introduced. For all else, Lord Callenton, I beg that you will allow yourself to be influenced by her decision alone, and trust me for the rest."
So far the course of true love ran as smoothly as the water inside the Barrier Reef, and Lord Callenton expressed himself as being well satisfied, but it is obviously impossible to follow it beyond this stage on account of the reticence of the two people whom it most concerned, and they appeared to be supremely happy. The boarding-house had been satisfactorily disposed of as a going concern, packing was almost completed, and the day soon came when Ken had to see them off on a south-bound steamer for Sydney, where their passages for London had already been secured. Then he went back to Allerton, and, in the constant work necessary for the coming crushing season, found little time for meditating over the compulsory separation from his idol. However much he might have been disposed to chafe over that, his first letter from Alice, written a few days after her arrival, came in the light of a powerful tonic. The change from the bright sunshine of Australia to the weeping, gloomy skies of London depressed her; everybody was most kind, her uncle especially, but his health had not been at all good since his return. Her mother, as she still called her, had also been sick, and was far from having quite recovered from the effects of a chill caught during a heavy shower in the Florian Gardens at Malta. Lord Callenton's house was grand enough, but mournful in its stateliness and sombre surroundings, the only escape from which was in listening to the social gabble and artificial sentiments of Lady Hodgkiss, "a dear old lady, who wears a wig and a profusion of beautiful jewellery, admits that she is forty-seven, dresses like twenty-five, says she looks forward with especial delight to chaperoning me into the best circles, and scorns the bare thought of a certain young gentleman in Queensland, of whom her brother told her I presume—for I certainly did not—intending to bury her in the wilds of Australia, where the only society consists of uncivilised black persons who roam about in a state of nature, and rub themselves with fat to prevent their skins from cracking, in preference to wearing clothes.
"Must I confess, however, that she has a great charm for me; she is so intensely self-satisfied and wordly, yet kind-hearted and generous, idolises her brother, lets the servants do just as they like, never attempts to patronise mother, whom, I believe, she honestly admires for her devotion to me, allows her maid to bounce and dictate to her, and assures me that when I am what she calls properly provided for by her own special dressmaker, her niece will be one of the most attractive girls in London. Fancy that, you dear darling old sugar-maker!" And much more to the same effect, but ending with a positive assurance that her heart is all the time where she left it—"on the banks of the Fitzroy!"
As the months rolled on her letters became more and more voluminous, and Ken was pleased beyond measure to note that they always contained a reference to the happy days in store for them when the period of probation was over.
None of the gaieties of a London season appealed to her, although she confessed to having received a full measure of admiration which seemed to be genuine, tons of compliments which she knew to be valueless, three declarations of undying attachment, one accompanied by a threat of suicide if she declined it, and presentation at Court under the wing of Lady Hodgkiss. But every letter contained the sad news of her mother's constantly failing health, in spite of the best medical advice and the most assiduous attention. And before the year was out came the deep black-bordered missive which contained word of her death. The shock at this prostrated Alice entirely, and compelled her withdrawal from all social functions and engagements, but for those she expressed no word of regret. In vain did her uncle and his good-natured sister try to arouse her from the apathetic state into which she fell. Her only pleasure was in taking long rides in the outskirts of the city, and even these were made uncomfortable for her by the constant attendance of a groom, without whom her uncle could not be persuaded to let her go, and the doctor would not allow him to go himself, much as he would have liked to. As time wore on her fits of dejection became more frequent and prolonged, and her aversion to social intercourse outside the house more pronounced, until it was decided at a consultation between her uncle and her aunt, and highly approved by the doctor, to take her for a run on the Continent. To this proposal she submitted, but without any enthusiasm, and the trip to Paris with Lady Hodgkiss failed to create any beyond a temporary interest in the sights which that old campaigner insisted upon showing her. So at the end of three weeks they returned, but with no visible sign of improvement in her condition, and another family council was held, the result being that Alice took them unreservedly into her confidence, saying: "You have both been far kinder to me than I could ever deserve or know how to begin to repay; I am angry and disappointed with myself, and full of dread lest you should think me ungrateful. That I know I am not, but oh! I do so long to get back to Australia."
"But we do our best to make you happy, child, and I am quite sure your uncle would do anything in his power, for he has learnt to love you very dearly. Naturally, the loss of your foster-mother preys heavily upon you, and you must trust to time to soften the severity of the blow. As for going back, I really do not see how that is to be accomplished, unless your sweetheart can manage to come over for you; your uncle's health would not permit of his taking such a long journey again, but I will have a talk with him on the subject, so cheer up, dearie, and be sure that your interests will not suffer in his hands."
"Auntie dear, you are both too good to me, and I will really try to behave better than I have been doing. But please do not let him worry about me, and, above all things, he must not write to Allerton about me. My letters to Mr. Morrison never convey any hint of fretting, and I am sure that when he does come he will be able to truly tell you that he has all along believed that I was having what he calls 'a real good time'."
"My dear Alice, I could as easily stop the wind blowing as keep Noel from worrying. It has been the habit of his life to always cross the bridge before he reaches it. Many good men are afflicted in the same way, but I verily believe that he considers his ability to foresee misfortunes as a precious gift, and, in addition to that, he is woefully positive, so much so that if I were not his sister I should be strongly inclined to call him pig-headed!"
