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Title: The Squatter's Ward Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1306921h.html Language: English Date first posted: December 2013 Most recent update: December 2013 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of 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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Chapter I.—Somebody's Baby.
Chapter II.—Doubts and Suspicions.
Chapter III.—The Black Tracker.
Chapter IV.—A Shot in the Dark.
Chapter V.—Jed Roff.
Chapter VI.—Magnus Susman, of Wangooma.
Chapter VII.—The Bush Fire.
Chapter VIII.—Dead Man's Well.
Chapter IX.—The Treasure Chest.
Chapter X.—Lines From a Coffin.
Chapter XI.—Magnus Susman at Home.
Chapter XII.—The Stolen Letter.
Chapter XIII.—Hannah Visits the Imprisoned Lady.
Chapter XIV.—Magnus Susman forms a Plot.
Chapter XV.—The Tribulations of Jabez Gegg.
Chapter XVI.—The Abduction of Edith.
Chapter XVII.—Magnus Susman Offers a Reward.
Chapter XVIII.—Detectives at Tipparoo.
Chapter XIX.—Restoration of Edith.
Chapter XX.—Exit Gegg and Grubbins.
Chapter XXI.—Edith Goes to Sydney.
Chapter XXII.—Mr. Susman's Little Schemes.
Chapter XXIII.—A Meeting in the Park.
Chapter XXIV.—Home Again.
Chapter XXV.—Harold Receives a Commission.
Chapter XXVI.—Susman Makes a Proposal.
Chapter XXVII.—A Double Surprise.
Chapter XXVIII.—Ward and Guardian.
Chapter XXIX.—Strange Adventures.
Chapter XXXI.—Edith's Sacrifice.
Chapter XXXII.—A Lesson in Angling.
Chapter XXXIII.—What Harold Showed Edith.
Chapter XXXIV.—A Domestic Quarrel.
Chapter XXXV.—The Rescue.
It was a hot day in mid-December, so hot that the perspiration ran in little streams down the face of Richard Merton—familiarly known among his station hands as "Old Dick"—as he sat in a canvas-back chair in the coolest corner of the verandah. He was a middle-aged man of medium height; but his corpulent form made his legs appear exceedingly short. His thin, short-clipped beard was well sprinkled with grey, though he was yet a good many shakes of the leg under forty. His eyes were deep set, bright, piercing eyes, over-shadowed by bushy brows that lent a sinister expression to his face.
Altogether Mr. Richard Merton was not endowed with a prepossessing physiognomy. And yet, though a blustering, quick-tempered man, and somewhat excitable, he was good-hearted in the main.
His shirt-sleeves were rolled up to his elbows; a tam-o'-shanter sat jauntily on his head, and his feet were encased in slippers. He was smoking, his eyes half closed; now and then peering through the haze that shimmered like spider-silk over Tipparoo, he thought of his stockmen sweltering in the noonday, and felt cool by comparison.
The crouching form of an aborigine, hurrying with cat-like movement towards the house, escaped his attention. There was nothing unusual in the appearance of the black himself, but the remarkable burden he bore in his sinewy arms would have excited the interest of any casual observer. This was a little white infant wrapped in a segment of dirty blanket; not the offspring of a half-caste, but a white of the whites. He carried it pressed against his breast in feminine fashion, and seemed commendably gentle and assiduous in his care of it. He trod the springy turf with surreptitious step, a pack of mangy-looking dogs followed silently at his heels. He swung a bush with one hand to keep the flies from the face of the child, and his coal-black eyes gleamed as they fixed intently on the man in the chair.
In front of the house was a large garden thickly planted with trees. Sheltered by these, the blackfellow paused at the palisade, and took a steady survey of the surroundings. The homestead, partially covered in front with clustering honeysuckle, was a rambling old building that had been in existence since the days when wild blacks were numerous in the locality, and many a tale of bloody fights and sieges its weather-beaten walls might tell were they gifted with the power of speech; and the same might be said of the old gum tree that stood between the house and the back premises, looking down from its eminence upon the curving tops of green willows fringing the shores of Bilbo Creek. Below were the great stockyards and stables, whence arose an incessant chorus from a legion of crows, so frequently the scene of excitement and tumult; while far beyond could be seen the long undulating range of Pine Mountains, marking the eastern horizon, and looking blue-black in the blurring distance.
Having carefully noted the situation, as if to impress it upon his memory for some future occasion, the blackfellow whispered a warning injunction to his dogs, opened the gate, and worked his way in a sinuous course through the garden. The beauty of the plants, and the fragrance arising from the numerous beds of flowers, had no attraction for this primeval man of the woods. He evidently had but one fixed purpose in his mind, which was to reach the old gentleman on the verandah without attracting the attention of anyone else. Fortune favored him in this, as the intense heat had driven the women to rest in the cool retreats of the house. From the last tree he darted across the gravel walk and stood by the edge of the verandah, rolling his dark eyes around him in a quick, timid manner. A natural festoon of honeysuckle hid him from view. He peered round it some seconds before he ventured to show himself, being actuated then by the child showing signs of waking from the slumber that had hitherto been so propitious to him.
"Good day, boss!"
Merton sprang round sharply, and for some seconds stared in astonishment at his uncouth visitor, standing straight and rigid against the vines.
"Well," he said, "what do you want?" He removed his spectacles and now looked at the child, his glance wandering again to the grinning face of the black man.
"You take dis one piccaninny?" said the latter, holding the child out at arm's length.
"Take your piccaninny!" Merton repeated, bending forward with that stern, frowning look peculiar to some men when peering at objects they do not understand.
"Baal mine!" said the black man; "dis white feller piccanniny—him blonga whita pusson."
This appeared utterly incredible; but, being of a curious disposition, Merton at once stepped forward and took the child, which the black surrendered with a pleasure he could not conceal. Merton, discarding the nauseous wrapper, examined the child critically, then turned his attention again to the man who had brought it. "Whose child is this?" he asked.
The black shook his head, saying he didn't know.
"Where did you get it?" Merton next inquired, his eyes searching the black man's face with a keen scrutiny; but that worthy's frontispiece was as impassive as a statue of ebony.
"You give um dinner fust time," he bargained. "Me berry hungry—walk long way—all day—big feller hungry."
"Where did you come from?" asked Merton.
"Good way—nodder side Pine Mountain—make um berry tired."
"What is your name?" Merton persisted.
"Wahwon," was the laconic reply,
"Your tribe camp about here?"
"Wyrallah." He puckered his lips, and jerked his chin forward by way of indicating the direction. The talking had by this time awakened the child, and it commenced to cry immediately.
"Richard Merton had never been blessed with a child of his own, consequently his experience in nursing and pacifying one was nil; and his attempt in this direction was not only ludicrous, but an ignominous failure. He danced it round and round, tossed it up and down, swung it from side to side, and spoke to it in some such manner as he would have spoken to a young colt; but all to no purpose. The child kicked and screamed, and Mr. Merton had a vague idea, by the extraordinary lung power it displayed, that it must be the offspring of a bookmaker or a sea captain. It made the very rafters tremble, and Mr. Merton's ears tingle. It seemed that the little brat was crying for no other reason than to exasperate him, as there did not appear to be any pins sticking in it, which, from Mr. Merton's point of view, was the only hypothesis to be launched in explanation of such an outburst; and he was manipulating it as carefully and tenderly as a zealous gardener would a delicate hot-house plant. He thought to return it to its black nurse, but the aborigine could not be induced to touch it. He seemed to consider it a matter for congratulation to be rid of it, and, stepping out of reach, placed his arms sturdily behind his back. The perspiration poured more copiously than ever from Merton's face and arms, and he began to lose his temper, and to resort to bouncing, under which treatment the child remonstrated by crying louder than ever.
At this stage Mrs. Merton and the housekeeper came running out to ascertain the cause of the strange noise; the cries of an infant had never been heard within the walls of Tipparoo homestead. They stopped short at the door, and gazed in astonishment at the phenomenal scene before them. To see a child in the house, without any proper attendant, would have excited their curiosity at any time, but to observe one in the arms of Mr. Richard Merton, and his performing the most fantastic capers about the verandah to appease its cries, was well calculated to astound them. For a moment they stared in open-mouthed wonder; while Mr. Merton appeared to be blissfully oblivious of their presence. At last his wife spoke in a rasping voice:—
"Richard, whatever is the meaning of this?"
"Eh?" said Mr. Merton, stopping abruptly, and pressing the child to his breast. It struggled and yelled even louder than before, and Mr. Merton began to fear it would go off into convulsions or something if it kept on much longer. He was out of breath with it.
"I wish, my dear, you would take this little brat and quiet it. I'm heartily tired of hearing it yell." He tendered the poor little thing to his wife; but she showed a decided disinclination to taking it, and for a moment disputed with the housekeeper as to who should stand behind the other. She was, to a certain extent, a superstitious woman, and thus opposed to touching the child without knowing something about it.
"Where did you get it? Whose child is it? What, are you doing with a baby? Where's its mother?" she asked all in a breath, her eyes wandering restlessly from the child to Mr. Merton, and from Mr. Merton to the aborigine, who stood grinning in malicious enjoyment of the scene.
"I know nothing more about it, Maggie, than you do. This blackfellow here brought it to me, and asked me to take it: I took it."
"So I perceive," coldly; "and you asked no questions, of course?"
"He won't give any information till he's had his dinner."
"That's a very strange tale, Richard!" Mrs. Merton was suspicious. "The sins of a man often come home to roost," she said vindictively. "Who is the blackfellow?"
"He says his name is Wahwon."
"And who sent him here with—with that?"
"I tell you I don't know, Maggie!"
"Indeed!" Mrs. Merton sniffed ominously. "It's very remarkable that a baby should be sent to you by strangers—if you know nothing of its antecedents. I've known of babies being sent like this—" She stopped.
Mr. Merton looked surprised. "Good God, woman—surely you don't think—Here, take this child, for heaven's sake, and do something with it. Give it some arrowroot or pumpkin-squash—anything to stop that blessed howl. And, Betsy, hurry up and get that fellow something to eat in the kitchen. You go round the back, old man, and missy give um dinner. As soon as you've swallowed it, remember, I'll expect you to account for this child, or by the holy bunyip I'll tumble you inside out."
Betsy and Wahwon at once retired. Mrs. Merton stepped forward, her hands behind her. Her husband felt annoyed.
"For God's sake, woman," he said, "take it away. It won't bite!"
Mrs. Merton at last relieved him of his charge, handling it very gingerly. "Do you think we're doing right, Richard, in taking this child? There may have been a—a murder!" she said, with some hesitation.
"Good God!" her husband cried in alarm. "You don't think so?" He began to see for the first time that everything was not as it should be.
"Where are its parents? How came it in such strange hands, and brought here—poor little dear! The circumstances are very peculiar, to say the least. I don't half like the look of things, Richard. There's something wrong—something very wrong."
"I was too curious to think of it at first—in fact, the strangeness of it all upset me—or I shouldn't have taken it before he had explained." Mr. Merton mopped himself hurriedly with a knitted arrangement he called a "sweat-rag." "Well," he added, after a moment's reflection, "I suppose we'll know all about it presently. Take the youngster inside, Maggie."
"I hope you don't intend to keep it?" queried Maggie, anxiously.
"Someone apparently expects us to do so," Mr. Merton rejoined. "For my part, I can assure you I have no wish to turn my place into a foundlings' home. Maybe some lady friend of yours is playing a joke on us by sending it on in advance of her."
"Of course," said Mrs. Merton, with a little dry cough, "it couldn't be a lady friend of yours. . . ."
"My lady friends are not that way—I mean—that is—they haven't got babies. If they had, they wouldn't pack them off like this."
"Well," said Mrs. Merton, "I'm sure I don't know anyone about here that has a baby, or is likely—"
"That's where it is!" Mr. Merton broke in as a thought struck him. "Your friend has kept it quiet, and planned this as a surprise for you."
Mrs. Merton shook her head. "No, that won't do. I've seen them all quite recently, and I know none of them were expecting anything of that kind. Might it not be—" She stopped, and bent a scared look at the child, which she had now pacified. "There's something wrong," she added irrelevantly, "some mystery about it—and I hate mysteries."
"I reciprocate your sentiments, my dear," Mr. Merton rejoined. "This sort of mystery is positively abhorrent."
Mrs. Merton bore the little bundle of trouble indoors, rocking it gently in her arms, and talking to it as only a woman can talk to a baby; and the little one was soon cooing in her arms. Mr. Merton had a look at Wahwon in the kitchen, and, after an unsuccessful attempt to make him speak out, left him devouring the victuals the cook had placed on the table for his special benefit. Returning to his wife, he found her and Betsy overhauling the little one; whilst Sarah, the housemaid, was briskly preparing it some farinaceous food.
Mrs. Merton was one of those little busy-bodies who imagine all kinds of ridiculous things in answer to anything that is problematic, and who call up various reminiscences and anecdotes bearing relation to the case, for the sake of comparison. Having turned the murder theory over in her mind for some time, she adopted another, which was no less discouraging. Infants, particularly illegitimate ones, have often been sent to houses, or left on door-steps, in mysterious ways when it was inconvenient for the mothers to keep them. She remembered many such cases, and it appeared to her that this was another, until she made certain discoveries that tended to call forth her sympathy and affability.
"Well, what do you make of it?" Mr. Merton asked.
"Why, it's a dear little girl, Richard!" his wife replied enthusiastically.
"Oh, is that the only thing you've discovered!" said Mr. Merton dejectedly. "I could have found that out myself."
"It's a fine, strong, healthy child," Mrs. Merton continued, "and such a pretty little dear, too! It'd give me great pleasure to adopt it, but I should like to know something about it first. We have no children, Richard, and what a blessing this child would be to our home! A place is never so bright and cheerful—never complete—without some little one in it!"
It was clear to Richard Merton that his wife's maternal instincts and natural love of children were conquering her superstitious fears, and he was much relieved in consequence, for he had feared, if she showed any scruples in accepting the charge, that he would have considerable trouble in inducing the aborigine to receive it back. And yet, he argued to himself, it would not be a justifiable act to enforce it, as he was, in a humane sense, bound to care for it until its parents could be discovered. He further deliberated with himself as to whether he should not detain the aborigine until the peculiar circumstances could be explained. The word of the black man could not be accepted as final, however plausible his account, when given, might be. There may have been, as his wife suggested, a terrible murder committed, and the very black he was succoring, and who had delivered the child into his hands, might be concerned in that murder. The gruesome probability of it made him shudder. A great responsibility had been cast upon his shoulders, which he had blindly and unwittingly permitted; and to alleviate it he recognised the prudence of having the black placed in custody till the police could be communicated with, and the matter explained to the satisfaction of all concerned.
It was the surest and safest course to pursue; in fact, so far as he could see at this stage, he had no other alternative.
"Why, look here, Richard," said Mrs. Merton, breaking in upon his meditations, "here's a gold chain round its neck, with a richly chased locket appended! I wonder what's in it?"
"Open it and see," said Richard, more practically. She opened it, and beheld the miniature of a beautiful lady, apparently about thirty years of age, and a small lock of fine brown hair tied with a piece of narrow, blue ribbon, and which, ostensibly, had belonged to the original of the miniature.
"Dear me!" Mrs. Merton ejaculated, holding them at arm's length. "I wonder, can it be the child's mother! It must be—no one else would hang her photo and hair in such a place. See how she resembles the child in the eyes—and their mouths are exactly alike. Do you see the likeness, Richard?"
"Umph!" said Richard, who couldn't for his life perceive how a child could resemble an adult, whether they be correlative or other wise. He could understand one grown-up person, or one babe, being the image of another; but a resemblance of one of each to the other he could not imagine.
"Betsy," continued Mrs. Merton, "let us examine her clothing. We may find something else. What fine clothes she has! Look at the richness of this lace, Betsy—and the linen! It's of the very best quality. They must have been well-to-do people. What a strange thing! You little dear, what are you laughing at? Where's the blackfellow, Richard?"
"I left him in the kitchen," answered Richard, "I must go and look after him. I'm anxious to hear what he has to say. He ought to be pretty well satisfied now."
He strode through the hall to the kitchen, turning over in his mind the various points on which he meant to interrogate Wahwon. At the door he gave a gasp and staggered back. The table was relieved of all edibles, and Wahwon was gone! This was unfortunate, if so be his stupidity had led him to return to his own haunts without testifying as to how he had come by the child, and his right to dispose of it in the summary manner he had done. There still was a chance, though, that he was strolling about the garden awaiting the squatter's convenience. Hoping that such was the case, Richard Merton rushed into the garden, and called loudly to him, but received no answer. He ran round the house and kitchen, and all through the garden, shouting: "Wahwon! Wahwon!" and only the echoes responded. Round the yards and stables, and along the creek he ran, puffing like a hippopotamus, relinquishing the fruitless pursuit only when exhaustion compelled him to do so. Wahwon had disappeared, and Mr. Merton was thoroughly nonplussed. A dawning dread began to creep over him which he could not define. He instinctively recognised that the position of guardian to a child of whom he knew nothing had been suddenly forced upon him, and the only means of elucidation there had been was now lost. Afterthought presented many embarrassments which had not appeared to him before: There had been little cause for anxiety while the black was present, but his disappearance gave rise to grave doubts and suspicions, and left Mr. Merton in a dilemma. What was he to do now? Why had he left him a single moment unguarded? Anathematising his want of discretion, and much perturbed, he staggered back to his wife, whom he found in a state of excitement and exultation.
"Richard, look here— Why, what's the matter?" she suddenly interrupted herself on seeing the blanched face and scared look of her panting husband.
"Matter enough!' growled Richard. He dropped into a chair, vainly endeavoring to conceal his agitation. Mrs. Merton could not understand it, and felt uneasy.
"What is it?" she asked. "One would think you had been climbing Mount Lindsay—or has someone used you for a lawn-roller?"
"That blackfellow has bolted," replied the aggrieved husband.
"Dear me! How dreadful!" said Mrs. Merton. "Whatever does it mean?"
"I'm afraid there's been a murder committed. There'll be the deuce to pay. It's an unfortunate business—"
"I don't think it's a case of murder, Richard," Mrs. Merton rejoined.
"You don't? Why, Maggie, it was you who made the suggestion!"
"I thought so at first. But I have found a note pinned to the inside of the child's dress. It is addressed to you, and requests you to take charge of the child—to adopt it. There's no name to it . . . that's the strangest part of it. I really can't think what could possess a man to cause him to act in such an eccentric manner."
Still, Richard Merton was much relieved. He wiped his heated brow and his spectacles at the same time, and proceeded to read the following note:—
"This little child is motherless, or believed to be, and it is impossible for me to bring her up. I have taken the liberty of sending her to you, as I know of no one else with whom I could trust her. It will be a charity if you take her and adopt her as your own daughter. Call her Edith. That is her baptismal name. She will inherit a large fortune on my death, a considerable portion of which will accrue to you if she remains your ward during the interim. I am her only relative, and must, for some years, remain incognito. Be kind to her, and God bless you all.
"Well, Richard," said Mrs. Merton interrogatively, when her husband had completed the perusal of the above; "what do you think of it?"
"I'm perfectly mystified, Maggie. This is a strange business altogether. One thing, though—this note dispenses with the necessity of communicating with the police. I detest having any dealings with that body."
"Oh, there's no need to communicate with them," Mrs. Merton rejoined.
"Not now. I'd like to have catechised that darkey, though. Confound him! He might have had manners enough to thank me for my hospitality, if not for taking the babe off his hands."
"He may turn up again," Mrs. Merton suggested; "the father may send him back with another message."
"I don't think so," said her less sanguine spouse. "I must have a talk with Magnus Susman. He may be able to suggest something."
"I think it would be better not to consult him. I don't like that man. He's too heterodoxical and hermitical in his opinions and habits; and I believe he's an old miscreant. He has the look of a bad egg, at all events."
Mrs. Merton made a grimace, and flicked a speck of dust from her bodice. "Wangooma is a . . . a bad house."
"That's only your fancy, my dear. I've never seen anything in the man to cavil at, and I've had some considerable dealings with him one way and another." Mr. Merton, in fact, thought the world of Susman.
"You will, some day; mark my words. He's not a man to be trusted."
"I wish you thought differently. He's not been a bad neighbor to us—not at all bad. You only fancy things, Maggie. But what of the child?"
"Why, we'll adopt her, of course, Richard! She'll be Edith Merton—won't you, dear? Bless your little heart!" And she fell to kissing and talking to the "little cherub," and dancing it on her knee. She was as proud of the child now, and as delighted in the knowledge of its being her possession for good and all, as though it were really of her own flesh and blood. As for Merton, he had now cooled down, and regarded events as matters of course, though in sooth he cherished a feeling of vengeance against Wahwon for taking French leave; and a doubt for a moment may have entered his mind that henceforth he would be to some extent a neglected husband. It was considerably cooler now, the sun being nearly down, and his mercurial spirits had risen in proportion. He sat with folded arms and silently watched his wife feeding the baby with a spoon, and seemed to derive no small amount of edification from so doing. The baby was then rocked to sleep, and the soothing lullaby nearly put Mr. Merton to sleep also; but he woke up sufficiently to observe, with a faint smile, that it took the conjoint efforts of his wife, housekeeper, and maid to put the baby in its little bed. Then the three women repaired to the back rooms to talk over the important event, while Mr. Merton crossed his legs, and lay back to think over it. It seemed a difficult thing for him to realise that he was all at once placed in the capacity of a father without being one; and he marvelled long as to whom the parents of his foster-child might be, and why the father had chosen not to make himself known. The case of the mother was shrouded in mystery, and subjected him to serious reflections, insomuch as he had heard of no death having taken place in the vicinity. But, perhaps, as the black asserted, they may have resided miles beyond the Pine Mountains, perhaps in the neighborhood of Wyrallah, and the death of the woman might be well known to the residents there. Still, again, it was not positively asserted that the mother was dead. The child was "motherless, or believed to be!" What was the meaning of this doubt? Long he sat and thought over the matter without throwing much light upon it; and long years after, when the now innocent little Edith brought trouble and anxiety upon him, he had cause to resuscitate and to regret the day when she was so strangely introduced into his small household.
And yet again he was glad!
The crack of stockwhips and the neighing of horses aroused Mr. Merton from his reverie, and he started up in surprise at the lateness of the hour. He adjusted his cap, and, lighting his pipe, strolled outside. The tired horses were rolling in the soft sand at the stockyard gates, and the men were preparing for supper, as he made his way towards the hut. This stood on the hillside a quarter of a mile below the house. It was an old but commodious building, with slab walls and shingled roof. The interior formed a pleasant contrast to its external roughness and irregularities. There were two long dining-rooms, for whites and blacks, the latter being often in predominance. Both compartments were scrupulously clean, and replete with their complement of furniture, which, though not of an elaborate description, was at least substantial. Adjoining these was a room containing a long narrow table, strewn with various papers and periodicals, while on the walls were a few shelves stocked with a miscellaneous assortment of books. This was the, reading-room, where the rollicking stock-riders read and discussed the news of the world; where exciting debates and arguments were held; where cards, draughts, and other games were played for tobacco and matches when papers and books became "stale"; where many a thrilling tale of the bush was related, and many a stirring song was sung, in the winter months, when a huge log-fire burned briskly in the fireplace at the end, now appropriately filled with a few green bushes standing in an oil drum.
These various apartments were presided over by a West Indian cook named Sam. He was a man six feet one in stature, robust and powerfully built. He was intellectual, too, for an Ethiopian, and, unlike the obtuse aborigines of Australia, possessed the advantages of a liberal education. He was well liked by the white men, but held in abhorrence by the blacks. The dislike was reciprocal, for Sam detested the very sight of a native; and this animosity occasioned no end of broils and bickerings between them. The scholarly Sam classed them as a disjointed link between the orangoutang and the Ethiopian, making sarcastic allusions to their crude gunyahs, and comparing them with the accommodations of the white men.
So far as the latter were concerned, Mr. Richard Merton was considerate to the comforts of his men. He was, nevertheless, in many respects, a stern disciplinarian, and strict in his management. There were no skulkers or loafers on Tipparoo, and no swagmen ever found lodgings there; but there was a Sundown camp on the creek.
The men, on this particular evening, were washing one by one in a tin dish at the back of the hut. This done, they donned their coats and neckerchiefs, and gathered round the table, which was covered with a clean white cloth, and lit with a kerosene lamp. Tipparoo, be it remembered, was a model station—a howling contrast to the majority of stations in New South Wales and Queensland. Enter their grimy, soot-stained huts and observe the stale, soddy bread cast on the bare planks that serve for a table, the sour salt-junk sticking to a rusty tin dish, rusty tin plates and pannikins, rough, stern-visaged men slashing in with might and main, some lighting their pipes at a dirty slush-lamp in the centre of the board, and puffing whiffs of tobacco smoke in the faces of those still eating. These are mostly, poorly-paid, hard-working men, under an employer who looks upon them as no whit superior to beasts, and treats them as such. Their sleeping apartments are noted for filthiness and disorder: for these disheartened men, bundled together on one broad floor, or in bunks one above another like the steerage berths in a coasting ship, have no will or inclination to keep them clean and tidy; their sense of respectability is nullified by station usage.
The knowledge of this, the memory of past hardships, instilled within the men of Tipparoo a sense of gratitude and satisfaction. They were arranging themselves around the table when Mr. Merton entered.
"Well, Sam, you've got a fine family of big boys here," he said.
"Yes, sir," said Sam. "They always come to see me at meal-time."
"And turn their backs upon you between times," laughed Merton. "How did you find the cattle on the Cobar, Ralf?"
"Poor as crows," said a grey-bearded man, who sat at the head of the table. This was the overseer, Ralf Havelock. "The grass is pretty scarce, hardly enough to feed a bandicoot in places; and the water-holes are dryin' up fast. We pulled three cows out of the bog, an' killed two more that were dyin'. They'd been in too long to've got on their legs again."
"What is Rocky Creek like? Any water in that?"
"Not much—just a bit of a pot-hole here an' there, an' that as black as ink. Gettin' boggy, too, some of em."
"That's a bad look-out. We'll have to shift the cattle across to Sandy Hills. I never knew that Cobar country to carry stock through the summer yet. Mostly, you can flog a flea across it."
"When do you think of shiftin' em?" asked Ralf.
"Next week, I suppose. By the bye, have any of you heard of the death of a woman about here lately?"
They had not, and knew of only one woman residing in the vicinity. "My missus is the only woman I know of about here," said Ralf, an' she was alive an' kickin' this mornin'. It couldn't be Mrs. Jed Roff at Goolgolgon—unless she snuffed out within the last day or two."
"No; I fancy this woman lived over about Wyrallah. A blackfellow brought me a child this afternoon, with a note from its father asking me to adopt it, as it was motherless. I don't know who the father is—the blackfellow took his hook before I could question him. He said his name was Wahwon. Have you ever heard of such a blackfellow?"
"No," said Ralf; "but some of the darkeys might know something about him; they're often over Wyrallah way."
Merton stepped into the next room, where the aborigines were supping; but on inquiry found that Wahwon was known to none of them.
"No," he said, again addressing Ralf. "Just come in here a moment. I want to speak to you." He went into the reading-room, followed by Ralf. The lamp on the table was lit, and both sat down on a long stool, the only kind of seating accommodation the apartment boasted. "I thought, perhaps, it would be as well to show you this note," Merton continued, taking, from his pocket-book the slip which had been pinned to the child's dress. "I want to see if our opinions coincide."
He watched the countenance of the overseer as he read: but it told him nothing. Ralf perused it unmoved, and passed it back with the same unconcern he had shown in taking it.
"Well, what's your opinion?" asked Merton.
"You can't take any notice o' that." said Ralf, "it's nothing to go by."
"How do you make that out? I thought it important."
"It isn't genuine, for one thing."
"No. It's signed 'Her father.' "
"Can't you see . . . that note was written by a woman?"
Merton hastily unfolded the note again, and looked carefully over it. It was, indeed, a lady's chirography, a fact, which he and Mrs. Merton had overlooked in their first cursory examination of it. The discovery made him more dubious and anxious than he had been at first. Here was deceit at the very outset; and no reliance could be placed in the contents of a letter written by a feminine hand and purporting to come from a man. Mr. Merton felt that his hopes of success were suddenly crushed. "I didn't notice this before," he said. "The thing's getting worse instead of better."
"You ought to've seen the sham at once. First thing I noticed. An' leavin' the writin' alone, there's the doubt about the mother. The writer says the kid's motherless or believed to be! What the deuce can you make of that?"
"I don't know what to make of it," said Merton. "The father ought to know positively whether she is or is not motherless—unless it's another case of 'strange disappearance.' "
"If it was we'd have heard of it, you may depend. There'd have been a hue an' cry in no time. It would be in the papers, an' everybody would be talkin' about it. The child, of course, would then be well known. That theory won't carry at all. How old is the child?"
"I should think she was about six months old."
"Then we may say the mother was with it for a certainty five months ago—"
"She must have been with it till very recently," Merton interrupted.
"Why so?" asked Ralf.
"They'd have honored me with the charge of it before now if it had been without a mother so far back as that."
"They might've an they mightn't. Just depends. The question is, what became of her if the father doesn't know whether she's dead or alive? If a man dictated the letter, an' there's any truth in its contents, it points to a deep mystery. What's your opinion?"
"I'm almost afraid to speak my mind. I'd rather hear yours."
"Well, to be candid," said Ralf, "I think it must be an illegitimate."
Merton winced, for his own thoughts were spoken in those words.
"I'll tell you for why," continued Ralf. "We'll suppose it to be legitimate, an' the mother deserted it an' her husband for another man. Such a thing couldn't very well be kept quiet, an' would be known to everybody. Nothing gets about quicker than scandal, or is harder to keep from leakin' out. If she disappeared any other way, the result would be the same, as I said before. The father's plight would be known, too, an' he'd be more likely to give the youngster to some woman he knew than to send it in such a way to a stranger as if he didn't care what became of it; an' above all, he wouldn't trust it to a blackfellow to carry through the bush as you might a poddy lamb. Now we'll take it as base-born, in which case it wouldn't be in charge of a father. The mother wouldn't be particular how she got rid of it as long as it was off her hands. Them sort o' mothers always want to get rid o' their kids, an' wouldn't think twice o' givin' it to a blackfellow to take to someone as the gel was brought to you. That's the way I look at it."
Merton groaned inwardly, and returned the note to his pocket-book. "It looks plausible enough," he said, "that I've been burdened with the offspring of some wretched woman. What am I to do? I can't rest with these doubts—these suspicions."
"Perhaps it'd be as well to have a look round before decidin' what to do with it. You might find out something—might run across the blackfellow again. It's a great pity you let him slip you up."
"That's where the shoe pinches, Ralf. But who would have supposed the devil would have run away like that?"
"He must have been put up to it," said Ralf.
"You think the mother, or father, instructed him to act like that?"
"Seems like it. What would be his reason else for not tellin' you all about it? An' blacks generally hang about, too."
"If it is as you say, we'll have a job to find him. Anyhow, I think it will be best to have a general search before doing anything else," said Merton. He meditated for some time before he resumed. "You'd better take some one with you and go to Wyrallah to-morrow, Ralf. He said he came from over that way. It might have been only a blind, but still it won't be any harm go over. Make inquiries, and see if you can find out anything bearing on the case. Bill Mayne can take a couple of others with him and go across to the mountain where Wren and his men are cutting pine. They would very likely know Wahwon, if he's been knocking about there. They can go then to Tillawong, and round home by Minara. I suppose that'll be as much as you'll be able to do. It'll be easy enough for you to recognise the black if you chance across him. He's middle-aged, and has a slight stoop in the shoulders. His dress when I saw him consisted of a patched pair of tweed trousers, torn Crimean shirt, and a worn out, chocolate-colored felt hat. He has a fairish long beard, going grey, and a big crooked nose. You'll know him by that and his clothes, for he's certain to have nothing to change with. Be ready to start away by daylight. You can get dinner at Mogilwooga on your way back."
"Will you be going out yourself?" said Ralf. "We may as well know each other's route, so as not to waste time goin' to the same places."
"Yes," said Merton. "I'll take Mumby with me and go to Goolgolgon and Badginbilly."
"There's a camp or two down the Bargo might be worth your while to have a look at." Ralf suggested. "There's no sayin' but what he might have dropped in there goin' back."
"I mean to have a look round there," Merton answered. "There's a pretty big tribe camped not far from Back Coorawynbah. They've been there a good while too. Maybe Wahwon is not unknown to them."
After a few more instructions to Ralf, and a word or two to Bill Mayne and Mumby, the Tipparoo tracker, Merton went back to the house to consult his wife on the new aspect of affairs.
"It seems to me that what is really wanted is a policeman and a doctor," said the lady, on being informed of the latest developments.
"What do you want with a doctor?" Mr. Merton inquired.
"To go round and see who's been . . . who's responsible . . ."
"I see! I think we'll defer that till a later date, my dear. For the present, we'll consider things—well, simply mysterious."
"Oh, that's just like a man!" Mrs. Merton exclaimed. "I hope they're not to remain 'mysterious' very long. I hate mysteries!"
The industrious Sam had breakfast prepared by candle-light next morning, and the stars had not yet disappeared from the sky when the search parties set out from the station.
Shortly afterwards Mumby trotted up to the garden gate, leading a big bay horse, ready saddled, for Merton. Mumby was a short, thick-set, adolescent black, and his smartness and intelligence made him a favorite with Richard Merton. He had the eye of a white hawk, and the cunning of a dingo, and was considered the best tracker on Tipparoo. He was equal to any bloodhound, and his taciturnity and 'cuteness were essential qualities that well fitted him for the post. He had tracked down many a cattle-duffer and horse-stealer, and bore a scar on his cheek from the bullet of a flying thief.
Confident of further distinguishing himself this day, he smiled with delight as Merton approached, and sprang from his saddle with an agility born of long practice.
"Do you see these tracks, Mumby?" said Merton, pointing to Wahwon's footprints with the butt of his stockwhip handle.
Mumby grinned. "That blackfeller walk about," he said.
"How do you know that not blonga white man?" asked Merton.
"Baal white man foot like it that. Only black feller walk um that way."
"Well," said Merton, "I want you to walk after him and see where he went to. You understand?"
"Don't let him see you, you know. Only find out where he camp; see?"
"I'll bring some tucker out and meet, you at the Fig-tree. Do you hear?"
"Yowie," said Mumby for the third time.
"Off you go, then, and if you lose that track I'll make tracks on you. So look out for yourself—and don't go to sleep. I won't be far behind."
Throwing the reins over his horse's head, Mumby mounted and started off on the track of his countryman, a shaggy-coated dog trotting along before him. The track led him for some distance in the direction of Badginbilly, when it suddenly veered to leftward, and followed a thick belt of scrub that clothed a long range running to the north of Goolgolgon, through which it required the sharpest eyes to see a track.
Richard Merton, riding along an hour or two later, did not fail to detect where Mumby had turned off, and he opined it would be some hours before the tracker could get round to Fig-tree—a watering place on the Bargo. Goolgolgon was not more than six miles from Tipparoo, and, being a hard rider, it was not long before Merton drew rein in front of a dilapidated bark hut, standing on the slope of a sandy hill, and facing the narrow winding stream above named. He found Jediah Roff, the supposed owner, stretched full length on his bunk, engrossed in a fascinating yellow-back. He jumped up at once, and looked somewhat disconcerted for a "free selector" on recognising his visitor.
I thought you'd be boundary-riding this morning, Jed," said the latter, looking up from under his bushy brows.
"Oh, the fences are all standing. I was round them last month," Jed answered. He tumbled off the bunk, and threw down the yellow-back.
"Have you nothing else to do?" asked Merton. "I think I could find plenty of work here."
"I've been ringbarking in the top paddock all the morning. Just came in for breakfast a while ago."
"Rather a late hour for breakfast, isn't it?"
"Well, it's not what you might call early," said Jed. I like to work while it's cool."
"I see! Hem! Where is Mrs. Roff?"
"Gone down to Coraki for a day or two."
"Oh!" said Merton, with a hasty glance round the walls of the hut. Then he proceeded to question the man concerning Wahwon and the mysterious woman, guardedly at first, then more openly; but failed to add to his stock of information.
"I suppose," said Jed, when Merton was about to remount, "I suppose you're aware that my five years on this place is up?"
"Oh, is it? I had quite forgotten the date. Well, you'd better stop on a bit longer. I want those paddocks finished. They ought to have been done long ago."
"I'd like a day off to-morrow to fetch the missus back," said Jed. "I'll want some money this evening, too."
"What's to-morrow—Saturday? All right; come in to the station to-night."
"So be it!" Jed Roff muttered when he was left alone. "To-night—not this evening! Very well, it'll be the last cheque you'll draw out for me, Dick Merton. Looking for Wahwon, are you? I like your chance. . . . It takes a smart man to run down a wild aborigine."
From Jed Roff's hut Richard Merton went to two or three aboriginal camps along the Bargo, and for an hour or so he amused himself at rooting out a litter of young dingoes from a hollow log and killing them at Back Coorawynbah, the one-time site of a big sheep station. Many such sites are to be met with about the Richmond—small, clear plots, often dotted with Scotch thistle, where the early pioneers had dwelt, and tended their flocks over wooded hills where the sheep's plaintive tremolo is now a strange sound. By many of them there are graves of murdered whites and slaughtered blacks, telling how the cattle runs had been won from the savage kings.
Merton next rode across to Badginbilly, the residence of Jabez Gegg, another selector. Not being a reading man, Mr. Gegg was hard at work digging out a dam to hold water for stock in dry weather.
"Well, Gegg," said Merton, "what sort of a claim have you there?"
"A darn stiff 'un," said Gegg. "This stuff sticks worse'n patent plaster." He gave his legs a shake to dislodge the viscous clay from his boots.
"I think you're pretty near deep enough. There's room there for a few thousand gallons, but you want to ease the batters a bit. They'll be rather steep for cattle when it's slippery the way you've got 'em."
"I'm goin' ter slope them a bit. How's the day goin'? Must be near chuck-time by the look o' the sun."
"A quarter to one," said Merton, referring to his watch.
"Time my damper was out," said Gegg. "Better hook your nag up an' 'ave some dinner. Be ready as soon's the billy boils."