The outcome of this conversation was a long interview in the library that night after Alice had gone to her room with a violent headache, which Lord Callenton ended by saying:—
"That poor girl's condition has been troubling me a great deal of late, Sophia; the doctor says it is complete nervous breakdown, and strongly advises me to comply with her desire to return to Australia. This climate evidently does not suit her, and she has never taken kindly to the changed conditions made imperative by our abominable conventional customs. Hard as I shall find it to part with her, she shall not be sacrificed to our selfishness, and I have decided to write by next mail to Darbison and ask him to spare Morrison as soon as he possibly can, and send him over here; but to say nothing of its being done at my request, for self-evident reasons. You will, of course, keep my counsel. I am satisfied about him, and it is quite plain that they are devoted to each other. In any case it is only a few weeks short of the time I stipulated for, and whatever the strain on our personal feelings may be, I cannot but think that introduction to the parlous state of holy matrimony will be the surest and safest prescription for our dear girl. I feel confident of your acquiescence in this, Sophia, because all you women know that marriage inevitably means make or break for one or other of the contracting parties, and when it is the latter the poor devil of a man soon realises which is the weakling!"
"Having made up your mind, Noel, nothing more need be said, although I confess that I can think of no better plan. At the same time I may say that I consider your final assertion brutal to a degree. I am sure when poor Hodgkiss was——"
"Bless you, Sophia, I'm due at the House now; there is a most important debate on to-night, but don't forget to tell me that at some future time!"
In due course the letter to Darbison was despatched but Alice was kept in total ignorance of the fact, and her delight may be imagined when the reply came, and Lord Callenton found himself at liberty to surprise her by announcing an approximate date at which Ken might be expected to arrive in London, with intentions which she might easily divine. That her pleasure was great was plain enough, but as she had received a letter from the gentleman himself by the same mail, the element of surprise was wanting. Ken's services were needed on the plantation, and he was expected to hurry back as soon as possible, so the time was all too short in which to make the necessary and all-important preparations for the conversion of a Miss into a Mrs., and for the long voyage to follow. Aunt Sophia was in the seventh heaven of delight at the prospect of being so absolutely necessary as an accessory before the fact in taking charge of all the preliminaries, arranging the shopping programmes from day to day, consulting with modistes and milliners, and carrying on generally as though she might have been the chief victim ordained to take her place on the sacrificial altar.
Ken Morrison arrived in due course and created quite a sensation. He had developed into a handsome, sturdy manhood. Aunt Sophia took to him from the moment of their introduction, and what the girls thought about him may be judged from the opinion of one of Alice's friends who had been chosen to act as bridesmaid. In a burst of confidence to her own particular chum, she said: "If I thought there were any more young men like him running about loose in Australia, I'd emigrate to-morrow, my dear!" The honeymoon, or as much time as could be devoted to that sticky interlude, was to be spent in the seclusion of Callenton Park, and everybody was entirely happy. Alice regained much of her lost spirits, and on the eventful day was simply charming. No one but an expert could describe her dress and all the other confections in which she went calmly to her fate up the aisle on the arm of Lord Callenton, who released and handed her over to the tender mercies of a bishop and several other ecclesiastical luminaries, who carried out the orthodox ceremonies of converting her into the Hon. Alice Morrison with neatness and despatch. She had been the recipient of many handsome presents, including a life annuity of £250 from her uncle, and a cheque for nearly double that amount from Aunt Sophia, in addition to some valuable old family jewels, and the payment of all accounts for her trousseaux. Ken behaved beautifully at the breakfast, and returned thanks for wife and self in a speech which made the bridesmaid before referred to inform her neighbor that:—"I shall tell pa that I mean to go to Australia myself as soon as I can get my things packed. If that young man has never been married before he has just the amount of nerve that the man who wants to call me his better half must possess. Isn't he just splendid?"
Ten days of such unalloyed bliss as is only possible for two trusting hearts firmly united by the proper legal cement, and the balance of the conventional period of kisses and contentment had perforce to be made the most of on the deep blue sea—at all times a subject for uneasy contemplation by those who are affected by its ever-changing moods. But the dates of departure of boats entrusted with the carriage of Her Majesty's mails were resolutely adhered to, and both Ken and his wife, being good sailors, entered into possession of their cabin with a keen enjoyment of the situation. To Alice the prospect of returning to the country she knew so well was only saddened by the loving memories of her foster-mother, intimately connected with it; in all other respects she was as happy as every young bride ought to be who has the husband of her choice by her side, and whose future is assured. There was no cloud in her sky, and no prevision of the trouble ahead which was to meet them at their journey's end. Given a well-found ship, a genial captain, and officers desirous of doing their best for the welfare of their passengers, and the long sea voyage, broken only by occasional visits to interesting ports of call, comes to most travellers in the shape of a holiday; and when to these are added a companionable gathering of passengers and consistently fine weather, there is little left to wish for.
Fortune favored the Morrisons on all counts, and they reached Sydney and went on to Brisbane by the first boat. Here they had decided to remain for a few days for the transaction of some special business, connected with the plantation, entrusted to Ken by Darbison on the eve of his departure. And here they received the news which overwhelmed them. Darbison was dead! Died about a fortnight before their arrival from a sudden attack of heat apoplexy, the immediate result of a severe sunstroke received while wandering around the cane paddocks, discussing contemplated improvements with the manager. The Brisbane solicitor, who was also a confidential friend of Darbison's for many years, was in a position to give Morrison all the details when he was able to listen to them. He had been summoned to Mackay to receive final instructions as to the disposal of the property only a few days before the end, and the main features of the will were that the property as a whole was left to two trustees for the sole use and benefit of his nephew, Aubrey Chelpont, to be carried on or disposed of by them as circumstances might render advisable; with a generous working interest in the same to his trustworthy employee and friend, Kenneth Morrison, and a wish that the latter should assume the entire management of the estate, under the supervision of the trustees, as soon as they considered him competent to do so, and at a salary to be determined by them. Some bequests of trifling intrinsic value were made to numerous personal friends among those who had welcomed him so warmly upon his first visit to the Port, and Ken and his wife were left to grieve over the loss of good man and a sincere friend.
A host of sympathisers met and welcomed them when they arrived at their final destination and in their new home, under strangely altered conditions, it is now imperative to leave them for a time.
The ordinary routine of everyday life on an out-back sheep station—and Barthgate Downs was a long way out in those days—is not frequently disturbed, or in any sense rendered exciting, by untoward occurrences. Travellers, few and far between, came and went occasionally, some looking for work, others only for free rations to help them farther on the road; with now and then a buyer in search of a prime lot of "fats" for market or a mob of "stores" as a speculation. Mails were erratic in their delivery, under the most favorable conditions being only weekly, and in bad weather, very often double that time, unless a messenger was sent to the nearest post office for them, which involved a ride of over 60 miles, and as many more to return. Whenever a traveller appeared in the light of a desirable temporary addition to the family circle, he was, if possible, beguiled into remaining for a day or two, on the plea that his horses would be all the better for a short spell, or to tell the news of the district, gathered as he came along. And, truth to tell, much persuasion was seldom necessary to induce a tired man to devote a day or two to the enjoyment of such pleasant society as was to be found at Barthgate Downs, with its extended welcome, cordial hospitality, two pretty girls, and their musical abilities displayed under the guidance of their clever instructress, Mrs. Elliston.
When the station drays arrived on their return trips from the coast, there was always a case of the latest obtainable books and periodicals, including the anxiously expected fashion journals, which were among the first to be opened; some new music, and other odds and ends in which the feminine heart rejoices. With the exception of a few games of croquet, then not long come into public favor, their outside exercises were confined to bush rides to some favorite spot on the run for a picnic, when company was to be had; or a longer excursion to one of their own out-stations to inspect and report upon the shepherd's wife's latest contribution to the sparse population of the district, and for such visits they never went empty-handed.
Mrs. Elliston had long since told her wretched story in all its miserable details to Mr. Barthgate, who, honest-hearted man as he was gave her his entire sympathy, coupled with the assurance that it made not the slightest difference in the feelings he entertained for her, and the painful confession was never again alluded to. Barthgate remembered having met Evesham on one of his periodical visits to the port, when the latter was said to have just returned from of his western journeys, and was drinking heavily.
No rumor of Darbison's death had reached them until they read the details and a highly eulogistic notice of his career in the "Queenslander." Mrs. Elliston was prostrated by the shock for the time being, and Barthgate decided to wait a reasonable time before renewing his efforts to make her his wife.
In the meantime an unexpected trouble had to be faced. Ethel, the youngest girl had under the excellent tuition she had received from Mrs. Elliston, developed into what her father called "a perfect musical genius." Her sole pleasure was centred in the piano, at which she was content to sit by the hour, practising sometimes the most difficult classical compositions, and at others improvising in a way that astonished and delighted those who heard her. Physically she had not fulfilled the promise of her childhood, and now, nearing her fifteenth birthday, she was a tall slip of a girl, possessed of beautiful features and charming disposition, withal of a languid, dreamy nature, and, apart from the piano, devoting herself to the worship of her father, and the companionship of her sister and Mrs. Elliston, the latter of whom they had become accustomed to address as "Auntie," her own name having long since been abandoned as being "too formal, and taking up too much time!"'
The subjects of the child's health, her capacity as a musician, and her manifest love for the art, were frequently discussed by her father and Mrs. Elliston, and it was not without many misgivings that he at length consented to send her on a visit to his married sister in Sydney, in the hope that a decided change of climate might prove beneficial, and that an advanced teacher in her beloved hobby might still further cultivate her remarkable talent. Ethel's delight when the proposal was first made to her was boundless, especially as her father would accompany her to her destination as soon as the shearing was over and the wool-drays fairly started on the road. All details being arranged, preparations for the coming event were started, and then, suddenly, and without a note of warning—Ethel disappeared!
The consternation of the household may be imagined. The sisters occupied the same room, and had retired together at about the usual hour, after spending a pleasant evening in the customary fashion, Mr. Barthgate absorbed in a recently-acquired book of Huxley's, Mrs. Elliston and Constance at a work table, surrounded by a pile of garments which no mere man could hope to describe, and Ethel at the piano playing selections from Mozart, Beethoven, and others, among her old favorites.
Nothing occurred during the night to create alarm, or even to arouse a suspicion of danger. The noises of the night were only those to which they were accustomed,—the mournful howl of a native dog in the distant timber, for which no better comparison presents itself than Hood's lines from "The Forge.":—
"Like a frantic lamentation,
From a howling set
Of demons, met
To wake a dead relation."
Or the plaintive screech of the curlew nearer at hand, suggestive of the wailings of lost souls; the station dogs answering the former with defiant note, and any unfortunate who happened to be awake and restless, denouncing the whole Whaup family in all its variations.
Mrs. Elliston, in the adjoining room, heard nothing; but when Constance awoke she was surprised to notice that Ethel's bed was untenanted. Her ordinary clothing was where it had been placed on the previous night, no sign of disorder was visible, and the only noticeable fact was the unlocked door of the room opening out onto the front verandah. Hesitating for a moment in unwillingness to create alarm, she threw on a dressing gown and went in search of her sister, but without success.
The first faint gleams of dawn were alone apparent, and, now thoroughly frightened, she called her father, who roused the servants and the search became general. At last a light footprint of slippered feet was found in the dust at the sliprails leading into the big paddock, but beyond that no trace could be found, and, as it unfortunately happened, the station blacks, among whom were some good trackers, had left a few days before to join the tribe in the performance of some aboriginal rites in an unspecified locality. Every available man turned out to prosecute the search, which gradually extended over a considerable area, but still nothing could be found, and the bewildered father became agonised with doubts of her safety.