Merton did so; and while Gegg put on the billy, and scooped a damper out of the ashes and dusted it, he pursued his inquiries, and was rather dumfounded at certain pieces of news that Gegg imparted, insomuch as he had expected to hear nothing from this man.
"I seen jes' the sort o' nigger as you describe," he said, "a-goin' up ter Jed Roff's hut 'bout sundown yesterday. I'd been ridin' up the crick lookin' for a roan heifer that ud got out o' the paddock. I didn't take much notice of him, as there's allers plenty of 'em pokin' about the bush lookin' for sugarbags, an' they often come to the huts cadgin' tobaccor; but I ken swear to his togs an' the humpy shoulders."
"Jed Roff told me distinctly that no black had been near his place."
"That jes' shows there's somethin' crooked. Yer can't take much notice o' wot he says, anyhow. Atween you an' me, he's as big a liar as ever walked in boots. S'elp me gob, he's that used to it that it gives him a sort o' surprise when he's found out in a truth. His past wouldn't stand lookin' into neither, take it from me. He's one o' the oughter-be's."
"What do you mean?" asked Merton, knocking the ashes from his pipe.
"Wal, I'll tell yer summat as I've never let on to anyone else," said Gegg, leaning with his hands on the table. "I knew Jed Roff up at Quirindi. We worked together on that way a good while; though Jed never opens his mouth about them days when we made the big cheques at shearin'. Good reason why. We was drinkin' one night at a pub after finishin' up a pretty good clip. We'd been keepin' straight a good while up to this time, an' was pretty well in for stuff; so we reckoned on havin' a real good spree. We started in, an' I s'pose we'd 'ad seven or eight rounds when in walks Charlie Mant. I don't s'pose you know him—a little shearer bloke as used ter knock about Boggabri an' them places. He was half boozed, an' there bein' some old scores atween him an' Jed, a few words brings up a row, an' they comes ter blows in the bar. The publican parted 'em, 'an they kep' quiet for a bit; but you know wot a cove is when he's shickered. You might's well talk to a post as to try an' reason with him. Mant begins maggin' ag'in, an' Jed gets his monkey up in no time, an' at it they goes 'ammer an' tongs. I drags Jed away this time, an' the publican gives Mant the kick-out. He staggered off up the road, an' not long after Jed Roff follers im. I didn't try ter argerfy him out o' goin', for I knowed bloomin' well if I did he'd want ter fight me. So I let him rip. I had plenty o' gonce, an' a man wot's got that needn't look long for a pot-mate. Wal, he was never heard of no more; but Mant was found next mornin' dead under a tree, an' a stone was picked up near him as they proved at the ingkwest he was killed with. Ev'rybody knew Jed Roff done it, an' a warrant was out for him; but he'd cleared, an' they've never found him yet."
"If this is true, and you knew all along where the man was, why have you never reported him?" asked Merton, who could not credit what he had heard.
"Wal, I didn't want ter hang the man. Let the traps hunt him out. It's their work, not mine—an' I ain't goin' ter be no informer."
"He could not have escaped this long if he was known as Jed Roff at Quirindi?" said Merton.
"He went be the name o' Fred Woolley up there," Gegg answered.
"You are sure he is the same man?"
"I wish I was as sure of a fortune."
"If I'd known this in time he wouldn't have lived on Goolgolgon."
"His time must be jes' about up, if I reckerlect."
"Yes . . . . he'll soon be out of it . . . . I think it would be well, though, unless you are prepared to prove your assertion, to say nothing about it now, or you may get yourself into trouble. It's a serious charge."
"I'm not likely ter blab. As I said afore, you're the only one as I've ever mentioned it to. It might come o' use to you in siftin' that bis'ness yer mentioned."
"Do you think he has any connection with it?"
"Hard ter say. Yer don't know wot that man is, or wot he's got ter answer for. One thing certain, he's a black sheep an' worth keepin' an eye on."
"I've often thought him eccentric. I could never understand him."
"Why," said Jabez Gegg, pausing in his occupation of wiping the tinware, and resting his knuckles on the slab table, "look at his missus! They say she's a real lady. But who knows, anything about her? She's shut up in that shanty as if she was a gorilla in a menagerie. Maybe she's sort o' shy an' not been runnin' long in double 'arness. Licks me all ter bits, anyway. I've only got 'bout two squints of her since I've been on Badginbilly. Once was when I was crossin' the crick at th' bottom corner. She was out at the clothes-line, an' it was the things she was hangin' up wot struck me more'n anything."
"What things were they?" asked Merton.
"Baby's clothes," said Gegg.
"You must have been mistaken," Merton returned. "They have no children."
"I dunno as they 'ave; but I ken take my 'davy them was baby's clothes—long 'uns too. Seein' them, I reckoned there must 've been a hincrease in the family."
"On what terms are you with Jed Roff? Have you any prejudice against him?" asked Merton. He thought it likely enough that Gegg had some ill-feeling against Roff, and wished to have him shifted from Goolgolgon.
"Wal," said Gegg, resuming operations, "I can't say as there's any love lost atween us; for all that, I ain't got any down on him. He leaves me alone, an' I never trouble him! In fact, we haven't spoke for a twelvemonth. But that comes of him not bein' one ter mix with people. He's a sort o' hermit, an' likes ter live alone from wot I ken make out. It's only since the Quirindi racket, though, that he's been took that way. He was another man altogether them days, allers full o" life—when he wasn't full o' liquor. He's turned sober now."
"Humph!" said Merton. "I never knew so much of Jed Roff before."
The conversation was continued through dinner, and much of the afternoon had waned before Merton's thoughts reverted to Mumby. The tracker had waited impatiently for his promised dinner, and when it arrived at Fig tree he was coiled up among the roots fast asleep; while his dog watched the horse as it wandered about in search of herbage. Merton's whip fell heavily across his legs, and he sprang up with a startled yell.
"I thought I told you not to go to sleep?" Merton demanded.
"You been berry long time bring um dinner," Mumby returned, rubbing his legs and eyes alternately.
"Did you find that blackfellow, then?"
"Me find where he been go."
"Where was that?"
"He go throo scrub round Goolgolgon, an' longa creek—sometime longa water hide um track. He go dis way, an' dat way—all wobble about like goanna. Den he leabe um creek au' yan longa hut."
"Where Jed Roff sit down."
"Yowie. Me track um longa door while Jed Roff been yan top paddock ring um tree. Then me think it Wahwon yan Pine Mountain."
"Well, look here," said Merton, "you hide your horse in one of these thickets here, and watch Jed Roff till he leaves the hut to-night. Dog him everywhere. Do you understand?"
"Yowie," said Mumby, dexterously catching the parcel Merton took from his saddle-pouch and threw to him. Merton now shaped his course homeward, well satisfied with his day's work, though, in sooth, he had discovered comparatively nothing in the way of proving the parentage of the child Edith. Ralf Havelock and the other men were even less successful, having no tidings whatever to communicate on their return. Ralf had merely gleaned that no woman had been called to her last bourne within the last nine months at Wyrallah; neither had there been any elopements or husband desertions.
The more Richard Merton reflected on the intricate problem, the stronger grew his belief that Jed Roff possessed the key of solution. He never took for granted all he heard, and was always slow to arrive at conclusions; but, though he did not credit all that Jabez Gegg had told him, he could not doubt the truth of what he had said in relation to Wahwon and the peculiar habits and proceedings of the Roff family, as this was in part confirmed by Mumby the tracker. He now required proof as to whether Mrs. Roff had really gone to Coraki, or whether Jed's assertion of such was a falsehood; and to carry this out he determined to have the selector's movements watched on Saturday. This might be productive of something that would ultimately reveal the extent of his connection with Edith, if any.
For Edith's sake, however, he hoped the investigation would show Jed Roff to be wholly unconcerned, as a man shadowed with the suspicion of a terrible crime was not a desirable associate. He saw with apprehension that each passing hour increased the ominous clouds that hung over little Edith, and he feared that she would yet become a thorn in his side.
WHEN Mumby had finished his dinner his first object was to ride to the lower end of Goolgolgon and conceal his horse in a clump of bushes. A small field of oats was growing not far from the spot he chose, and, stealing over, he cut a huge armful for his horse, so that the animal would be more contented when left alone. He then picked his way along the creek towards where he had seen Jed Roff at work in the morning; and guided by the sound of the axe, he climbed a steep hill, from which coign of vantage he watched the man cutting the fatal rings round the spotted gum trees along the slope below him. For an hour or so the axeman applied himself vigorously to his task, and then threw his axe down at the butt of a tree, and himself alongside it, Mumby was sufficiently versed in the ways of these men to know that Jed intended to indulge in a nap till the cool of the afternoon. He allowed half an hour to lapse, then betook himself to the hut. This was easy of access, the only fastening to the door being a wooden peg. He looked carefully around to ascertain that he was not observed, and remarked that the wood-heap had been shifted from its customary place by the galley and stacked against the back of the house. He gazed at this a few minutes, wondering; then shoved the door back and unceremoniously entered the domicile of Jed Roff.
'It contained four small rooms, in three of which he found nothing worthy of note, except a rough pine cupboard in the corner of one. The sight of a cook or a cupboard had a remarkably sharpening influence on Mumby's appetite; and before going further, he regaled himself at Jed's expense. The door of the fourth room was secured with a strong padlock and chain, and for a time baffled his attempts to open. He finally gained his end with the aid of a crowbar he found under a bunk, remarking to himself that no one would know who did the damage. The chain was snapped in twain, and the door flew back. Contrary to his expectations, the room was completely destitute of furniture. But it was not empty. It contained enough to surprise the sagacious black. Behind the door stood a rifle and a package of cartridges, whilst on the floor under the closed shutters was a pack saddle with full strappings; and four large swags, apparently containing clothing and blankets, lay near it. It occurred to Mumby, as a reason for his being employed as detective, that Jed Roff had committed some offence, and was making active preparations to abscond. He did not know that Jed had been granted a day's leave to go to town on the morrow. He had half a mind to unpack the swags and examine their contents. It might be the means of exposing something important to his boss.
He was debating this question when the sound of footsteps passing round the house fell on his ears and filled him with alarm. His first impulse was to arm himself with the rifle as an effective means of defence should the person, whom he had no doubt was Jed Roff, be inclined to show hostilities. A cursory inspection of the room, however, served to banish this thought. A few slabs had been placed for some purpose across the angle of the wall-plates, and he perceived in these a favorable retreat from the enemy. A batten was nailed anglewise on the wall, which rendered the ascent to the stage a facility. The agile black had mounted it in a trice, and concealed himself by crouching under the sloping roof. The position was extremely uncomfortable; but Mumby wasn't expecting luxuries just then. He had not long to wait before his interrupter walked into the room.
Great was Mumby's astonishment on perceiving that the man was not Jed Roff, but Jabez Gegg! What did this mean? It was palpable that his object was spoliation. He advanced to the swags, and without a moment's hesitation unrolled each one and overhauled its contents. These, as Mumby expected, consisted mostly of clothing, though one included several small wares—such as cutlery, toilet requisites, writing materials, letters, papers, tobacco, and so forth. The letters received particular attention from him, all of which he perused, and was so interested in one as to thrust it into his pocket. He also appropriated the tobacco and a few small articles; and leaving the things strewn about in disorder, went in search of more plunder. There was an air of indifference and coolness about him, and he exhibited a steadiness of purpose and a thoroughness in his operations that might have called for admiration in a better cause—the result of long experience, perhaps, in the craft of Bill Sikes and Co.
Shuffling round the room, his greedy eyes detected the rifle, which he was quick to lift. He examined it with the air of a connoisseur, and, apparently satisfied with its make and calibre, tucked it under his arm with the package of cartridges and left the room—and soon after the house.
Mumby remained in concealment until the sound of his retreating footsteps died away, when he hastily descended, and watched him through a crack in the wall until he disappeared from view. He looked regretfully at the plundered baggage, and, actuated by the fear of being inculpated for the thefts, made haste to leave the hut while the opportunity remained of escaping detection. He stole back to the ridge, at times crawling on his hands and knees where the sparse wood afforded him but little shelter, and was much relieved, on reaching his former post, to see Jed Roff still reposing in the shade of the gum tree. Indeed, the sun was drawing towards the western skyline, and the russet valley was mantled in one broad shadow, before he roused himself from his lethargy. He stretched himself and yawned, and, throwing the axe over his shoulder, strolled leisurely homewards. Mumby did not follow in his footsteps, but as soon as he was out of sight ran down to the creek, and back to the place where his horse was champing his bit and pawing the ground with growing impatience.
Jed Roff had gone into the hut, but presently came out again, manifesting signs of rage and agitation. The robbery had been discovered, and the manner of the victim boded ill to the perpetrator. He went slowly round the place, with his eyes fixed on the ground, til he stood a little in front, when he looked across the hills that lay betwixt him and Badginbilly, and shook his fist menacingly in the air. Mumby chuckled to himself, knowing that he was safe, for he had taken the precaution to cover his tracks. Jabez Gegg had not been so discreet, and Jed Roff had no difficulty in comprehending the situation.
It has often been remarked that these settlers reside for years in their huts without making one solitary track in their comings and goings. In this respect the habitation of Jed Roff was an exception, for the soil hereabouts was loose and sabulous, and many sinuous tracks diverged from the doors—to the front sliprails, to the cultivation, to the creek, and to the back part of the selection. Jabez Gegg, despite his experience and rustic sapience, had been imprudent enough to follow the track to the slip-rails, and so it was easy to track him down.
It may have been delight at the good haul he had made that caused him to so far forget himself as to ignore the fact that his huge hobnail boots left a clear and unmistakable impression in the soft sand behind him. No doubt he was even now gloating over his dishonestly acquired treasures in fancied security, while the indignant Jed re-collected his chattels and fumed over his loss. His horses came up from the paddocks, and stood waiting outside for their accustomed feed. Two big bays were shut up in the cockatoo yard and given a bucket of corn and chaff in a wooden trough. One of these was saddled about dusk, and Jed Roff, now apparelled in a neat black suit, mounted and rode down to the sliprails. Mumby thought he was bound for Badginbilly to settle accounts with Jabez Gegg, and at once made up his mind to be near at hand to see the scrimmage. But he was soon to be undeceived, for Jed Roff took the road leading to Tipparoo.
When the shadows had sufficiently deepened to render objects indistinct, Mumby vaulted lightly into his saddle and followed. On reaching the road he thought he saw a horseman on the brow of a hill to his left, where a faint glow yet fell from the fading crimson of the sky. It vanished almost instantly, and Mumby took no further heed, but jogged along the track, peering ahead of him, and now and again calling his dog behind as it ran in front in its eagerness to get home.
About two miles away the road passed between several sandy mounds, beyond which was a bit of brush to the right. Here the night lay dark as pitch, and Mumby, though keeping close up, could not see the man before him, and was only guided by the hoofbeats of the quick-striding bay. But here was a long stretch of thick sand which deadened the sounds, and Mumby was quickening his pace when he heard the cracking of twigs to rightward. He reined in and listened. At first he could faintly hear what resembled the tramping of a horse; then something ran swiftly through the dry grass and into the brush. Thinking it but some nocturnal animal, Mumby pressed on, for the foremost horseman by this time had obtained a good lead, and Mumby was anxious not to lose sight of him.
He had reached about the middle of the brush, when suddenly the sharp report of a rifle rang out on the night air, and Mumby, with a faint moan, dropped forward and fell from his saddle. The horse, terrified even more than the birds that flew from their perches with loud cries and flapping of pinions, galloped furiously up the road, with the dog panting closely at its heels. Then followed a rustling and oscillation of bushes, and a dark form emerged from the thicket and stood in the open. For a moment he remained in a hearkening posture, then beat a hasty retreat as a horseman came trotting down the path. The horse stopped short and snorted when it came to the spot where Mumby lay still and silent on a bed of sarsaparilla vines. The rider dismounted and struck a match, and an exclamation of horror escaped him on espying the body of Mumby, lying with his arms spread out and his face turned to the sickly stars. He gazed long and steadfastly at the rigid features, but shrank from any contact with it. A thin stream of blood was flowing from a wound in the head, and no signs of life were perceptible. Poor Mumby's days were numbered, and his shadow would never again flit in the wake of Jed Roff. It was he who stood there wondering who had fired the fatal shot. He gazed around him, but the gloom was so impenetrable that he could not distinguish objects within reach. A thought seemed to enter his mind that the murderer might be lurking in the wood, and would shoot him also; for on a sudden he mounted his horse and departed at a hand-gallop.
The man who had first appeared again emerged from his hiding place and approached the body, carrying in his hands a heavy link chain and a coil of rope. It was clear that the crime and its location had been premeditated; for the vines on which Mumby lay were growing on the very brink of a deep, stagnant pool. Into this the body was rolled after being carefully weighted with the chain, and it sank with a gurgling sound. All this was performed in the dark, the villain fearing to produce a light lest it should lead to his discovery.
"There," he muttered when his gruesome task was complete, "that job's done an' Jed Roff will trouble me no more. He was the only one as knowed my secret, an' there was no tellin' when he might put a feller away. But he's silenced now. 'Dead men tell no tales.' It was a good shot considerin' it was that dark I could scarcely see him, though I was almost close enough to've touched him with the barrel. Wonder who the cove was, though, as come up an' went back ag'in? Some un from the station, perhaps, as was comin' out, an' now gone back ter report. Wish I'd put a plug in him, then no un would a' knowed wot become o' Jed Roff."
He little thought that Jed Roff was at that moment at Tipparoo.
On that fatal evening Mr. Merton was seated before his desk engaged in the computation of some monetary matters, while Roff stood by holding his hat in his hand. He was a tall man, with broad, square shoulders, that gave an aspect of herculean power to his well-knit frame. He could not be called handsome though his countenance was not an unpleasant one, and his full black beard was neat and trim. He had a high, commanding forehead, fringed with hair that had a natural curl in it, and so dark and glossy as to have an oleaginous appearance. His eyes, which inclined to a greyish tint, were steady and fearless, mostly mild in their light, but at times hard and fierce. His dress was modest and unpretending, and he looked every inch a gentleman.
It was mooted about when he first came to Tipparoo that he was a man of refined tastes and good breeding, a man who had seen better days, and had been reduced by adverse circumstances to seek a livelihood among backblock stations. He took a contract to ringbark a quantity of timber at a shilling an acre on Tipparoo, at which he made sufficient money to take up a selection a few months later. That was the hypothesis; but many knew that he was only a dummy—that is, he selected the land, not for his own use and benefit as required by the Act, but in the interests of Richard Merton, and for the augmentation of that gentleman's freehold property. This was a common practice among squatters in the early days of "free selections," as evidenced by the fact of so many settlers abandoning their lands at the expiration of the required duration of residence.
"The very Act," old Ralf would say when discussing this question in the reading-room at the hut, "the very Act that'd been formulated and passed by the Legislature for settlin' people on the land that was held by the squatters had the opposite effect o' placin' it in the squatters' possession altogether; and the revenue that was derived annually from the leases was lost to the Government. Of course, they got a pound an acre altogether at the end of five years. But what's that? Isn't it chuckin' it into the squatters' hands—givin' 'em a monopoly? When the time's up the selectors clear out, an' the position's worse'n ever. The improvements are pulled down, or left to go to ruin, an' more than all, it's out of the Government's control. Now, wouldn't it be better for the Government to sell the Crown lands by auction, an' let them buy it as liked? Grazin' would have to come to a poor pass when land like this wouldn't fetch two quid an acre. Any amount 'ud buy it at two quid that wouldn't select under the conditions of the Act. There'd be some good in that, but the way they're doin' now is only doin' harm. Look at all the dummyin' that's done. Nine out o' ten are dummies, take, it from me."
Even at the present day, under the new Act, when the more rigid conditions and restrictions engender numerous difficulties in the way of acquiring such conditional grants under false pretences, this dummying is carried on to an enormous extent. The method instituted for the diffusion of population has had in many cases the result of simply devastating the country by destroying vast stretches of valuable timber through that ruinous custom of ringbarking, which, till lately, constituted an "improvement" under the stipulations of these defective Land Acts.
A wholesale destruction of marketable timber, a small strip of cultivated land, a cockatoo fence, a temporary yard, and a few frail structures of a similar kind, crowned with a rough bark hut, comprised the bulk of the improvements that had been made on Goolgolgon—and that can be taken as an example of "improved settlements;" and here stood the selector, prepared to receive his last stipend, and to resign his estate to the man for whom he had taken it up five years before, and in whose interests he had worked the whole of that time.
"Your wages," said that gentleman, looking up from his ledger, "amount to seventeen pounds ten shillings—that is, up to the end of the year. I'll pay you up to then, and that'll leave a clear start from the first of the quarter?"
"You may as well make it twenty pounds while you're at it," said Roff. "It won't be so much trouble to write, and it's hardly worth while breaking the score."
"Why should I make it twenty pounds?" Merton demanded.
"Well," said Roff, "apart from the fact that we are nearly into Christmas week, I've just handed you the deeds that entitle you to the possession of Goolgolgon."
"Am I not entitled to it by the money I've paid you during the past five years? What more do you want?"
"That's not the way to look at it. Many a man in my position would have been rogue enough to stick to the selection and tell you to go to the devil when the time came to deliver up. I've seen it done before to-day."
"You forget that I have your receipts for money lent. Pay me the amount I've lent you and you can stick to the property and welcome. I want the money more than the land." Mr. Merton knew very well that Roff could not refund the money, otherwise it is doubtful if he would have offered the alternative.
"Don't think because I give you an illustration of what could be done by a rogue," said Roff, "that I'd stoop to such a practice. If I had a mind to I could put in a counter-claim for work done on the station—but we'll let it pass. Goolgolgon is yours; I'm not going back again."
"Well, come back to the station after your holiday, and I'll see what I can do for you then. Times are pretty bad just now; I've had some heavy losses, and I'm short of money."
"Very well," said Roff. The cheque was drawn out and handed over.
"And now," said Merton, slewing round in his chair and crossing his legs, "I want to ask you a few questions. You told me this morning that you didn't know Wahwon, and that you saw no blackfellow about Googolgon on Thursday. I've been told since that Wahwon was seen going to your hut late yesterday evening."
"That's a lie!" said Roff. "It was Jabez Gegg who told you that. That fellow would hang his own father. I know a little of his career."
"And you swear that no blackfellow visited your hut yesterday?"
"I swear nothing. Blacks are often wandering about the bush. There are three camps, as you know, down the creek."
"Humph! How long has your wife been down at Coraki?"
"About a week."
"Do her people live there?"
"Her parents are dead. A brother is the only relative she has."
"Did she take her child with her to Coraki?" Jed Roff started, and a slight change seemed to come over his face.
"Her child!" he said, looking hard at Merton. "She has no children."
"There were infant's cloths on your line not long ago. Whose were they?"
Roff meditated for a moment; then he said sarcastically: "I suppose Jabez Gegg saw them also? He sees things that no one else does . . . . and his actions are not known to everybody. I've got a bone or two to pick with him, and they'll be picked pretty clean too . . . . by-and-by."
"How long, have you been married, Roff?" Merton persisted.
"About fifteen months," Roff answered.
"Fifteen months? Hem!" said Merton, as though this was a revelation to him. "I believe your wife has been at Goolgolgon only during the last couple of months. Where was she staying before that?"
"With her brother at Tallagalba."
"What was her maiden name?"
"She was well circumstanced, I believe?"
"She was the daughter of a retired banker."
"Humph! You'll excuse my inquiring into your private affairs, Roff. There's things I don't understand . . . . and—er . . . . . I suppose your wife's brother is still over there?"
"No; he went to Melbourne a week ago. He sold Tallagalba to a Mr. Foster."
"Oh! I knew Foster well. And so he's got Tallagalba now! . . . . Hem! Where did you first know Jabez Gegg?"
"In the shearin' sheds out Quirindi way. We were mates one time."
"Oh!" said Mr. Merton, quite satisfied with this answer. "Hem! Of course, you'll be back by Sunday night?"
"Very well," said Merton. "Good night!"
"Good night!" Roff returned. Five minutes later he had left the station.
Nothing had been said about Mumby, for Merton had an impression that he had tracked Roff to the homestead and was only awaiting an opportunity to make his report; and Roff, though wavering for some time, had at last concluded that it would be better not to mention what he had seen, as so doing would delay him a week and upset his plans, without assisting the matter further than by making the tracker's fate known a few hours earlier. Mumby would be missed in the morning, and the first to go along that road would find his body by the pool. Had he of known that Mumby had been employed all day in shadowing him he might have acted differently, as he would then have seen his own danger.
He rode back at a swinging gallop until he reached the pool. Here he drew rein and dismounted, intending to assure himself that the blackfellow was still there. But the only trace was a few blood-stained leaves. Perhaps he had only been stunned, and, on recovering, had made his way home through the bush. The pool was still dark, and the weird silence around was only broken at intervals by the deep hoot of the boobook owl. He mounted and galloped away from a place that was suggestive of bunyips and ghosts, and did not draw rein again until he reached his own sliprails.
Tipparoo was enlivened about once a week by the arrival of bullock teams, passing to and from Pine Mountain and the mouth of Tomki Creek, engaged in trucking pine logs to the river, to be rafted to sawmills and to vessels at Coraki.
Saturday evening was marked by the advent of these teams; and the thunderous crack of whips, the creaking of the low block-wheels, and the deep-toned voices of the drivers, re-echoed through the resonant wood, as the long teams came filing up the hill, and went creeping on past the homestead to a camping place below. There the bullocks were unyoked, and big brass bells strapped to the necks of those that were given to wandering. Then the tucker-boxes were hauled down from the tops of the loads, and fires built to boil the billies. The light-hearted bullockies bustled about in their shirt-sleeves and torn trousers—often ripped from boot to belt—some whistling a lively hornpipe or a quick waltz, others singing scraps of bush songs; while the deep tones of the bells mingled with the sharp clear notes of the mopokes. The fires were burning briskly, the billies were boiled, and the supper of damper and beef was in progress, when Richard Merton appeared on the scene and at once entered into conversation with a dark-bearded giant, named Harry Wren.
"Have you seen my blackboy—Mumby—in your travels, Wren?" he asked.
"Not since Monday—Monday, wasn't it, he came to our camp, Jim?" said Wren, in a strong, deep voice, to one of his three companions.
"Yas, lookin' for a bool," drawled Jim, a long, loose-made, clean-shaven rustic, as he sliced off a huge piece of damper.
"You've missed him since Friday dinner time, old Ralf was tellin' me?" said Wren.
"Yes, he ought to've been back last night. His horse was found feeding along the fence this morning with the saddle and bridle on—but the reins broken as though it had pulled away from somewhere. We've been searching all day, but could find no sign of him. I'm afraid he's met with an accident, as his dog came back to camp last night. The blacks took him out round Goolgolgon, thinking Mumby had got a buster and was unable to get up, and that the dog would lead them to the spot; but they might as well have had a nanny-goat for all the good he was."
"That's strange!" said Wren musingly. "Did he ever stop away before?"
"He ran away once when he was a youngster, and went back to his camp at Cobar Top. I'd whipped him for chasing calves about. He's always been a good blackboy since then."
"He might be lyin' hurt somewhere, Mr. Merton," said Wren.
"I'm afraid so," Merton rejoined. "He's not been to any of the camps on the Bargo—Hulloa! Who is this?"
"Magnus Susman, by the go of him," answered Jim. "Yer ken tell that cove a mile off. His legs is allers goin' like the pendulum of a clock. His 'orses never take no notice of him. They knows darn well he can't ride. No mistake, he makes me laugh."
Magnus Susman, the owner of Wangooma Station, the newcomer proved to be. He was riding a little chestnut mare, which shied at the group by the fire, and nearly added Mr. Susman to their number, thus verifying Jim's declaration as to his indifferent horsemanship.
Harry Wren, who was quaffing tea from a pannikin at the moment, nearly choked as Mr. Susman's foot flew out of the stirrup while something guttural that sounded suspiciously like suppressed laughter emanated from the vicinity of "Long Jim." The other pair, more modest, looked away from one another.
"Whoa, you brute!" cried Mr. Susman, reestablishing his equilibrium in the saddle and giving the reins a jerk that caused the mare to throw her head up and smack him in the mouth. Something that was wholly incompatible with the laws of polite language as laid down by Lord Chesterfield was evoked from the afflicted gentleman, who now made haste to plant himself on terra firma. He was a little, squat, bandy-legged man, with a hard, beardless face. His head was as bald as a claypan, though he was yet under thirty. His complexion was sallow, almost unhealthy in its look, and his eyes were small and shifty. He was unmarried; some said he was a misogynist. So far as the women-folk were concerned, it mattered little whether he hated them or loved them, for they certainly could never admire him, as his face was a decided sin against handsomeness, while his voice was weak and effeminate. But he had one redeeming point, which, in the eyes of many women, would counterbalance his defective qualities. He was wealthy, the Tyson of that little quarter of the world, who scarcely knew where his thousands ended. His home, secluded in a dense environment of trees and shrubs, built for the most part of solid stone, with its many lichen-covered gables and turrets, its long, wide walls, and its clematis-screened porticoes, was a veritable castle in its way; a palace, whose cheerless walls had echoed the foot-treads of many a dead generation, that was attractive alike to the archaeologist, the curious and inquisitive tourist, and the lover of the romantic and weird; yet rendered inaccessible to all by the retiring disposition and somewhat hermitical habits of its occupant. In years gone by, it was rumored, its sturdy doors had stood wide in welcome to a certain lady, who chose not to enter, and they closed with a posthumous obdurateness against the female world—against all but one old withered hag, who had been there for an unknown number of years, and who did all the housekeeping, which was not a great deal, seeing that she and her master were the only inmates of Wangooma. True it is he had made several attempts to evict her, but she had stubbornly refused to be evicted, claiming privilege to live there by virtue of her having served his grandfather and his father before him, and had seen them laid one by one in their graves in the garden, where grew the richest and most luxuriant rose-bushes on Wangooma. It had been her long hope, her one ambition, to be made mistress of his castle, and to have servants and maids to wait on her to felicitate her declining years. But the sour and wrinkled aspect of Hannah Grubbins's countenance, her flat bust and hunch-back, had ever been an eyesore to Magnus Susman, and he would much rather be laid with his forefathers under the rose-tree than linked with her in matrimony.
He had sworn to go to his grave unmarried, and believed that he would never desire to break the oath; and so with his decease would pass away the last of the race of Susmans. Theirs was a long race, whose genealogy was traceable to the days of Queen Anne; but it had never been an illustrious one. There was always something of a stigmatical character in their successive careers, and an hereditary inclination to sordidness and covetousness that made them unpopular members of society—men who were openly shunned and studiously snubbed by the fastidious and the well-born.
Though for many years Magnus, the last of the Susmans, had led a life of honor, and striven against the evil genii that had shadowed his progenitors, to wipe out his birthstain and purify his ignoble name, his rejection on the threshold of Love's realm was disastrous to such resolutions, and shaped his course in the way which all had gone before him. It was not exactly a course of utter dissoluteness and degradation; but it imparted enough of abandonment to destroy his equable standing with gentlefolk—to make him an outcast.
He was indifferent to the state and style of his dress, though he exhibited a little care in this respect when he paid a visit to Tipparoo. That was seldom; being, for the most part, when some pressing necessity demanded such diversion from his wonted routine of solitude. Those unacquainted with his every-day life, and of his past, attributed his moodiness and solitary habits to the tragical episodes that had given the "castle" such wide renown. His father, Septimus Susman, the reputed owner of Wangooma, had fallen downstairs and sustained injuries from which he shortly afterwards died. Magnus had just before returned from college, where be had conceived a passion for a young lady not definitely known, but supposed to have run away with a penniless nondescript; and he resided at the station with his Uncle Lincoln, and his cousin Floyd. The latter was a quiet and unassuming young fellow, who was spoken of as the best of them all, though he was much like his cousin Magnus in courting seclusion. It was said that Magnus Susman had come to vegetate in the country until he had recovered from the mystic blow the unknown had dealt him. He was no longer the civil and courteous young gentleman of former days. He was surly and bearish in manner, unsociable, quarrelsome, and at times violent in his temper. His wicked propensities soon destroyed the equanimity of the household, and caused him to be disliked by everyone. He cherished an insatiable hatred of his cousin Floyd, as it transpired after his father's death that his uncle Lincoln was the owner of the estate, and consequently Floyd was directly heir to the property, which Magnus had believed from his boyhood would one day be his, and had looked upon his cousin Floyd as a "two-legged object without expectations."
Despite the animosity existing between them, however, they were frequently hunting and shooting together. But there came a sudden and violent severance; and there were those who turned to their companions afterwards with, "I told you so!" "I knew this would happen!" and such commentaries.
Ralf Havelock, addicted to certain hobbies as well as most men, had a penchant for cutting paragraphs out of papers and pasting them in a bulky album—paragraphs relating to convicts. police, squatters, floods, droughts, fires, stock and station matters, and anything that was mysterious and marvellous. Among the matter thus stored up was the following script, over which Ralf, when referring to his album for something to clinch an argument, or opening it to add to his treasures, would often pause and shake his head:—
(FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT.)
The flood, which is now subsiding, was synchronous with the sad disappearance of Lincoln Susman, Esq. of Wangooma. He was observed going towards the creek late on Thursday evening, and has not since been heard of. Parties have been out searching two days, and it is now feared he is drowned. Local opinion is that he got beyond his depth while rescuing some floating pumpkins, as he was observed thus occupied an hour or two earlier, and was swept, away by the strong current. Much sympathy is expressed for his bereaved nephew, who is now the only living member of the long race of Susmans. It will be remembered that a month ago Mr. Magnus Susman had the misfortune to shoot his cousin Floyd, through a gun accidentally exploding on Kangaroo Flat while they were shooting together; and a little time previously his father was killed by falling down stairs in the dark.
Wangooma has been a cynosure to dozens of surrounding settlers during the last two days, and the sad events, occurring one so closely upon another, that have given this well-known homestead a kind of melancholy fame, are paramount in the minds of all. Mr. Susman was seventy-five years of age, and could not swim.
Since all this had happened, some mouths ago, Magnus Susman had not been seen at Tipparoo till this particular night, yet, as he stepped within the light of the camp-fire, there was no effusive greeting on his part, or enthusiasm in his manner at the meeting with his neighbor—the only gentleman who still honored him with the hand of friendship, now an almost forgotten quality with Magnus Susman.
"How do you do, Mr. Susman?" said Merton. "This is a pleasure I did not expect." Long Jim turned his head and grinned.
"I've just come over from Long Swamp," said Susman, and his appearance would not have belied him, if he had said he had come out of a quagmire. "I saw you had a big fire over here as I was crossing Stony Ridge," Susman continued. "I thought your grass might be alight, and feared it would spread on to my run. The grass is long and dry now, and would go like billy-ho once it got a-start."
"A fire!" cried Merton, alarmed in a moment. "Where?"
"Over Goolgolgon way. Look, you can see the redness of it from here."
All had risen to their feet, and turned their eyes in the direction that Magnus Susman indicated with a jerk of his thumb. There, through the murk, could be seen the broad, ruddy glow of a great fire reflected on the dusky sky, growing broader and deeper every moment as the flames increased below; and gradually the long, dark bank of the mountain grew clearer till the tops of the tallest pines stood out faintly in the dim light.
"By cripes!" drawled Jim, "it's a gorner with them logs we drawed out o' the bend Monday, two weeks, or I'm a spifflicated goslin'."
"Gerrout, yer fool," said another man: "fires don't burn green scrubs."
Don't they! That's all you know about it. By gum! I've seen 'em burn scrubs in Gippsland—never leave a blasted leaf. An' I've seen flames leap over the Murrumbidgee, an' run down gallopin' horsemen an' burn 'em to cinders! Would yer b'lieve that?"
"No, Jim, old man. Been bullock-punchin' too long. Try it on the kids."
"Garn!" said Jim. "You mud-splodgers don't know wot a bush fire is. Why, knock me stiff! There ain't nothin' 'ere ter make a bloomin' fire!"
His mate, pointed to the bright crimson glow in the eastern sky. "Look there!" he said, an' tell me yer mulgas ter-morrer night!"
A fire can be seen a long way off in the night-time, when there is no counter-light from the sun; but it is deceiving, almost incalculable, in respect to its distance. It was at first impossible from the position whence they viewed this fire to tell on which side of Pine Mountain it was raging. It may have been in contiguity with the home-paddocks of Tipparoo, or it may have been miles beyond, in some thickly grassed valley to the north of Wyrallah. It is difficult to tell the location; it looks alarmingly near when in reality it may be so far removed as to leave no grounds for fear.
"It's hard to say where that is," said Merton. "It looks a good way off."
"If I'm not mistaken, it's about where Goolgolgon is," said Wren."
"Do you think so?" Merton asked, with the quickness of alarm.
"I do. When you look at it awhile yer can see it spreadin' this side o' the mountain. See! the smoke hides it."
"I don't know who could've started a fire there. Jed Roff is away."
"P'raps it's come from Badginbilly . . . . seems too much to th' left though."
"I must send someone over," said Merton. "You'll stop for tea, Susman?"
"Thanks, no; I must get home. I'll come round later if there's any danger." He scanned the sky with a sweeping glance.
"There's every danger if that's on this side of the mountain," Merton rejoined. "I fear it is, too."
"If so, you might send the blackboy over, and I'll come out with my men." So saying, Magnus Susman mounted his fractious chestnut after hopping round on one leg for some minutes—and trotted away into the darkness, while Richard Merton hurried up to the hut to despatch four of the stockmen to Goolgolgon. They had already supped, and, horses being handy, were soon in the saddle. They brushed over the ground at a swinging pace, discoursing in stentorian tones, and laughing with the levity of schoolboys; now breaking off into a wild descant, now venting a reverberating yell as an epilogue, and dashing off on a sudden into full gallop through the thick wood. They were but examples of their fellows, in no whit exaggerating the buoyancy and frolicsomeness of the stock-rider's disposition. They are a jovial band, men who never look at the seamy side of life, who never seek to meet trouble half-way. The thrilling nature of their avocation, replete with adventure and scenes of excitement, may, in some measure, be answerable for this flamboyant spirit; the danger ever-present, the never knowing at what moment they may be thrown into eternity, does not incline them to take life too seriously. It imbues them with a love for daring, and all that partakes of excitement, and together they make life merry for themselves.
Like the Wild Horseman of Tartary, they fly past the trees for awhile, then rein in and laugh loudly at their own wild pranks. A tardy 'possum, scrambling in terror up a tree, receives an unexpected whack from a stirrup iron or the handle of a stock-whip; the curlew's threnody is changed to a semi-human shriek as it flies off, and the prowling dingo accelerates its sober trot to get out of the way, looking askant over its shoulder and sniffing the scented air.
On the crest of the last hill every rein was drawn taut as with one hand, and all looked down the escarpment, uttering various ejaculations, followed directly by a loud shout and wild gallop.
Goolgolgon was a black patch, encompassed by a great circle of leaping flames; a thousand lights from burning logs and stumps lit up the black space till it looked like a large city nestling in a low valley; a steady, continual roar, like the booming of Wentworth Falls in flood, rose from the speeding billows of flame; cracks like rifle-shots came from bursting wood, emitting myriads of fiery sparks that shot skyward with the brilliance of a contiguous constellation; whilst clouds of smoke rolled over the tall gums with the veering of the night wind. The old hut that had so long been a landmark there was a smouldering heap of ruins, and the yards and fences were reduced to cinders and ashes. Nor were the ravages of the fire-king restricted to the neighborhood of Goolgolgon, for the long grass that clothed the hills and flats on the way to Badginbilly was being rapidly consumed.
"We'd better go down to old Gegg an' see how things are goin' there," said Ralf. "Looks deuced smoky down that way."
"We can't do any good 'ere—the damage is all done; an' there's no hope o' checkin' it at the top. It's a blue duck with Tipparoo."
"I think the boss ought to know about it, though," said Bill Mayne. "He said something about Susman comin' out with his lot—such as they are—if there was any need, an' there's need enough by th' look o' things."
"You'd better gallop in an' tell him, Bill," said Ralf. "Might bring Big Harry and Long Jim an' them other two jokers back with yer. Be as slippery as yer can . . . . We'll be down at Gegg's."
"There's work enough here for a 'undred," he added, when Bill Mayne had gone. "Look how it's goin'! Half Tipparoo an' a lot o' Wangooma run'll be swept afore mornin'. The grass is long from not bein' burnt at the beginnin' o' spring, an' it's as dry as tinder. There's a nice treat for us to-morrow, mates, an' p'raps for days after, bashin' at that under a broilin' sun. But let's get along."
"No sliprails to put down now," one of his companions remarked, laughing lightly enough, as the trio rode over the demolished boundary fence, and cantered across the ridge towards Badginbilly hut.
Jabez Gegg, armed with a huge bush, was hard at work, bashing at the flames. Ralf and his mates, tying their horses up on the burnt ground, armed themselves with bushes and hurried to his assistance.
"What the deuce set this going, Jabez?" cried Ralf, as he ran up.
"I'm darned if I know," said Jabez, stepping back for a moment, and wiping the perspiration from his forehead with a smearing sweep of his forefinger. "It was inter my paddick afore I knowed anything about it, an' I 'ad all me work cut out ter save the old shanty, jigger me if I 'adn't. It was close up a go with it. The bloomin' fire come down off them hills with such a rush there was no stoppin' it. Come from that way, see! . . . . No un else could a-started it but Jed Roff."
"Jed Roff's at Coraki. Left early this mornin'."
"He must 'ave left a fire burnin' somewheres. How's the hut?"
"Ashes!" said Ralf, swinging his bush.
"That's it!" Gegg rejoined. "He's went away without dousin' his fire, an' it's caught the hut, an' then the grass. That's how it was. I'll go bail he done it a-purpose, too. You see! He won't come back ag'in."
"Why should he burn it or clear out?" asked Ralf.
"Oh, he's got his reasons. You don't know him." said Gegg. "You'll see! He's cleared out."
And he thought it impossible that Jed Roff could return, that he could ever again be seen alive; for he firmly believed it was Jed Roff who lay at the bottom of the pool, where Mumby the tracker was weighted down so securely that his fate and his grave might never be known—unless the threatened drought should dry up the pool and reveal the skeleton-in-chains embedded in mud. Conjectures had been rife as to his fate. But thoughts of Mumby were far from the minds of Ralf and his mates just now.
They went to work with a will while the exultant demon leaped and roared in its fearful gambolling, and gathered strength and speed, as it raced away on all sides. How insignificant their opposition seemed, how futile their efforts, how wasted their time and energies, fighting in one little corner of that broad circle that turned day into night and illumined the bush in all the colors of the rainbow. They were reinforced by all the available hands on Tipparoo—even the stalwart Sam, for the first time during his sojourn there, mounted a horse and did his best to keep pace with the more experienced riders; by such of the settlers and their boys who dwelt near; and Magnus Susman, too, went out, followed by all his men, who were two blacks and one old fossil, who, like Hannah Grubbins, had cut his teeth and shed them on Wangooma; and also the aborigines on Back Coorawynbah, who, fearful for their own safety, went out in a body to meet this periodical foe, and managed to stem it along by the waters of the Bargo.
As for the others, though they fought it all night, they had succeeded only in saving Badginbilly when the sun rose over Pine Mountain. All Sunday the battle was continued; but so unequal was the conflict that, when night again settled on them, the flames still raged with unabated fury. Indeed, for many days and nights after it burned; its leaping columns rolled away to the hills of Gundurimbar, and round the swamps and flats of Wyrallah; and towards the north it sped like howling demons to feed with insatiable lust on the foxtail plains of Tomki. In parts alone was it got under, whilst elsewhere it ran on till it burnt itself out in lagoons and creeks. Great was the damage wrought, and vast the expanse of pasturage destroyed. Half of Tipparoo was laid bare and black—the half that was best watered, and upon which Richard Merton was relying for winter feed.
Fires lingered long in the dry timber, and here and there huge forked tongues of flame shot up from the lofty top of a hollow tree, looking beautiful in the night, but terribly suggestive. The charred carcases of ill-fated beasts—of many a wild animal that had been hemmed in a corner, or had sought refuge in hollow logs; of snakes and goannas, shrivelled and twisted; of turtles caught travelling from dried-up holes—were everywhere to be met with; whilst cattle mixed and wandered about, cows bellowing for their calves, and calves for their mothers; and among it all went cinder blackened men, chopping lighted sap-wood and splinters from the fences yet standing, and rolling burning logs out of danger.
These are some of the features of a bush fire, scenes that live in memory and make the element a thing to be dreaded. And all this happened in Christmas week, in that season of festivity and gladness when the actions of all are regulated by the same impulse all the world over, when the very birds seem to echo the old refrain, "Peace on earth and good will to men."
There was little peace for the men of Tipparoo and Wangooma, or for the settlers around by the out-stations of Minara and Tillawong, for these worn-out men spent the days in the midst of fires, parched with thirst, and writhing from the intense heat; and yet they could canter home in the night with merry laughter ringing across the gum-ridges. New Year brought a well-earned rest—a holiday in town; then the fires were all burnt again across the bars, raging now in Gippsland, and now along the Mumumbidgee; and snakes and goannas scurried in legions till the stock-riders and bullockies began to comb them from their hair.
The fire had been disastrous to Richard Merton, and the ominous face of ruin began to hover about his threshold. Year after year he had been going steadily downhill, and the last shock was a crusher.
"It never rains but it pours!" he said; and he wondered what would happen next. A horse man rode up to the stockyards, singing:—
"Tell me, Molly Riley, does your heart beat true?"
and Merton laughed as he turned away.
When the first week in the New Year had passed, and Jed Roff had not returned, Richard Merton instituted an inquiry, which led to the discovery that he had never gone to Coraki, nor had his wife been seen or heard of in the town. Where was she? What had become of her? Foul play was freely hinted at, and none was more assiduous in sowing the seed of suspicion than Jabez Gegg. It was a settled thing in the minds of all that Jed Roff was in league with Wahwon, and that one of them had started the big fire; but few could yet look at it in the same light as Jabez Gegg—that a double crime had been committed and the hut burnt down to hide the traces. There was reason enough to believe that he had given Mumby his quietus, the latter having been set to watch him, and that is a thing the average man detests; but had he made away with his wife also, or was she travelling with him to some out-of-the-way place? Everything had been well planned; he had got his wife secretly en route before making a move himself, and thus unhampered had slipped away unnoticed. Such was the argument of Richard Merton, who, from a vague idea that Edith was connected with Jed Roff, tried hard enough to expel from his mind all thoughts that the man was linked with crime.
Mrs. Merton took a more satisfactory view of the matter. She would not hear of such a thing as that her foster-child was related to such a man as Roff, who, if he had done nothing else, had all but ruined her husband, and run away to hide like a criminal. She did not spare Jed Roff, but spared Edith from such as he.
She loved the child with a mother's love, and, to satisfy her own caprice, had been driven to Casino, where, in the old church by the river, she had the babe christened Edith Merton.
She had held it with her own hands at the baptismal font, and many had taken it in their arms and kissed its chubby cheeks when the service was over. That was on a Sunday morning in February, when the world had looked fair and promising for Edith, the unknown; and now that fair name was blemished by circumstances hinting at her birth. However much Mrs. Merton protected her, she could not stay the tongues of those beyond her kin.
It was one of many evenings spent about Goolgolgon, when all hopes of finding Jed Roff and Mumby were gone, that Richard Merton and Ralf Havelock were seated on a log, smoking their pipes, at an old well near which the hut had stood. They had been riding all the afternoon, repairing fences at intervals, and were tired. Jabez Gegg was there also, a little aloof, his hands and face black and smeared. They had been talking much of Jed Roff, and Jabez Gegg was particularly cynical in his expressions. Merton, despite his doubts, showed a strong disposition to defend the absentee. He had always held a better opinion of Roff than he did of Gegg, and the latter's frequent repetitions only served to weaken the charges he levelled against the former. Ralf Havelock, too, was a staunch champion of the absent one; and Gegg, finding the majority against him, deemed it discreet to retire from the discussion.
A chance word turned the conversation into another channel.
"Do you notice those two spots there at the back of the well?" asked Merton. "It looks as if two holes had been dug there and filled up again. One is slightly sunken, and the other is raised a bit."
"The ground does look's if it had been broke up some time or 'nother," Ralf agreed, going to the spot and giving the ground a kick with his toe.
"Do you know," continued Merton, "when I've been sitting here alone and looking at that, I've thought it was a grave."
"A grave?" Ralf repeated, and his thoughts flew to Mumby.
"Those letters cut in the tree, that 'D. A.'," said Morton, "first drew my attention to it. They weren't put there for nothing, and are not freshly cut. The bark has been growing over them, and has been lately chipped off again."
"The letters mightn't mean anything," said Ralf. "Stockmen often cut their initials in trees when waiting on cattle camps."
"And the holes? How do you account for them?"
"Dunno," said Ralf "Must be something buried there—"
"Wouldn't take long to dig 'em up," Gegg suggested eagerly.
"Have you any tools handy?" asked Merton.
"None 'ere; but I ken soon slip over an' get some," Gegg replied.
"I think we may as well dig them up," said Merton. "What do you think, Havelock?"
"I'd certainly see what's in 'em," Ralf answered. "There's been a lot o' speculatin' about 'em, an' if nothing else comes of it, it'll settle the matter for once an' all."
"Well, bring the pick and shovel over," said Merton.
Jabez Gegg started off with alacrity, believing that the missing woman would be found buried there, and so confirm the charges he had laid against Roff; whilst Merton and Havelock remained long in deep thought, their eyes staring into the dark well.
"It would be strange now," said Merton at last, "If we found human remains at this well, it has so long borne the name of 'Dead Man's Well.' Do you know why it is so called?"
"No," said Ralf. "I never met anyone that could tell me. I suppose a dead man was found here, or somebody killed near by."
"No; it got its name from a very peculiar circumstance; in fact, it was named by a spectre—so the yarn goes."
"By a spectre!" cried Ralf, a little incredulously.
"By a spectre!" Merton repeated. "There's a story attached to it which few would be inclined to believe—indeed, I laughed at it myself. The well was sunk years ago—no one knows exactly when—probably by someone fossicking for gold in the sheep days, when the old sheep station of Back Coorawynbah was in existence. It came by its name in this manner. Some ten years ago I had in my employ a young Englishman, named Wilke Hyde, a well-educated, sensible young fellow. He'd come to Tipparoo for colonial experience. He was riding home late one night from Mogilwooga—it was nine o'clock when he crossed the creek there, for he got off to have a drink, and looked at his watch as he struck a match to light his pipe.
"There were no fences here then, and no hut. There's none now. He'd come within a length or two of the well, when suddenly the hoot of a mopoke sounded from the top of that tree on which the initials are cut, and the scream of a curlew came from the well. His horse stopped dead, and couldn't be induced to budge another inch. Wilke leaned forward in his saddle and peered into the darkness, but could see nothing. An almost weird stillness had followed the cry of the birds. It was broken by a deep moan; and all at once an old man with a long grey beard appeared before him. He looked like a miner—in a big felt hat, flannel shirt, and moleskin trousers, be-smeared with yellow clay, and tied at the knees with boyangs. In one hand he held a battered tin dish, in the other a small pick. He didn't look natural, despite his garb; nothing appeared substantial about him; and a sort of light seemed to irradiate from it. It floated across to the well, and, pointing down into it, said, 'Dead Man's Well!' Then it turned round with a sigh, and glided to that spot where the ground's sunken. Pointing down with the pick as before, it spoke again: 'It's there! all there!' 'Wha—what's there?' Wilke Hyde gasped; and, as though his voice had broken a spell, it vanished like a whiff of smoke.
"No doubt now existed in the mind of Wilke Hyde that he had seen an apparition, and that some warning had been oracled. Then his horse started off with a snort, and no horse ever crossed the space between here and Tipparoo at the speed that he galloped home. Wilke was as white as a ghost himself when he came in and told us his strange story. We all laughed at him—thought he'd gone barmy, in fact. He'd always scouted the idea of ghosts, but now as firmly believed that such things existed, and spoke of them with such a serious face that evoked laughter from all who heard him. But he wasn't to be shaken in his conviction; and at last, to test the truth of his assertions, every man on the place took occasion to go by the well at night. All deposed to having seen sights that weren't real, and heard strange sounds; and few were inclined to go there a second time. They'd seen emaciated nonagenarians in polished beavers and silk coats driving by the well in carriages—things wholly unknown here; they'd seen the same old gentlemen galloping on phantom horses; they had observed an old miner grinding at a windlass, drawing up cow-hide buckets of mullock, and heard him cry, 'Look out below'; they'd seen ladies beautiful as Helena, clothed in bridal robes, floating like fairies through the air; and much more they'd seen and heard, which no man could give credence to without seeing and hearing for himself.
"I'd listened to all this, and, with such unanimous corroboration of Wilke Hyde's remarkable story, I became curious to see this well myself by night. So I planned to reach it by nine o'clock—the mystic hour when the superstitious averred the spectres were abroad.
I sat for an hour on that big log there, and smoked out two pipes of tobacco before I was convinced of my own foolishness. I saw nothing grotesque or supernatural beyond a swift wild animal that resembled a huge black cat; but I heard the mopoke and the curlew sure enough; I've also heard those birds on almost every other part of the run."
"It's a curious thing, anyway," said Ralf. "Reminds me of the old Whats-his-name—that old leper who was superintendent o' convicts at—, who had no less 'n seven of 'em strung up one mornin' at some bridge for not salutin' him when he come out, so the yarn goes. After that, no horse would ever carry him over that bridge, after sunset."
"I've heard that yarn often, and from good authorities," said Merton. "Men were hung for a mere nothing in those days. The wave of a handkerchief in the morning used to be the signal for some poor wretch to be strung up—perhaps two of three at once. It was common to see men driven along the roads chained together like teams of bullocks—some of them gentlemen born, transported for a mere freak of folly, sometimes for another's crime."
"Aye," said Ralf, "an' some on 'em were bad to the backbone. Plenty committed murders after gettin' their ticket-o'-leave. Look at Worrall, as murdered Fisher in the bush at Campbelltown."
"That's the crime that gave rise to Fisher's Ghost. But that was all a hoax. It was started by an ex-convict, who saw the deed committed at the side of a waterhole, and feared to tell lest he himself should be accused, or murdered by one of the other discharged convicts, among whom there was a kind of union or brotherhood; and after that everyone passing there at dusk fancied they saw the ghost—either sitting on the fence or mooching about the pool. What they saw was the ex-convict himself, who haunted the pool till the place was searched and the body recovered. Generally, when people go ghost-hunting, they're in an excited frame of mind that's ready to imagine anything, and they find their object in every shadow, in every bush."
"I s'pose this Dead Man's Well fakement is something the same?"
"Apparently—so far as pertains to the carriages, phantom horses, and beautiful ladies. That's all rot. But Wilke Hyde's story—there's some difference of opinion concerning that on account of the horse's doings. I think we'll know more of this well yet."
"Which o' them holes will you dig up first?" asked Ralf. "I see Jabez comin' now with the tools."
"The one that's not hillocked," Merton answered. "I don't half like touching that other one. I'm almost sure it's a grave."
"Well, there's not time to turn both of 'em out to-night. It's pretty near sundown now."
"They can't be deep, though," said Merton, "and there's only loose dirt to shovel out."
Jabez Gegg set to work with the pick, while Ralf handled the shovel. The hole transpired to be deep, and the earth more compact than they had bargained for. An hour they toiled, and the sun had gone down. The displacement of the earth showed an excavation about four feet square, whose sides were straight and even. The men were down below their own height, working alternately. Jabez Gegg had come to the top, hot and somewhat fatigued; and as he sat down on the heap of clay to smoke his pipe, Ralf went below. He had not been down five minutes when he drove the point of the pick into something wooden.
"Hulloa!" he cried. "Here we are! Struck it at last!"
"What have you got?" cried Merton, on the qui vive in a moment.
"Don't know yet—looks like slabs," said Ralf, shovelling away the dirt. When this was completed a flooring of rough slabs was disclosed. They were closely, but loosely, laid, and after the first had been displaced with the aid of the pick the others were easily removed. A heavy wooden box, about two feet square, was revealed. While the obstructions were being removed Richard Merton stood at the brink, looking down, and thinking of the words, "It's there! All there!" Could those mysterious words have had reference to that box? It was old, and had reposed there for many years though not all the while undisturbed. Undoubtedly Jed Roff had been cognisant of its presence, for who but he could have broken up the earth above it? Perhaps it would tell its own history; it might reveal the cause of the ghostly visitations, and throw some light on the antiquity of "Dead Man's Well," So thought Richard Merton as he stood silently regarding it, unheeding the remarks and comments of his subordinates.
When the way was clear Jabez, Gegg descended to the assistance of Ralf. They took up the box between them, and endeavored to lift it to the top; but the box was so heavy they could not raise it above their shoulders in the narrow space where they stood, and were obliged to set it down again. "We'll 'ave to get a rope or something to haul this up," said Ralf. "It's too thunderin' heavy to lift."
"Would the bridle reins be strong enough?" asked Merton, quite elated at the mention of weight; weight must be gold.
"Just the thing!" answered Ralf. "We'll want 'em all though, so as to put 'em round double. It'll take some tuggin' to get this concern up."
The reins were taken off the bridles and tied together, and one end being secured to the box, with the combined efforts of all three, it was triumphantly hauled to the top. It was constructed of thick pieces of split timber strongly nailed together. One of these pieces, after some difficulty, was wrenched off with the pick, and through the aperture thus made was seen a neat little box of cedar. The excitement was now intense, and curiosity was at its highest pitch. All were zealous and impulsive in their efforts to demolish the outer casing. This was not an easy task, as the wood was hard and the nails long and rusted. The handle of the pick was broken in the effort, and for a moment they were at their wits' end how to proceed. Then Jabez Gegg bethought him of a rusted crowbar which he had found among the ruins of the hut and stood against a tree.
"Wonder I never thought of it afore," he said, running up with it.
"I b'lieve there's treasure of some sort in that box. It's deuced heavy for a small un," said Ralf, unheeding Jabez Gegg's remark.
"It contains something of great importance, at all events, or surely they wouldn't have taken so much trouble with it," said Merton; and the probability of its containing gold filled him with great expectations. His hands shook with excitement, and his heartbeat fast. Might it not contain the hoarded wealth of some ancient miser, who had hidden it there and died, and whose spirit still haunted the place of its secretion? It was encased as a miser would encase it, and it had been hidden as deep in the ground as a miser would hide it. What, then, but treasure could it enclose? Perhaps there were riches in it beyond the dreams of avarice! And how opportunely would it fall into his hands! Such fortune undreamed of, unthought of, would drive all carking care from his mind, make compensation for all the calamities of late; and he would not care a fico for the impending drought—that dreaded season that was threatening him with utter ruin.
Now, the top of the outer case was soon broken away, and the small box, stronger even than the one in which it had reposed, was lifted out. It was well made all its ends being neatly dove-tailed together. There was a lock to it, but no key to open it. Ralf and Gegg were disposed to wrench off the lid with the crowbar, so impatient were they to see what was inside; but to this Richard Merton objected.
"That's a strong, serviceable box, and I wouldn't like it broken," he said. "Mrs. Merton has an aptitude for picking locks, and I think she can manage this one. If she can't—well, it'll be time enough then to break it." In reality he cared little whether she were able to pick the lock or not, for he did not value the box in the least. He thought it might contain something that it would not be wise to allow other eyes to look upon. Such was his motive in wishing to have it taken home intact. But they had no suitable, conveyance for its immediate removal, as it was the weight of lead, and their horses were not sufficiently quiet to bear an awkward burden.
So this box, upon which three pairs of eyes looked with greed and longing, was placed under the big log until a cart could be sent out in the morning. Reluctantly enough did Richard Merton take his eyes from it and turn away. There came an hour when his doing so was his deepest regret. For the present he was in exultant spirits, though, strange to say, he did not seem inclined to speak much of the discovery to Ralf Havelock. He was unusually silent on the way home, and ere they parted at the stable enjoined Ralf to say nothing about the chest, and also to start Bill Mayne away with the cart at the first streak of dawn. Then he went up to the house, and over the supper table he told his wife of the wonderful discovery he had made, and of his hopes and fears, of his expectations and suspicions; and she listened with interest, and was agog to see the curious chest he had unearthed. And as they discoursed and speculated on these subjects, little Edith would crop up unbidden in their minds, and like a flitting mist-cloud, mingle in their day-dreams, in all their imaginings. Only that day had Mrs. Merton found the initials "E. A." on two separate pieces of the child's linen when it came in from the wash. They were traced with indelible ink, and proud was she of the clue to the child's identity. It appeared to her that the task was now so simplified that it would be very easy to ascertain what the letters stood for.
"We know her first name is Edith," she said, "and 'E' is the first letter of Edith. That's so much, Richard."
"We all know that, my dear," said Richard ungraciously.
"But we don't know what her other name is," Mrs. Merton retorted.
"Apparently it's something beginning with 'A,' " Richard surmised. "There are Ashtons, and Aarons, and Ashfords, and Atkinsons—"
"But she can't belong to any of them," Mrs. Merton interposed. "They are common people."
"We're all common, for that matter," said Richard.
"Oh, nonsense!" Mrs. Merton objected. "I have an idea, Richard—it might be a foolish one "
"Your ideas generally are, my dear," Richard interrupted.
"Indeed, Richard, they are not as ridiculous as some of yours," his wife returned pertly. "Your idea is that all women's notions are foolish. That's a foolish notion, allow me. We might seem so, too, but it would be no harm to inquire. About a couple of years ago you were speaking about a young couple who had come from Sydney to live somewhere about Wyrallah. If I'm not mistaken, you said their name was Attwell."
"By the bye, yes!" said Mr. Merton; and suddenly he banged his fist down on the table with such force as to nearly upset the lamp. "That's the man, Maggie! That's the man, sure enough!"
"Edith's father?" Mrs. Merton asked with triumphant smile.
"Of course! Don't you mind—no," he said, checking himself, as something else seemed to convince him of his error. "Hold on, though!" he added, brightening up again. "Let me see! I only met him once or twice. He was then on the look-out for a temporary home, and I recommended Tallagalba. The price was too much for him, I remember. I believe Roff, or his wife's brother, bought it then. I never heard of the man afterwards. I think he must have gone back to Sydney. His name was Grant Attwell, and his wife's name was Daisy—I don't know what her family name was."
"Daisy Attwell!" Mrs. Merton repeated. "Why, good heavens, Richard, that's what the 'D. A.' stands for! It must be she who is buried there; and she must have been Edith's mother!"
"D. A. and E. A.," said Mr. Merton musingly. "There's something in that, Maggie. I shouldn't wonder . . . ." He stopped, looking into vacancy.
There was a correspondence certainly, a coincidence, in the letters on the tree at Dead Man's Well, the letters on the clothing, and the chest . . . . It carried the mind back into a long-dead age when the box was made and buried and the well of evil fame was dug, to the inchoation of an unknown race of which Edith represented the last member. But there it was lost in utter chaos, groping about in a world of blank for a starting point whereby to trace the ancestry, to follow the genealogy down to the present day. Between Edith and that far-off bygone lay a gulf which even the imagination failed to enlighten. If her lineage must be clearly traced and made known, her guardians had indeed a prodigious task to accomplish. With her representing the last link, and only the possibility of that "D. A." being the starting point, where was the man of genius who could pick up the intervening links and remodel that broken chain? Riddles were these that must be left in abeyance till the antique was brought home and opened, when it might unfold the records of the past.
Now it so happened that Magnus Susman made a call at Tipparoo that evening, and was taken into the confidence of the Mertons. He had known Grant Attwell slightly, and had had some dealings with him; but he did not know what had become of him. The wife's name, he believed, was Bessy Dean; Daisy was Mrs. Roff's name, and she had been keeping house for the Attwells. He knew positively that neither had a child, and that the "D. A." was on the tree years before Jed Roff went there. He had seen them frequently; also, the mounds from one of which the chest was got.
"You say Mrs. Roff was at service with the Attwells. There is a clue in that," said Mr. Merton. "Do you know," he continued, "that from the first circumstances have pointed to Roff's connection with Edith? Now Roff was married some fifteen months before he left Goolgolgon, but his wife only lived there with him during the last couple of months. Therefore, she must have been with the Attwells. Do you see all that this suggests?"
"I do not," said Mr. Susman, who did not appear at all interested.
"Well, this is my theory: Mrs. Attwell disappeared—how, remains for us to discover. Then Mrs. Roff came to Goolgolgon and brought the child with her. Next Grant Attwell went away, whither and for what purpose is another mystery."
"Why do you think Mrs. Roff brought the child to Goolgolgon?"
"Because Jabez Gegg saw infants' clothing there after she came, and as they had no children of their own it must be Grant Attwell's child."
"But he had no child," said Susman, with more accentuation on the verb than on the pronoun.
"Perhaps he had one unbeknown to you," Mr. Merton persisted. "I can't account for the initials any other way."
"That's merely a coincidence. As for the chest and its contents—it's hardly likely to have anything to do with the child. How can it, when it's been there years and years, perhaps buried by some phrenetic shepherd of Back Coorawynbah? Shepherds, from the very loneliness of their surroundings, often went mad in those days. And the child isn't a year old! Why, it's absurd to think it can relate to her!"
"You may be right, Susman. Nevertheless, I won't give up the idea that the chest contains something of importance to Edith. However, we'll be able to clear that point up in the morning.
So Richard Merton went off after an early breakfast, expectant of fresh discoveries, and to bring home his treasure. The cart was near the depot, and rattling along briskly in the cool of the newborn day. Jabez Gegg was there, glum and wild-looking, sitting on a log, his head down and his arms folded. There was something more there—a long wooden box; and by this, where last night was a grave-like hillock was a shallow hole.
"Hulloa! what's this?" cried Merton, springing from the saddle and dropping the reins so that his horse could feed about.
"That's a coffin, sir," Gegg answered.
"A coffin!" cried Merton. "What's in it?"
"A skeleton an' a lot o' dust, sir," Gegg replied, shifting uneasily. "Been there a good many years by the look on't. God knows who dug it up, though."
"Didn't you dig it up?"
"I didn't, as I've only just come, an' that coffin was jes' where you see it. It staggerified me a bit when I sees none o' yous 'ad been out. This place is haunted, sure's anything. I allers said as how it was, an' this 'ere proves it."
"How is our treasure chest—is that safe?" asked Merton anxiously.
"That's the only treasure that's 'ere—bones an' dust," Gegg replied.
"Where's the little box?"
"It's gone, sir!"
"Gone!" gasped Merton, rushing at once to the log where he had left it. But it was not there. All the color went from his face, cold beads of perspiration stood out upon his brow, and with eyes half-starting from his head he looked about.
"No good lookin'," said Gegg, "I've been huntin' ev'rywheres since I missed it. Some un muster been foxin' us an' shook it soon's we left. It oughtn't to've been left there with no un ter look after it. 'Taint safe ter leave anything valerble about now, after wot's been goin' on."
This was an imprudent speech, and roused the tiger in Merton. He turned sharply and confronted the man as though he contemplated striking him.
"Look here, Gegg," he cried in accents tremulous with passion, "you know what's become of that box! If you value your life, tell me what you've done with it!"
"I dunno nothin' about it," said Gegg, now fairly alarmed. "Some un muster seen yer plant it, an' collared it soon's we left."
"Don't tell me a lie!" thundered Merton. "You know — well where it is. Out with it or by . . . ."
"I don't! I never seen it after yer put it under th' log. I 'aven't been near it since till this mornin'. 'Twasn't 'ere then."
"Didn't you take it away last night?"
You lie!" Merton hissed between his clenched teeth and in his rage and disappointment he snatched up a long-handled shovel that lay near the grave, and thrust the point of it against the man's sunburnt chest. He was at the very brink of the well, his back towards it, and one quick thrust would hurl him head foremost into its foetid depths. Gegg recognised this: his face paled with fear, and he turned his rolling eyes upward in mute supplication to his accuser.
"Tell me where that box is," cried the latter, almost suffocated with his own fury. "'Tell me, you villain, or down the well you go!"
"I don't know—I dunno, sir—as I sit 'ere, I dunno!" gasped the terrified Gegg, clutching at the log as a drowning man clutches at a straw.
"Dare you tell me a lie! Who but you could have taken it? Who but you knew it was here? You're the thief. . . . . Speak—or die! Yes, by the holy bunyip, I'll drown you in the well this instant if you don't tell me what's become of that treasure!"
"Spare me, sir! Spare me!" cried Gegg. "I've 'ad no hand in it!"
Merton did not believe him, but he threw down the shovel with an angry imprecation, and strode over to the log that had concealed the treasure, where he leaned with his elbows on it. He felt the loss keenly; he had expected so much from that little box.
Ralf Havelock came to his side, looking grave and troubled. He had received the startling news from Jabez Gegg, now trembling under a tree a hundred yards from the well. "I hear the box's been stolen, Mr Merton," he said, sitting down beside him.
"Yes, Havelock, it's gone; and may a curse fall on him who took it. I suspected Gegg, and threatened to kill him; but he'd tell nothing."
"I think that cove's worth watchin'. There's some queer things been done about here lately, an' he's tried to put a lot on Jed Roff. I always found Jed straightforward—I don't believe he ever did a bad thing in his life, 'ceptin' this runnin' away bus'ness."
"He may be buried in the bush, and Mumby too, for all we know, Havelock. As you say, there's been some dark doings going on here; and I believe that man's a scoundrel. God help him if I catch him at any underhand work. I'm afraid I'd lose control of myself and kill him; I nearly did so this morning. I've been hard hit, Havelock. That box belonged to Edith."
"You don't say so!" cried Ralf in surprise.
"I am sure it belonged to an ancestor. But it's lost now—lost . . . . It seems that I'm doomed to misfortune. Some evil destiny is dogging my footsteps day and night—thwarting me at every turn!"
"What's this other box that's been dug up?" asked Ralf by way of diverting his thoughts.
"A coffin, I understand. Let's have a look at it."
They went over to the long box, which was of the most primitive construction, and nearly rotten from age and moisture. The top had been removed, showing the work of an unscrupulous hand, who, ascertaining what it contained, had merely replaced the lid. Ralf and Merton threw off this latter, and a ghastly skull with eyeless sockets grinned up at them. The skeleton was partially covered with clothing, which crumbled to powder when they touched it. The remains were those of a big man, who had evidently been bald-headed, for no hair lay in the box; and two teeth were missing from the upper jaw. A heap of dust lay at each side, and buried in this Ralf's quick eyes detected the neck of a bottle. He rooted it out with a stick, and was surprised to find that it contained papers, neatly rolled up and tied with what appeared to be a bootlace. It was a large bottle, with a wide neck, over the top of which was a capping of lead, hammered flat, and fastened with copper wire. Beneath this was a thick cork, coated with melted beeswax, so that the bottle was perfectly airtight. Ralf scraped off the wax with his knife, and, drawing the cork, emptied the roll of papers on to the ground.
"You'd better cop out on them." he said, gathering up the stoppers. "Likely as not they'll tell something about the old bloke here, an' maybe chuck a p'inter or two at that chest."
"If so, they'll be a valuable acquisition," said Merton. "Let's find a shade on the creek bank—Oh, here's Mayne! He and Gegg may as well reinter these remains while we examine the papers."
So Gegg was called to the well again—which had grown suddenly repulsive to him—and instructed to replace the coffin and refill the two holes. When this was done, Jabez Gegg was glad enough to go back to his hut, feeling that he had lost something that morning which he could never recover; while Bill Mayne was as much disappointed as his boss at having to return with an empty cart.
Meanwhile Morton, and Ralf repaired to the creek, and sat down in the shade of a lilipilli. Merton, impatient and curious, at once broke the seal of the packet, and, smoothing it out on his knees, read the story or the dead; and this not only confirmed his preconceived notions, but made the burden of his loss the heavier to bear.
This is what Richard Merton and Ralf Havelock read, sitting under the lilipilli on Bargo Creek:—
"I, David Attwell, of Melbourne City, Victoria, am lying on my last bed, and in my last illness; and the hope that my last resting place will be discovered in years to come has induced me to write down my history, that my descendants may be enabled thereby to prove their claim to the wealth that was gained at the cost of my life, and which I do here bequeath unto them. To begin with, I will draw as best I can our genealogical tree:—
"Now, I had been a widower for many years before I started on my wanderings through the bush that was wild and full of peril. I cared not for this, having caught the gold fever that blinds men to danger, and betakes him to places strange and lonely. My elder son, Steve, I left in Melbourne, fairly set up in business as a draper. He was not married, nor was there any likelihood of his ever marrying. My second son, Acton, lived with his wife in Sydney. He had been married no more than one year, and my grandson, Grant, was but three months old. Since then I have never seen them, and have now lost all hope of ever looking upon their beloved faces again, though for many years I had looked forward to spending my last days in happiness among them. God has seen meet not to grant this wish, and I am stricken low in a great wilderness, where no sweet face comes a-nigh to cheer me, and where no white man dwells. My sole companion is my black servant, Jacky, the faithful fellow who has stuck loyally to me through every peril, who has shared all my hardships and privations, and accompanied me in all my travels. To each and all our friends we said farewell, for we knew not that we should again return to see them; and, equipped for a long rustication, we directed our course due north.
"Now, I had in view a double object, which was to explore the country in the interests of a company of graziers, and to prospect for gold on my own account. So we set forth with stout hearts, and when we had crossed the Hunter we never again saw a white man. Many weeks of weary travel brought us into this untrodden waste, from which I am doomed never to escape. Often we were perishing from thirst, and at times reduced to such exhaustion from hunger that we could scarcely drag our legs over the creeks and dried-up swamps that intersected our path. Still we pushed on. Day by day dark forms dogged our footsteps, flitting like shadows from tree to tree, whence black spears came whizzing the way we went. At night they closed round our camp-fires, and hurled spears into our tent. But we were away in the dark, stretched upon our blankets beneath a tree. Many a dead savage we left in our tracks; but this we could not help, as they would have laid us low with a spear-thrust else, as they did Edmund Kennedy.
"Now, it happened that one horse of our three was speared whilst feeding by the outskirts of a wood. Now, this was a great loss to us, and for that deed we fired often into their ranks. Our second horse bogged fast in a swamp, and had to be abandoned. Much of our chattels had now to be thrown away, and what we must take with us we packed on our remaining horse; but so weak was he with poverty, and so leg weary from long travel, that he could carry this small burden but a short distance in the day.
"Now, our provisions gave out, and we became weak with hunger. Once in a while, it is true, we shot a crow, or killed a lizard, and these were delicious morsels. Still, we were starving, and rest was now of no avail to take fatigue from our legs. We came at last to a river that ran like a snake, and upon which were thick belts of scrub; and this we crossed, and steered our course towards the rising sun. Before us did we see a mountain that was topped with pine, and this we desired to reach, hoping thence to see the wide Pacific. But we were sinking so fast for want of proper diet that we could but totter a short way from sun to sun. Then dawned a morning when we rose too weak to travel, and our eyes were wild and glassy like those of a beast that has been long in the bog. So we killed our last horse, and of its flesh we ate part, and that revived us much; and when we had rested long, we cut up the carcase into many thin slices and dried them in the sun. This gave us meat in abundance, and so we determined to form there a depot whereat to rest for the space of two months. This, here, is the camp we made, wherein I lie on a bunk of the meanest, whither no man comes, and which is lively as a churchyard.
"Now, we had amassed much gold in the course of our journey, and all this we had stored in a small box of cedar-wood which we had borne with us, and in which I carried materials for writing, and many charts and papers for safe keeping. It was clear we could not take this hence, being clumsy to carry and of much weight. So, when we had recovered somewhat, we dug a great hole in which to bury it; but when this was all but completed, there came a storm, and the rain filled it up so that we could not use it. So, when the ground had somewhat dried, and was yet soft for the digging, we must needs sink another near by, and this was much shallower than the first one. And now we felled a small tree, from which we cut material to make a strong box. Into this we put the one of cedar and secured it with stout nails, of which we had brought a supply for the making of boats to cross rivers. We lowered it into the earth, and then covered it up so that no eye might see it, and on a tree that stands near cut the letters 'D.A.' that I might know where my treasure was hidden when I should return in after-time.