For he alone suspected the real cause of danger, which he had never mentioned, even to Mrs. Elliston, believing as he did that it was a thing of the past and better to be forgotten.
Immune from fear of it for seven years, and supported by medical opinion, he had long since ceased to be troubled by the memory that Ethel up to the age of seven had been a somnambulist, and had caused her mother and himself many an anxious experience. He was, however, assured that she would grow out of it, and believed that she had already done so after the lapse of so many years free from alarm. Now the terror of it had again taken full possession of him. Horses were quickly run up and saddled, and a more extended search organised. Barthgate took one direction and the men were despatched in others, riding around in circles, scanning every tree and bush, and shouting loudly as they went. The joy of finding Ethel safe was the father's reward. About two miles from the station, and in the mud round a shallow pool of storm water, he found a slipper which he at once recognised as one of hers, and round this pool her tracks were easily seen; one of a slippered foot and one bare, as if she had been searching for a place in which to cross it. The long grass in the immediate neighborhood effectually hid the direction in which she might have continued her wanderings, and he was still reluctant to leave the spot when a small blackboy, who had been sometimes trusted to shepherd a few rams in the home paddock, suddenly appeared and, from a distance and almost breathlessly, cried out:—
"Budgeree me bin find 'em you. You look out missie? That fellah sit down like it camp longa Judy close up river;" pointing in the direction, and went on to say—"Merri micki you look out that fellah, mine think it cabon sick."
Heedless of further information, Barthgate rammed the spurs home and dashed off in the direction indicated, from which, as he neared it, came the uproar of many voices and the indescribable medley of sounds peculiar to a blacks' camp in a state of excitement. Two of the men were fighting savagely with heavy nulla-nullas, others hovered around with harsh gutteral cries, and the gins and piccaninnies joined their shrill screeches to the general discord.
Seated on a log in the close embrace of Judy, a gin who often did work about the house, was Ethel, her sparse clothing in rags, partially hidden by an old skirt which had once been her own but was now Judy's; her feet were bare and bloodstained, her beautiful hair a tangled mass of grass, leaves, and dirt, and her face deathly.
She was barely able to recognise her father, and fell back into his arms in a fainting condition. The noise was suddenly stilled, and as soon as he could free his hands he scribbled in his notebook:—
'Put old Jenny in the spring cart, bring pillows, and come yourself if possible.' "Billy, run all the way and give that longa Missus. Sposin' no whitefellow sit down, you get Jenny and drive cart." During his anxious wait for its appearance he listened to Judy's story of what had happened:—"Boy belongin' me bin go longa river look out fish first time when sun jump up, bin find im missie walk about longa bush. 'Nother time bring missie longa camp, that one bin all same like it sleep. 'Nother time Davy bin tell 'em take missie back longa house. Harry bin tell 'em no good that fellah Davy mine go, get 'em plenty rum. Davy bin altogether fight 'em Harry, then me bin tell 'em boy go longa station look out belongin' to you. You bin see 'em that fellah?" and so on.
Dreading to disturb the fragile and, as he feared, dying girl, who was still in a cataleptic condition, Barthgate had no choice but to await the arrival of assistance. His first impulse was to take her in his sturdy arms and carry her in the direction of the station, in the hope of meeting with it, but this was made inadvisable by the fact that there was no track between the two places and the cart might easily be missed in the thickly timbered and, in places, scrubby nature of the country. In an agony of apprehension, therefore, he decided to await its arrival, and was at length gratified by an exclamation from one of the blacks:—
"Cart come up directly, me bin 'ear im that fellah!" which proved to be correct, for it was shortly seen coming at as rapid a pace as old Jenny could be persuaded to make under the guidance of Mrs. Elliston and Billy. No time was lost in getting the still unconscious girl safely settled among the rugs and pillows hastily collected for the purpose, and, with Mrs. Elliston driving and Barthgate riding on ahead to indicate the best line for her to follow, the melancholy procession wended its way homewards; but not until the blacks had been promised ample reward on their return to the station.
All the care and attention that loving hearts could give were centred on the unfortunate child, and a messenger was sent off at once to the nearest doctor; but, as his headquarters were upwards of eighty miles away, and as he had been called to attend an important case in an opposite direction on the day preceding the messenger's arrival, the latter had to choose between awaiting the doctor's return and going back to the station unsuccessful. He waited for two days, left an urgent message for the doctor to follow as soon as possible, and reached the station to hear the glad news that consciousness had returned and the child was improving daily. That, however, was a slow process, and when the doctor did come his diagnosis of the case was not altogether a hopeful one. On one point he was impressive—she was not to be encouraged to talk much, and above all things not to be allowed to revert to the recent painful experience through which she had passed. Cheerful and constant companionship, combined with careful nursing, might pull her through, but it was not until after his second visit, some weeks later, that he would consent to her request to be allowed to relate a remarkable dream, which was so vividly impressed upon her memory that she was unable to control her desire to be once more seated at her beloved piano. That, for the time being, was entirely beyond her strength, but the dream itself revealed the intimate connection between her strained devotion to the pursuance of her musical studies and the horrible fate she had so narrowly escaped.
Holding Mrs. Elliston's hand in a tight clasp, she said:—"No, auntie dear, I promise to say nothing except about the dream, nor to ask any questions about how I came to be so ill, but it was really beautiful up to the point where, try as I may, I can remember nothing more. I can quite well remember a few evenings ago—I think it must have been last week—when we were all in the sitting room; father was in his usual seat, reading, and paying no attention to anybody; you and Connie were making things for me to wear to Sydney, and I was playing over a lot of things on the piano, as selfish as I always am when I get to it. I remember saying good-night when father said it was time we were all in bed, and I know I went to sleep as soon as my head was on the pillow. Then I suppose I began to dream, for I was in the most beautiful garden I ever saw, flowers and statues and lovely fountains everywhere, and I was on a seat close to one of them, all by myself, reading. Presently I saw an old gentleman coming towards me, dressed oh! so funnily, and he came along very slowly and sat on the seat beside me. When I looked up he was staring so rudely at me that I was going to move away to another seat when he said, with a strong foreign accent:—'Don't go away, child, I've been looking for you for a long time, and now that I have found you I want to have a long talk!'
"'But I don't know you, sir,' I said.
"'Oh! yes, you do, better than you think. In reality you know me through my music, of which you are very fond. I am Ludwig Beethoven, and I often listen to you when you don't know that I am present. You are a very capable performer for one so young as you are, but, perhaps, a trifle too ambitious. Now, you made several unpardonable mistakes in my overture to Coriolanus, which you played last night, and I want you to be more careful in future. You must be, indeed, if you hope to achieve permanent success.'
"'But I played it from the music, sir.'
"'Very likely, but it was not my music. I never wrote it that way. Now, if you will accompany me to my lodgings, child, I will play it for you from the original score. Don't hesitate, they are close at hand.'
"So, of course, I went, auntie, and it was such a delightful old-fashioned place, and he sat down to such a queer-looking old instrument that wasn't a bit like our piano, though it sounded something like one. And he showed me where I had made mistakes, and played the most heavenly music to me, and when I was coming away he told me to be sure and go to see him again, and said good-bye so sweetly when he let me out. And when I started to hurry back home it suddenly fell quite dark and I lost my way and walked about in every direction, hoping to find someone who could tell me which way to go, but there was nobody to be seen anywhere, and the dark got blacker and blacker. Then I knew I was lost for good, and I cried for you and father, and nobody came, and—I don't remember any more until father took me in his arms somewhere in a blacks' camp. But why are my feet so sore, auntie dear?"
"Now, don't talk any more, darling. We know all about it now, and you must rest again. You will soon be better if you have plenty of sleep, and the doctor says we are not to allow you to go near the piano till you are quite strong again."
Peace being once more restored to Barthgate Downs, and it being plainly impossible for Ethel to accompany her father on the proposed visit to Sydney. It was decided that Constance should go instead; much to the delight of that young lady, now a beautiful girl of eighteen, and the day came when they set out on their journey in high spirits. Mr. Barthgate returned as soon as his business was completed, leaving Constance to spend a few months with the aunt whom she had never before seen. During his absence he had become fully determined to put an end to his suspense in connection with his proposal to marry Mrs. Elliston, and the opportunity presented itself in quite unexpected shape. Among the correspondence awaiting him was a letter from the bishop of the diocese, appealing for his assistance, personal as well as monetary, in a scheme to provide for the occasional visits of a member of the Church, at convenient times, to the surrounding district, stating further that the letter would shortly be followed by a call from the gentleman to whom it was proposed to entrust the duty. Barthgate saw his opportunity and promptly seized it. Mrs. Elliston, being unable—and probably unwilling—to invent any further objections, capitulated, and it was arranged that the reverend gentleman's visit should be availed of for riveting the bonds.
"My dear, you need never again refer to your sad story of neglect of wifely duty in the past, or to the terrible punishment with which it was visited. Bury it now and for ever, and look forward to the many years of happiness which you have so richly merited by your devotion to my interests and your loving motherly care of those two orphaned girls, both of whom I know will repay it with interest—as I shall endeavor to do myself."
"Be it as you will, Mr. Barthgate. God knows I have been through the fire, but I have never known a sorrow, since I came under your roof, except the still recent one of our dear Ethel's misadventure. The girls have been to me as my own, but I have a prevision that Connie will require little more at my hands. She is a most attractive girl in every sense of the word, and I confidently anticipate that her affection for me will be merged into a deeper and stronger attachment to some utter stranger before the time comes for her return to us." And Mrs. Elliston, without any pretension to sibylline gifts, turned out to be a prophetess of accuracy. In what way that came about may be shortly stated. Connie became acquainted with a young gentleman at a picnic given by her aunt, who was firmly persuaded that love at first sight, on both sides, was no longer a mere poetical myth, but a psychic force to be respected for its certain methods of ushering simple-minded, unsuspecting young souls into the secure haven of matrimony. Being herself a widow of more than average experience, and the young man occupying a good social and financial position, as soon as his intentions were announced she lost no time before writing to her brother—"the squire" as she invariably called him—one of those delightfully spontaneous epistles which proclaim a good woman's pride and satisfaction in her abilities as a matchmaker. So that when "the squire" arrived to escort Connie back to her home he was thoroughly prepared for the confidences that had to be reposed in him, and was probably in a better mood to receive them graciously in the contemplation of his own prospective happiness. At any rate, he was quite satisfied with his intended son-in-law and promised to return for the wedding in company with Mrs. Barthgate and the bride elect at the expiration of six months.
Ethel continued to improve, though very slowly, and it became daily more and more evident that the fresh bloom of her childhood's days would never be regained. But the resumption of the old home life at the station was a great factor in her progress, which was only pleasantly interrupted by the excitement caused by the arrival of the clergyman whose visit they had been looking forward to. He was a more than usually welcome specimen of the clerics who were to be met with occasionally—and in those days at lose intervals—in the out-back wilds, but the station hands themselves admitted that he was "a real good sort," and from their verdict there was no appeal.
Having been born in the bush and able to sit a restive horse ensured their approval, he was a gentleman, a good croquet player and the possessor of a cultivated tenor voice, so that the four days over which his stay extended were made enjoyable to all. The last of those days witnessed the quiet union of Mr. Barthgate and Mrs. Elliston, in the sitting room where so many happy, and not a few anxious hours had been passed. And there they may be left to work out their own scheme of happiness, whilst we pick up the track of another old acquaintance.