"Now, this had been accomplished but one day, and I had betaken myself to the creek to dip water, when I received a spear wound in the side. It was a great wound, from shoulder blade to belt, and I doubted it could mend. At first I knew not whence this spear had come, seeing that it pierced me as if from the clouds. Then a thought came to me, and I cast my eyes upwards. There I beheld a strange sight, for in the top of a gum-tree were many blacks, who lined the limbs like crows. They spoke not nor moved; and seeing that all were armed, I made haste to get beyond their throw lest I should be again speared. In this I was fortunate, though I limped with much pain.
"Now, when Jacky saw what had come to pass he was much pained on my part, and great was his wrath against those who had stricken me so sorely. He drew the spear from my side, and round my body he wrapped some portion of our tent fly, which was the only ligature that was there to bind so great a wound. With tenderness he laid me on my bunk, and forthwith took up his rifle and many cartridges, and went without, where he sat himself down on the grass, and fired often into the tree that was filled with natives. Dark forms fell like chimpanzees from the limbs and struck the earth with great thuds. Many in their awful fear sprang to the ground, and there broke their legs or their necks. Of the others many slid down the trunk, and ran fast and with loud yells into the bush. Not less than one score lay on the ground, of whom not half were yet dead; but Jacky killed these with his tomahawk, sparing none. And when the slaughter was complete he made a grave in the sand that was wide and long, but not deep; and into this he threw all the bodies and all the weapons that were there, and covered them up.
"Now, all this took place three weeks since, and I have not once risen from my bunk. Suppuration has long set in, and that has poisoned my blood and is fast killing me. Already have I given instructions to poor Jacky to make for me a long box, and to lay me therein when I am dead, and with me the bottle into which I shall put these papers. Furthermore, I have instructed him to bury me in a grave that must not be deep, but must be equidistant betwixt the gold that is hidden and the well, so that my head shall rest by the tree that is there, and on which he will cut these letters:—'DIG. D.A.'
"Now, all this I am sure he will do, being good and trustworthy. He, too, knows that I cannot again grow well, and he pines much by day, and mourns much by night. And, since such has been ordained by Him whom none can gainsay, I pray that the end may not be far. Yet do I feel it hard to die in this way and in this lone place. I could die with a mind more at rest could I but once look upon the sweet faces that smiled upon me in days gone by, and hear the voices I love speaking near, and feel the warm clasp of kindred hands. But that is not to be, and it is only left to me to hope that Jacky will yet find them, and guide them to the place of my last rest, and to the wealth that is theirs.
"Now, my strength wanes fast, so that I cannot write, and my eyes wax dim, so that I cannot see; but of all there was to tell the most has been told, and it is well. I trust that no one of my kindred will ever know the want I have known, and that God in His goodness will see meet to preserve them from such a death as this. Now, that is my fervent wish and my last prayer. In His keeping do I leave them, and for them do I beseech His great blessing; and, now, before I lay on one side this good pen, I sign myself for the last time, their affectionate kinsman,
"A remarkable document!" Mr. Merton commented, as he rolled up the manuscript and put it carefully in his pocket.
"Extr'ordin'ry peculyer!" added Ralf.
"That box must have been worth thousands," said Merton, and his agitation was perceptible to the old overseer. "My God," he added, with sudden vehemence, "I'd give a hundred pounds to know who took it!"
When Mrs. Merton had read the papers and learnt what it was her husband had lost she sat down and cried.
"I never saw such a man as you are, Richard; you're always blundering," she said in her bitterness. "Any man with common sense would have brought it home."
"I tell you, Maggie, I had no means of bringing it home! I couldn't put it in my pocket," Mr. Merton returned, with a deal of asperity.
"You could have left Ralf to mind it while you came in and got a suitable conveyance. Why wait till morning when you knew there was treasure in it? Oh, the folly of it!"
"Of course, we know all about it now, and what we should have done. Why the devil didn't you give me your precious advice last night?"
"As well throw pearls to swine!" Mrs. Merton returned. "I'm always telling you what to do. . . . As well talk to a post!"
"I believe I have some pants I can spare, my dear," Mr. Merton retorted. "Maybe I'd do better with the broom!"
Saying which he stamped out of the room, and for the rest of the morning shut himself up in his office.
"Grubbins, my dinner at once; I'm going out!" said Magnus Susman, the bachelor lord of Wangooma, with his characteristic abruptness.
"It's all ready for the lift, Magnus," Hannah Grubbins returned.
From his childhood she had called him Magnus, and persisted in calling him so whether he liked it or not; and, indeed, Mr. Susman did not like it and often reproved his housekeeper for her want of courtesy in addressing him. But Hannah rarely listened to him, and when she did she took no heed of what he said. It was her wont to make a decided pout, and to turn up her nose, and strut away soliloquising. At times she would openly rebel against his punctiliousness, and declare that for the life of her she could not see that it mattered what she called him, providing she did not call him too late for dinner. To Mr. Susman, however, it mattered a lot, for there was yet some dignity and pride in him, which he took pains to exhibit before those who had earned his detestation; and, apart from this, it was irritating to be addressed with so much familiarity by one of his servants, particularly by such a one as Hannah Grubbins.
He turned on his heel, with a scowl on his face, and made inaudible remarks that were not complimentary to Mistress Grubbins, in which was expressed a desire to be rid of her; and he made vague mentionings of dungeons and obelisks, places into which inquisitive eyes could not see.
From a little square room off the hall he descended a flight of stairs into an underground apartment, which was billiantly lighted and luxuriantly furnished. In the centre was a small dining-table covered with a white cloth, on which were wines, condiments, cakes, and fruit, but nothing substantial in the way of meats or vegetables. Mr. Susman was in a hurry for his dinner, and going to a staple in the corner, he unfastened the end of a rope which was secured to a trap door above. This was immediately opened by Hannah Grubbins, and all that the table lacked was lowered on the lift. The aperture was at once reclosed, and the rope refastened by Mr. Susman, as a precaution against the trap door being opened by Hannah unbidden; and thereupon he touched a thin wire at the back of his chair. A panel slid back in the wall, and an aborigine, cleanly dressed in a suit of blue serge, soft slippers, and a woollen cap, glided softly into the room and spread the things upon the table. This done, he stood by, waiting, with a white towel over his shoulder, while Mr. Susman loaded a small tray with edibles, wine, and so forth. This he handed to the aborigine in silence, who departed with it by the way he had come. He returned in about a minute or so, but without the tray. He then sat down at the table opposite Mr. Susman, and dinner was proceeded with.
It was in this underground chamber, and in this eccentric fashion, that Mr. Susman and his black servant always partook of their meals. How long the aborigine had been located there must be left to conjecture. He was known to no one, not even to old Hannah. He was never permitted to leave the underground chambers, and Hannah Grubbins was never permitted to enter them. While Hannah grumbled at this treatment, and wondered what secrets were hidden in that subterranean world that was so persistently closed against her, the factotum of the ebony face passed all his days in utter gloom, denied the sight of the bright sun, the pleasures of the woods, the sweetness of sylvan songs, of murmuring streams, the liberty to wander among shaded glades, through floral vales and fragrant dells, to admire the beauty of arborets and wild flowers, to feel the country air blowing upon his cheeks, odoriferous with commingling of aromas; all the beauties and sights of that outer world were a void to him. Despite this great disparity in the lives of the two, however the black appeared contented enough and cheerful, whereas Hannah was the embodiment of all that was peevish, cantankerous, and discontented. She suspected something dark and wicked; perhaps atrocious, was going on beneath her own dominions; and with a woman's curiosity, intensified by many repulses and disappointments, she longed to explore those hidden recesses. She had tried many times, and had watched for years for an opportunity to satisfy her desire; but never once in the course of her long service at Wangooma had a chance presented itself to her. Why all that fine suite of rooms on the ground floor should be left in gloom and disuse, and her master live and dine in the basement—which was inconvenience in every way, and caused a deal of trouble—she could not understand. So earnestly had she taken it into her mind that her cogitations on the subject had deprived her of many a night's sleep. There was a mystery in it all—but what was it?
When Magnus Susman and his black servant had dined, the latter put away the things that were kept below, and placed the rest on the lift. He then left the room, bearing off in one hand a tin dish filled with leavings from the table, and in the other a billy of tea; while Susman, untying the cord, touched a wire that communicated with a bell at the top. The door was raised immediately, and Hannah Grubbing drew up the lift, after which she reclosed the door, which was promptly secured as before. All this was done without word or dumb-show, and with the regularity of clock work. It was very satisfactory to Mr. Susman to have things thus performed, but too mysterious, though the custom was of long standing, to have the approval of Hannah Grubbins. Mr. Susman knew this well, and chuckled to himself as he stepped into the spacious hall, which was lit with a huge brass lamp suspended from the ceiling. He clapped his hands with a sultanic mien, and the obsequious black glided into the hall and stood beside him, his actions being such as to remind a globe trotter of Ethiopian peculiarities among the harems or seraglios of the Bosphorus.
"Well, Dalbyn," said Mr. Susman, "has the white lady finished her dinner?"
"Yowie!" answered Dalbyn. "I send plate top side longa lift."
"How is she doing? Is she taking it any quieter, Dalbyn?"
"Not much she ain't. She plenty cry, an' all time yabba 'bout piccaninny. She look—watcher call um?—sad! berry sad!"
"Oh, she'll get over that by-and-by. What are they doing in the black rooms? Eating as usual, I suppose,"
"My word!" said Dalbyn, grinning.
Mr. Susman turned into a corridor, that diverged to the right, and from the end of that into one trending to the left. About midway down this he entered a long room, which had communication with many smaller ones, and at one side of which a small fire was burning. The walls were lined with pictures of the nigger-minstrel variety, beyond which there was little furniture in the room; a few ancient chairs and a round table. Seated at the latter were three young gins, all clean and well dressed, with long glossy hair, tied at the end with blue ribbon, which allowed the centre to spread in a becoming style. Their features were rather handsome, their eyes full of merriment and lustre, and their faces pleasant.
A smile lit up Mr. Susman's countenance as he joined them and commenced to play with them as a doting lover might play with his sweetheart. Like their fairer sisters, they were in nowise bored or annoyed at this, but laughed in that free, unrestrained manner that is characteristic of their race. For half an hour or so Mr. Susman amused himself in their society; then, remarking that he had a distant visit to pay which would detain him three or four hours, returned to the main hall-way. He produced a bunch of keys and, selecting one, unlocked a door opening into a small drawing room which was fitted up in a luxuriant style. The floor was heavily carpeted, and the walls were bedizened with paintings and drawings hung in gilded frames and ornamental nick-nacks. A buhl clock and monochromatic jars of Etoile de Lyons roses stood on a mantelpiece of polished tulip, and a chandelier in a fret-edged antimacassar, with a couple of small books in blue-cloth bindings, adorned a walnut occasional. The chairs were old and heavy, the bric-a-brac antiquarian, and the pictures may have belonged to the period of Rubens or Hans Holbein.
Through the deep folds of the drawn curtains was a neat little boudoir, wherein sat a lady in a low-backed chair. At first sight of the delicate profile lying in the soft light of the chandelier, the small snow-white ear, and forehead shaded with a fluff of wavy brown hair, one was apt to suppose her but a girl of eighteen, so frail and slender she looked in her recumbent position. But when she started up as Magnus Susman's detested form and visage loomed over her, one saw that she was a tall and stately woman, whose age could not have exceeded twenty-three. Her pure nymphal beauty lost nothing of its charm in the shade of sadness that was in her face, the hectic flush that heightened her cheeks, or the flash of anger that came into her dark blue eyes. She was undoubtedly a woman of good birth and culture, but one upon whom some great sorrow weighed heavily. She wore a dress of cream muslin, and the little stockinged foot that protruded was thrust into a brown satin slipper, leaving the shapely ankle showing in bold relief. Her only ornaments were two half-hoops set with rubies and saphires, a plain wedding ring, and a gold brooch with a diamond star. She held a book, closed on her finger, which she had been reading to divert her thoughts; but it had left no more impression in her mind than had she been turning over blank pages.
"I hope I find you more reconciled to your lot, my love," said Magnus Susman. She dropped her head and placed her thin, tapered fingers against her cheek, but did not reply. Mr. Susman placed a chair before her and sat down. He tried to take her hand, but she drew it away.
"Don't be stubborn, my dear," he said. "It will do you no good, only prolong your confinement. You've been here four months—quite long enough, I think, to form a good idea of how unpleasant it will be to pass a lifetime like this."
"Do you intend to keep me shut up here forever?" said the lady, with a sudden flash of anger in her bright eyes.
"I do!" Susman replied. "But it's not my intention to leave you with a full suite of rooms to yourself, and with everything of the best to eat and drink. This is paradise to what you will yet experience. I'll shut you inside of bare walls, with never a ray of light, with only a mattress to lie on, and give you nothing but bread and water. If that don't bring you to your senses, I'll adopt measures that will compel you to conform to my every wish."
"Do you dare? Would you take advantage of a defenceless woman?"
"You're bringing it on yourself, Daisy, by your obstinacy. I loved you years ago—with a love that knew no bounds—with an all-absorbing passion—a passion that has consumed me ever since, and made me what I am. I offered you what half the men in Australia could not offer you, and would have taken you to whatever part of the world you fancied; but you spurned me—rejected my offers for the love of a worthless man—"
"Stop, sir! Do not call him a worthless man. He's worth a thousand such as you. You are not a man; you are a brute!"
"As you like. But understand that he is for ever lost to you. Banish him from your thoughts. Let him be no more to you than the dead."
"That can never be. He was my first love, and will be my last, for I shall love him to eternity. There is no man in the world more deserving of my love than my dear husband, who has suffered Heaven knows what through you: and there is no man that walks the face of the earth, Magnus Susman, more deserving of my hatred than you. I hold you in abhorrence; the very sound of your voice is repulsive to me, and I loathe the very look of your face. What satisfaction, then, could you derive from marrying a woman whose whole heart is given to another, to the father of my child, and who looks upon you as the most profligate of wretches, as the most execrable of beings."
"Hard words break no bones, Daisy. As for your hatred, I expect more of that from you than love. A man who gets what he expects meets with no disappointment. All I want is yourself—just as you are. My heart is deadened to all the finer feelings of youth. You crushed it, made it as of adamant. Once I could pity and feel compassion for the wronged; once I was an advocate of justice and righteousness; once my hand was a fulcrum for the distressed and the weak; once I upheld the doctrine of the optimist, and believed that all things were ordained for the best—but now all that is changed; now I am a misanthropist, a misogynist, and a stoic. I am incapable of tender emotions, insusceptible to pain and misery. You made me so. This is the fruit of your conduct. You turned my love to vengeance, and I vowed to have you at any cost. I faced all dangers and over came all obstacles, and gained a hard victory. I have got you here now, and here, shut out from all the world, I will keep you till you agree to be my wife."
"Rather than do that I would cut off my right hand," she answered.
"I don't think you would," Susman rejoined. "You have more to lose than your right hand. Remember you can never see the man you call husband again."
"I know that I shall. He loved me too well, was too confident of my love for him, to believe that I could be false—that I have left him. When he has recovered from the shock that your heinous fabrications must have given him, he will think over it all, and will know that force was used to take me from him. He will trace me out, even did he doubt my fidelity, to hear the truth from my own lips. I shall yet see you quake, for he'll hunt you down. He'll find his way here, even into this room.
"If ever that man comes into my house he will not go out of it alive. I will shoot him as I would a dog, and fling his body . . . . where it could never be found. His fate would be another great mystery to record."
"Your threats cannot frighten me now. I am proof against such as those. You are a coward, a braggadocio, a pusillanimous wretch, who can threaten and persecute a defenceless woman, but who would tremble with abject fear the moment you beheld the man you have wronged. Don't boast, villain; you have little to boast of. God observes the actions of all men, and it is He who decides all victories. He will punish the wicked and reward the good; and certain as your decree is satanical will His just retribution fall on your wicked head."
"Bah! Do you know that the man you deserted is now on his way to Melbourne to join his Uncle Steve?"
"More reason, then, have you to tremble. Two heads are better than one."
"You imagine they will confer together, and return to seek you out. Poor, innocent mortal! Your hope is a faint one. You are depending on a rotten stick. It will break fore long—I can break it from under you now. Listen to this—and, mind you; it is no fabrication, for I am prepared to prove the truth of every word; and you know yourself that no amount of lies can put you more in my power than you are now. Your noble husband has abandoned his child—has given her to a black-fellow. She will be reared among the tribe, will wander about the bush—a heathen; and by-and-by will be the white gin of her protector's black son."
"Oh my God! Not that! not that!" the woman cried, bending suddenly forward with a wild, terrified light in her eyes, and clasping her hands in deprecation of such a horror. "He would never do it! He could never do it! He loved our dear child with all the passionate ardor of a doting father. He adored her, he worshipped her. He would never leave our darling with any but a good and gentle woman."
"Your foolish adoration of that man has blinded you to all his vices. You thought he was a saint, but you will live to find your god a viper. What I tell you about the child is true. He was so enraged at your baseness that he sacrificed his daughter for revenge."
"It is false! I will never believe it! No one but an inhuman monster could do a thing so horrible. Even were his love for me turned to hatred, his humane disposition, coupled with a practical mind, would not allow him to neglect the child. She is all he has to remind him of the love that was so ruthlessly torn from him. He will cherish her, he will ever love her for the memory of her mother."
"Bah! Do you think it possible that he could think of you otherwise than with feelings of bitterness, and with reprobation, when you left a written confession to the fact that you never cared for him, and that you were eloping with the man whom you had loved all your life?"
"My God! Have you no conscience to upbraid you, if only for that one act of villainy? Is your mind so filled with the poison of Satan that it can rest with the remembrance of that terrible deed upon it?"
"Were there fifty such deeds I could remember them without any prickings of conscience. You will learn yet how far I can go. Hitherto I have treated you well, but you will not have your own way much longer. Your persistency in these absurdities, Daisy, is aggravating. I will make you one more proposal, and leave you to think over it. Remember, I make no idle threats. What I say I mean, and what I promise I will carry out. Now, look here! If you will marry me, I'll remove you from here to the rooms above, where you will have perfect freedom to go where you like. I'll give you horses to ride and carriages to drive in. More than all, I'll rescue your child from the blacks and restore her to you. You can have happiness in the association with her if not with me. I will lavish money upon you, will indulge your every whim and caprice, respect your wishes, and allow you consummate liberty."
"Liberty!" she cried with scorn. "How is it possible I can have liberty unfreed from you? A marriage with you is the greatest restraint you could place upon me. And how could I enter into a marriage with you, who are repulsive to me, when I am the wife of one whom I can never cease to love, whose memory I will ever revere, and with whom I might come face to face any moment—Ah! if I only could."
"If you are afraid to share life with me here, I will take you away—I'll take you to any part of the earth you wish."
"No, Magnus Susman, I'll face death rather than marry you under any circumstances. I hate you! I loathe you!"
"Remember your child! Think what her fate will be!"
"She is safe. I have faith in my husband and in God; but I have no faith in a despicable dastard like you."
"As you like. I will not accept your answer as final. As I said, before, I will give you time to consider it; but when I do ask for it, I warn you to be careful how you word your reply. Good-night, Daisy!" Thereupon he left her.
When the bolt turned in the lock she abandoned herself to her grief and the hot tears flowed copiously down her pale cheeks.
Hardly had Magnus Susman departed on his errand when Hannah Grubbins commenced to search his pockets, as was her wont. He was obliged to have his dressing-room on the upper floor, so that his housekeeper could look after his clothes.
And why could he not have his other rooms there also? That was the thorn in Hannah's side. Patiently had she gone through his pockets time after time when he had left the house, in hope that he might have forgotten a key that would give her access to those lower regions. Frequently she had found money, letters, and other things; but these she had put back in their places. The key to the secret chambers was her desideratum, and there was nothing extraordinarily bad in her mind in so earnestly wishing to explore these. It was merely curiosity, acting upon an absurd passion for marriage with her master, that prompted her in this. A woman will waive much to the detriment of her character when actuated by such impulses. Let her once scent a secret and she will not rest until she has probed it. This was the situation with Hannah Grubbins, and her acerbity of temperament and inclination to wickedness were but the maturing of an impious curiosity.
She thrust her hand in one pocket after another, and at last, in a coat which Magnus Susman had that evening discarded, she found a key! Her eyes brightened at the sight of it, and the sour expression of her face changed to one of intense delight. She hugged the precious metal as though it were a mass of gold, or, better still—for gold was only a second-place matter in the estimation of Hannah Grubbins—an avowal of love from Magnus Susman. She could scarcely believe it was real, so easily and unexpectedly had it come within her reach; her wish of years seemed all in a moment on the point of gratification.
She hurried to the door that opened on to the landing, and with trembling fingers inserted the all-important instrument. It fitted, and the creak of the bolt shooting back fell as music on her ears. And now, at the very brink of success, her resolution faltered. Grave fears came over her that she might unconsciously be walking into a trap. There might be sentinels on guard, who would arrest her on the instant of her entrance, detain her till Susman returned, and then—what would be her fate?
She shivered as with a sudden chill. She had read of dark dungeons where people were buried alive; of secret chambers whither fair women were lured to destruction; and many other horrors she conjured up in the space of a few seconds. Then she shook herself together, braced up her failing courage, and entered the forbidden ground. Before her was the long flight of stairs, lying in darkness. Slowly, softly, she descended step by step, pausing ever and anon to hearken for the adder's breath.
She reached the bottom unmolested, and, knowing that the dining-room was on her left, decided to go straight ahead. The door was not locked, and passing through, great was her astonishment on finding herself in a brilliantly lighted hall. She little thought how near she was to a crisis in her life.
Reclining each on a bunk, with a slush-lamp on a stand of bark between them, were two men. They were Magnus Susman and Jabez Gegg, and the place was Badginbilly. Both were smoking, and talking in subdued tones.
"I didn't think old Merton was so sharp as to suspect where it had gone."
"He dropped d'rectly," said Jabez Gegg. "Holy shakes! He looked like a fiend. I thought he was goin' ter shove me inter that well. He was darn near a-doin' of it anyhow. Fancy a feller as calls himself a gentleman a-goin' ter kill a bloke with a shovel!"
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Susman, positively for the first time since he had come into his property. "That was good! Eeod! that was good. He must've been terribly cut up about it. He knew there was a fortune in it, and no man wants money more than Dick Merton at the present time. He's beginning to feel the weight of Poverty's heel pretty acutely. That will be a chance for me, Gegg; that will be a chance for me!"
"I've been thinkin' a good while he was pushed for stuff. I can't get my wages as easy as I useter, an' he allers post-dates his cheques. I refused one of 'em once, sayin' as how it wasn't a legal' tender; an' he gets in a devil of a tear, an' says if I didn't like ter take it I could go . . . . Jes' politely like that. So I thought ter myself it wasn't worth while makin' a fuss over. Yer see, I can't afford ter kick yet."
"But why do you stay on with him at all? Why don't you come with me? It won't be very satisfactory for you to stop here after the quarrel. I can find you plenty of work, and pay you—er—more than you're getting here."
"Wot do yer want doin' now?" asked Jabez Gegg suspiciously.
"Nothing extraordinary. I'll tell you the facts of the case succinctly. It's a long while ago since I fell in love with Daisy Bradford, the banker's daughter. I tried all I knew how to win her, but she wouldn't have me. She spurned my love and my gold, and threw herself away on that pauper—you know who I mean. I told her at our last meeting if she married him it would be to her sorrow. She defied me and married him. For considerably more than a year I left them to enjoy themselves in peace, till their baby girl was six months old, so that it could be reared without its mother's care. I had my own reasons for acting in this wise, which you will know by-and-by. While he was up here he wanted to buy Tallagalba, but the price was too high. He said if he could get it for less he'd reside there permanently, otherwise he'd return to Sydney. Hearing of this I determined to keep him in the district, without, of course, letting him know I was instrumental in locating his residence. I bought the place for a big sum, and placed it in the hands of a friend to sell to Daisy's husband at half price. He bought it at once, little dreaming that the other half of the cost-price was to be his wife.
"I had a trusty darkey, named Dalbyn, and I sent him over to get work at Tallagalba a year or so after they were married. Dalbyn got on, and from that time he kept me posted. One day he brought me the news that my old enemy had gone to Ulmarra, and would be absent a week. We got horses and rode over; and in the dead of night we stole into the house and carried her off. You remember the time. Well, she's been a prisoner in the castle since; and though I've made her all sorts of promises, she still obstinately refuses to have anything to do with me. That she has a husband living is immaterial to me. I could easily quieten him if he got troublesome. It might seem the height of folly in a man to subject himself to so much risk for the sake of a woman when there are so many to be had without trouble. But the mere infatuation for one turns a man's taste against all others. I hate every woman as I hate poison—except Daisy Bradford. I still call her by her maiden name, and will never call her by any other, unless it be Mrs. Susman; and my passion for her has become a monomania.
"Now, there is one way in which I can yet wring her heart and bring her to submission. I told her that her child had been given to the blacks, and would be brought up as one of the tribe. She professed not to believe it; but I am sure her faith is shaken in him. If I could only get hold of the child, I could substantiate my assertions in this way: I would cause her to be brought into her mother's presence in a filthy state by one of my black maids, who would be rigged up for the occasion. That would convince her, and cause her to surrender. A woman will sacrifice a lot for her babe, and I'm sure Daisy Bradford, under such circumstances, would comply with my wishes."
"But how is all this goin' ter be managed?" Jabez Gegg inquired.
"Easy enough," Susman answered. "I want you to steal the child from Tipparoo and bring her to the castle. That won't be very difficult to do. All that is wanted is a little pluck and smartness."
"That's all very well," Gegg demurred, "but you don't consider the after-part. There's quod at the end o' that kind o' bizness."
"I'll give you two pounds on delivery. There you are!" said Susman persuasively.
"Two poun'! Why, strike you blind, a job o' that sort's worth two 'und'ed poun'!" cried the indignant Gegg.
"Two hundred grandmothers!" sneered Susman. "Don't you think it would pay you very well if you got two pounds for every night's work you did?"
"Cordin' ter wot the work was. I wouldn't go baby-stealin' for that, though. Not me! I'm off o' that game. It's too risky, Susman."
"Would you do it for the consideration of an additional ten—fuf—five shillings?" Susman persisted.
"No, not for double five poun's. I've trod on ole Dick's toes onct, an' I'm not on for hurtin' the other foot jest yet awhile. 'Tain't good enough."
"But you can have a permanent billet as well. I'll give you—er—we'll say fifteen bob a week for a start."
"Fifteen bob!" cried Gegg. "Jumpin' Jimmy Doozler! Why, I'm gettin' a quid where I am. By cripes, Susman, you're a stunner!"
"Well, I'll give you a pound," said Susman persuasively.
"Not if I know it! I can't see the use o' throwin' up one job unless I ken better meself. I can't at that rate."
"You'll have a good home at the castle, and special pay for extra jobs. That will be an improvement on your condition here in this miserable hovel. More than that, I'll give you Nanny into the bargain."
"Who the hokey-shakes is Nanny?"
"One of my maids. She wants a husband."
"I see! Black as the devil, I s'pose?"
"Well, she is a trifle black," Susman admitted.
"Jes' so! Trifles light as hair"—Gegg stopped and scratched his head; his memory, in his own phraseology, "turned dog on him" when he attempted poetical quotations.
"Do you accept?" asked Susman impatiently. "You're not safe here."
"I'm safer 'ere than I'd be shakin' babies—dang me if I ain't. 'Nother thing, my time's not up 'ere yet, an' I wanter get a lump sum out o' old Dick when it is—or I'll stick to the s'lection. He's not goin' ter come the transferrin' bizness over me as easy as he did with Jed Roff an' some others. He thinks I'm a fool. Maybe I am. But I ain't fool enough for that, anyhow. I'll take it inter court fust—an' expose him. I ken show how the authorities is bein' hoodwinked by these squatter coves. Why, the inspectors, forest-rangers, land-agents, surveyors, an' all the like is paid by the squatters to shut their eyes ag'in wot's' goin' on about the stations. I seen only the other day a forest ranger go to Merton an' tell him ter burn the tops an' stumps of some young cedar trees he'd fell, so's no one'd see 'em; an' when the inspectors come round the squatters go with 'em, an' they frames the report together. Oh, I know 'em! I'll get a lump sum out o' ole Dick 'fore I'm done, take it from me."
"If you are wise, you'll walk off the place quietly," said Susman.
"Not me," said Gegg. "By the jumpin' platypus, I'll give him shovel-me-into-the-well afore it's all over."
"To expose Merton would be to—er—expose others, not to mention the trouble it would lead you into," Susman continued. "If you think your chance of winning a suit in a bush court like these of ours is equal to the squatters', you make a great mistake. Let us leave law matters alone and bring ourselves to an understanding about the child."
"An' that'll jest bring us where law won't leave us alone. No; I'm not goin' ter 'ave anything to do with it—not till that other racket's got a good way behind me. It's a monty the little squib would let out a yell jest as I was gettin' clear, an' there I'd be, up a gum tree at onct. Let her stop where she is till she grows up a bit. Wot's the use o' havin' a baby crawlin' about yer? The brat would only be in yer road."
"I require her as an expedient to bring the mother to submission."
"Ain't yer got her shut up? Take her as she is. Wot's it matter 'bout bein' churched? Marryin' an' that sort o' thing is all bunkum."
"I tell you she must marry me. How can I move about with her if she doesn't? As my wife she would be less inclined to run away and more disposed to keep my secret."
"For one that's got such a down on she-males you've got a curious faith in that woman. You'll find she's a snake yet. She'll slip you fust chance she gets, an' then you'll feel her fangs. The marriage with you'd be void in any case. I'm not goin' ter meddle with it, an' that's the straight tip. I've been in enough hot water for awhile; an' if you'll take a fool's advice you'll attend to some other things, an' leave the kid where she is. Now, you was wonderin' how I come to know who her father was, an' you was rather curious, too, about that woman as was livin' with Jed Roff. Everyone thought she was his wife, an' no one knowed where she went to. I've got a letter 'ere that explains everything. I shook it outer Roff's shanty. It'll tell yer why the child was left the ways she was, where the father's gone, an' whips more that's important to you. Now, wot will yer give me for't?"
"I'll give you—er—half-a-crown," said Susman, diving his hand into his pocket.
"Half-a-crown!" cried Gegg. "Hokey shakes, Susman, yer too delightfully pure altogether. Half-a-crown! Why, dang it, ole Dick'd gimme twenty quid for a read of it. I'll sell it to you for ten—not a cent less."
A burst of ironical laughter came from Susman. "Ten pounds for a letter!" he said. "Do you imagine I own the bank of New South Wales, man?"
"Never mind wot I 'magine—I know yer called the Tyson o' the Wedgepoint; an' yer got that treasure out o' me for a tenner as was worth ten thousand if it was a penny. I come darn near gettin' shovelled holus-bolus into a well over the blamed thing, too. I'd been a rich man now if you 'adn't been 'ere an' met me as I come in with it."
"Let me tell you, Gegg, you got the best of that deal. I thought there was treasure in it when I bought it. But the box was lined with thick sheets of lead, which made it heavy, and contained only papers and charts—not a thing more of any value."
Gegg knew better; and his self-satisfied giggle made Susman fidget uneasily on his seat. "You can't stuff me, Susman," he said. "Old Dick found some papers after, in the coffin—stuffed in a bottle. It give the history of David Attwell—the man as was buried with 'em—an' told all about Dead Man's Well and the chest o' gold. That note will put you away straight if the chest is found. It's dangerous, I ken tell yer, to 'ave these evidences kickin' about. If they was gathered together, an' locked in yer cellars, you might be safe. Now, I'll get them papers from Merton for a thousan' poun', an' I'll sell yer this 'ere valyerble one for a tenner."
"Lord bless me, man, I'm not Croesus, nor can I, like Midas, turn everything into gold that I touch. A thousand for papers, and ten for a letter! Why, the sums are fabulous, veritably fabulous! I wouldn't give it for all the papers in creation."
"Right you are, mate! I'm not badly in want o' stuff jest yet. When I am I'll tackle the boss. He'll buy it quick enough, I'll lay."
"You'd ruin yourself by doing so—in fact, you daren't open your mouth to him on the subject. You'd never bargain again if you did."
"Don't you make no error," said Gegg. "I'll pilot this racket through safe enough, I'll warrant."
Susman drummed impatiently on the table.
"I'll give you a fiver," he said. "That's a tremendous offer for a bit of paper, What do you say?"
"Ten quid or nothin's my figure," said Gegg stubbornly.
"Let me have a look at it," Susman stipulated, "If it's worth the money I'll give it—extortionate as it is. You can't expect me to buy a pig in a poke, can you?"
"You don't expect me to give you the information for nothing, do yer?" Gegg retorted, "I live on my wits—they're dull enough at times—an' I ferret out secrets to sell for money. If you like to fork out two quid yer ken read it; an' if yer reckon it's not worth the other eight yer ken pass it back an' there'll be no harm done."
"Very well . . . . here you are," said Susman, reluctantly producing the two pounds. Gegg soon produced the letter on receipt of the money. It was addressed to Jed Roff, Tipparoo, and the purport of its contents was as follows:—
"My Dear Brother,—I reached Chatswood safely on Thursday, and am staying with my old schoolmate, Marian Bainbridge. She is a dear little soul, takes me everywhere. . . . . I am sure you will be delighted with her. She is just to your taste. . . . .Pretty is not the word to describe her; she is beautiful, sweet, kind, loving, and generous in all things. There's a combination of excellent qualities. You will say that I have indeed painted a charming picture of Marian Bainbridge. But when you have seen her you will admit that I have not been guilty of any exaggeration.
"Grant Attwell is also staying here. He and the Bainbridges are old friends, and he came to stay a day or two before going to Melbourne. He contracted a severe cold while shooting, which has been the cause of his detention. He is recovering, however, and will be able to resume his journey very shortly. He is terribly altered since he lost his wife. He still maintains that she did not leave him of her own free will, that some force was brought to bear upon her that dragged her unwillingly from him. Even were it otherwise, he says, if he could only see her and hear the truth from her own lips, his burden would not be so hard to bear. The doubt in his mind is worse than actual knowledge. I think he will return after a while to look for her—if only for his child's sake. If he cannot get away without offending his uncle, he may send a detective to trace the matter out. I think the latter would be the better course to pursue. It would save him so much pain, and leave him, for a time at least, hopeful of the best. I explained how you had sent little Edith to Richard Merton, and he approved of it, and was much pleased that she was in such good hands. It's hard for him to banish himself from her and leave her unknown. I endeavored to persuade him to confide in her guardians before going away, but he said, as the brunt of the battle was over, it would be better to leave things as they were for a year or two. His secret might leak out otherwise, and ruin, him irretrievably. You know, if his uncle, who is very rich, came to know that he had a child or had married, he would cut him off without a penny, and leave his fortune to charities. I think that is too bad of Steve Attwell.
"Poor Grant told me a great deal of his family history. His has, indeed, been a very unfortunate family. His great-grandfather, Marston Attwell, was murdered on the Parramatta by an ex-convict; and his wife, nee Edith Creighton, was so disconsolate at his death that she flung herself into the river and perished; his grandfather, David, went on an exploring expedition into the bush, and was never again heard of, his wife, Maud Acton, having died previously of typhoid fever; his father, Acton Attwell, shot himself on account of financial difficulties, and his wife, Grant's mother (Adeline Greenaway) was killed in a railway collision; while he himself, through the selfish restrictions of his Uncle Steve, was compelled to marry in secret, and later to hide his child: and now his wife, the beautiful Daisy Bradford, has deserted him. All this is very sad, and I don't wonder that Grant is so changed.
"I never saw anyone so sympathetic and soothing as Marian Bainbridge, and I am sure she must be a great comfort to him. She is waiting very patiently, my dear brother, to see for herself what alteration the years have made in you. I have done my best to prepare the 'walking' for you, and if you do not get into the 'running' you will have only yourself to blame.—Hoping that you will soon join us, with best wishes from your affectionate sister.
"P.S.—If Grant makes his home in Sydney, I'll keep house for him again, as I did at Tallagalba."
"Hem!" said Susman, when he had finished, I'll keep this letter, Gegg."
"There's a little matter o' money ter be fixed up fust," Gegg reminded him.
"Ah, so there is!" Mr. Susman agreed, "Unfortunately, I haven't it on me, Gegg, and I can't risk leaving this letter here for fear you'll lose the run of it. Could you make it convenient to call at the castle to-morrow evening? I'll have the money ready."
"I s'pose there's nothing else for it," said Gegg, with strong disapproval. "But none o' yer shinannikin, mind yer, Susman!"
"Very well, then," Mr. Susman returned. "Good-night, Gegg!"
* * * * * *
On that same evening, strange to say, Richard Merton sat in his office poring over an epistle from his quondam employee. It was as follows:—
"Dear Sir,—I hope you have not been inconvenienced by my absence. I had little hope of being able to return when I left, but did not like to say so. I am involved in private affairs that will take me to Sydney, and perhaps detain me many months. I will go back some day and explain. Do not think that I am in any way connected with little Edith. I admit I told you some falsehoods. I am acquainted with the circumstances, but am restrained from making them known. Believe me, she is of good birth; and there is no stain whatever on the characters of her progenitors. Her father will make himself known, and accord you full explanations, at the right time. I would advise you not to take any steps toward seeking him out, or to make public anything concerning him or the child, as secrecy involves the welfare of little Edith. This may seem rather unreasonable to you just now; but by-and-by it will all be plain enough to you.
"Wishing you every success,
"I am yours sincerely
This brief note went a long way towards clearing Jed Roff from the suspicions that his previous actions had given rise to. To Richard Merton the above amounted to a frank admission that Wahwon, the "wild aborigine," had been a colleague of his, and that Jed himself was but the instrument of another, in some manner bound to reticence. So satisfactory was this to the squatter that all the dark questions that Mumby's observations had mooted lost their contaminating aspect, making a diminution of mountains to molehills and every erstwhile blot appear as an insignificant thing but waiting an explanation. For this he was now perfectly content to await Jed Roff's convenience.