THE old acquaintance whose tracks it was proposed to pick up is the gentleman who was first introduced to the reader in the assumed character of a bushranger at Barumbah Station, but now known as the Squire of Chelpont Manor, in England. His presence in Australia was urgently required in connection with the estate left by Uncle Darbison to the youthful Aubrey Chelpont, now a sturdy lad of nearly four, with a sister some two years younger. The property had increased considerably in value under the careful management of Ken Morrison, who, with all others interested in the production of sugar in the eastern colony, was now becoming seriously concerned about the threatened interference with the regular supply of Island laborers, in connection with which controversy became loud and frequent. Its opponents made the most of certain rumors which attributed illegal action to the captains of vessels, engaged in the recruiting trade, which became known in the vernacular as "black-birding," and those who conducted it as slave-traders. On the other hand, the planters were dependent on that class of labor, much of the necessary work, such for instance, as cane trashing, being unsuited for white men. But the inevitable end came when missionary and political influences united to put a stop to the importations, and the fear that such would happen aroused the worst fears for the future of the industry.
In happy ignorance of this and other troubles, the Squire of Chelpont pursued his journey northwards, and got as far as Rockhampton, where he was obliged to wait the arrival of the Tinonee to take him on to his destination. He had not been on shore more than a couple of hours when he was accosted by a constable, who, after referring to a paper in his hand, inquired whether his name mightn't be Joseph Simmonds.
"Well, it might be," said Chelpont, "but it isn't. Why do you want to know?"
"Becase you're the dead sphit of him. How long is it since you come from the Peak Downs?"
"Never been there in my life, my good fellow. How long have you been in the force?"
"Phwat's that to do wid the likes o' you?"
"Nothing, certainly. Only I think I recognise in you the makings of a highly intelligent and energetic inspector some day. But what is it you want?"
"Sure I'm wantin' to know where yez come from and what your name is, and you're not obligated to tell, but your answer will be took down an' produced agin yez in the court."
"Oh! ah! yes, I see. Go ahead, old man. My name is Albert Chelpont, and I've come from England, and arrived here two hours ago in the Lady Bowen. Anything else?"
"Faith there is, an' a lot more. Did yez iver answer to the name of 'Joe the Rasp'?"
"To the best of my recollection, never."
"Well, then, phwat did yez do wid that bay horse yez sthole from Logan Downs?"
"I don't seem to know what you are talking about?"
"Av coorse yez don't! How would yez indade? Well, yez'll jist come along o' me to the station, an' we'll see what the insphector has to say about it. If yez ain't 'Joe the Rasp' thin my name isn't Tim O'Flaherty. Will yez come quiet or will I——?"
"Oh, certainly, Mr. O'Flaherty, and delighted to have the pleasure of your company. I was beginning to fear that time would hang heavily on my hands. Where did you say you wished to go?"
"To the station, av course. Where else did you think I'd be wantin' to go? Maybe it's a picnic you're afther thinkin' about!"
"Picnic or a dance, it's all the same to me as long as I have you to look after me. Allow me to offer you my card. It will, perhaps, facilitate my introduction to the inspector!"
"Sure I'll take it annyhow, but yez needn't thrubble, Joe; yez can depind on the inthroduction bein' all right!"
The inspector was a man of grave aspect and stern manner, but while he listened to Chelpont's explanation a twinkle of merriment overspread his features as he rang the bell, and said:—
"Mr. Chelpont, I have an uneasy sort of feeling that we shall have to apologise to you for a mistake, for such it certainly appears to be. At the same time I can scarcely blame the constable. He is a young hand in the force, although not quite a young man, and I am compelled to admit that the official description of the man we want corresponds strangely with your personal appearance. Will you please accompany the sergeant here on board the Lady Bowen and get identified as one of her passengers? And you, O'Flaherty, go to the Criterion and make inquiries as to his arrival there. If they are satisfactory return to your beat."
But the walk to the steamer was cut short by meeting with the captain in the street, who gave a start of surprise and hailed him with:—
"Hello, Mr. Chelpont. What's the matter? Anything wrong?"
"No, only ludicrous. I am in custody of this worthy officer on suspicion of being a horse thief, recently escaped from the lock-up on the Peak Downs, and am being taken down to the steamer to be identified as one of your passengers!"
"Well, I'm ——! Sergeant, you have made a horrible mistake, one I should never have suspected you capable of."
"Bedad, then, captain, it's no mistake o' mine. It was that omadhaun Tim O'Flaherty brought him in; though it's meself says it, he's as like 'Joe the Rasp' as two halves of a split pay is like aich other!"
"Nonsense, man. Here, I'll go back to the station with you. I know all about this gentleman, and we'll soon straighten out all the kinks."
And he did, and the inspector accepted an invitation to dine with the two of them that night at the Criterion. Chelpont left half a sovereign with the sergeant for Mr. O'Flaherty to buy lollies for his children, declaring that Tim was a real good fellow and immensely amusing.
Arrived at Mackay, he was saluted on the wharf by a smiling stranger, who touched him on the shoulder and said:—
"A hearty welcome to the Port for the bushranger of Barumbah!"
"Ha! Mr. Morrison, of course, though I fail to recognise you."
"No, Morrison was unable to get away and asked me to come in for you. Surely you've not forgotten the old days when we worked together in the mill. I was Darbison's manager until Morrison was married and took charge. By Jove! How we have laughed over that yarn of how you stuck up Barumbah, though God knows the sequel was sad enough for poor old Darbison. By the way, have you ever heard what became of that scoundrel Evesham?"