Hannah Grubbins had taken but a few paces down the subterranean hall at Wangooma Castle when a sudden theory struck forcibly on her mind. There were surely some retainers in the place to keep it in order, and to look after the lights in her master's absence. Some grizzle-bearded lackey might at any moment appear, and it would not go well with her if she were discovered. There was a door on her right—the one which Magnus Susman had locked on Mrs. Attwell not half an hour before—and she decided to see what was there before venturing into those ramifying corridors that appeared to shoot off from the far end. The key was again brought into requisition, and it fitted as before. It was one of those duplicate keys oft-times left in the possession of the fille de chambre in case of emergencies, and which was suited to all locks.
If Hannah was surprised at the brilliant grandeur of the hall, she was ten times more so on beholding the surpassing splendor of that drawing-room in which she found herself suddenly encompassed. She stared around her, feeding her wonder-stricken eyes on the evidences of her master's secret pomposity; and then, relocking the door from the inside, she scrutinised everything that was there, even to the few select books, the bits of floral embroidery, a Japanese fan thrown carelessly on a cushion of Indian silk, the escritoire, the thick carpets that made the step as the fall of a feather, and the ottomans and variegated mats. The voluminous folds of rich, creamy curtains, tastefully caught at the sides, and crowned at the lintel with a bow-knot of blue ribbon, excited her envy and convinced her that here below was someone, other than Magnus Susman, more skilful and refined than herself, to whose presiding care all this nattiness, softness of color, and delicacy of arrangement was due. She did not espy that presiding angel—for it was Mrs. Grant Attwell who tidied these rooms daily for the sake of having something to do—until she was in the middle of the boudoir, when she stopped with a cry of alarm. Mrs. Attwell had observed her for some time, and was much more pleased than otherwise at the intrusion.
"Par—pardon, ma'am," gasped Hannah. "I didn't know there was anyone 'ere."
"Are you not one of the servants of the house?" Mrs. Attwell asked placidly.
"True, ma'am; but I've never been allowed to come down here. I found the way opened to-night, an' just took the liberty to have a squint about. But, lor' lumme, I never dreamt there was anybody here."
"Is not Magnus Susman your master, and do you not wait on him?"
"I do, ma'am; but I send everything down on a lift to the dining-room. That's the only room of this suite I ever saw. I always thought he had a tremenjus applecart, not knowin' as he had anyone to help him. The trap-door's always closed on me before he sits down. I s'pose, ma'am, you go in to the table, then—with him?"
"I've never been out of these rooms since I was brought here," Mrs. Attwell answered. 'Do you know, my good woman, that I am a prisoner?"
"A prisoner!" cried Hannah, recovering from her fears. "Lor love a porcupine; but you must be jokin' with me."
"Indeed, no," Mrs. Attwell answered; "my sorrow is too deep to incline me to jest. You don't know what I have to bear. Come, sit down here before me, and let us understand one another. I think I recognise in you a friend who will help me. Now, don't be afraid. I see you are nervous," taking Hannah's rough palm in her soft, white hand. "Let us be very explicit and truthful with each other. Now, what is your name?"
"Hannah Grubbins. It's not a high-soundin' name, ma'am, but there's plenty better people known by a worse one. Any amount of 'em, ma'am."
"Indeed, you are right. The commonest name is as good as the most aristocratic one if the owner has not tarnished it. There's very little, if anything, in the idiom of names," Mrs. Attwell rejoined, thereby demonstrating that she had never essayed to enter the world of litterateurs. A name is everything there. "You don't know me, of course," she continued. "I am Grant Attwell's wife. Did you ever hear of him? Or have you heard anything about him lately? I should like to hear something—anything."
"I haven't, ma'am. I never go outside to see nobody, an' nobody comes inside to see me; so, of course, I hear nothin' that's good, an' less that's bad."
"Have you been long in your present situation?"
"Long, ma'am! Ever since I was good lookin'."
"That is a good-many years ago, I presume?" said Mrs. Attwell, without intending to be rude, but almost laughing despite her sorrow, at the old maid's quaint reply.
"Indeed it is, ma'am," said Hannah, without perceiving the significance of the words. "I don't know how many—ain't much of a scholar, ma'am, so I won't leave you in doubts about that. I ain't, ashamed to own what I am. There's any amount that is, lot o' upstarts pretendin' to be scholars with no more edgecation than a goanna. Not a bit more—no. Lemme see! What was I sayin' ag'in now?"
"That you have been here many years and never knew till to-night that there was a singly human being in these underground rooms. Is that true?"
"True's I'm a sinner, ma'am. I never knew till this minute; though when I come into the hall, an' seen how grand it was, an' all lighted an' that, I thought there must be someone kickin' about somewhere, so I made a dinnyaizer into the first room, an' runs slap into you. You'll excuse the expressions I use sometimes, ma'am. They're a bit bushyfied—but, then, you know, ma'am, it's a long time since I was in any sort o' society. Indeed, I think I'd feel quite lost in society now. You mightn't believe it, but really I do think I'd be like a lost sheep—quite out o' the runnin', you know."
"I can quite understand you, Hannah," said Mrs. Attwell, smiling. "But, say, did you relock the door when you entered?" she asked on a sudden, her eyes flashing, and her hands clutching involuntarily.
"I did, ma'am," said Hannah. "It wasn't likely I was goin' to leave it open for any as liked to come an' see what I was up to."
Mrs. Attwell sank back in her chair, with her hands interlaced on her lap. "I was afraid," she murmured, "that one of the others might come in."
"Jumpin' wombats!" Hannah ejaculated, "d'yer tell me there's more?"
"There are four persons at the far side—one blackfellow named Dalbyn, who waits on me, and three black women. They are not prisoners like me—at least, I don't think they are. They are allowed to go about here as they like, but not outside, I believe."
"Three gins!" cried Hannah "Three gins! Ha, ha, ha! Oh, the old vagabond! No wonder he didn't want me down, here! Oh, the sly old bull ant! But I've got him pickled at last. Ha, ah, ha!"
"Hannah, Hannah, what is the matter?" Mrs. Attwell exclaimed not little annoyed at this irrelevant outburst on the part of the old maid.
"Matter?" said the latter. "Good lors, ma'am, can't you see it? Why, this is a harem—a harem, ma'am!' Them's cucumbers—no; that's not the word—concubines, I meant to say. That's what they are. It's as plain as me old pole-tooth ma'am. Ha, ha, ha!"
"Hannah, my dear woman, I must really beg of you not to laugh so loudly. You'll have them down on us like so many cormorants."
"Ah, they're sittin' up for the old dog, I s'pose! How dutiful, ha, ha, ha! The old wretch! This is the way the squatters do, ma'am—them as haven't got white Marys. Have underground rooms on their stations, an' fill 'em with cucum—concubines, an' keep eunuchs to watch 'em, like they do in the harems in Turkey. But, lord love a porcupine! who'd have thought Susman was a dastard old Turk! Ha, ha, ha! Oh, the wretch! the old scamp! the—ye, ye, ye!" she hissed, shaking her fists at the wall, and glaring upwards with a fierce look in her fiery-lit eyes.
"Oh, Hannah! My goodness, don't look like that. You quite terrify me!" Mrs. Attwell remonstrated, catching Hannah's wrists and shaking her.
"Ah, the lor' save us!" the latter continued, as if speaking to herself. "You don't understand it, ma'am. Do you know, I've always wanted to marry that curse o' Satan? Aye, ever since he come to live here I've wanted to be his wife. That's been my lifelong wish. I've grown as old as the hills, as ugly as a bog hole, an' as sour as a withered lemon, awaitin' for him to say yes. God knows 'twas little enough I asked him to say, but the old rascal never said it for all that. He won't even say yes to me when I'm talkin' to him about the pigs for fear I'd take it as a promise; but I just grunts like a pig himself when you're scratching its back. I've seen times, ma'am, when I've had to overdraw me wages to pay my scent an' paint bills, an' once or twice had to rob the cursed old nincompoop to pay my dressmaker—an' all this to rig myself up to make a conquest, thinkin' as how he was a poor lonely mortal all the time, an' all as I ever got was 'Ugh!' an' 'Hem!' All my loveliness spurned for a black face! Ah, the old hypocrite! Three of 'em—no less'! an' me a-thinkin' he'd never let a woman in the house, an' here I find him a polygigamist—that's what they call it, ma'am. Shiver me old back teeth, I can't get over it. Are they good-lookin', ma'am?"
"They are young, and somewhat comely; but as for being good-looking—well, I don't consider black a color of beauty in a face. Their features are finely delineated, and their teeth even and white; but their noses are broad, and their eyes smoky."
"But they're young," mused Hannah, "an' I'm old. That's the difference. An' I s'pose he's got 'em dressed up like dolls at a fancy fair? I'll bet my Sunday bonnet ag'in a look at the hussies he has—my best bonnet—that's the one the strumpet sat down flat on last Monday three weeks ago, an' squashed it as flat as a nigger's nose. 'Twas a good bonnet, too, the best I ever had, or am likely to have ag'in. Lemme see, it cost me one an' thrippence 'leven years ago. That was, of course, when I was movin' creation to yard Sultan Susman; an', of course, you've got to get expensive things when you're courtin', you know, ma'am, to tidlyvate yourself up becomin' like. An' to think the old jew-lizard had his hat hung up in a black gin's dilly bag all the time! My love dream's over, ma'am—me sentiment's busted. Yee! I hate him . . . . Ha. ha, ha!"
"I thank you, Hannah, for your confidence," said Mrs. Attwell, who was just about tired of hearing that discordant laugh, "I should like to tell you my story," she continued, in the hope of winning the old maid's sympathy by so doing, and thinking it would probably be the means of her ultimate rescue, if she did not escape by Hannah's assistance. "Would you care to hear it?"
"Indeed, I'd be much obliged to you for spinnin' it out; ma'am. I s'pose the time's slippin' fast," groping about her bust. "The dickens take it!" she exclaimed, "I haven't got my watch with me. Lemme see! Ah, I left it on the corner of the peanna when I was playin' the varsoverana. But, never mind. Fire away, ma'am."
"You remember the time, of course, when Magnus Susman resided almost permanently in Sydney. His father was alive then, and I believe, living here. My father introduced me to Susman one day in Hyde Park, and after that he was a frequent visitor at our house. To use his own phraseology, he was, like Epimetheus, smitten with my charms. I've often thought of that expression since. You know, when Epimetheus married Pandora, she presented him with a box of Life's evils which Jupiter had given her, and this he imprudently opened, letting out those manifold evils that aggrieve mankind, leaving Hope alone at the bottom for their consolation. Now it appears to me that my rejection of his suit took the form of Pandora's evil box, whence the miseries and afflictions have been released, and Hope alone remains at the bottom to console me; for Susman asked me to be his wife, and persecuted me long after I rejected him. Our last meeting took place in a theatre. He told me he was going to the Richmond, as his father was dying, and asked me if I could give him any hope. I took him up somewhat pertly, for I was terribly annoyed at his persistency, and, also, I was betrothed to Grant Attwell. Susman said if I married, him it would be to my sorrow. I misconstrued his words, and as much as told him to mind his own business.
"Grant wasn't well off, though he was heir to a rich uncle in Melbourne; but the latter had sworn if ever Grant married he would leave his wealth to charities, and Grant's only legacy would be a few ancestral souvenirs and heirlooms of little monetary value. He happened to have a few shares in a Bendigo mine, which his father had left him. These rose suddenly in value as the result of a good find, and Grant sold out for quite a considerable sum. We were quietly married soon after, and came to the Richmond, Grant's object being to settle down as a pastoralist. He bought Tallagalba, and there we lived happily for fifteen or sixteen months. During the interim my father died, which left me an orphan, my mother having died at the time of her accouchement. So you see, I've never known what it was to have a mother; she gave her life for mine. My father had lived just long enough to see my baby, Edith. She was named after Grant's great-grandmother. Poor little Edie! Where is she now? Motherless as her mother had been—ah! a hundred times worse. Oh God, is it not terrible? But let me tell you all—you'll excuse my tears, Hannah; I cannot help it when I think of my child. She was five months old when I was torn from her. It was one night when my husband was away from home. My housekeeper, Imogene Roff, and the maid had gone to bed, and I was in the sitting-room knitting some woollens for my babe. The blackfellow Dalbyn and Magnus Susman entered from the bedroom. They'd got in through the window. Susman had a revolver in his hand, and he pointed it at me and demanded writing paper, and ink. 'Utter the least sound,' he said, 'and I will shoot you.'
"I was terrified. 'Merciful heavens!' I cried. 'Magnus Susman, has it come to this?"
" 'Do as I tell you; never mind what it has come to,' he replied. I got the writing materials immediately, and placed them on the table before him. He then told me to sit down. I did so. He put the paper and ink in front of me, and gave me the pen. 'Now,' he said, 'I want you to write a few lines to your husband. I have robbed him, and intend to take those two hacks you've been accustomed to ride. If I leave you here, I shall incur the danger of being hunted down. I'm going to take you away for one week so that I can escape, I want your husband to believe that you have deserted him—that you have run away with an old lover. He will then conclude that it was you who robbed him, and it's not likely that he'll put the police on your tracks. You'll not be taken far away—just a few hours' ride. You'll be shut up in a house—but allowed three or four rooms to yourself—and be well cared for. At the end of the week, when I have got safely away, you will be set at liberty. Now write as I dictate: If you do not, I'll carry you off into the bush and kill you. That will suit me just, as well—: but I wish to spare you for the sake of the youngster. It is to your advantage to submit quietly. Now, will you write?'
"I acquiesced, and he dictated the note that must have been as a dagger-thrust to my poor husband. I wrote it word for word, as he composed it, thinking that I would be free in a week, and that Grant would never see it, for I did not expect him back for some time yet. I had no suspicion of what was really in store; I was too unnerved to read between the lines and perceive his diabolical intentions. I can see the words yet: they are cut deeply into my heart, frescoed on my mind; they are ever dancing before my eyes like hellish symbols traced in blood. These are they, written what seems to me long ages ago: 'Grant Attwell,—This is to inform you that I have left you for good and all. I never cared for you, and married you only out of deference to my father's wishes. I depart to-night with the man I have always loved. I leave you the child, as I cannot take her with me. I hope you will forget me. Good-bye, Daisy.'
To this I appended a brief postscript to Imogene (she was a trustworthy soul, who could keep her own counsel to take care of little Edith until my husband returned from Ulmarra. I was then told to pack up what clothing I required for the week. I did so, under the close watch of Susman, who would not leave me for a moment, lest I should by some means leave it to be known to my husband that what I had written was not true. The parcel I made up was given to the aboriginal attendant. I made some change in my own toilette, pressed hot, burning kisses on the face of my sleeping child, and expressed myself ready. I was conducted through the side gate of the garden, where Susman's horse, and another with a side-saddle, were tethered. There were no other horses there. The aborigine, with the parcel tucked under his arm, went towards the stables. 'Where are the two hacks you spoke of?' I asked. 'Do you want to rouse the household?' was his response. 'Get on this horse and hold your tongue.'
"He assisted me into the saddle, and, mounting himself, we rode away—aye, from home, husband, child—everything! Twice I caught sight of Dalbyn following a good distance behind, but driving no horses, nor was he loading any. I was at first disappointed; for, though I far from wished to see my husband's property stolen, I didn't want to find this man out in a lie. If he did not bring those two hacks away with him, then he had deceived me in the first instance, and this pointed to the fact that he was not horse-stealing, but wanted me for some other purpose.
"The full force of my position came upon me when I was immersed in the trackless bush. What would the servants think of me on finding that contaminating note on the table next morning? It was not even closed; it was there for everyone to read. They would run with the terrible tale to the nearest neighbor; it would be bruited everywhere; it would spread like wildfire as all scandal does, and would be published in the papers, to my disgrace and shame. It might even find its way to Steve Attwell, and be the cause of my husband's disinheritance. Oh, the pain of it all—the shame of that night! I thought it would have killed me. Once I begged him to consider what he was doing, to think what it meant, and let me go. I implored him in the name of my child, for the honor of my name, to let me return—not to drag me from child and home to stain me with disgrace that nothing could erase. I promised to say nothing for a week to allow him to get clear away. 'No,' he said, 'I have you in the dark bush, where I can shoot you at any moment. Just touch that horse of yours up a bit. He can walk well if you let him have his head. Push along where it's clear, and remember, not a word!'
"So we rode on through that dreadful night, up hill and down dale, till we came to Wangooma. I was conducted down the stairs, and into these rooms. Then he told me the truth—that I was doomed to remain here for ever, that I would be kept a prisoner underground till I married him. That was months ago. He has importuned me, bounced, threatened me—done everything in his power to gain my consent; but I'd suffer anything villainy could devise rather than submit to the dastard coward."
"God sakes, but that's a hawful tale!" cried Hannah. "An' that's how you come here! I'd never have believed it was in him. An' me a-wantin' to marry him all these years! The old Turk! Keepin' a harem an' cucumbers—makin' prisoners of other men's wives an' wantin' to marry 'em in one room with a bundle o' colored vixens in another. . . . Ha, ha, ha!"
It was painful to Mrs. Attwell's feelings to hear that laugh after the narration of her terrible tale of wrong and suffering, and she looked at Hannah with eyes full of reproach and pleading. "Hannah, you are a good woman, you have all a woman's instincts, and a woman's heart; you believe in God and Heaven—as you hope for His mercy, help me out of this hell on earth; spare me from that inhuman monster, that wicked wretch!"
"I will ma'am; as I'm a sinner I'll help you. Just wait a few days, an' you'll see I'll baffle that old dog. Ah, I'd like to throttle the old jew-lizard. He'll never marry me now, ma'am. I wouldn't have him—I wouldn't have him, ma'am."
"Don't let us waste time, Hannah. Let's get away," said Mrs. Attwell, rising.
"To-night, ma'am?" cried Hannah, aghast at the proposal.
"Yes, yes, at once. You have the key—the way is open—one minute will take me into the open air, and under the canopy of night I can escape."
"I can't do it, ma'am; I daren't do it. Remember, this is only my 'splorin' trip. I know all about down here now—cucumbers an' so forth. Next time, ma'am, I'll take you out. Be patient, ma'am; you'll be free afore long. Let the devil doubt it."
"But—oh, why not to-night? The opportunity may never come again. Let it be to-night. Remember my child! For my child's sake—for the sake of my poor husband, leave me not another hour in this polluted place."
"This is the safest place for you, ma'am," said Hannah, pushing Mrs. Attwell gently back into her chair. "It's madness to leave here now. You'd be jumpin' out of the fire into the pan. Old Susman's not far away from home by this, an' he'd have you afore you got out of sight; an' I'd bet that bonnet o' mine he'd put you then where you wouldn't see daylight ag'in in a hurry. He might be home any minute, an'—jumping wombats, ma'am, if I'm seen about here it'll go as hard as the hobnails of Inverell with the pair of us. I must get, ma'am, or you'll be squashed flat."
"Perhaps you are right, Hannah," Mrs. Attwell submitted. "But you won't leave me here long? You will come back to me very soon?"
"Fust chance as comes my way, ma'am. So keep your pecker up. I mean to stir the 'possum in Sultan Susman from this out. I'm a different woman now, ma'am, an' I wouldn't have the old bull-ant if his old hide was hung with diamonds. He'll know more o' me yet—I'll show him as Hannah Grubbins ain't to be sneered at, take it from me!"
So Hannah crept out of the room and into the hall, and ultimately reached her own dominions in safety. Her matrimonial designs upon the person of Mr. Susman were forever eradicated from her mind. She had spoken to Mrs. Attwell without sophistication, and fully intended to fulfil the promises she had made. Henceforth she would exert herself, mentally and physically, to baffle and thwart the "Sultan" all she could; and she even hoped to succeed in wrecking his life, already storm-tossed and battered. But a frail ship may come safely through troubled waters, and a stout barque go to the bottom.
Six years in the retrospect is not a very great span across the ocean of life—in fact, life itself, as Gordon says, is but a span—yet what changes take place in six years, what countless new faces spring up in place of the old ones, what exigencies and plenitudes are transposed: hopes have been crushed or realised, ambitions gained or lost. Still, all this is little in comparison with the change that period had made in Edith, the Squatter's Ward. From a little infant, kicking the cradle pillows with red, chubby heels, she had grown to a bright, chatty child of seven, with an abundance of curly hair, and a pair of large, frank eyes that were soft and blue. Her constant companion was little Harold, a boy of eight or nine, who had been domiciled there since his father, Ralf Havelock, had died two years before. Their careless laughter and childish prattle rang through the old homestead all day, and the dull monotony that had reigned there before their advent was a thing of the past.
There was a pleasant rivalry between Richard Merton and his wife in respect to these foster children. Edith was the pet and pride of Mrs. Merton, while Harold was the protege and idol of Mr. Merton. Of course, Harold, in the eyes of the former, was a bold boy, and was being allowed too much of his own way; and Edith, from Mr. Merton's point of view, was a tomboy, and if not restrained a bit more would be incorrigibly spoilt.
"You shouldn't let her have so much rein, Maggie. Keep her more in check, or she'll be out of the traces altogether," he would say.
"Indeed, Richard, she's an example that Harold might take a lesson by," Mrs. Merton would answer.
"I suppose so! Where is my cap, Maggie? I thought I left it here."
"I'm sure I've not seen it, Edie, do you know where papa's cap is?"
"Run and see if it's in the office. Be quick now, there's a good child. Papa's waiting."
"Oh, I can't, mamma," said Edith. "Make Harol' go, he's papa's boy."
"There you are!" said Mr. Merton triumphantly. "Upon my word, that's a nice way to bring up children. If I had told Harold to get it he'd 've done so at once."
"Perhaps you had better tell him, Richard," Mrs. Merton rejoined quietly.
"Harold!" shouted Richard at once.
"What?" answered a juvenile voice from the passage.
"Come here, I want you."
"What you want me for?" asked Harold, without budging.
"Come and find my cap," said Mr. Merton more sharply.
"I won't!" was the prompt rejoinder, "let Edie find it; she's doin' nothin'."
Mr. Merton left the room in a hurry, as his wife commenced to laugh; and, finding his cap himself, led Master Harold off to the stables, giving him a quiet lecture en route. He always took little Harold with him in his strolls about the homestead, and very happy was Harold, trotting along at his knee, and prattling without cessation, to be thus taken around and shown the ponies, and the calves, and the young lambs that frisked and gambolled about the hillside; He was a bright, sturdy little fellow, a father's joy; and was a favorite with everyone on account of his Hyacinthian beauty and quaint little ways. His hair, deep auburn in colour, and curly by nature, had been allowed to grow in wavy masses down his shoulders; and in his broad hat, his navy-blue knickerbockers, stockings and patent leather shoes, he looked the very model of juvenile masculineness. He was called "The Beautiful Spartan Boy" by the men, who were wont to indulge and pet him to a degree that tended to spoil him; and some said he would be a "lad,"' and a "proper one," by and by. But the future had no cares for Richard Merton, except from a financial standpoint, and that had always troubled him—though two or three good seasons during the last six years had somewhat improved his prospects. He had the management of the station on his own hands now, since he had not employed anyone to succeed Ralf Havelock, who was killed by his horse falling on him while mustering on an out-station called Tillawong.
"You'll be my manager by and by, boy," he would say to Harold. "You'll look after the cows and horses when I'm too old to knock about."
"I'll be a big boy then, won't I, pa? And I'll swear at the men when they let the wrong cows through the gates in the yard."
"No, no, my boy; you mustn't swear. Only bad boys swear."
"But you swear, pa. You swear awful at the blackboys."
"You shouldn't listen, my boy. It's very wicked."
"To listen? But I got to, pa. If I don't listen I won't know when you're swearin'," said Harold.
"You shouldn't heed it," said Mr. Merton, quite proud to observe how sharp his pupil was getting. "You must learn to speak nicely and kindly. Now, let me see how you can feed the ponies, for you must know how to feed them as well as ride them."
In such manner they spent their lives together, and thus early was little Harold Havelock instructed in the rudiments of a station career. From his very cradle he had been on a horse; and it is not a strange sight either, in the Australian bush, to see a child able to sit in a saddle who is yet too young to talk. Equestrianism is the first thing that is taught the child of the bush; and perhaps it is owing to this that the real colonials, as a rule, stand unrivalled in the world for thorough horsemanship. And Mr. Merton was quite agreed in his own mind that Harold should be a prominent member in the profession that has become famous.
Nothing more had been heard of Jed Roff, nor had anything further come to light regarding Edith's parents. Her unfortunate mother, Mrs. Grant Attwell, despite Hannah Grubbins' assurances to the contrary, had spent those long years in prison, and had never once been permitted to see the light of day. Had Hannah proved false to her promise? No; she had been so sedulous in Mrs. Attwell's interests as to almost destroy her own. Two months had passed before she got a second opportunity to go below, and this she threw away and endangered herself, by that very groundless fear which all women evince at the sight of a mouse. A little, harmless, brown creature, so small that it could hardly be seen, scurried across the hall as she entered it, and a sharp scream that echoed through the corridors was the result. Her agitation retarded her opening the door, and while thus occupied, Dalbyn ran up and clutched her by the arm. Hannah screamed, struggled, panted, gasped—but she was held as firmly as in a vice. The three gins, yabbering and gesticulating, came to Dalbyn's assistance, and Hannah's terror increased as she found herself in their midst.
"Wet you doin' here, missus?" Dalbyn demanded
"I was looking for Mr. Susman," said Hannah helplessly,
"Dat's a lie," said Dalbyn. "Wot for you want ter go in dat room?"
"I thought he might be in there," Hannah answered.
Dalbyn laughed. "No good tell um lie, missus," he said. "You come longa me till boss come home."
"Lor' lumme, no! I mustn't stop here. I've got bread in the oven. I must take it out or it will be burnt, an' there'll be none for breakfast. Let me go at once, there's a good man." Hannah was breathless with terror, and struggled feebly while she panted out the words.
"Can't, missus," said Dalbyn. "Now you been see dis place you neber leabe it no more."
"My God, don't keep me here!" gasped Hannah. "Let me go—I'll give you anything if you let me go. I'll give you rum—plenty good rum, an' tobacco." She knew it was hard for a black-fellow to refuse a bribe, and felt easier in the assurance that such would effect her escape. The gins yabbered rapidly, apparently urging Dalbyn to accept the bribe, while he appeared to remonstrate with them. Hannah added her entreaties to their persuasions, and ultimately Dalbyn yielded on condition that all four should go with her, and take a run about the gardens in requital of her violation of their sanctum. Hannah gave her prompt acquiescence. She was ready to agree to anything so that she was allowed to go free.
They ran upstairs in high glee, and on reaching the top, were so delighted at the sight of the broad moonlight, shedding an effulgence in at the back door, and the strip of blue sky bespangled with twinkling stars—things they had not seen for many a day—that they forgot all about the rum and the tobacco, and rushed out into the open, yabbering, laughing and shouting like so many beings suddenly released from the walls of Bedlam.
Round the house and through the garden they ran for ten or fifteen minutes, while Hannah stood trembling with terror lest Susman should return at this inopportune moment.
Then they rushed back into the house, a mass of flying legs and arms, that would have given one the impression that they were squatters and selectors playing football under Rugby rules; and whilst Dalbyn fleeced Hannah of all he could get out of her, the gins went below, ostensibly satisfied with their calisthenic gymnastics. But a few moments sufficed for an alteration of this opinion. The three gins returned, each laden with a heavy load. Dalbyn immediately joined them, and heedless of Hannah's importunities and admonition, the quartette sallied forth to taste once more the joys of an erratic life in their native wilds. Hannah trembling in every limb, and filled with an awful dread of what the result of this night's work would be, shut up the house as quickly as she could. She was about to close the door at the head of the stairs, when she bethought her it would be safer to leave it open, as Susman would then think that the key he had lost was in Dalbyn's possession, and by its means he had let himself and the gins out. This ultimately transpired, and Hannah, being exonerated, congratulated herself on her forethought.
After this Magnus Susman was so circumspect that an invasion of his sanctum was an impossibility. He made it a habit of riding away from home every day, sometimes returning in ten minutes, at other times being absent several hours. Thus Hannah never knew at what moment he might return, and it was hazardous to attempt another visit to Mrs. Attwell. His coming and going in this irregular manner had been planned to exemplify to Hannah the danger of interference; for in his own mind he nourished a suspicion that Hannah was not altogether innocent of complicity in the escape of the aborigines.
Now an event occurred which again supplied Magnus Susman with a desirable factotum. After many months of quietude Jabez Gegg again set the law at defiance by breaking into Mr. Merton's office for the purpose of obtaining the papers of David Attwell, being instigated to the perpetration of this deed by Magnus Susman. He was caught red-handed by Richard Merton, and a desperate struggle ensued, in the course of which Gegg's jacket and shirt sleeve were torn off. There was the mark of a snake charming a bird imprinted on his left arm with sailors' pigment. Merton had just observed this when Gegg effected his escape. A few weeks later the police were searching in the vicinity for a man, believed to be Jabez Gegg, and with the same convicting mark upon his arm, against whom an indictment was laid, charging him with the murder of Charles Mant at Quirindi years before, information of his whereabouts having been given by a quondam resident in that locality. But Jabez Gegg was by this time quartered safely at Wangooma. There was little fear of his running away, as that subterranean abode was to him a haven of refuge. He went out only on dark nights, mostly on errands of felony. He had ample time to develop his talents for villainy, as he was employed in no other capacity, all domestic matters being left in the hands of two black girls whom Susman had decoyed into his prison.
However strongly this may savor of slavery days, it is comparatively of little moment when one considers the deeds that were enacted years ago on many of the stations in the back-blocks.
There was nothing ferocious in the nature of Magnus Susman; he was not a "fiend incarnate"; but he was a villain of a pronounced stamp, a villain of a dye deep and black enough to be the cup-bearer of Satan. He was such a man as plotted against his oldest friend and nearest neighbour, while drinking success and long life to him in goblets of wine, and that wine his friend's. The seed of his latest plot had long germinated in his mind before he ventured one evening to broach the subject to Jabez Gegg.
"I think you might safely knock about now during the day, Jabez," he said. "Everyone's forgotten about that affair long ago, and if you shaved off clean, there'd be no danger of your being recognised."
"What's to do in the daytime?" asked Gegg suspiciously.
"I'm heartily tired of that woman in there," said Susman vengefully. "I nearly killed her once, and then she wouldn't give in. By and by she'll be old and ugly, and I won't care a fig for her. Now, I'm going to do this: if I can't frighten her into submission by means of her daughter, I'll reverse matters. Do you understand, Gegg? It the mother will not marry me, I'll marry the daughter, and that as soon as she's sixteen. Quite old enough, too—and only thirty years younger than me."
"It's easy enough to talk, Susman, but you've got to get her fust."
"That is for you to do," Susman quietly rejoined.
"Me!" cried Gegg. "How 'm I goin' ter do it?"
"In this way," said Susman. "They are often playing among the willow-trees along the creek. There is every facility there for hiding, and for carrying her off. You can climb into the willow trees and lie concealed among the leaves until they come."
"They mightn't come, though," said Gegg, who in reality feared that Merton himself might come; and since he knew him for what he was, he might take it into his head to capture him "dead or alive." Since he had feloniously broken into Mr. Merton's house—to which must be added the burning of Goolgolgon, and the stealing of the treasure chest from Dead Man's Well, to his crimes—he had been declared, by public proclamation, a bushranger, and a reward was offered for his apprehension. This knowledge made him more than usually cautious and wary, and ever apprehensive in his movements even in the dark hours of night.
"They will come, sure enough," said Susman.
"The willows is a favorite resort with them, Mrs. Merton told me that herself some time ago when I was down there. She said she was afraid they would be drowned, as they were always playing about there. You must go there every evening, and watch until you get her."
"There's a terrible lot o' danger in that job," said Gegg opposedly.
"Danger!" sneered Susman. "A life endangered as yours is, is always in danger, and it is sometimes safer to face the danger than to strive to avoid it."
"I s'pose you'd put a feller away," said Gegg sulkily, "if he didn't go an' put his head in the noose at your biddin'."
"I am certainly not going to keep you here for nothing, Jabez Gegg. You seem to forget that you are an outlaw, and that I am incurring no end of risk in harboring you here. Do you think I am going to run that risk for a man who objects to serve me, eh? Answer me that question, Jabez Gegg?"
"You're right enough there, Susman," said Gegg in a conciliatory tone, as the outburst he had caused quite alarmed him. "I know you're runnin' a lot o' risk in keepin' me 'ere, an' I honor you all the more for it."
"You honor me!" Susman sneered. "That's a priceless gift."
"There's honor among thieves, Susman," said Gegg. "It was your devil's work that brought me to this. While I'm 'ere we're both safe; but if I had ter make shift for meself an' got copped, it'd be jest the other way."
Susman drew a revolver—a small, highly finished weapon—and placed the muzzle close to the head of the astonished Gegg.
"Dare you threaten me?"
"Good God! would yer shoot a feller?" cried Gegg, growing still more alarmed at the anger and determination he saw in Susman's eyes. "Put that fakus away—it ain't in the argument. We can settle this question without firearms. Don't let there be no quarrelling atween old friends. You're always pickin' me up, Susman. It's not fair. I wasn't threatenin' you, yer know that darn well."
"Your words conveyed that impression, at all events," said Susman. "If I thought you'd betray me I'd have you torn limb from limb. You shall be from this out perdued; and if you raise the least objection to anything I tell you to do, or do not accomplish any mission I send you upon, out of this you shall go. I'm not going to harbor vermin for nothing. Do you understand me, Gegg? I want that girl, Edith Merton, brought here, and this I charge you with on the penalty of expulsion. Not another day will these walls conceal you after you have failed. That's your reward for raising captious objections, Jabez Gegg. Now, tomorrow evening you go to those willow-trees, and as soon as the girl appears you get her by any means you like, providing you don't hurt her, and fetch her here direct. Do you hear me, Jabez Gegg?"
"I am not deaf, Susman," said Gegg sulkily.
"When you're speaking to me, say Mr. Susman. Henceforth we are master and servant." Gegg scowled, but said nothing. "You thoroughly understand what you have to do?" Susman continued.
Gegg looked up, and for a moment there was rebellion in his eye. "There's no call to rub it in, Mr. Susman," he said bitterly.
"Very well. You can go to your room, then," said Mr. Susman; and thus peremptorily dismissed, Jabez Gegg shuffled off, muttering something to the effect that he had put his foot in it this time and no mistake; while Susman betook himself into the presence of Mrs. Attwell to inform her as to what his future intentions were.
All the next morning Jabez Gegg moped about desperate in his want of security, despairing for the loss of freedom, and with an ever-recurring dread of disaster before him. To go out anywhere now in the open day was fraught with danger; but to bivouac among the weeping willows of Bilbo Creek, almost under the very eaves of Tipparoo homestead, was walking into the lion's mouth. It seemed to him that he had been given the task of a Hercules, that some of that vindictive, vituperative feeling that actuated Pellas when he sent his cousin, Jason, on the argonautic expedition to Colchis to recover the Golden Fleece from the King of Aetes, possessed Magnus Susman when he charged him with an undertaking so prodigious and perilous.
Jabez Gegg was a rank coward, a low miscreant, who had not the nerve or courage to meet the eye of an intended victim. All the morning he shook in his boots with fear; and as the sun crossed the meridian and the afternoon began to wane, his breath came in short gasps, and his agitation increased to such an extent that the combination gave a tremulous accent to his speech. In vain he took up a book and tried to read; the face of Richard Merton seemed to look up from its pages, and constables and black-trackers to run along the lines; and all the while there rang in his ears the last dread sentence of the law: "That you shall hang by the neck until you are dead!" Then the fatal hour came, and, disguised as a tramp, a swag slung over his shoulder, and a billy in his hand, he was conducted out of the garden by Magnus Susman and sent on his errand.
"An arrant coward if there ever was one," was Susman's soliloquy as he retraced his steps after watching Gegg out of sight. Hannah Grubbins had also been watching. "Who's that cove, Magnus?" she asked.
"Where have you sent him?"
"On a fool's errand. I suppose he'll be back here to-night. If he is, you can give him some supper and a shake-down."
"A tramp! Give a tramp supper an' bed!" cried Hannah, aghast at the idea of such a thing. "Jumpin' wombats; yer must be goin' off yer nanny!"
"I might want him by and by—if he's not too great a fool. I'm trying him, Grubbins," Mr. Susman explained.
"You're playing with a snake," said Hannah. "There's a crawlin' goana-look about that cove I don't like."
"Do as I tell you, Grubbins. Did old Sergeant Tadeas call to-day?"
"He did—an' was lookin' for Beaton's bullock. He sed you were to be sure to burn them head an' horns at the killin' yard, as Beaton was bound to know 'em if he came along—an' not to forget to cut the brand off the 'ide. I give him the roast you left out for him, an' he said, 'By George, it's old Beaton that breeds good beef!' "
"Humph!" said Mr. Susman. "Anything else?"
"He said a selector t'other side o' Beaton's had a good fat bullock runnin' in his paddock that'd be worth lookin' at when yer wanted to kill ag'in—an' don't forget to keep him a joint."
"Oh!" said Susman. "Did you tell him about those teamsters cutting timber without a license on Stony Creek?"
"Aye—an' he says he'll make it a caution to that push."
"Very good. I'll teach them to abide by the law, and not set it at defiance," said Mr. Susman, chuckling and leering at old Hannah, which was his peculiar way of expression when anything pleased him. This was quite enough in itself to satisfy the old maid—though, in sooth, she could not get over the idea of the uncouth visitor being treated to a supper, in so much as no tramp had ever been known to leave his hunger at Wangooma; but it was worth that diversion to see Mr. Susman pleased, and so the eccentric old Hannah went back to her work quite cheerful.