"No; you see, I have been living in England for so many years. I'm real glad to meet you again, old man, and appreciate the welcome. I assure you, but for pity's sake bury the memory of that bushranging business; I am not at all proud of it, you may be sure, but it seems as though my supposed criminal propensities will be too strong for me yet. Only three days ago I was actually arrested in Rockhampton on suspicion of being an escaped horse thief!"
And the relation of that story provoked peals of laughter as they drove out to Allerton, where they found Morrison as black as a tinker, engaged in helping the engineer to make some repairs to a dislocated machine. At the house, Alice, with a tiny morsel of humanity, all but smothered in lace, in her arms, was walking up and down the verandah.
"Allow me to introduce you to my wife; Alice, this is Mr. Chelpont, whom we have been expecting. Of course you won't be able to remember him."
"How could I, Ken? You know, I have never met Mr. Chelpont before," then she added with a smile—"I remember a very rude man who came into the kitchen at Barumbah once, and nearly frightened me out of my juvenile wits with a pistol and an ugly black face, and made mother and me go up into a corner. But, of course, Mr. Chelpont hasn't the slightest resemblance to him!"
"Be merciful, Mrs. Morrison. My sin is perpetually finding me out. But I remember you as well, as an extremely pretty child who has developed into a charming and most winsome matron; which I can assure you is an exceptionally pretty speech for me to make, as my wife would tell you if she were here. As you know, I have been brought all this distance on the pretence that my presence was absolutely essential for the transaction of business, but I don't believe a word of it. I suspect your husband of arranging this matter of dragging me out of my home to come so many thousands of miles just to let me see what an excellent manager he is; but I promise you that a most important item of that business will be to obtain your forgiveness for what you call the temporary deprivation of your juvenile wits through my idiotic conduct."
"Oh! that has been forgiven long ago, Mr. Chelpont; in proof of which you may now come and admire my beautiful baby, and tell me all about Mrs. Chelpont and little Aubrey."
After this fashion the way was paved for the month, to which his time was limited, to be passed as a veritable holiday after the necessary business had been completed. Very many old friends and acquaintances met and congratulated him on his improved fortunes, and hospitable invitations—the feature of the district—were showered upon him from all quarters. He left on his return for England with many regrets at being unable to prolong his visit, and picked up the through steamer at Flat Top Island amid the warbled assurances of a host of friends, old and new, on the launch which took him out, that he was "a jolly good fellow."
In both hemispheres all was going well with the people whose lives and fortunes have been dealt with in these pages—with one exception, and that one Herbert Evesham, the betrayer of Mrs. Darbison, and therein the originator of all the trouble that fell to her lot, as well as being the indirect cause of much of what happened to others. Nothing definite was ever heard about him beyond what could be gathered from an occasional notice in a country paper to the effect that he had again returned to civilisation from one of his extended trips to the west in search of more country adapted for pastoral occupation, and that he had been successful in finding, etc., etc., and his actual fate was never known until, some time after, it was incontestably shown that he must have perished miserably in drought-stricken country while trying to force his way through to Eyre's Creek from the Darling.
The dominant note was one of desolation utter and hopeless. Any landscape painter of average ability could have depicted the scene in all its depressing features with one small brush and a pot of burnt umber. Mile after mile of red sand-ridges bordering a plain of apparently unlimited area, each ridge sloping gently towards the plain and looking not unlike the projection of an irregular coastal outline on the margin of a waveless sea. The sand firm and hard, but made impossible for travel by the dense growth of spinifex and porcupine grass which matted it together, leaving only a few tortuous and narrow openings between the stumps. At intervals a few stunted bushes of the acacia family, struggling in vain to uphold the right to live amid such dreary surroundings, and not a tree of any sort within the range of vision. Patches of white here and there on the plain marked the locality of dry salt-pans, which glistened in the sun and mocked the hope that a trickle of water might be found to assuage the thirst of a perishing man or beast. Rounding the point of another sand-ridge, and still hoping for some change in the deadly monotony of the scene, such might be met with only in the shape of acres of stones of all shapes and sizes, forming in places an almost even surface, as though placed in position for a purpose; and in others scattered loosely around; or the soil of a powdery, crumbling nature, broken into deep chasms which made travelling highly dangerous, if not almost impossible.
Skirting along the edge of this plain, and rounding the points of the ridges, keeping as near as was practicable on a north-west course, a party composed of four men and several horses were crawling slowly along. The horses were in fair condition, but looking tucked-up and spiritless for want of feed and water, and their riders were far from being in talkative mood. As the sun rose higher the blistering heat increased, and no sign of improved conditions could be seen in any direction. Two of the men, somewhat ahead, pulled up at length and waited for the others to come up; then one of them spoke. "This don't seem to be any good for us, and if you're bent on going farther in this direction me and my mate don't care about it. There's only about a couple of quarts of water left in our bags, and that's mostly mud, and the horses can't stand it much longer. So we are thinking about bearing away to the northward in the hope of striking some, and at any rate of getting out of this infernal patch of bad country. What do you say?"
"Sorry to hear that, but you may be right. I don't know or seek to know anything of your plans, but I'm going on. We will get out of this dry belt before long, I think; anyhow I'm going to take my chances. Wish you luck, whatever happens." Then they shook hands and parted.
The last speaker was Evesham, though his best friends might have been forgiven had they failed to recognise him as he then was. The once well-clad and assertive manager bore no resemblance to the worn and grimy bushman who turned in the saddle to address his black-boy, and to urge him along with the packhorses.
"Come along, Jacky, hurry those crawlers along; we must get out of this quick and find water, or some of them will knock up altogether."
"Baal mine think it water sit down directly. Plenty that fellah tumble down sposin' no get 'im drink to-night." And on they went.
The two men from whom Evesham had just parted were unknown to him, but, like himself, were out hunting for country. He had picked them up on the Darling, shortly after leaving Mount Murchison, and, as they were bound in the same direction, they decided to travel together as long as it was mutually satisfactory to do so. And for the first one hundred miles or so they found plenty of feed and water, results of an ample rainfall, until they struck the belt of arid desolation described above. On more than one occasion when out in search of new country Evesham had found himself in a tight place, but never in one so seemingly hopeless as this. Good bushmanship and recklessness had pulled him through more than once, but he was now in a part of the country he had never previously visited, and, although he was not aware of the fact, he was actually on the edge of what has so long been known as Sturt's Stony Desert, one of the most forbidding localities in Australia when suffering from a prolonged spell of drought, though easily enough crossed in favorable seasons.
As the sun sank towards the west their progress became more and more difficult. The water was now entirely gone, and the horses were utterly exhausted, when he decided to rest them for a few hours and push on again. Hobbles were not needed, as the worn-out beasts hung around the camp, too tired and thirsty even to search for a bite of such miserable fare as might have been within their reach, and the two men stretched themselves out on the hot ground in hopes of attaining temporary forgetfulness in sleep. Rations they had in plenty, but their parched mouths and burning bodies forbade all thought of food. Evesham awoke after a fevered dream, in which the sight and sound of a running creek of crystal water vanished as he turned to look for Jacky, who was still sleeping heavily; but the horses were gone. Not far, probably, and Jacky was disturbed to go and round them up. No sound broke the deathly stillness of the night, and again he went off into a stupor, from which he was aroused by a sense of strangulation. Still all was quiet, and Jacky had not returned. Then, suddenly remembering a large metal flask of brandy in one of the pack-bags, carried in case of emergency, he staggered to his feet in search of it, gulped some of it down, and once more planted his bursting head in the upturned saddle. When consciousness returned, the sun was shining full upon him, but there was no Jacky and not a sign of the horses. Again having recourse to the brandy flask, he took his notebook from its pouch on his belt and scribbled something in it, after which, in a dazed condition, he decided to go in search of the horses and the missing boy, taking the flask with him.
Neither he nor Jacky was ever seen again. What became of the latter would be a hard matter to decide. Being an aboriginal, he was in no danger of being lost. He may have followed the horse tracks in search of the water in which they were of great need; or he may have fallen in with some other blacks of a hostile tribe and been killed for any one of the superstitious, though purely imaginary, reasons well known to exist amongst them. Whatever his fate may have been is, therefore, purely a matter of guesswork. He had been a favorite of Evesham's for a long time, and a constant companion in his wanderings since they first met on the Upper Murray, where Jacky had been working on a station and was known as a fearless rider and a good horse-breaker.
Some eight or nine months after Evesham and the boy were known to have left the Darling on their western trip, with five good horses and an ample supply of rations, and when the numerous acquaintances of the former had almost forgotten to remark on his prolonged absence from the places he had been accustomed to visit, evidence of the disaster which had befallen him came to light through an accidental discovery made by a black-boy belonging to a Darling River tribe which had despatched envoys to the pitcheri country to obtain a supply of that highly prized commodity, procurable only by barter from those more favorably situated than themselves.
Thus it happened that when Knox, the manager of Terrigindi station, smoking a quiet pipe on the verandah, saw his overseer coming from the direction of the blacks' camp on the river, he naturally wanted to know "what the hades the niggers were kicking up that infernal row for in the camp?" And the answer was: "Oh, nothing much; only the boys have come back with the pitcheri, and Sambo has brought in an old revolver and a piece of a leather belt with a pouch on it he picked up somewhere."
"Some poor devil been lost, I expect, and thrown it away. I'll go and have a look at it."
Sambo proudly produced his treasures, which had evidently been exposed to the weather for a considerable time. The revolver was a heavy Colt, three chambers of which were loaded, but the parts were firmly rusted together and resisted all efforts to move them; there was no holster, but the remains of a leather belt and the pouch still hanging to it bore ample evidence of having been gnawed by dogs. "No good this fellow belongin' to you, Sambo. Me give you sixpence, and sposin' you come longa store one fellow nobbler."
"You gib it, me come longa store get 'im nobbler now."
"Where you bin find 'im?"
"More farder, long way, like it that way longa sandhill," poking his chin out in the direction indicated.
"You bin see 'im whitefellow? See 'im horse? See 'im saddle?"
"Baal me bin see 'im. Mine think it that fellah bin altogether lose 'im horse, then tumble down long time."
In the torn and battered pouch was a stained metallic notebook of the kind common in those days, many of the leaves stuck together, but all scribbled on in a more or less blotched manner. Much of what was written referred to old camping grounds, mixed up with details of compass bearings and distances, descriptions of country travelled over, items of expenditure, and private memoranda of all descriptions, much of it almost illegible, the writing towards the end being especially bad and indistinct.
From the notes transcribed by Knox from the final pages, and afterwards compared with the originals, the following extracts were made:—
"Horses away in night. No water. Jacky tracking.
"Wedn.—No horses—no Jacky, —- him. Brandy—thirst.
"T.—Go and look myself—horses gone—Jacky gone—revolver—no caps—thirst—head—hell—choking—missed camp.
"Fri.—End of H.E.—sand—brandy—dogs—revolver—never find—hell—burst last cho—mine."
Evesham's name was plainly written in ink, surrounded by an ornamental scroll, on the front page, leaving little doubt as to the identity among the spinifex-covered, sand wastes, where the dingo roams and the desert kites whistle their doleful requiem over the bleached bones of many a good man stricken down by a similar remorseless fate.
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