Meanwhile, Jabez Gegg mooched along towards the willow, casting his eyes in all directions, seeing fancied horsemen riding over every hill, seeing phantom forms lurking behind every tree. The sudden rush of a lizard over the dry leaves, the quick whirr of a quail, the sight of a curlew, the bound of a pottoroo—sudden flights and noises frequently occurring to keep him in a state of perpetual terror. He struck the creek a mile above Tipparoo, and a water-lizard struck him with frenzy by making an unexpected stampede for the water from under his feet. He picked his way cautiously through patches of shrub, honeysuckle, and willow, till he reached the spot that had been assigned him as a watch-post. He heard the bellowing of calves, the lowing of cows, cracking of whips, and shouting of men, with an occasional roaring sound as of cattle rushing; and these, coupled with clouds of dust rising from the vicinity of the yards, indicated that branding and drafting were going on there. He sat down much relieved, and cast his line into the water. He had brought fishing tackle with him as an excuse for being there should he be seen by any of the station-hands. He had also brought a bunch of rich roses—hidden in his billy—by which he intended to decoy Edith away from the willows when she should make her appearance there.
She did not come that day; but, as the sun was setting, Jabez Gegg climbed into one of the willow-trees whence he could view the yards, and there he saw Edith and Harold sitting jockey fashion on the capping—animated observers of a common, though at all times attractive, scene. Then he trudged back five undulating miles through a benighted bush to Wangooma. He was no less surprised than disheartened on being taken into the kitchen by the cantankerous Miss Grubbins.
"Did the boss say I was ter stop 'ere?" he asked seating himself very gingerly.
"D'yer think I'd fetch yer into my kitchen, if he didn't? I don't know what he's thinkin' about. Now then, are yer goin' to sit there gapin' at the table all night? Can't yer sit in there an' have yer supper—an' get out of this? The less I see of you the better I'll like yer. What's yer name, yer lump o' conglomerated ugliness?"
"Jabez Gegg, ma'am," said the unfortunate, after some hesitation.
"Ugh! What a name!" said Hannah. "Just sounds like a murderer's name!"
The discomfited Gegg gave a gasp and dropped a potato into his tea.
"Dog chase me up a wattle!" said Hannah. "What's the fool tryin' to do now? Ain't them spuds cooked enough for yer?"
"They're cooked nicely, thank you, ma'am," Gegg snapped.
"When did yer see water last?" asked Hannah. "Look at yer hands! Go an' wash 'em at once, you walkin' lump of a cabbage bed!"
Fearing to give further provocation, Jabez rose at once and went down to the creek, where he treated his favorite ailment with plentiful ablutions of cold water. He had scarcely re-seated himself when Hannah, who had made up her mind to be as cynical and contemptuous as possible, began to persecute him again. "Just be a little more economical with that sugar. You want all the (lovely) sugar!"
"I'm tryin' ter be as comical as I can, ma'am," said Gegg.
"Comical, indeed!" sneered Hannah. "As comical as a blind crow on a dung heap. Don't be plasterin' that butter on an inch thick, either. I don't know what the likes o' you want butter at all for."
"Don't get yer hair off, ma'am. It doesn't cost you anything."
"Oh, doesn't it!" Hannah snorted. "I s'pose the spifficated stuff makes itself? Just keep your impertinence corked up, me man, or you might get one to go on with an' don't forget, when yer done gormandizin', to wash up after yer."
For the next three months Jabez Gegg writhed under the bitter taunts, insults, and criticisms of Hannah Grubbins, who attacked him maliciously three times every day when he came in for his meals. As the operations in the yard would tend to detract the children from the willow-trees, Magnus Susman had decided not to send Jabez Gegg out again until the conclusion of the muster, which was prolonged by successive calls for cattle. So Gegg was employed about the house, chopping wood, drawing water, cleaning pots and boots, scrubbing floors, and making himself generally useful. Hannah kept him going every minute in the day, and persecuted him from morning till night; so that, with being overworked and only half fed, Mr. Gegg had a very bad time of it. His existence was on sufferance—a spun-out period of misery. He had lost all interest in life; his days of peace were gone; he was a piece of automatic machinery, degenerated by the wiles of a wilful woman.
One evening Susman came to him as he was cutting the next day's supply of wood. "Are you aware that Jed Roff is alive, Gegg?" he asked.
Gegg started and the axe dropped from his hand.
"No!" he said hoarsely.
"You thought you shot him," Susman continued. "That's some more of your bungling. It was Mumby the tracker you shot and threw into the pool."
"Where is Jed Roff, then?" asked Gegg.
"In the police force, and has been ever since he left Goolgolgon. He was one of the party that was up here searching for you, and I believe he's on the look-out for you still. You'd better be a little more expeditious in carrying out my instructions, or perhaps you'll find Constable Jed Roff ornamenting your wrists with the government bangles."
Gegg stood pale and silent; and, after a pause, Susman continued: "There are two charges of murder against you; one of setting fire to property; one of robbery; and one of breaking and entering. There's a fine record for you. Do you want any more?"
"For God's sake, don't mention it! some one might be list'nin'—" Gegg glanced quickly around him. "Jed Roff might be about."
"If you don't soon add the crime of abduction to your list," continued Susman, speaking slowly, "you'll very likely find him about you."
With that he left him, feeling sure that he had sufficiently frightened him to cause him to use every means to capture the girl. Indeed, he had frightened him to such an extent that Gegg meditated for hours after as to whether it would not be better to run away and take his chance of getting clear across the border into the Queensland bush. Only the fear of being followed by Susman and black-trackers prevented him taking this course; and there was the hope that, after he had accomplished the disagreeable task, he would be accorded some immunity from persecution at Wangooma, and perhaps be assisted to escape to another country.
Of two evils, he thought the latter the better course, for the hope it held. Yet Gegg lived in constant terror of being handed over to the police by his iniquitous employer; and Susman took particular care to keep him so. At the same time there was nothing further from Susman's mind than the thought of betraying his factotum. To do that would be to jeopardise himself, and Susman was not the man to run a risk where it could be avoided. He had other means at his command for the disposal of Gegg when that worthy should become no longer of any use to him, but it suited him for the time being that Gegg should think otherwise.
When the busy season was over, and the quiet autumn days had come, Jabez Gegg was again bearing his swag to and fro between Tipparoo and Wangooma. The task was not now so prodigious and hazardous as on the first occasion; indeed, it came as a promotion to the ill-treated slave. Day by day he reconnoitered without success, and it began to appear that Edith and Harold had tabooed their one-time favorite resort. The autumn passed away, and winter quickly stripped the willows of their greenery.
"I don't think you've been very circumspect, Jabez Gegg," said Susman. "Your bent has been more to place yourself where you could not be seen than to keep a look-out where you could see everything."
"I can't take the girl from under their noses," said Gegg. "To attempt that would be to lose the game altogether. It must be done clean-handed if it's done at all. You know that, Mr. Susman."
"Hem!" said Susman. "You'd better go back to the kitchen till the winter's over; and if you don't get her early in the spring, you can take your hook out of this—and I'll give you two hours' start."
Gegg shuddered at the suggestion, and walked away in moody silence. It was a long, dreary winter that he put in under Hannah Grubbins's superintendence and dictum. Then the spring came, and its refreshing showers changed the dun color of the landscape to vivid green; pretty wild flowers spread out their many-hued petals; and the multitudinous chirrupings and warblings of bush birds resounded everywhere.
Under this auspicious augury Jabez Gegg went forth to fulfil his mission. The willows were again verdant with foliage; while bluebells and violets, and thick clusters of maiden hair fern, embellished the sloping banks—temptations that youthful enthusiasts like Edith and Harold could not resist. Jabez Gegg had just thrown out his line and seated himself on the bank for a quiet smoke, when the children came racing down, chatting and laughing with the unrestrained freedom of youth.
They were beautiful children—Edith with her fresh smiling face, blue eyes and raven locks; Harold in his pretty knickbockers, and his auburn curls floating in the wind—two little fairies of the enchanted groves, or beautiful nymphs of the lily-strewn brook, flitting among the bluebells and violets, and plucking the lovely petals to bedeck a fairy throne. It seemed a pity to separate them, to instil one drop of gall into their happy lives. They stopped abruptly near the brink of the creek on espying the uncouth fisherman, and stood together staring at him. Each caught at the other's hand, and, standing thus, with surprise and curiosity blending in their faces, they formed a charming picture.
"Wal, little child'en, have yer come ter pick the purty flowers?" said Gegg, somewhat agitated now that the moment for action had come.
"Yes," answered Harold. "Where did you come from?"
"I come a long way, me boy—a-carryin' me swag," Gegg replied, indicating the bundle beside him. "D'yer like roses, little gel? I've got some purty ones 'ere," he added, holding up a bouquet he had brought with him in his billy. A log spanned the creek near by, and crossing by this means, he presented it to Edith.
"Where did you get them?" asked Harold.
"Jest up the creek a bit," Gegg answered. "There's millions of 'em there. If yer come up I'll show yer the place. It's only a little way."
"All right, we'll come!" cried Harold rapturously. But this didn't suit Mr. Gegg.
"You'll 'ave ter mind my line, me boy, or I can't go. I wanter ketch a fish for my supper, as I've got nothin' to eat. Yer see, a fish might get on an' break it while I'm gone. That'll be a double loss ter me. I'd lose me supper an' me line too—an' I haven't gorra 'nother. Now, I'll tell yer how we'll do it. I'll show yer sister where they are while you fish for me, an' she ken show you after. It won't take five minutes."
Now Harold was very fond of angling and had received early instruction in that art. Mr. Merton, being an able follower of "John Want," frequently beguiled the time at this sport, little Harold bearing him company with a cotton line to which was fastened a bent pin in lieu of a hook. He had often petitioned his guardians for permission to go fishing with Edith between times, and that wish always being denied him he was all the more ready to accept the tempting offer of Jabez Gegg. These creeks are at times swarming with fish, mostly perch and mud-mullet, with a few small cod; and Harold was ambitious to land one of these with his own hands. So he ran nimbly across the creek and stood by the lines, watching them with eagerness and expectancy, an old-fashioned air about him that was pleasing—a veritable pocket edition of the historic gentleman afore mentioned.
And while he was thus employed little Edith was being decoyed away to Wangooma. Poor innocent child! How gleefully she ran along by the side of her tempter, who walked quickly that the time, and so the distance, would seem short. She was too young to lack confidence in any being, however execrable. In her eight years' experience of life she had known nothing but faithfulness, honesty, and love; none of the evil contrarieties had come in her way to engender scepticism, to sharpen the intellect so as to foresee treachery; she had seen too little of the world, of its people and of their ways, to suspect the presence of any wicked designs. These all-confiding, trusting little creatures are the ones we love most, love at sight for the very purity of their souls, untarnished by contact with the world, as betokened by the delightful innocence in the tender, fearless eyes, looking frankly into faces, viewing men and things with a wonderlight that is ineffably pleasing.
It was only when Edith had gone much more than half a mile from Harold, and was nearly breathless, that she began to demur. "I mustn't go no further—I'm gettin' tired," she said, turning her flushed face up to his.
"Gerout, you ain't tired!" said Gegg. "It's only a little way now."
"You said it was only a little way at first—it's a good way," Edith reproached; and Gegg dared not look at her, for he thought the child could read his guilt. "I thought you was a good walker, my gel," he rejoined. "We'll be there in a couple of minutes now—don't jib. Thousands of 'em up 'ere—all reg'lar beauties. You'll be able ter show Harol' the place to-morrer, an' then yer ken come ev'ry ev'nin' an' get as many as yer like. Won't seem so far after the fust trip or so. You've never been up 'ere afore, eh?"
"No; mamma never lets us go away from home," Edith replied.
"That's where it is," Gegg rejoined. "All this country's strange to you, an' of course a mile seems like two. It'll be different when yer've been up a couple o' times. D'yer think yer ken remember the way?"
"I dunno," said Edith dubiously. "You'll go back with me, won't you?"
"Of course," said Gegg. "But you're not afeard, are yer?"
"Not now; but I think I would be. I don't like bein' by meself. I might get lost."
Gegg thought it not improbable; but he answered lightly "No fear o' that, me gel. I've gotter go back for me swag an' lines an' all that. Maybe if I don't gerra fish yer father will give me a bit o' supper for showin' yer the roses. They're jest over this hill in front of us. Yer wouldn't cry a go afore yer got ter the top o' that, would yer? It'll make yer tired a bit climbin' up that; but then, yer see, I'm strong, an' ken carry yer a bit o' the way goin' back."
By such false pretences he enticed Edith away. The willows of Bilbo Creek and the homestead of Tipparoo were far out of sight before she rebelled altogether, and turned to go back, saying she did not want roses, as they would take too long to reach, and Harold would think she was never coming back. It was then that Gegg caught her up under his arm, and dabbing his big, horny hand over her mouth, hurried away with her towards Wangooma. In vain she struggled and cried; she was helpless. She knew now that she had been deceived, and her little heart thumped like that of a wounded bird. Soon the night fell—dark, pitiless night, that shelters vice and villainy; and, knowing that she was already missed, Gegg made all possible haste to get to the castle. It was a long way, and many a hill there was to climb, and many a gully between to cross or round, before his aching arms and weary legs could rest. Poor Edith was stiff and sore, and she had nearly cried herself to sleep before her future prison loomed up in all its silent massiveness under the starlit sky. Susman was waiting at the gate, and great was his joy when Gegg staggered up with the exhausted child across his hip.
"Ah! You've managed it at last! Good! You did it safely, I hope?"
"Couldn't 'ave been done safer," said Gegg.
"Coaxed her away from the boy—left him mindin' me fishin' line in the crick."
"Very good! Here's the key. Take her below and put her in the first room you come to that's open. There's a light on the table—and it's all ready. I don't want her to see me," said the wily Susman, speaking in an undertone. "I'll go and engage Grubbins while you take her down. You'll find Mammie in the room. Give the girl to her."
So he went into the kitchen and interrogated Hannah on certain matters of which he was better acquainted than herself; and her cognisance of this made her answer curtly enough. He stood in the doorway, and though Hannah had more than a fair share of effrontery she was not brazen enough to stand before him for the purpose of seeing over his shoulder; but her quick ears detected the sounds of Gegg's awkward step, and the opening and closing of the door, mingled with the sobbing and the muffled tones of a child. Then Magnus Susman left her.
"More villainy," she muttered after him. "I'll get in there yet—I'll thwart him, dog scratch me if I don't. There's only women in his harem now—poor, miserable souls! I don't know who they are—'ceptin' one; but I'll keep my weather eye open from this out, an' if I don't soon know who that poor creature is that he brought in to-night—well, it won't be my fault. She'll find a friend in me, an' a good one, whoever she is; shiver my old back teeth if she don't!"
About an hour after this Richard Merton and Bill Mayne galloped up to the castle, and Magnus Susman, with well-feigned astonishment, heard from the lips of the anxious squatter how his ward had been abducted from the creek bank by a supposed tramp. He had roused up all the station hands and despatched them in various directions to hunt down the kidnapper.
Mr. Susman, suggesting that she had been carried off by some wandering lunatic, at once ordered his horse, and went himself with Merton to search for her. They followed the winding course of the Bilbo to its head, and beyond into the mountains; and none of them returned until the matutinal cachinations of the jackasses were heard from the tops of the gums. The day came in with a drizzling rain, and Susman rode home with a feeling of security.
There was little hope, after a week of unavailing search, that Edith would be found. Poor Mrs. Merton had been almost distracted at her loss. The child had so wound herself about her heart that she could not have felt the blow more keenly had she been its own mother; indeed, she looked upon Edith as all her own, since she had reared her from a mere infant. All day she would go to the door, or to the lobby window, and look out upon the hills with wistful eyes; and every horseman returning without tidings of the lost child seemed to make her heart heavier.
It had come to be accepted as a fact that the child had been stolen; and Richard Merton, from the vague description given by Harold, suspected that her abductor could be no other than Jabez Gegg. Alice, the housemaid, had found Harold in the dusk of that evening fishing by the creek, and waiting for Edith and the swagman's return. The swag, being opened, was found to contain only a bundle of straw—such as sundowners use to imply that they are working men burdened with a plentiful wardrobe. The can was utterly useless, being so old that rust and time had perforated its bottom like a colander. This indicated to Merton and others that the crime had been a premeditated one.
Trackers had been put on the trail of the miscreant, and though they tracked him for a mile or so, they lost the scent in the short grass and dry leaves of the bush, where the foot left no more impression than on solid rock; and what marks might otherwise have guided them had been washed out by the rain of the following day. But the way the tracks trended directed them where to search; and all the week they had ridden over that quarter of Tipparoo, and over the greater part of Wangooma. Magnus Susman had been with them every day, and so had many other station owners; and none of them relinquished the search till, as one of them said, they had searched every inch of the runs and found every bandicoot upon them.
"I don't think you will see her again, Mr. Merton, sorry though I am to say it," said Susman one evening, as he leaned on the neck of his little chestnut mare at Tipparoo.
"Why do you think so?" asked Merton.
"Well, you see, we've looked over every bits of the country within twenty miles of here, and haven't found a sign of her; and there's little hope of her being found now after the lapse of a week."
"There's just as much chance of findin' her now as there was at first," Bill Mayne put in.
"How do you make that out?" Susman demanded.
"We had the whole country out afore he had time to get very far away with the girl, an' we discovered nothing of him—"
"Which shows that the chances are a hundred to one against us how," Susman interrupted. "Another thing, the bush is wide, and he might continue on his way and we not see him."
"Continue straight on without hidin'?"
"In broad daylight?"
"Would you be game to tackle it, Mr. Susman?"
"I should not care to tackle such an undertaking at all."
"Neither would I; an' I don't suppose that fellow would have tackled the job if he hadn't some strong place to pop her into close handy."
"What do you mean?" asked Susman uneasily.
"What I say," answered Mayne.
"Well, be a little more explicit."
"He's hiding in some house not far from here; an' most likely little Edith was taken there for someone else."
"Why should she?"
"Oh, it's no use askin' why. We know she was stolen, don't we? If I had my way I shouldn't waste another moment ridin' about the bush. I never favored it from the first. It's only lookin' for a mare's nest."
"What would you do, Mayne?" asked Merton. He saw that Mayne had hold of a good ratiocinative thread, and observed also that Susman was displeased with his views, which inclined him to hear a little more of them.
"Depute three men to examine ev'ry buildin' for miles around, squatters' mansions an' all," was Mayne's reply.
"That would be an insult to them," said Merton.
"Not it. Just send 'em word what you've agreed to do. Them as had no hand in her abduction would be only too willin' to have their places searched. If you left out any it'd be an insult to the others. That could be your excuse. Treat all alike. Lot's o' these places have underground rooms, an' it strikes me little Edith will be found in one of them sort o' places. It's worth a trial, anyhow."
"What's your opinion, Susman?" Mr. Merton asked.
"It's an absurdity to think of such a thing, man," said Susman hotly. "What in God's name would any squatter want with the girl?"
"What would any swagman? As I said before, I believe the fellow was a wandering lunatic; or perhaps, as you suggested, it was Jabez Gegg. He may be hiding in some of the mountain caves, and took her for revenge."
"There's no caves in your direction," said Mayne darkly.
"Only a fool strikes straight for his den," Susman retorted.
"Here comes a swagman now," said Alec Mathers, the horse-breaker, as a burly, slip-shod individual came lumbering up to the group, and all eyes were riveted on him. Mr. Merton called Harold to him.
"Is that the traveller that gave the flowers to Edie?" he asked.
"No, pa," answered Harold; "he wasn't as big as him, an' he didn't have no whiskers. He was a lot uglier than this'n, but wasn't real old."
"Avenin', gintlemen. Any chance av a job here Oi dunno?" said the swagman, with a pronounced Hibernian accent.
Merton lifted the swag an inch or two from the ground, to test its weight. "Not much straw in that," he remarked.
"Bedad, you're roight, sor. 'It's no weight at all in the marnin', but shure as Oi tell you it's solid enough afore noight."
"Which way have you come?" asked Merton.
"From Two-wharves, sor. An' shure it was owld Duffy the mailman as was afther tellin' me as how Oi moight git a job up this way, d'yer moind?"
"I'm full-handed at present," said Merton, pacing the gravel with his hands in his pockets and his eyes bent down. After a moment or two he paused in his pacing and added: "There's a kidnapping case here to be worked out. Perhaps, if you're sharp, and keep your eyes open in your travels, you may be able to earn a big cheque."
"I have lost a little girl, about eight years of age, and this gentleman has offered a reward of a hundred pounds to the man who finds her."
"Is that so? An' where did you lose her, sor?"
Merton told him the particulars, whilst Magnus Susman bit his nether lip in mortification. With the object of deceiving Merton, and to emphasise a pretended sympathy, he had spoken to the effect that he would give the above-mentioned sum to see Edith restored to her guardians that moment. This was on the previous day, and to his chagrin, Merton referred to it now as a standing reward. But he said nothing in refutation, inasmuch as it was needless to say anything. In the first place, it would require the greatest tact and skill to recover the child; and if he were tracked down and his crimes made known, flight would be his only means of self-preservation; in either case, there would be no neccessity to pay the reward. The only harm was that it would engender some degree of vigilance in persons who otherwise would be wholly disinterested. But surely his own vigilance was a match for theirs. He was in no immediate danger, as he could see, and probably in the course of a few months the reward would be forgotten, or given up as utterly hopeless of winning; so he let Mr. Merton talk on, and enjoyed being thought of as a generous man, a thing he never was in his life, and, what was more, he never would be to the end of his days—please God.
The Irishman listened attentively to the recounted tale of young Harold.
"How long ago was this, sor?" he inquired.
"A week yesterday," Merton replied.
"Arrah, but that's a whoile ago. The spalpeen's clear away afore now."
"The girls not ten miles away," said Mayne, and this again irritated Susman.
"Do you say that, sor?" asked the Irishman, brightening up.
"That is my opinion," Mayne replied.
"Be gob, thin, Oi moight earun that hundred quid yit—an' that'd take me back to me owld mother in Tipperary, so it would. Where do you think she is, sor?"
"In some station vault," said Mayne, tapping his foot significantly on the ground. Pat scratched his head some time in perplexity.
"Oi'm thinkin' it'll be the divil's own job to ferret the colleen out o' that sort o' place. The loikes o' me wouldn't be allowed insoide a squatther's house, bad cess to it. An' if Oi had the luck to git in on the quoiet an' was ca'ght arummagin' about, d'yer see, they'd nab me for thavin', so they would; an' it's Sergeant Teddy would be afther puttin' me where Oi moightn't have a bid for this bit o' money."
"Of course, you'd have to be careful to guard against that," said Mayne.
"Indade Oi would thin. But, as Oi tell you, it's not always possible to avoid it aven whin you do guard ag'in it, so it isn't. Oi remimber me once whin Oi saw a paech-thray that was overloaded wid fruit, an' the lim's wur breakin' roight down wid the weight; an' sure it was meself that was sorry to say that same. So whin it got dark Oi thinks to meself Oi'll be afther pullin' off a few av thim paeches to save the gintleman's thray from disthruction. Oi waits, moind you, till Oi thinks they're all in bed, an' the sorra a sound was makin' a noise at all, an' in Oi goes. Oi'd jes' ca'ght a howlt av a lim' to pull it down the lashte bit whin Oi puts me fut in a man-thrap, an' at the same oidintical toime a Fenian av a dog puts me t'other leg in his mouth, an' a hulkin' swoipe av a gard'ner grabs me by the back av me pants, an' the same part av me neck; and sure the divil he rattled me taeth as ye moightr a box o' doice. Faith, it was a foine predicament to git into afther all me keerfulness."
"An' how did you get out of it?" Bill Mayne asked him.
"Oi'll tell you now," said Pat, with a merry twinkle in his eye. "Oi left me belt an' me neck-toi wid the gard'ner; the leg av me pants wid the dog, an' me boot wid the thrap, an' away Oi goes. Yis, sor; an niver knew till thin how aesy it was to git over finces an' gates an' the loike."
A hearty laugh followed this oration, and Pat chuckled and scratched his head at the reminiscence. A blackboy just then arrived with a message for Merton. On perusing the missive he beckoned Alec Mathers aside.
"I want you to go to the selection to-night, Alec. The inspector will be round to-morrow. Take a couple of weeks' rations with you—and bring them back to-morrow evening. Put a big fire on in the fireplace so as to make plenty of ashes; yard all the horses in the morning, and drive them about for awhile. Make the place look as much as you can as if it had been lived in. Come back when he's gone."
Alec carried out his instructions, and having satisfied the great man on the selection, treated himself to a good sleep, and returned to Tipparoo. He was a little disconcerted on finding his late visitor still closeted with Merton, and with all appearances of remaining so for the night. They stood within hearing distance of the stable door.
"Does Mathers—aw—sleep here or on the selection?" asked the visitor.
"Now, now. Mr. Spooks," said Merton playfully, "where would a selector be likely to sleep? But let's go up and have a glass of wine before dinner."
Alec Mathers smiled as they strolled away, and in an aside to Bill Mayne said: "Well, I'm a chump, an' no mistake! I worked like a nigger over there this morning. Remind me to take a book next time.
Pat Gallagher stayed a couple of days at Tipparoo, during which time he succeeded in winning the confidence of the congenial Sam, whom he induced, by delicate handling, to impart a good deal of information concerning the Attwells. For a stranger he displayed an unusual interest in them, and in the case of the missing girl; and he was inquisitive concerning the habits and antecedents of Magnus Susman. He was a conundrum to Bill Mayne and Alec Mathers, who watched and studied him with ever-increasing curiosity, and much to the delectation of the reticent Hibernian.
"I think he's something more than he pretends to be," said Mayne, pulling thoughtfully at his pipe. They were squatting on the grass in front of the saddle-room, where they had just let their horses go, and the mysterious Sam was leaning through the hut window directly opposite.
"That's likely enough," said Mathers. "He seems to be very much interested in those people."
"He knows a bit about 'em, too—a lot more'n we do, I'll bet. Do yer know what he asked me this mornin'?"
"He asked me if I knew, anything about Magnus Susman wantin' ter marry Daisy Bradford before she married Grant Attwell."
"Ho-ho!" said Alec, "that's a poser. I never heard of it as I recollect."
"Well, I don't know much about it; But there used to be a lot o' talk about some gel jiltin' him a good many years ago. I never heard tell who she was. Then he asked me if I knew anything about David Attwell, an' I tells him about Dead Man's Well, an' he went from that to Susman. Did I know Lincoln or Floyd? I didn't. Had I heard of Jim Brooker of Minara? I had. He disappeared some years ago, you remember—soon after Lincoln Susman died. He was a great friend of old Lincoln's, I've heard; an' when Lincoln wasn't at Minara, Jim Brooker was at Wangooma. Now, look 'ere, Floyd Susman was shot on Kangaroo Flat through his gun explodin', so it was said—but that's doubtful. Lincoln Susman disappeared soon after—at the time of the big flood, if you recollect, an' Jim Brooker was lost sight of that same night."
"Ah! He knows all that?"
"Aye, an' a good deal more'n we have any idea of. He took me back a bit, I can tell yer. It was rather surprisin' to come from a cove as was a stranger to everybody about 'ere."
"Old Duffy might have told him," Alec suggested. "He said the mailman sent him up here."
"He knows more than Duffy was able to tell him. He's been interested in this case himself before to-day, mark my words for it. He could tell what become of Lincoln Susman an' how Floyd was shot."
Alec cast a quick, searching glance at his mate. "You think he murdered them?"
"I don't say he did," said Mayne cautiously. "But they were murdered, an' Jim Brooker was somehow concerned in it."
"It's always been reported that Jim Brooker was drowned, and Lincoln Susman, too," said Mathers.
"They weren't drowned no more'n you or me," Mayne rejoined. "By what I can make out from Paddy's questions, there's always been something between the Attwells an' Susmans; but I can't see what Jim Brooker had to do in it. Pat'll sit an' fire questions at yer all day if yer answer him, but as soon as you start to question him he's off. He seemed anxious to know what Susman's opinion was of Brooker, an' what was said about him goin' off sudden at the time old Lincoln died."
Alec re-lit his pipe, and puffed away for half a minute in silence: "Perhaps this Irishman is only a get-up," he said at last.
"How a get-up?" asked Mayne, holding his pipe from his mouth.
"It might be Jim Brooker himself," Mathers explained.
Bill Mayne shook his head.
"No," he said, "that won't do. D'yer know what I think?"
"He's a detective."
"Why do you think so?"
"Well, I'll tell you," said Mayne. "He come 'ere pretendin' to be a stranger, an' to know nothing about the case till old Dick told him about little Edith. Now, he might interest himself to discover the gel for the sake o' the reward hangin' to it. Anybody would do that. Even you an' me intend havin' a bid for it, Alec. But this cove's a long way ahead of us. There's proof enough he's been workin' on this affair afore he come here. He's too cute an' systematic in his way for a real Irishman. He's like a snail. He creeps out of his shell very careful when he thinks he can learn something; but you begin to pump him an' see how quick he'll draw back. He's a detective—I'm quite satisfied on that point."
"If so," said Alec, "who sent him up here?".
Bill Mayne looked his companion steadily in the face awhile before he replied:—"Jed Roff."
"Jed Roff!" cried Alec in astonishment.
"Aye," said Mayne, drawing his knees up and crossing his sun-browned arms over them. "There's none of us knows what took Jed Roff off so sudden-like. He wrote to Merton after, sayin' it was business an' private affairs. That's only humbug. But it gives us a clue. You see, Roff knew about Dead Man's Well, or we believe he did; an' if so he intended to have that treasure. That was stolen. Now, who stole it? Another thing, Roff's place was burnt down, an' half the run, the night he cleared. It wasn't him as did it, though. I'll swear he knew nothing about it. Of course, it reached his ears that he was blamed, an' the chest stole, an' so he's sent up a detective to sift the matter an' clear himself."
"That's a good theory, Bill, and likely enough it's true. Jed Roff had something to do with little Edith, too, and it must have been him that sent her to old Dick. That gives us another clue. Here's another: this joker here, Pat Gallagher as he calls himself, asked you about David Attwell. Now, look, that 'D.A.' on the tree at Dead Man's Well stands for that name, doesn't it?"
"It do, by George!" Bill Mayne ejaculated.
"Again," continued Mathers, "he spoke of Susman bein' struck on a Grant Attwell's wife. Do you see the drift?"
"Look 'ere, Alec," cried Mayne, bringing his fist down on his knee, "little Edith is an Attwell, too! Don't you remember the 'E.A.' on her clothes? That connects the whole box an' dice of 'em, an' that easy-goin' Paddy there's got the whole of it at his finger ends."
"Looks like it, anyhow," said Mathers musingly. "And what does that bring us to?"
"Aye, what!" cried Mayne, growing excited. "You noticed when we fust met Pat at the stables 'ere the other evenin' how uneasy Susman seemed when I was talkin' about underground places—we nearly come to words over it. He didn't want no deputation to wait on the squatters. No, he scouted the idea. D'yer know, Alec, "he continued, lowering his voice, "I believe Susman's underground rooms would tell a tale?"
"You think she's there?" asked Mathers.
"I'll believe she isn't when it's proved she's somewhere else. Till then, 'tween you an' me, we'll say she's there. Now, what're we to do?"
"Keep quiet for a while—till we know a little more of Paddy's game. It's not impossible to make a haul out of him. Do you twig?"
"He's got his eye on Wangooma?"
"Hem! There's money in it if we work it right. We must find out what Paddy's goin' ter do, then lay our plans quick an' lively."
"That's the ticket."
At this moment some visitors arrived at the house, and Alec Mathers went off to the horses. It was an arrangement between Mathers and Bill Mayne to attend to visitors in turn, by which there was never any squabbling over tips. Scraps of information often came their way, too, from words passing between the boss and the new-comers; and it was in this way Alec Mathers learnt that the police were watching all suspicious places on the Wedgepoint. But no official shadows flitted about Wangooma. Mr. Susman was a squatter, and thus one of the princes of the Wedgepoint, and as such to be held above suspicion. No station homestead was shadowed; the places held under the baneful glare of the official eye were those of honest settlers, who, God knows, could surround themselves with children enough without stealing those of other people. This incensed Alec Mathers and Bill Mayne, and caused them to organise for a secret campaign against the "princes." This, they knew, was a dangerous undertaking, and would require skill and caution.
In their own minds they had many incriminating points against Magnus Susman, but they lacked the power to set them in motion. In putting their heads together, and discussing the matter from every standpoint, they arrived at the conclusion that, to succeed in this venture, they must first trace the lineage of Edith, acquaint themselves with the history of her family, and discover the motive for the child's abduction. They must, therefore, interview Richard Merton as a commencement, and keep an eye on the mysterious Gallagher. They prided themselves on their astuteness, and were quite elated at the idea of being "private detectives."
They got Pat into the reading-room that night, and over their papers and cards endeavored by divers enticing baits to hook their fish, but Pat wouldn't bite. He could not be drawn out to converse on the subject at all. This convinced the astute Mathers and Mayne that he was a detective, and they determined to shadow him and beat him at his own game. When they ceased playing, Pat took up a paper, and Mathers and Mayne drew a little aside, and observed, with many nudges and winks, that Pat held the paper upside down; and they were agreed that he was planning some great scheme, and pretended to be reading as an excuse to avoid conversation. A more shrewd observer would have been apt to attribute such an act to design, as it is sometimes convenient to engender notions in other minds that you cannot read. Our worthy amateurs, however, were quite satisfied with their own explanation of Pat's adroit bit of finessing. Their suspicions were verified next morning, when, on looking for the mysterious man, they found he had mysteriously disappeared. There was no trace of him high or low; he had vanished as completely as many others had before in that vicinity.
I knew this 'd be it." said Mayne. "When I see him ponderin' so last night I dropped there was something up."
"I wonder what the racket is?" mused Mathers.
"Why, he's gone off to ferret out the gel," Mayne answered.
"But where's he gone? That's what we want to know."
"Look 'ere, mate," said Mayne, "we'll send a tracker after him. There's that boy Whoonee. He's pretty smart, an' would suit us to a T. We'll send him off after breakfast. What do you say?"
"We'll have to do something, certainly," said Mathers, who wasn't in a very good humor.
"I'll go an' hunt him up," Bill Mayne continued, "an' put him through his paces."
So Whoonee was put on the track of the un-offending Gallagher, and very happy was he to be so employed. He took with him another blackboy, much younger than himself, but old enough for company. They were not very expeditious in tracking, but, if slow, they were sure; and they discovered the runaway Gallagher closeted with old Jesse Crowle, the hut-keeper at Minara. They crept up behind the hut, and, peering through the cracks in the slab walls, drank in the conversation for half an hour or more. The two men appeared to be old friends, for they talked of bygone years, of Attwells and Susmans, of girls and piccaninnies; and Pat called the hut-keeper Jesse, and Jesse called Pat Jim! So much for their vigilance; and, satisfied with their discovery, the two blackboys stole away from the hut, and hurried back to Tlpparoo to communicate it to Messrs. Mathers and Mayne.
"Ho-ho!" said Mathers delightedly, "do you see the drift, Bill? That's where Brooker used to live, and as likely as not old Jesse knew him."
"That's another clue," said Mayne. "Alec, old man, you an' me's gettin' on splendiferous. We must pay Minara a visit on the quiet to-night, an' find out for ourselves who this Mr. Gallagher is."
"Ain't it as plain as the nose on your face?" said Mathers. "He's Jim Brooker,"
"I say he isn't. He's a detective."
"Well, couldn't Jim Brooker be a detective? He was always a cute customer, I've heard say, and just the one to go into a thing of this sort."
"Ye're out of it ter blazes, Alec. You reckon he's Brooker because his name's Jim. That's nothing to go by. There's thousands o' Jims in Auslralyer—ev'ry fam'ly's got a Jim. Gorra match on yer?"
"Well," said Mathers, "we'll go there tonight and I'll bet you two figs to one he'll turn out to be Jim Brooker."
"All right, we'll see," said Mayne, lighting his pipe.
As it transpired, they did not see, for Gallagher had left Minara when they arrived there; and, very much crestfallen, they retraced their steps to the head station. Gallagher had not returned.
"Well, that fellow beats me," said Alec. "I wonder where he's off to now?"
"I shouldn't wonder if he ain't nosin' round Wangooma at night," said Mayne. "We'll send Whoonee to Minara again to-morrow to see if he's back."
"And then?" said Alec interrogatively.
"We'll get over early to-morrer night an' fox him if he goes out," Bill Mayne replied. "We mustn't let him beat us."
"He's got the pull on us, worse luck," said Mathers. "But we'll see what to-morrow brings forth."
That day on which Gallagher departed from Tipparoo and closeted himself with old Jesse Crowle at Minara, and for a purpose that will be explained hereafter, was an auspicious one for Edith and her ill-fated mother. Hannah Grubbins, more daring than formerly, had descended into the subterranean hall and entered the presence of Edith. A month in gloom and solitude had not made much difference in her, albeit she was somewhat pale and languid. She looked up wonderingly as the strange figure of Hannah Grubbins glided into the room.
"Ah! your majesty, I knew you were here. Behold, I do fealty unto you, gracious queen," said Hannah, solemnly going down on her knees, and making a mark of reverence. Edith stared at her, unable to understand what the old croney meant. "A month thou hast been imprisoned in the tower, gracious queen; an' thou knowest not how my heart hast bled for thee, an' how I have planned an' schemed for thy escape; but no chance cometh till to-day. Now I come to save your majesty from the oppressor. Come, I'll restore thee to the throne of Holland, an' give thee back the crown the usurper hath snatched from thy head."
She led the mystified Edith thence to the apartments of her mother. Here the old maid's mutable manner and expression underwent a remarkable change. She had been strange and versatile in her manner for many months. On one occasion she had boiled a plate of blue metal for lobsters, and insisted upon Magnus Susman eating them; another time she had given the domestic cat a sound trouncing for not having the fire lit when she came into the kitchen, and then complained that the cat would not speak to her for a month after; supplementing this, on being unable to get the fire to burn one morning, by throwing a bucket of cold water over it to make it "get up," which was the usual process by which she induced Jabez Gegg to part company with the pillows and blankets before the goburras had vented their first cachinnation; and of late she had been in the habit of watering a bullock's horn, which she had planted in the garden, and imagined to be a white camellia sent to her from the Bay of Biscay by the nuns of St. Bernard; and it was a source of much trouble to her that such a sanctified plant should not show some indication of bearing flowers. In some instances her aberrations were transient; in other respects they were permanent. To all outward seeming she was perfectly sane before that unfortunate lady, Mrs. Grant Attwell.
"Hannah Grubbins!" the latter cried. "So you have come back to me again! Did you forget the promise you made me?"
"I promised to release you, ma'am," said Hannah, "an' I will do it. I never break a promise if I can help it—an' live long enough."
"I should have thought the reverse. At all events, I can put little faith in your promises, Hannah. How long is it since you saw me? Seven years. My God! seven years! What a time!"
"It's a deuce of a time, ma'am, no two ways about that. But you must remember it's no easy thing to get into this devil's hole. The evil one, ma'am, takes care of his own; but all good souls like you an' me have to take care of ourselves, an' that's generally a precious hard job to do, as you're aware of. The good have always the hardest battle to fight, an' the steepest hill to climb. It's an easy downhill track that runs to hell, ma'am; but it's a rutty, thorny one that zigzags to the land of glory. That's where we're goin', ma'am—to the land of glory. No thrones or crowns are wanted there, ma'am, no contrivin' for a marriage with a duke or a prince—ha, ha, ha! Do you remember, ma'am, how Susman wanted to marry me years ago? How he begged o' me to say 'yes,' how he promised me all his wealth, an' all the lands o' Wangooma! 'No, Magnus Susman,' I said, 'worthy as thou art to be husband of mine,' I ses, 'I can never be thy wife; for I have sworn a great swore that I would never wed any man, but die unmarried as I was born—' "
"What nonsense you are talking! Good gracious, are you mad?"
"Mad! Did you say mad or married? Ha, ha, ha! married! Jumpin' wombats! did you see the crowd o' people that was there! The little church was packed—they were kneelin' out in the paddock. I was pop'lar ma'am; everybody come to see me spliced—Ah! how they doused us with rice as we drove away in the dogcart—me and Prince Eugene. I thought of the poor them tons o' rice would've fed—but the canaries were fine birds, ma'am, an' their cage was gilt with gold—I thought it was rainin' rice, ma'am——"
"Hannah!" cried Mrs. Attwell sharply, giving the old maid a severe shake, "calm yourself, woman, and listen to me. Are you going to take me out of this?"
"I am, ma'am, true's I'm a sinner. But, you must wait till to-morrer night. To-night I must take Edith back to Tipparoo."
"Whom did you say? Who is this?" Mrs. Attwell asked quickly.
"Don't you know her, ma'am?" Hannah asked in return.
"I do not. Come here, my little girl, and let me look at you. It's worth something to see a face like yours," Mrs. Attwell said, holding her arms out to Edith. It was the first time since Edith was a baby that mother and daughter looked into each other's faces. Edith approached her with no show of timidity, for a kind smile hovered about the thin lips, and her eyes were full of love.
"What a pretty child! My God! how like—is it—" She stopped, peering closely into the child's face.
"That's your daughter, ma'am—Richard Merton's ward," Hannah bluntly informed her.
"My daughter! my child—my Edith!" Mrs. Attwell cried, raining kisses and tears on her neck and cheek. Suddenly her face paled, "What in God's name is she doing here, Hannah?"
"Never mind that now, ma'am," said Hannah evasively. "There'll be time enough to explain when you're out. She's as safe as a bottled ant, so don't you be frettin', or botherin' her with questions."
Mrs. Attwell, apparently satisfied, turned again to Edith. "You don't know me, darling—my God! my own daughter, eight years old, and don't know her own mother!"
"My mamma's at Tipparoo. Hannah's goin' to take me home now," said Edith.
"Ah, she does not know!" Mrs. Attwell sighed. "My child, I am your mother. Mrs. Merton is only your guardian, is she good to you?"
"What is your name?"
"No, no; your name is Edith Maud Acton Attwell. Can you remember that, dearest? Let me write it down for you. Hannah, will you leave us alone for a few minutes? I should like to speak with my daughter."
"All right, ma'am, but be pretty slippery about it, as I must get back afore the Sultan. I'll wait five minutes or so in the sittin' room."
So Hannah went out into the sitting room, and stood smiling and curtsying before a picture, under the happy delusion that it was Princess Somebody congratulating her on her marriage with the Duke of Something, and then sat down and told her tale to a neighboring chair. In the midst of this, fitful reason returned, and she hastened back to the boudoir.
"Time's up, ma'am. Guests are all goin'. Come, young lady, there's not a moment to spare. I'll see you to-morrow night, ma'am. The Sultan will be away. So be sure I'll not disappoint you."
"Can I trust you, Hannah?" asked Mrs. Attwell, doubtfully.
"Far as you can see me, ma'am. Come, miss, or you'll miss the train. Have patience, ma'am. You won't be here much longer. Dog chase me up a wattle, but I'll get you out if I have to haul you like a bullock from a bog."
She conducted Edith back to her room and there left her till night. When Magnus Susman had gone out after supper, and all was quiet at Wangooma, she took the child out and hurried her on through the garden and through the bush. The little girl, timid as most children are at night, clung to her skirts, and started whenever a curlew screamed or a dingo trotted away from their path. It was many years since Hannah had been to Tipparoo, but she remembered the road well, and steered a pretty straight course for the log bridge where the bullock teams crossed the creek at Tipparoo. Here she was accosted by an Irishman, who came up suddenly from behind, and gave her such a start that she almost screamed. She thought Magnus Susman had come upon her; but the first sound of the stranger's voice reassured her.
"Scuse me, ma'am," said he, "this is Miss Edith Mererton yez afther dhraggin' along wid ye," and he stooped down to look at the child.
"How do you know that?" asked Hannah sharply.
"Shure, don't Oi know the colleen? Where 'ave ye been kapin' her, now thin?"
"I haven't kep' her at all. So you needn't be so smart at sayin' so."
"Indade, an' Oi have r'ason to say a good dale, ma'am. She was kidnapped from thim willows beyant a month agone. No one knew who tuk her or where she wint. Oi s'pose ye know all about that, ma'am?"
"I know this, that I shook her from the man as had her, an' am takin' her home to her own people. That's all I'm goin' to tell anybody, so you needn't waste yer breath askin' questions."
"If that's so, ma'am, ye'll find it moighty awkward to go to the shtation, so you will. Betther let me take her up, ma'am. Oi'll fix the thing up pat enough, Oi'll warrant ye."
Hannah did not wish to go nearer the station than she could help; and this Irishman looked honest enough.
"Will you let this man take you home, Edith?" she asked.
"Av coorse she will," Pat answered for her. "Shure it's not to a shebeen Oi'll be afther takin' her on the whay. Come along, colleen. Oi'll take yez back to Harol' an' owld Betsy, shure Oi will now."
He took Edith's hand, and she went to him readily enough, for she did not like the mad-woman, who conversed with trees and was so shockingly eccentric.
"Now, just you hurry along, me man," said Hannah, "an' bear in mind I'm goin' to watch you into the house."
"Yez welcome, ma'am," said Pat. "Faith, it's a hundred quid Oi'm to get for the foindin' av her, an' it's not me mother's son would be afther lettin' that slip out av his fingers, so it isn't."
"Hit out, then; I'm in a hurry." Hannah had common sense enough to realise her own danger; yet her demented mind had not been equal to grasping the fact that it would have been as easy to release two as one. Indeed, that would have been the safer course; for to release one was to arouse suspicion, and perhaps set a vigilance over the other. But Hannah, in her poor, weak mind, thought she was acting for the best.
Gallagher led Edith away in high good humor, and Hannah watched him closely until she saw him enter the house; then she hastened back to Wangooma.
When Pat reached the door he said to Edith: "Now, colleen, jest ye run in an' git the kissin' an' huggin' over whoile Oi smoke a poipe. Whin they're wantin' me, d'yer moind, jest tell 'em where Oi'm squattin'. Shure, Oi'll be a squatther for foive minutes."
Edith required no second bidding, but ran inside and threw herself into the arms of her astonished guardians. Ten minutes elapsed before Merton came out and asked Pat to step inside. Edith had not been able to tell them the place of her incarceration, or to whom she owed her escape, beyond that it was a mad-woman—who called herself all sorts of names—who had brought her to the bridge.
"I believe we are indebted to you, Pat, in conjunction with a certain woman, for the restoration of our child?" said Merton, while his wife sat nursing the little girl, her eyes brimming with tears, and Betsy and Alice were getting some tea ready for her.
"Thrue for you, sor," said Pat. "Oi foller'd her from the hill forninst Wangooma, an' took the colleen from her at the bridge beyant."
"Who was she?"
"The divil a one o' me knows that now."
"Where did she come from? We'll soon find out who she is if you can tell us that."
"Bad cess to the owld hag, she wouldn't tell me anything, sor; n' the sorra a bit can Oi tell ye. However, the gel's here, sor, an' Oi hope ye'll be afther claimin' the reward for me from owld Susman, sor."
"I'll speak to him for you, Pat, as soon as I see him," said Merton. "I have also something to give you. But I may want you further in regard to this business yet. I'll see if I can get any clue from Edith to-night, and have a talk with you in the morning."
Bill Mayne and Alec Mathers had just returned from Minara and they were rather dumfounded at the unexpected return of Pat Gallagher.
"Hulloa, Pat, where the Dickens have you been?" cried both in a breath.
"Where have Oi been, is it? Shure thin, Oi've been a-fetchin' av the colleen home to the shtation wid me. Phat do ye think av that now?"
The "private detectives" looked at one another in dismay.
"You've found little Edie Merton?" asked Mathers incredulously.
"Oi have, thin."
"He's only stuffin' us," said Mayne. "He's never found her."
Pat laughed softly. "There's the house up there, b'ys, an' shure she's in it for ye to say. D'yer think it's meself can't tell the truth?"
"It's not that, Pat," said Mayne. "But so many have been baffled that it's hard to believe that you've scored trumps so quick. Come an' tell us about it."
Thus appealed to, Pat told them as much of the truth as he deemed prudent; and Mathers and Mayne agreed that they were a pair of simpletons, and by dabbling in "detective work" were wasting good time that might be advantageously employed in other channels.
But their spirits revived somewhat when Merton stepped in with a well-provided hamper, and invited all to partake thereof in commemoration of Edith's safe return into their midst.
Magnus Susman had just finished his breakfast when Jabez Gegg brought back the tray, containing all that had been provided for Edith untouched. That he was scared was manifested in his face. He had long been at variance with his master, and he dreaded the outcome of Edith's escape. She had been left solely in his charge; no one else, not even Magnus Susman himself, ever saw her. On him, then, the blame would rest. His face was pale; his eyes had a hunted look in them, and he trembled with agitation.
He put the tray down and coughed.
"Mr. Susman, 'ave you removed Edie Merton?" he asked.
"Removed her? No!" said Susman, looking up quickly from his paper.
"She's not in her room, sir!" Gegg continued.
"Not in her room!" Susman sprang to his feet; his face blanched. "Not in her room! Where is she, then?" he roared.
"I don't know, sir. I can't find her. She's slipped us somehow."
"Didn't you lock the door last night?" asked Susman hoarsely.
"I did. All was right as could be then," Gegg answered. "I dunno how she could 'ave got out. The door wasn't unlocked, an' there's no other way as I know on."
Susman uttered an oath and struck the table with his fist. "By the holy bunyip!" he gasped, "if you've let her escape I'll have your life for it." He rushed into the room where Edith had been imprisoned, only to find it empty; he burst into the apartments of Mrs. Attwell, with no better result; from room to room, through every hall and corridor, he rushed and stumbled, mumbling in his rage and terror, but all to no purpose.
"You treacherous fiend!" he hissed, grasping Jabez Gegg by the throat, and shaking him as a dog would a rat. "You have let her out! How the devil could she have got out of this if you didn't? You dastard brute, you crawling worm, you've betrayed me!"
"I 'aven't—I—I 'aven't!" Gegg gasped, fighting for breath.
"Liar!" Susman howled. "You let her out, and by the duck-billed platypus, you'll die for it! Go to your doom, scoundrel! You've thwarted me, and your life will pay the penalty. March on, you skulking coward, and die like a rat!" Gripped by the nape of the neck, the unfortunate wretch was jerked and pushed down the long corridor and into a dark room. Here Susman threw up a trap-door with his foot, disclosing a deep hole, whence arose a disagreeable stench. Before he had hardly time to realise the situation, Jabez Gegg was hurled head foremost into the pit, and the lid was closed and secured above him. There he died, perhaps instantaneously, perhaps a lingering death—no one could tell; for many years had passed ere his crumbling bones were discovered mingled with others that had long ago mouldered to dust.
Richard Merton sent over that morning to say that Edith had been found; and in the afternoon Magnus Susman rode over, feeling very ill at ease, be it said, for he did not know how much Edith might have been able to tell concerning his implication. He gave Hannah to understand that he would not be back before midnight, which Hannah was glad to hear. He found Merton in his office, and lost no time in getting to the point.
"I'm very glad to learn you've found the girl, Merton. Where was she?"
"That's more than I know, Susman. She was brought to the bridge by an old woman, Pat Gallagher shadowed them from the hill near your place. From what place they came to the hill we don't know. But she seems to have seen her mother. She says she was taken to a lady in an underground room, who said she was Mrs. Grant Attwell—Edith's mother!"
Susman shivered. Was his guilt known?
"She wrote Edith's name—Edith Maud Acton Attwell—on a piece of paper and gave it to her to bring home," Merton went on. "I am now in possession of her whole pedigree, and with this I think I'll be able to find her father. He may be able to guess where his wife is. He must know the circumstances, anyhow. It's very probable he thought she had run away from him; but it seems to me she was carried off."
Susman turned pale. Might not that be the means of tracking him down? "Did she give the girl no—no other writing than the name?" he asked.
"No; she expects to be released herself very shortly. That, I suppose, was her reason for not writing. I'm sorry she didn't mention where she is. We could have rescued her at once. It's a great pity! One line would have told all, and brought a — scoundrel to justice."
"God! what a narrow escape!" thought Susman. "It's that — Hannah Grubbins that did it, not Jabez Gegg!" Aloud he said: "It is to be regretted she did not write you a few lines. I can't think who can be so persecuting a woman! I always understood she ran away from her husband. It is possible, you know, that Edith is mistaken. I hardly think the woman is a prisoner. Who in Heaven's name would make her such?"
"I hope you are right, Susman, for her sake. Do you know anything of Attwell's movements?"
"I knew Grant and Mrs. Attwell years ago, but have not seen them for a good while now, nor heard anything of them."
"Was she not a Miss Daisy Bradford?" asked Mrs. Merton, who was sitting back in a low chair near her husband, knitting.
"Yes," said Susman. "She's the last of the Bradfords, I think."
"We were talking about this once before, Susman, if you remember," said Merton, "and you then said Grant Attwell's wife was a Miss Bessy Dean."
"No," said Susman, coloring. "Bessy Dean was Jed Roff's wife."
"Oh! I beg your pardon," said Merton. "I thought it was the other way about you gave it to me." He was sure that this was so; but when he had discovered some time before that Susman had paired them wrongly, he and his wife concluded that Susman had inadvertently mixed them up. What he could not understand was Jed Roff's own assertion that his wife was Daisy Bradford, the banker's daughter. He had ascertained some time ago that this young lady had married Grant Attwell in Sydney; but he had not been able to obtain any proof of Jed Roff's marriage, or of the existence of any such woman as Bessy Dean. If Roff was not married, who was the woman who had shared his hut with him at Goolgolgon? She had been with the Attwells at Tallagalba; might it not be that she was Mrs. Attwell herself? Such would in some degree explain the sending of the child anonymously to him, and the absconding of Jed Roff. That was the way they had come to look at it, though loath enough were they to admit that Edith's mother had deserted her husband to live incontinently with another man. For the child's sake they kept their suspicions to themselves, deciding to hunt up the relatives, if any, of the parents, and confide in them.
This was before Edith's return from captivity. Edith's story, vague as it was, served somewhat to change these views. He had now some suspicion that she was a prisoner; and he, therefore, deemed it necessary to find out what her connections had been, which, in all probability, would give him some clue to work upon.
"Hadn't Grant Attwell an uncle in Melbourne?" he asked in pursuance of this object.
"Yes," said Susman. "but I believe he's dead. His name was Stephen."
"Is there no other kin?"
"None that I know of."
"Sometimes," Merton continued musingly, "I think Roff and Attwell must be the same person."
"The two are certainly mixed up very much," Susman agreed, "but, for all that, you'll find they are very different persons."
"Have you no idea where Attwell went to after he left Tallagalba?"
"I believe he intended to travel for a few years. He always had a fancy for South America. No doubt he's gone there."
"And left his child behind?" said Merton incredulously.
"A man couldn't very well take a baby with him," Susman replied.
"He could at least have made arrangements with someone to look after her," Merton rejoined. "The child was practically abandoned; and he must have had some strong reason for acting as he did. I suppose it'll all come out in time. By the way, Gallagher asked me to speak to you about that reward. I gave him a cheque myself."
"But it was a woman who found her," Susman objected. It galled him to think he should have to pay a hundred pounds to the man who had frustrated his purpose as compensation for doing so.
"I'll satisfy her claims myself if she comes forward," said Merton. "But as to this reward of yours. I believe you said you would give the money to the person who restored the child to us. That person is Gallagher."
Susman stroked his head in deep thought. It went against his grain to part with so much money. In the midst of his meditations Gallagher himself entered.
"Here's owld Duffy wid the mail, sor," he said. "Is your bag riddy, sor?"
"I'll see him in a minute, Gallagher," said Merton. "This is Mr. Susman. You can settle between yourselves about that reward while I'm away."
When he had gone out Susman looked Gallagher over with a frowning aspect. "You're the man that brought Edith Merton home?" he said.
"Thrue for you, sor," answered Gallagher.
"Where did you find her?" Susman next asked.
"Near your place, sor. Oi says an owld hay bag a-takin' av her for a throt, an' I follers her for awhoile, an' thin Oi collers the colleen, an' fetches her along to the sthation wid me."
"Do you know the woman?"
"Oi don't, thin."
"Can you describe her?"
"Oi can't. Shure Oi could say nothing at all but her voice."
"Are you working for Mr. Merton?" asked Susman.
"Oi've been doin' odd jobs for him thin," said Pat; "but Oi'll be lavin' as soon as Oi git that bit o' money from you, sor."
"Where are you thinking of going to?"
"Back to Oireland, plaze God."
"Well," said Susman, "I'm rather short of money just now. Could you wait awhile?"
"Shure an' Oi've no money to pay the expinses av waitin'."
"Would you take work?"
"Shure an' Oi would, thin."
"Well, I'll want a cook next week," said Susman, "and if you like you can take the billet. In a month or two I'll be able to pay you the hundred pounds."
"Phat's the wages, sor?"
"Fifteen bob a week."
"Pbat! For a cook?"
"That's what I generally give."
"By the spinnin' crustactacus, they must've been bastely crawlers, thin! 'Pon me sowl, Oi niver knew a cook—a cook, moind ye—to take less n' thirty bob."
"You won't get such wages about here, Gallagher. In any case, your position won't be that of an ordinary cook; you'll be merely waiting a little while for a big sum of money. There's only half a dozen to cook for—anything will do for five of them; and the fifteen bob will be pocket money for you during the interim. You'd better come and see me on Monday morning."
"Oi will, thin, an' shure it's the fifteen bob that moight 've been afther growin' a troifle by that time," Gallagher replied.
It was not long after dark when Magnus Susman rode home. He let his horse go below the yards, and carried his saddle and bridle up to the harness-room. Then he stole into the garden and hid among the shrubs. "She'll be up to her tricks directly, and I'll cop her," he muttered fiercely. He had not long to wait, for presently two dark forms emerged from the house and came gliding swiftly down the path. They were Hannah Grubbins and Mrs. Attwell. Mad as she was, poor old Hannah had kept her long-deferred promise. They spoke not a word. Mrs. Attwell was too anxious to escape to imperil her chance by even a whisper.
The night was dark and still, and a light breeze came swiftly across the hills. How delightful it was to walk thus in the open air! To her this outer world appeared as one vast Elysium in comparison with the prison she had left—
So wondrous wild the whole might seem,
The scenery of a fairy dream.
Then suddenly Magnus Susman sprang out before them, and, dashing his fist in Hannah's face, felled her at his feet. Her companion uttered a cry, that was half a moan, half a scream, and swooned. She saw on the moment of his appearance her hope of years crushed in an instant.
Susman caught her up and carried her quickly into the house, and back into her room. Having brought her to, he locked the door, and returned to the garden to deal with Hannah Grubbins. But there was no Hannah to be found! He looked about and listened, thinking she had crawled under the shrubbery; but he could hear no sound. He searched the garden, the outbuildings, and for half a mile round the place; and when he had spent half the night in this fashion, his fury gave place to deadly fear. She had gone to Tipparoo, or to some other place for protection; and, as a natural consequence, the whole truth would come out.
For days he kept within his own doors, marvelling at the long silence, yet starting at every sound, and trembling at the sight of every horseman lest it should be a policeman coming to arrest him. And one day his eyes indeed fell on the dreaded uniform and cap. Sergeant Tadeas rode up to his gate. Susman thrust a small pistol into his pocket, and, going to his office, sat down to calm himself before the sergeant should come in.
Sergeant Tadeas was a fairly big man, with a long grey beard and a red face. He came in, the red face beaming with smiles, and Mr. Susman's fears were at once subdued.
"Susman, my good fellow," said the sergeant, "what have you done with that old maid of yours?"
Mr. Susman turned cold, and, unable to reply, stared mutely at his questioner.
"We picked her up in the bush the other day raving mad," the sergeant continued. "The tale she spun out quite set my hair on end. According to her account, Susman, you're the biggest rogue on earth."
"I suppose so," said Susman, recovering himself. "The old hag always wanted to marry me. That's what turned her mind. Well, it's not my fault. I can't help a woman falling in love with me." The sergeant glanced at Susman and smiled; his appearance was not calculated to attract any ordinary woman. "The world would come to a queer pass," Susman continued, "if a man was held responsible for a woman's whims. But what have you done with her, Teddy?"
"She's in the doctor's hands at present; but she'll be packed off in a few days to Callan Park. I feared, from her disjointed utterances, that something had happened here; but I'm glad to find all's well. You'd better come up to-morrow—and send along anything that's belonging to her."
"I'm well rid of her," thought Susman; "and now I'm safe."
Harold had already been away a year at the Grafton Grammar School when it was decided to send Edith to a Sydney college. Their early education had been conducted by Miss Moncton, a young lady of high attainments, who had come to Tipparoo principally from a love of station life. She was tall and well made, with brown hair and a small freckled face. Freckles, perhaps, are not things of beauty, but a freckled skin is said to be the best skin; at all events, they were not at all "horrid" on Miss Moncton. Hers was quite a pleasant face, and people liked her because she was kind, and her smile was a decided cure for the "blues."
She was going to Sydney for a month and would take Edith down with her, after which she would return to Tipparoo as companion to Mrs. Merton. The latter was already heart sore at the thought of parting from Edith. But Edith looked forward to her first visit to Sydney with delight. She would be among friends there, as she would stay with the Bainbridge's, who had left Chatsworth two years before.
"You will be quite at home, Edith," said Mrs. Merton, as she was packing Edith's box on the evening preceding her departure. "You will see wonderful things down there, and Marian and Mrs. Bainbridge will show you round. But you must never leave the house by yourself. There are wicked people in Sydney—they're simply awful. Remember how that horrid man carried you off from the willow-trees, and always be very careful."
"You don't think he'll be in Sydney, ma?" asked Edith.
"I hope not, my dear; but we never know. It's best to be on the safe side. I've written to Mrs. Bainbridge, telling her what to do and how to look after you. Be a good girl, Edith, and be sure you write to me every week—and don't forget to tell me everything."
"And can I write, to Harold, ma?" asked Edith.
"No, Edith; you must not write to Harold," Mrs. Merton replied. Poor little Edith looked disappointed. "You are getting a big girl now—and Harold is no relation of yours," Mrs. Merton continued. "He writes regularly to your father, so we'll be able to tell you how he's getting on. Marian Bainbridge will bring you home twice a year. Harold will be home at the same time; and there'll be no need for you write to him, Whether or no, it would not be proper for you to do so. You must not think of it; Edith. You're getting a big girl now, and big girls mustn't have anything to do with boys. Boys are wicked."
"But Harold isn't wicked, ma!" Edith protested.
"Oh, you don't know," Mrs. Merton returned. "There's brute nature in all things masculine."
Mrs. Merton had better expectations for Edith, and it was undesirable that the two should correspond. Edith was aristocratic Harold at the best was only a stockman's son—and it was necessary that they should understand that a marriage between them in the future was not to be thought of. It was early in the day to speak of marriage; but it was better for them to grow up with this idea inculcated in their minds than to look forward to a nearer and dearer tie. They had been brought up together from infancy, and there was a sort of brother-and-sisterly love between them; but during their long severance, with no word from each other, they would acquire new tastes, and conceive other ideas, from a wider intercourse with the world; whereas letter-writing would tend to awaken another feeling by constantly bringing their thoughts back to each other and reviving old memories that were better forgotten. There was to be no correspondence between her ward and the super's son. Mrs. Merton put her heel down firmly there, and kept it down.
They had breakfast by candle-light next morning, and old Jack was venting his dawn laugh when Edith, Mr. Merton, and Miss Moncton rode away from Tipparoo. It was delightful to ride thus in the early morning, on lively animals that stepped briskly over the grassy flats; to see the kangaroos bounding in droves over the hills, the sparkling water rippling in the streams, the thick white fog-clouds unveiling the broad plains, and the commingling hues of waterfowl flashing over the "lazy, locked lagoon." Then the sun shot up through the trees and shone resplendent across the gleaming grass. The thousand circular networks of the forest spiders glistened in the foxtail spires, and the multitudinous screechings of parrots in the gum-trees were music to their ears.
Much interest was manifested in Edith at Two-wharves, for the peculiar history of the squatter's ward was well known all over the river. This being so, Edith was glad enough to escape on board from inquisitive eyes.
"It'll be a blessing to be in a place where nobody knows me," she said to Miss Moncton. "Everyone stares at me so—as if I were some new kind of animal going to the Zoo. I don't like it."
"It isn't pleasant by any means. People ought to have better manners," Miss Moncton returned. "But we'll soon be away now—there's the gong."
Edith stayed on deck with Miss Moncton until they had crossed the bar, and though the Agnes Irving was a first-class sea-boat, it made them terribly sick. When they were fairly out at sea, both went to their berths, and scarcely left them again until they entered Port Jackson. It was night-time, and Edith could only view the glimmering lights along the shores of "Our Beautiful Harbor." Marian and Charlie Bainbridge were waiting for them.
"This is a pleasure," said Miss Moncton as she stepped ashore. "Have we far to go?"
"Oh, no," said Marian. "Our house is just across the bridge in Union Street. Come along, Edie. I mustn't lose you. How tired you must be. Were you sick?"
"All the way down," said Edith, with a grim face. "I've scarcely eaten anything since we started."
"You must be famished, child! Shall I order a cab for you, Miss Moncton?" asked Marian, as half a dozen cabbies came up on the look-out for fares.
"No, Marian, thank you," Miss Moncton replied. "I'd rather walk."
"Very well. Charlie will see to your luggage in the morning. Do you think you will like Sydney, Edie?"
"I really don't know, Marian. I have seen nothing of it yet."
"You are cautious," said Marian; "but I'm sure you will like it."
"She's in a great way to see the theatres and gardens," Miss Moncton put in. "She's talked of nothing else for the last month."
"You'll see them all, dear, and much more. I'll take you round Sydney," said Marian. "I've learnt every inch of it since I've been here; and I've found the shops where you get the best bargains, too."
"Trust a woman for that," Charlie Bainbridge rejoined.
"Charlie generally deals at Paddy's Market," Marian added, laughing.
"Jolly good place, too," said Charlie. "You get things cheap there—anything from a pig's trotter to a suit of clothes."
"I don't like Paddy's Market," said Marian. "There's always such a rough crowd there, and one gets elbowed and jostled from one end of it to the other. It reminds me of an agitated ant-bed. . . . This is our place—Not a very imposing one, you'll say. But beggars can't be choosers."
The door was opened by an old lady in a white cap, and the visitors were introduced to Mrs. Bainbridge. They found themselves in a snug little parlor lit with gas—a nice, comfortable little room, Edith thought, with neither gaudiness nor shabbiness about it; but just that simple elegance, aurea mediocritas, that makes one feel at home at once, and not afraid of spoiling anything. And here Mrs. Bainbridge was a busy little body; and the girls felt grateful to her for not boring them with a string of interrogatives before they had time to denude themselves of their wrappers. "I'll leave Marian to attend to you, my dears," she said, "while I'm brewing the tea. Of course, you'd like a wash and a change?"
"Oh, no, Mrs. Bainbridge, we won't change," Miss Moncton replied. "We'll just take a cup of tea and go straight to bed. You must really excuse us to-night. We are so dreadfully tired—though I really don't know why."
"Indeed, I was just the same when I came down. I know what it is. I was feeling the ship under me for days after. I couldn't eat much either, and swallowed every morsel so carefully, you know, for fear it would be turning back or jumping up again. The sea is like a stomach pump with me. But, of course, you young ones are different. You are as right as pie as soon as you get on land. Just sit in, my dears. I can see you are sleepy. But you'll be all right in the morning, and then you must tell me all the news. Marian, dear, come along and cut the bread. I can really do nothing without my glasses and it would be time to be going to bed, perhaps, when I found them."
Supper was soon over, and Edith and Miss Moncton were escorted up a narrow flight of stairs, rising almost perpendicularly.
"It's awfully tiresome going up these stairs," said Marian. "We have only two rooms up here, so you'll have to share one with me, and mother and Miss Moncton will be sleeping in the other. We'll have the house to ourselves in a day or two, for Charles is going away to manage a station in Gippsland. I'm glad you're staying with us. We'd be so dreadfully lonely by ourselves."
Edith was up next morning, and ready for her first day's sightseeing in the "big smoke." Indeed, several days were devoted to this pleasure. It was a great week for the bush-bred girl—a busy, happy week into which they crammed all the beauty spots of Sydney.
"I have seen so much in the last few days that I could fancy myself a traveller," Edith exclaimed one evening after returning from Manly. "I think I would always travel if I were rich. How nice it must be to be an heiress!"
"You might be an heiress for all you know," said Marian.
"Oh, nonsense! How could I?"
"Your father is just as likely to be a rich man as a poor one. I wouldn't feel a bit sorry for myself if I were in your shoes."
"Oh, Marian! Then you can feel no compassion for me. You don't know what it is or you wouldn't talk like that. I thought you understood." Edith was a little piqued, and, seeing this, Marian hastened to make amends.
"I quite understand," she said; "and it is that which makes me speak as I do. I have a penchant for things uncommon, and at times I quite envy you your position. I would pose, in my own mind, as the daughter of an unknown millionaire, and look forward to some day meeting him—under dramatic circumstances, you know. I'd be quite a heroine. People would be inquisitive to see me—then; and everybody would be congratulating me on my good fortune. How delightfully romantic all that would be!"
"I see nothing delightful in it, however romantic it may be," Edith returned. "I should prefer to have a good mother like you have, Marian, and to know my father. If I only knew what they were, and what became of them, it wouldn't be so hard. But, you see, Marian, they must have been bad folks. People have said so—and that's where the sting is. There must have been something wrong, when I was—deserted while a baby, and left as a nameless waif among strangers! You ought to feel grateful that you are not in my position, Marian. I can assure you it is no pleasure to be like me."
Marian was touched by the earnestness of her companion.
"Forgive me, dear, if I seemed cruel," she said tenderly. "It is my vanity, my eccentric tastes, that often cause me to appear unsympathetic. I know I am very foolish—but everybody has some peculiar failing, and that is mine. For all that, no one will be more delighted than I to see you righted."
After living many years in retirement on his uncle's station, Grant Attwell had gone into Parliament under an assumed name, which he had long borne, though few seemed to know it beyond Magnus Susman, who had recognised his rival one night during a visit to the city. Business, he said, had taken him down; but he carried no message to Edith, much though he desired to do so. Mr. Merton had at last come to agree with his wife that Susman knew more about Edith than he would own to, and consequently he was less confiding where she was concerned than formerly.
So Mr. Susman, having only his own affairs to attend to, found time to inspect the machinery of his country, and was surprised to find in one of the parts thereof the man whose life he had wrecked. He did not renew the acquaintance, but he learnt that Grant was little known beyond his political name. In the latter respect he was anything but an obscure personage; he was rated a fearless and capable statesman.
Of his private life, however, Susman could hear nothing. He called on Mrs. Bainbridge once, and ascertained that father and daughter had not yet come together, nor did it appear that his whereabouts were known to her friends. Mr. Susman henceforth received two of the leading dailies by every mail, and watched the progress of this gentleman with a keen interest—an interest that had something of begrudgement in it. He took the papers occasionally to Mrs. Attwell—by way of showing that she was forgotten. She read the paragraphs, and formed a different opinion; she was proud of his advancement, though he was as dead to her. But there would intrude an ugly thought that he might marry again, that some proud, cold woman would usurp her place, and enjoy all that should be hers. This was the bitter portion, more galling than had been the incessant tormentings of her peccant wooer. During the last few months she had been allowed some degree of peace; for Susman's object now was to get Edith for his own, and for that he had been long secretly contriving.
"Daisy Bradford will live to see Edith my wife," he cogitated, "and then she can go with the rest. My revenge will be complete. But I can never liberate her, no matter what may come to pass."
There was a knock at the door.
"Come in!" said Susman, and thereupon Pat Gallagher entered the office.
"What is it, Gallagher?"
"Mr. Merton's outsoide, sor."
"What does he want?"
"Shure he wants to know if you're at home, sor, an' Oi towld him if he'd be afther waitin' awhoile Oi'd come in an' ask yez that same."
"You're a fool, Gallagher!"
"Thank you, sor!"
"Tell Mr. Merton to come in."
Merton entered almost immediately.
"Take a seat, Merton," said Susman. "I hope nothing's wrong? It's so seldom I see you over this way."
"I've come to ask you for another small loan, Susman," Merton answered. "Things are going very badly with me, and I must have something to pull up with."
Mr. Susman could scarcely conceal his pleasure at this state of things.
"You're welcome to any help my purse can give you, Merton," he said, with apparent good nature! "I'm only too happy to be able to help you."
"Thanks, Susman. I won't want it for long—I hope. I'm not the only one that's been pushed, and like others, I suppose, I'll get on my legs again."
"Of course, you will. There's ups and downs Merton? You're welcome to any amount, you know."
"Would it be asking too much if I say five thousand pounds?"
"Not at all," said Susman in the most off-handed manner imaginable. He drew out the cheque and threw it carelessly across to Merton.
"Thanks, Susman," said the latter. "I hope I'll be able to do you as good a turn some day."
"I hope you will. Try a glass of brandy on the strength of it. It's tip-top stuff when times are bad, Merton."
Each emptied a stiff glass, and, filling their pipes, sat down for a quiet yarn.
"How is Miss Edith getting on in Sydney?" asked Susman, following the train of his own thoughts.
"First rate, Susman," Merton replied. "She likes the city very well. They've been taking her round and showing her everything worth looking at"
"When are you going to bring the boy home?"
"In another year or so. I want to give him a good education."
"He must be pretty well advanced in his teens now."
"He's getting on for eighteen. He'll be able to manage the station for me when he comes back. A young head may drag it out of the muddle I've got it into. He knows every inch of the run, he understands cattle, and he's a first-class rider. With a good education on top of that he'll be a first-rate man to put at the head of affairs."
"You're lucky to have him to fall back on," said Susman. "You're getting a bit too old to knock about now, Merton.
"Yes, I won't be able to stand it much longer. As Gordon says:—
" 'I've had my share of pastime, and I've done my share of toil.
. . . And the chances are I go where most men go.' "
"The way of the world, Merton; we've all got to go some day. Have you heard anything more of Jed Roff?"
"No: nor of Jabez Gegg either. I don't think the police got him."
"We'd have heard of it if they had. No, Merton, they never got him."
When Merton had gone—now very much pre-possessed in favor of his neighbor, and less disposed to side with his wife in respect to Susman's relations with the Attwells—Mr. Susman rubbed his hands together with much satisfaction. "That's another five thousand pounds, Dick Merton," he chuckled. "It's totting up first class. I never thought you'd cotton so simply when I induced you to take the first monkey. That big fire last year made another loan necessary. You didn't know I started it with that object in view. And then the flood gave you another smash. I didn't start the flood though. You'll want a few more thousands before you're straightened up. By the time Edith's eighteen or nineteen you'll be pretty well in my power. You'll never be able to repay me—I don't want you to; I've plenty of money. But I want Edith; she's my security, Dick Merton—"
Here Mr. Gallagher entered, this time without knocking.
"What is it now?" asked Susman irritably.
"Oi've been here some toime, sor, come Michaelmas." said Pat.
"Have you come here to tell me that?" Susman demanded.
"Oi have, thin, an' a troifle more wid it," Pat replied.
"Let's hear it, then."
"Oi'm comin' to it, sor."
"But not that hundhred poun's, sor!" said Gallagher, quickly grasping his opportunity. "Yez sed in a month or two ye'd be afthor payin' me that bit o' money. That month or two's got grey-headed, an' Oi've been to Oireland since thin, an' the divil a bit am Oi paid yit."
"Do you think I want to do you out of it, man?" Mr. Susman demanded.
"Be gob, thin, there's more things unlikely than that. Oi'm wantin' to get away, d'yer moind, for it's meself that's got a swateheart now, an' shure Oi towld her as Oi'd be wid her beyant six months ago."
"Better leave sweethearts alone, Gallagher; they're bad property."
"Are they, be gob! Jest ye fork out that bit o' money, sor, an' shure Oi won't be the only Gallagher knockin' around in a year or so. It's meself has the foine regard for swatehearts, d'yer moind?"
"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Gallagher," said Susman, "but I can't spare the money just now. I'm nearly dead broke, Gallagher. But I'll see what I can do for you in a month or two."
"That month or two ought to be dead av owld age, sor, so it ought," Said Pat. "Shure it's tha colleen that can't git married till Oi'm paid, sor."
"Let her wait, then," Susman, returned. "There's two things you shouldn't do in a hurry."
"What's thim, sor?"
"Get married, and hang yourself. Have you my supper ready?"
"Oi haven't, thin. Be all accounts, it's a bad principle to do things in a hurry, sor."
"Get it ready," said Susman sharply.
"Phat will you have, sor—a baked egg or a lobster?" Pat felt inclined to tell Susman to get his own supper.
"What do you mean?" the latter demanded, frowning.
"Oi mane, sor, that Oi'll wait the sorra a bit longer'n another month, an' if that reward isn't atther bein' paid thin the divil a bit more will Oi cook on Wangooma; an' perhaps, sor, it won't be well for iverybody on the Wedgepoint whin the toime comes for me to stroike," Pat retorted, and forthwith shuffled out of the office in high dudgeon, while Susman stared after him with knitted brows.
"Take care, Gallagher, take care!" he muttered. "Even the worm will turn if provoked too far, and you have more than a worm to deal with. It will go ill with you if you bother me too much. You've gone far enough for safety if you only knew. Maybe it'll happen you won't want that hundred, Gallagher; maybe you won't want it. You may have no need of it; so take care, take care, Gallagher!"
It was an early Sunday morning, and the sun was shining brightly in cloudless azure. The air was laden with a pleasant perfume, and Edith and Marian, out for an early constitutional, stepped along briskly towards Wentworth Park. Many boats were moored along the shores of the harbor, and some were gliding lazily across the water. On the piers and wharves the ragged street urchins were fishing, while a favored few were paddling about in dinghies.
The girls entered the park and sat down for a respite before turning back. The park was almost deserted, save for an old lady shimmering in a mass of black beads; a pair of lovers in a secluded nook; and a pale-faced student, in spectacles, poring over a book.
There was one other; a middle-aged man, whose face was full-bearded and rather handsome. His legs were crossed, and he leaned with his elbow on the back of a seat, a little brown poodle coiled at his feet. Edith and Marian sat opposite him with only a pond between them; but, whether he was conscious of their presence or not, he did not seem to notice them. He was looking into vacancy, apparently thinking.
"We'd better be going, Edith," Marian said at last, "or we'll be late for breakfast." As they were leaving the pond the man rose from his seat and approached them.
"Miss Bainbridge, how do you do!" he said, smiling. "I didn't know you at first."
"Goodness me!" cried Marian. "Mr. Attwell! Wherever have you been hiding all these years? We haven't seen you for an age."
"I've been in Parliament a good while—and you never heard of me?"
"Dear, no! But, then, we never read the political columns."
"You wouldn't have learned anything from them if you had," said Attwell. "I have been known by another name since I left the Clarence."
"Oh, that accounts for it. But it's a wonder you never looked us up. Excuse me," Marian said suddenly. "This is Miss Merton; Edith, Mr. Attwell."
On hearing the name, Grant Attwell started, and stared hard at Edith.
"Are you Miss Merton of Tipparoo?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered simply, and Marian saw his face change. He looked closely at her, his breathing became labored with sudden emotion, and his hands began to tremble slightly. The girl observed his agitation with mystified eyes.
"Do you know who your father is—or your mother?" he asked, with a tremor in his voice.
"No," said Edith hesitatingly, and her cheeks reddened. "I always thought Mr. and Mrs. Merton were my father and mother; but they tell me now that they are only my guardians."
"That is all," Attwell rejoined. "And even they do not know who you are, except that your name is Edith. But I can tell you all you want to know. I am your father."
"You!" Edith exclaimed in amazement, her brows elevated and partly knitted.
"Yes, my girl," said the man, half-sadly. He peered into the flushed young face, and swallowed as if his throat were dry.
"Goodness gracious!" cried Marian, opening her eyes wide in astonishment. But Edith was comparatively calm, and only looked studiously into his face with her large blue eyes, her own indescribably beautiful as her modest blushes tinged each cheek a rosy hue.
"Believe me, Edith," he cried, as he thought she doubted him; "as God is my witness, I am your father!" He took her little hands in his, and his eyes filled with tears. She looked up, pitying and timid.
"I believe you, my—my father!" Emotion welled strongly within her, and she let her forehead droop on his breast. Folding her in his arms, he covered her face with kisses. Marian turned her head away, half inclined to cry; but she was very happy at the turn events had taken, for she loved little Edith, and had the warmest regard for Grant Attwell, whom she had nursed in his illness at Chatsworth years before.
"I couldn't help looking at you when I saw your face as you came round the pond," Grant said after awhile. "It reminded me of a face I dearly loved—your mother's. You have never seen her Edith, to remember—and I don't suppose you ever heard of her?"
"Oh, yes, I have! I have seen her—I know now—she was my mother!"
"You have seen her—seen your mother?" cried her father excitedly.
"Yes; and she was a prisoner," Edith answered.
"Good God!" cried Attwell with whitened cheeks. "A prisoner! Where?"
"I don't know. I was a prisoner, too. A wicked old swagman carried me off. It was at night—and such a long time ago—that I couldn't tell where the place was. An old madwoman took me into another room one day to see a lady. She called me the Queen of Holland, and said she was going to give me back my crown."
"And this lady she took you to see?"
"She was very beautiful—with such tender eyes; I have never forgotten them. She said she was my mother, and that her name was Daisy Attwell."
"Quite correct. Go on," said Grant excitedly.
"I knew nothing then of the mystery that has always clung to my name. I thought she was mad, and that I was in a lunatic asylum. She wrote my name on a slip of paper, and put it in the pocket of my dress. It was a long name—Edith Maud Acton Attwell."
"That is your name," Grant assured her. "Maud Acton was your great-grandmother's name; your grandfather, Acton, was named after her also. Your mother's name was Daisy Bradford. She left Tallagalba one night while I was away. I thought she had run away with another man. I believe now she was carried off. My God! What a horrible thing—if she has been a prisoner all these years! If you could only tell me something of this place—you were imprisoned there yourself; tell me all about that."
"Come up and have breakfast with us, Mr. Attwell," said Marian. "Our house isn't very far, and she can tell you everything as we go along. I am sure mother will be delighted to see you."
So they walked on, telling their story in turn; and by the time they reached the cottage by the bridge, Grant was well acquainted with the doings at Tipparoo, and had learned enough of Wangooma and of Dead Man's Well to set him thinking, and to rekindle the love-flame that had been but smouldering all these years. He saw in Edith's fresh young face the very likeness of Daisy Bradford, as she was when he knew her first. He could now know no rest until she was found. Something must ever be doing for her, or his conscience would give him no peace. The imagination would depict horrors happening to her which constant energy might be the means of averting.
"Will you not be going to the Richmond yourself, Mr. Attwell?" Mrs. Bainbridge asked as they sat down to breakfast.
"I can't at present, Mrs. Bainbridge," said Grant, "but I shall get spies and detectives to work. I've only just returned from Melbourne. My uncle died a month ago, and I've come in for a pretty big fortune. It was through this uncle that Edith was left in such a peculiar manner with Mr. Merton. He was dead against my marrying, and swore to cut me off without a shilling if I married while he lived. Thus I was compelled to hide it. But, understand, it was not by my orders that Edith was taken to Tipparoo in the way you know of. I was not even aware that she was going there. Still, it was done with the best intentions, and I refrained from interference because publicity would have ruined me. There is no further need now of secrecy. I shall write Mr. Merton full explanations next week; and I can assure you he has my heartfelt gratitude for the way he has brought up my daughter. I am proud of her, Mrs. Bainbridge."
"I quite believe that, Mr. Attwell. She is a credit to Mr. and Mrs. Merton. It will be a surprise to them to be hearing from you. You don't know what trouble they've taken to discover Edith's parentage. It was for her sake they were feeling so anxious to have things explained. They couldn't bear to be thinking of her as nameless and unknown."
"I'm sorry it has been so for so long. But it was all for her own good. She'll reap the benefit of it now."
"Won't you come up and see us at Tipparoo, father?" asked Edith. "My last term will be over this Christmas, and I'll be going for good."
"Then I'll go up with you. My duties will be over then—for awhile, at least."
"That will be nice. There'll be four of us—for you must come and spend Christmas with us, Marian. Harold will be the fourth. He's to meet us at Chatsworth." Grant asked who Harold might be, and talked of him merely to avoid further discourse anent his own family affairs, little dreaming how much Harold was to figure in his future.
Mrs. Bainbridge grew restless as the holidays drew near, for with the departure of the girls there was the prospect of being left alone for at least a month. The Monctons had asked her to spend the holidays with them, and Marian was desirous that she should accept the invitation; but, like most old people, the widow was reluctant to leave her own nest.
"I think you ought to go," said Marian. "What's the use of being cooped up here all your lifetime? You'll spoil my enjoyment if you don't go."
"It's not your mother that will be troubling you when you're gallivanting about the country," Mrs. Bainbridge retorted. "It's little you'll be thinking of me, Marian. If it wasn't that Miss Moncton will be coming back with you, I'm not so sure that I'd be letting you go."
"Are you afraid we'll keep her altogether, Mrs. Bainbridge?" asked Edith.
"There's not much fear of your keeping her on Tipparoo, Edith. She knows what it is I'm thinking of. Well enough she knows."
"You are prejudiced, mother," said Marian, "and I'm sure Edith doesn't want to be hearing your jargon."
"Edith is not wilful like you, Marian," said her mother, taking the hint. Then she continued more blithely: "It's very satisfactory to be finding your father in such a worthy man as Mr. Attwell, Edith; but what I'm not understanding is how the country folk were not knowing that your mother and father had parted, and how Mr. Merton was never hearing anything to make him suspect you were Mr. Attwell's daughter."
"It was a mystery to me till my father explained," said Edith. "Mother had left the light burning in her room, which was noticed by Imogene about three in the morning. She went in to see if anything was the matter, and on the table she found the note. The contents of it stunned her, and for a time she could not believe that mother had done such a thing as was stated. She was a sensible woman, and she decided to make some excuse for mother's absence till father returned. The first thing she did was to make a fire and put the kettle on. Then she dressed and laid a light breakfast for one. While the kettle was boiling; she caught and saddled mother's horse, that was in a little square at the back; and then, making some tea, she had breakfast at the table she had laid. She next rode to a farm about half a mile distant, where her brother Walter lived (he's dead now). She instructed him how to act, and, leaving the horse there, walked back to Tallagalba.
"When the maid came in she asked why mother had breakfasted so early, and where she had gone to. Imogene replied that she had gone to Two-wharves to meet father, and that Walter had gone with her. This was confirmed when Walter brought back the horse about four in the afternoon, and said 'the missus' would return by steamer. Now, this was a good beginning, and everybody accepted the excuse; but it didn't go far enough. Father would return alone and ask where mother was, which would let the cat out of the bag. To prevent this, she sent a letter, enclosing the note mother had left, to meet him at Two-wharves. You can imagine his feelings on receipt of such news; but he agreed with Imogene that it would be best to hide the truth. She met him on the verandah, and inquired if Mrs. Attwell was not with him. He told her she had gone to Sydney as the result of a telegram she had received, stating that her sister was dying. Of course, the sister was an imaginary being; but it answered the purpose.
"Meanwhile a Mr. Foster had made a tempting offer for Tallagalba, and father now commissioned Walter Roff to accept it at the end of a month if nothing turned up in the meantime. Imogene had taken me to Goolgolgon—first going to Two-wharves on the pretence of taking me to mother—and there she passed as her brother Jed's wife. Father entrusted Walter Roff to find where mother had gone to, and with whom; while he himself, at their advice, went to Chatsworth, and thence to Melbourne. Walter was engaged in his pursuit till his death, a year later, and he discovered nothing. That was how a great scandal was hushed up, and it was mostly owing to the diplomacy of Imogene that the modus operandi was so thorough that it baffled everyone who attempted to solve the mystery."
"It's a wonder, now, Imogene was never telling me about all this; for we've been seeing a good deal of Imogene since she's been a widow. And maybe it won't be long when my son Charles will be taking her to the altar—maybe it won't be long."
"Indeed!" said Edith. "I was not aware that Imogene had married. She must be getting very old."
"Ah, well, as Dickens would be saying, she's not as young as she has been, but then, my dear, Mrs. Hibbit is very rich, and it's Charles that must be marrying money."
"He might marry it in a younger pocket then," said Marian, pouting. "Imogene was satisfied to marry a walking corpse to get money; and it seems to me, mother, that you're expecting Charles to do the same. Fancy!" continued the indignant Marian turning to Edith. "Fancy Charles marrying an old widow! It's preposterous!"
"Indeed, you ought to be feeling happy that it is so, Marian. I'm meaning," continued Mrs. Bainbridge hurriedly, "that it is very proper they should be marrying each other. I am not saying he could not have done better if—well," with a pensive sidelook at Edith, "if he hadn't been going away to Melbourne. Still he might be doing worse than marrying Mrs. Hibbit. Isn't it yourself that will be—"
"Leave my affairs alone, pray," Marian interposed. "I am not over-satisfied in that quarter, as you know; and maybe it will come to a different ending than you imagine."
"You're a wayward girl, Marian, and it's I that am always telling you so; but it's little you heed my telling—it's little you heed my telling."
Mrs. Bainbridge thought she could see plainly enough the reason of her daughter's idiosyncrasies. She chided Marian for her growing attachment to Grant Attwell, whose wife, in her own phraseology, "might be returning to him when he was least expecting her."
"It's only your fancy, mother," Marian would answer. "I'm sure I have no other feeling for Mr. Attwell than that of a friend."
"I know better, Marian. Am I not seeing it every day he's coming to the house? And let me tell you it's very wrong to be courting a man who has a wife; for you must be knowing he can't have two. You are only bringing sorrow upon yourself; for I'm thinking Marian, you are in love with him."
"Mother!" cried Marian, with a long face. "How absurd!"
"Of course it's absurd, and it's you that ought to be feeling ashamed of yourself, Marian. I don't like you going to the Richmond with him. People will be talking so."
"They'll have little enough to talk about," said Marian petulantly.
"Indeed, it's little you are thinking of your character, Marian," her mother reproved. "It's disgrace you'll be bringing on us with your waywardness. I'm afraid you won't be marrying at all if you are going on like this. You mustn't be forgetting that thirty is on the wrong side of you, and, maybe, in a year or two you will be withering."
"You needn't fear that you'll be burdened with an old maid," Marian returned. "I'll bury myself in a convent before I'll stay here to be constantly reminded of my age and faded looks."
"In a convent!" cried the aghast mother. "How can you be thinking of such a thing! Really, Marian, it's not much you're caring for your mother, when you'd be leaving her all alone and going into a convent."
"And wouldn't you be alone all the same if I got married?"
"Indeed, I wouldn't. Where'd be the use of having a son-in-law if he wasn't keeping me? But I'll have to be living on a pittance now, and that because you are always being so wayward. Aye, you're a wayward girl, Marian."
So this was how matters stood when Grant, Marian, and Edith sailed for the Clarence; and Mrs. Bainbridge's last words were that she would not be going along to the Monctons, as she was seeing no place like home, however humble it might be.
A little crowd stood waiting on the wharf at Chatsworth as the vessel drew in to her moorings, and Edith was quick to detect Harold among them. He was a fine, handsome young man, well dressed, and supporting the shadow of a moustache. He raised his hat and smiled, and his eyes sparkled when Edith leaned over the taffrail and waved her handkerchief to him. A moment later she sprang ashore and hastened to meet him.
"Well, Harold, old boy, how do you do?" she cried briskly.
"Salubriously!" said Harold. "I needn't ask how you are; you're looking just splendid."
"And what a big chap you have grown! Quite a man, I declare!" said Edith.
"Well, it's something to be declared a man, anyhow." Harold rejoined.
"Here are some new friends for you," Edith continued. "That man with the Gladstone bag is my father—the Honorable Grant Attwell."
"Phew!" said Harold. "The Honorable, eh? My word, we are getting up in the world."
"And that young lady with him is Marian Bainbridge. Isn't she pretty?"
"Passably: but I know someone far prettier," Harold returned.
"Of course you do. If I brought you the most celebrated diamond in the world you'd know one better. That is just your way—always contrary. But let me introduce you."
Harold and Grant took a mutual liking to each other at once, and Edith saw with pleasure that they would get on well together. Everybody liked Harold. He was one of those sensible, good-looking young men who, though not without certain vagaries, are specially adapted to suit all tastes. He pleased Marian above all, and perhaps a notion for a moment may have cropped up in her mind that herein lay a substitute should her heart be misguiding her in the present instance; but she was paired with Grant, and Edith kept Harold all to herself. They had so much in common, so much to tell each other, that she could not let anyone else have him just yet. Indeed, they monopolised each other's company during their few days' stay on the Clarence, and devoted most of their time to boating.
Those were delightful hours, floating dreamily along the stream in the balmy evenings, or returning in the early night with the moonbeams dancing over the water. Such scenes as these make lasting impressions in young minds, and call forth tender feelings in young hearts.
"I could float on like this forever," said Edith one evening, leaning back in the stern of the boat, and letting her hand trail in the water.
"I'm afraid I'd have a big bill to pay, Edith; this is a hired boat," Harold, rejoined with his characteristic candor.
"How rude you are!" Said Edith. "I'm sure this is heavenly."
"You'd find it rather watery if we had a capsize."
"If be bothered!" said Edith sotto voce. "Wouldn't you rather be out here in this lovely moonlight than moping about in suffocating rooms?"
"I'd be happy anywhere if I were let to choose my company," Harold answered.
"I'm afraid you're a flatterer," Edith returned. "Did you ever read Shakespeare's 'Venus and Adonis'? You're not a bit like him."
"I believe he was very beautiful," said Harold, with a long face. "I'm not in the same boat with him; I'm too much of a mortal."
"And can a mortal—" Edith began, but there she stopped, and a light blush heightened her cheek's with its transient dye. It might not be wise to be too flippant out here on the lone, still river. They were no longer the boy and girl of old, when each knew the other's every thought and their confidence in each other was complete. Now thoughts unspoken were locked in either bosom, and each passing hour served to augment the secret store. It is that which gives one an interest in another, which more frequently exaggerates the importance of a person than belittles him, and is often conducive to the warmest attachment; whereas nothing is more detrimental to this than undue familiarity. Moreover, it is a wise head that holds a silent tongue, but the flippant bragging one is ever rooted in the cranium of a fool.
Those happy hours ended all too quickly, and one morning they found themselves huddled together in the mail coach, on their way to the Richmond, an old gentleman inside telling them about the Italians en route—how that dignitary, the Marquis de Ray, had deluded the peasants of his country into sailing with him to an island of supposed plenty; how he had left them to die there on what transpired to be a desolate shore; and how, after many had perished, the remnant of the misguided band were rescued and landed on Australian soil; and how they had formed a settlement here, at New Italy, and were prospering with their corn and wine.
He was a genial old fellow, and knew much of the early history of the Richmond. Grant Attwell was interested in his narratives, and made him his guest that night at Two-wharves, little dreaming unto whom he was thus extending his hospitality.
Next day they were the guests of Allan Poster at Tallagalba, where a blackboy awaited them with horses.
"There's no necessity to go rushing home today," said Poster. "Better stay to-night, and ride over in the morning."
"I think I will, Foster," said Grant. "I want to have a look about here; and, somehow, I have a wish to sleep another night under the old roof. I might have a lucky dream." He smiled sadly, and looked at Edith and Marian. They would not stop, as there was time enough to ride to Tipparoo, and Edith was impatient to get home. But during lunch Marian was persuaded to stay and bear Grant company over next morning. She was easily pressed, Harold thought; but he and Edith were made of different stuff, and nothing would deter them from going straight on that afternoon.
"Strikes me they're a bit spoony," said Harold, as they rode away.
"I've thought so, too," said Edith. "I heard Mrs. Bainbridge reproving Marian once about it. She was all against her coming up here. I suppose that was the cause. Do you think she's really in love with my father, Harold?"
"Looks like it; but I hope she has better sense," Harold answered.
They had started late, and so the sun was low when they crossed Pine Mountain. In the cool, however, they travelled faster, and, striking the well-beaten path between Goolgolgon and Badginbilly, pressed on at a hand-gallop. It was just dark when they reached Tipparoo, the dear old homestead where they had played together in childhood.
A joyous welcome and a good supper awaited the young couple. And when they had done ample justice to the latter, Mr. Merton took his pet of old into his office for a yarn over his evening pipe; while Mrs. Merton had Edith all to herself in her own snug boudoir.
"And so you really liked Sydney, Edith? Bush people as a rule do not."
"I think it ever so much better than the bush. There is always some nice place to go to. Here we can go nowhere—only into wilder bush."
"I hope you are not going to leave me, Edith, to go away and live in the big city?"
"Leave you, mother—I can't help calling you mother. You do seem more my mother than anyone else."
"I wish you could always call me mother, dear. But two mothers will be awkward. Call me auntie, and Mr. Merton uncle. That will be the best, dear. I shouldn't like to hear you call us 'Mr.' and 'Mrs.' It would sound so dreadfully harsh, as if you were growing cold."
"I can never grow cold, au—auntie. How strange it sounds! But I suppose I'll get used to it in time," said Edith, with an arch, upward look.
"I was selfish enough to fear that there would be a change in you now that you have your own father," Mrs. Merton continued.
"You know, auntie, I have always loved you, and I know I will as long as I live," Edith answered. "I know what I owe to my father; but I'll never be able to love him as I love you. You reared me from the cradle, auntie, and taught me to love you. I knew no other mother. Uncle, too, seems more my father than Mr. Attwell. He has come to me but lately—a total stranger. Any other man might have done the same and asked me to call him father. It's not so with uncle. He's the first man I ever knew, and loved; and I'm sure he'll always be as dear to me as any father."
"Then I may rest assured that you will not leave me, darling?"
"I'll never leave you, auntie. I'll always stay with you. I could never live happily with anyone else."
"God bless you, darling," Mrs. Merton said, pressing the girl to her bosom. "I feared I was going to lose you—that your father would take you away. I have never been able to get that dreadful thought out of my mind since we received his letter. You are the only comfort I have. I should really die without you. I am not strong, darling, and I am growing old. It would kill me to part with you—I'm sure it would."
"Don't cry, auntie," said Edith kindly. "I'll never leave you—no, never, never, never!"
Meanwhile Mr. Merton was discoursing with Harold—about his schooldays—about Grafton—his companions, and the friends he had made there; of Marian Bainbridge and Grant Attwell; and of their future prospects.
"I must stop at home to-morrow to meet Attwell," he said, "and you must take my place. You know the run, and can manage just as well as I could; in fact, I'll want you to manage the station altogether after this season. I'm too old for outside work, and can find plenty to do at home. I'll give you a hundred a year to start with, and if I ever have the luck to become solvent again—well, maybe you'll get a little more."
Harold could scarcely find words to thank him. This was, indeed, a piece of good fortune he had not looked for. He thought the station in reality must have prospered to induce Mr. Merton to pay him so handsomely. Ten shillings a week had hitherto been his allowance, and from that to a hundred a year seemed a big jump. He was a prudent, saving young fellow, and even out of his small pittance had saved a few pounds. In a few years, with his present salary, he might come to possess a station of his own. That is the ambition of all young fellows on stations, though few budding bushmen are so fortunate as to get a good "leg-up" at the start.
He had a word with Edith that night before he turned in. A young fellow is never too tired to talk to a pretty girl. They had been separated long enough to take away that brother-and-sister seemingness engendered by a lifetime's association, and to place them on another footing in regard to each other. They had different opinions and fancies from those of early youth, when all their ideas were in common.
She saw him start for Tallawong in the morning, early as it was, from the lobby window. He was a fine horseman, was Harold, and sat well in his saddle when the big brown mare he was riding gave a few flying bucks on the hillside, and she heard the blackboy make some remark and laugh; and then she lost sight of them.
She was out long before the breakfast hour, and saw her favorite ponies fed, the cows milked, the horses yarded, and the few sheep trot out of the pens; old station scenes again made new by long absence. Later, she and Miss Moncton rode out over the Bargo, and met her father and Marian at Coorawynbah. They stopped awhile at Dead Man's Well, where the bones of Edith's great-grandfather had lain for many years; and while Grant examined the spot Edith and Marian gathered handfuls of wild flowers and strewed them on the old man's grave.
At last they reached Tipparoo; and never was there a man who was looked upon as a greater curiosity, and in whom more interest was centred, than the newly-found father of Merton's ward.
They formed a merry party, and at lunch Mrs. Merton declared she had not had such a houseful for many a day. But Marian missed Harold from their midst—and so did Edith.
Grant was much with Harold after the latter's return from the out-stations; but it was not till the eve of his departure that he spoke of the subject that had worried him all through Christmas.
"I've been thinking of making you my detective, Harold," he said, lighting a cigar under the willow-trees.
"Your detective!" said Harold. "You quite flatter me; though I fail to see your drift."
"It's subject, of course, to your approval. I've noticed that you are pretty shrewd, and more experienced than many an older head; and I fancy you can work out this matter for me."
"If I am able to serve you in any way I shall be most happy to do so," Harold replied.
"Thank you, old boy. What I require, in short, is to find my wife."
"Have you any idea, or any suspicion, of where she is?"
"I believe she is a prisoner at Wangooma," Grant answered.
"Good heavens!" cried Harold. "And—Susman?"
"I think you'll find that Susman, who is sugar and honey over here, is a scoundrel."
"Well, I shouldn't be surprised," said Harold; "but what grounds have you for suspecting Susman of having your wife imprisoned?"
"He was courting her before I even knew her. For all that, I won the day. We were enemies henceforth, as he considered I had no right to step in and cut him out. He told her one day before he came up here that if she married me it would be to her sorrow. She thought nothing of it, neither did I. After we were married we came to Wyrallah, and I was on the look-out for a place to settle down. Tallagalba suited me, but the price was too much. I told several I'd live there if I could get it cheaper, if not I'd go back to Sydney. A few days later the place was sold and, almost immediately offered to me by the purchaser at half-price. He had intended settling there, he told me; but just as he had paid for it he received an urgent request to return to England, as a kinsman had died and left him a big fortune."
"And was that so?"
"No. It was Magnus Susman who bought the place, and it was sold to me by his agent at half what he gave for it."
"Ah!" said Harold. "He wanted to have your wife near him?"
"That is what I believe—though it was more than a year before she was taken from me."
"Why did you stop there when you knew this?"
"I didn't know it then. I only found out everything lately; and it was this rather suspicious bit of work that then led me to suspect Susman of having wrecked my home."
"What other evidence have you against him?" asked Harold.
"This," said Grant. "Edith was carried away from here in the direction of Wangooma, and brought back from that direction. She said she was not long in reaching the place, and that it was a big house with a large garden in front, and trees growing thickly all round it. I've looked at Wangooma and found the description to correspond. Moreover, she was carried downstairs and shut up in an underground room. The man who took her there was her attendant, and the only man she ever saw there; but she often heard another man's voice. This man had now discarded his disguise, and his face seemed familiar. I showed her a photo of Jabez Gegg, and she said, as far as she could recollect, it was the same man."
"What led you to suspect Jabez Gegg?"
"The removal of the treasure from Dead Man's Well and Gegg's subsequent attempt to steal papers from Merton's office. Those papers would concern Magnus Susman more than they could concern Jabez Gegg. Roff had seen Susman twice at Badginbilly, and told me they were confidential. Besides this, a man came to me some years ago and hinted if certain papers could be recovered it would be found that I had a claim on Wangooma, and he asked for information concerning my wife and other matters, stating that if I made it worth his while he would give his attention to it. I gave him money and what information I possessed. I think the money was all he wanted, for I've never seen him since. I thought I recognised him in the old gentleman we met in the coach coming over; but he denied it when I inquired if he were the man.
"Now, the other day I called at Wangooma, and was shown over the place. There was one door Susman avoided, a strong cedar door near the back entrance to the hall. I tried it, and found it locked; and he was anxious to get me away. I believe that is the entrance to his underground rooms. I stopped one of his black stockmen on my way home, and got a good deal of information out of him for a few bob. He told me Jabez Gegg was working for Susman, and had been in the habit of going out on foot with a swag in the afternoons. This was about the time of Edith's abduction. He hasn't been seen since Edith was brought back to Tipparoo. Another person was on Wangooma about the same time. This was the old female cook. Her name was Hannah Grubbins. I got him to describe her, and afterwards saw Pat Gallagher, and got him to describe the woman from whom he had taken Edith; and what little he could tell me tallied with the blackfellow's description. It therefore seems to me that Jabez Gegg took Edith to Wangooma for Susman, and that it was Hannah Grubbins who took her away.
"Now for another point. Before this old mad woman rescued Edith she took her to see a lady prisoner, who said her name was Daisy Attwell. She accused the mad woman of being unfaithful—of leaving her there, mark you, for seven years—the exact, time my wife had been away from me. Then they were left alone, and this lady wrote Edith's name on a slip of paper: Edith Maud Acton Attwell. Before this, not even the Mertons knew Edith's full name. So who can this lady be but my wife? And where can she be but in Wangooma Castle?"
"There are indeed strong grounds for the supposition," Harold agreed. "But what I can't understand is this: why Mrs. Attwell did not mention the place, or her persecutor's name, during her tete-a-tete with Edith; or why Hannah Grubbins did not release both that night? It would have been as easy to release two as one."
"That is a mystery. But this much I know! Hannah Grubbins was to have released the lady on the following night—which was probably the reason she didn't send more information with Edith. I can also imagine a woman's forgetting to mention such matters as the name of the place or person in the pleasure and excitement consequent upon her being brought face to face with her daughter. She would think all of her, and nothing of herself. The time would be filled up with embracings and kissings, and questions as to the girl's welfare and past life. Another thing, if I met you under similar circumstances, you wouldn't think it necessary to tell me where I was, or who had brought me there. You'd consider I was, or ought to be, better cognisant of such things than anyone else. Also, the mad woman may have parted them before they had time to say much. Her non-fulfilment of her promise to rescue the lady the following evening points to the conclusion that she never found her way back to Wangooma, and that Susman made away with Gegg after the escape of Edith. That is the way I look at it, and I think it's clear enough."
"There is strong circumstantial evidence against Magnus Susman," Said Harold. "How is it you never tried to have the matter sifted?"
"I prefer to go about it quietly. You see, he might make away with her, and destroy the papers I want, as soon as he scented danger. Besides, there is as much circumstantial evidence in Susman's favor as there is against him. He has established the opinion that Hannah Grubbins and Jabez Gegg were in league with each other, and proved that Hannah had left his service three months previous to Edith's abduction. He could put his place in order to bear inspection, and clear himself of this charge just as easily; and when you take into consideration that the sergeant is a personal friend of Susman's, you'll perceive what a poor chance we'd have of substantiating the charges. I think the method I have agreed upon is the best. You are living near the place, and have a good opportunity to watch and pop in at the right time."
"What would you have me do should I meet with any success?"
"If you find Mrs. Attwell, take her to Tipparoo, if possible without permitting Susman to know it. Communicate with the police, and wire to me."
"Very good. You can depend I'll do all in my power to get to the bottom of the matter. Susman is now pretty often at Tipparoo, and I'll be able to examine the place in his absence."
'"Be cautious, mind you, or you may run into a trap, or put him on his guard and spoil all. And look here, Harold," Grant continued impressively, "if you succeed, I'll give you the chest of gold or its equivalent, the house and grounds I own in Sydney, and Edith's hand in marriage. I know you have a fancy for her. However, there's your work, and that's your reward when it's done."
Harold was struck speechless by this announcement. He could scarcely believe he had heard aright. Any one of the three, he thought, would be ample repayment for what he was asked to do. But all . . . . Was it all a dream?
"Well, what do you say?" Grant asked, and Harold started.
"It's a bargain!" he replied simply, and a shake of hands sealed the compact.
The beginning of autumn saw Harold travelling in Queensland with a mob of bulls. The old house was now lonely indeed for Edith; and this drove her thoughts away to Harold across the border, or to wayward Marian in the restless capital. She had always been used to plenty of company. Christmas had been a jolly time, with its congenial guests, festive games, and flirtations; the merry dancing, picnicking, mustering, and kangaroo hunting; all the sports of a country home came in for patronage.
She was too much of a philomath to be as good a companion to Mrs. Merton as Miss Moncton had been. But the old lady slept much more now than formerly, and was contented enough that Edith was in the house. Magnus Susman was often there, too, to keep her company, for he could be gracious enough when he chose; but it was mere dissemblement; for it was Edith's society he sought. He had purchased Moore and Milton at the bookseller's, that he might be able to talk poetry with her; and he had endeavoured to improve his faulty vamping that he might play to her while she sang some pretty love song. His intentions had become apparent to her long ago, and, indignant at his audacity and presumption, she had latterly fled to the library at the first intimation of his approach.
Even this proved an insecure retreat. She was twice abashed at the prospect of a tete-a-tete with him when he had sought her out; but she found cause to excuse herself and fled. When he again repaired thither, expectant, and smiling, the door was locked against him. He shuffled and coughed without it in vain; while tantalising Circe smiled within, and, as he retreated, perhaps to go home to dream of bewitching eyes and rosebud lips she breathed an execration on him in the words of Queen Margaret:—
"No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be while some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils!
Thou elfish-marked, abortive, rooting hog!"
"Surely," she cogitated, "the old hypocrite hasn't had the presumption to fall in love with me! He was seldom seen here before I came home . . . . Ah, well, woo as thou wilt, thou shalt woo an evanescent shadow, thou modern Glo'ster. Thou wert foolish to lose thy heart, if lost it be, for thou shalt feel the truth of what Venus said over her dead Adonis:—
" 'Sorrow hereafter on love shall attend;
It shall be waited on with jealousy,
Find sweet beginning, but unsavory end;
. . . It shall be fickle, false, and full of fraud;
And shall be blasted in a breathing while,
The bottom poison, and the top o'erstraw'd
With sweets that shall the sharpest sight beguile.
The strongest body shall it make most weak,
Strike the wise dumb, and teach the fool to speak . . .
It shall be raging-mad and silly-mild,
Make the young old, the old become a child.' "
But Susman had weathered too many storms, had seen too much of life, good and ill, to be susceptible of a love so absorbing as to distract him. That which fired him was not love, but an unchaste desire. His heart was no more stirred in the wish to possess Edith than is a child's when it longs to pluck a pretty flower. He was merely a piece of mechanism, actuated and propelled by the magnetic force of an iron will; and his object was to gain and destroy, not to love and honor.
But it was a far different feeling for her that he represented to Merton as they smoked their pipes in company one moonlight night on the lawn at Tipparoo.
"Would you think it strange, Mr. Merton, if I told you I was seriously contemplating marriage?" said Susman after putting it pretty straight to the indigent squatter that he wanted his money.
"Yes, and no," said Merton ambiguously. "I'd be surprised to see you marry after so many years; but it wouldn't surprise me to know that you desired to alter your condition and relieve the monotony of a life that must be anything but satisfactory. I don't know how you've endured such an existence. For my part, I think I should have gone mad long ago in that castle with no woman in it!"
"A woman's a help to a man, there's no denying; he can't very well do without her," Susman admitted.
"For all that," Merton rejoined, "she can make a man, and she can mar him; she can make his home a heaven, and she can make it a hell."
"Where there's love there can be no hell," said Susman confidently. "If I loved a woman I could make her always love me in spite of herself."
Merton smiled. There was a touch of grim irony in the thought of Susman making any woman love him. "That's a very chimerical idea you've got into your head," he said, "and I'd advise you to oust it. Some women marry without love to better their position; and you'll find it a difficult thing in such cases to better the woman."
"All women are not alike; many marry successfully without love."
"It's a great mistake. I would rather go single all my life than undertake to win a woman's heart after marriage that I could not win before."
"I don't think you have a very exalted opinion of human nature, Merton."
"You know, Susman, that the human being is the most selfish and hostile of all animals, the most unsociable creature on the face of the earth. The aim of man would seem to be to preserve and enrich himself though he wrecked his fellow-creatures, and therefore—"
"What may be true of one cannot be said of all," Susman interrupted. "Now, you'll admit that I, for one, have not aimed to wreck my fellows. I pulled you out of the bog, Merton, and put you on your feet; and all ask in return is—well, just a trifling favor."
Mr. Susman felt bored, and desired to keep his friend to the point. Merton was in an ungracious mood; it was not the first time Susman had made innuendoes. Now, in a spirit of pique he faced his companion.
"I know your intentions well enough, Susman," he said. "They have been apparent to me since Christmas. You want Miss Attwell for your wife!"
Susman shifted uneasily. "The proposal I wish to make is to your interests. All your property, I believe, is mortgaged, with the exception of Minara, which joins my land. You are in my debt to the extent of fifteen thousand pounds, which would justify me in claiming Minara. Did I do so, the last bit of ground you could call your own would be taken from you. You are also in need of immediate funds. Where are you going to get it with overdraft at the banks? I'm the only man who can help you, and I am desirous of doing so. I'll give you a clean sheet, and supplement it with an additional ten thousand pounds, if you'll consent to my marrying your ward, and use your influence to that end."
Mr. Merton drummed his fingers impatiently on the table. He was not surprised; indignation dwelled within him. "Do you suppose my ward is a piece of merchandise," he said, "or a slave, that I can sell for so many pounds?"
"I suppose nothing of the kind, nor am I offering to buy her," Susman responded, and his face wore an ugly look. "I have already intimated that I love your ward. What have I been coming here for so constantly of late? Did I need to court her if my object was to buy her? No; I love her as madly as I once loved—another woman. Knowing that I am somewhat old, and not the best looking, I raised the money question, and offered to pull you through, in consideration of these defects, if—if you saw me through,"
"You have no hope, Susman. Had I any power in the matter I would not sanction her marriage with you. I am speaking very plainly; I can't help it. You know very well, Susman, you are not fit to be her husband. You are, at the least, thirty years her senior. It's a monstrosity to expect her to marry you."
"Plenty of young girls marry old men," Susman broke in, and his inward resentment at his companion's latitudinarianism began to make its external appearance in a more marked degree.
"They marry them for their money," Merton rejoined.
"She can marry me for mine," Susman added doggedly.
"And do their best to lessen the old men's years to possess the boodle and be free," Merton went on. "Some even poison their aged husbands, and then marry their youthful lovers who were poor."
Susman shrugged his shoulders.
"If you are so anxious to marry," Merton continued, "you'd better look out for an old widow, Susman. There are plenty who would be glad to share your wealth."
"And poison me afterwards," cried Susman. "I don't want any old widows, nor am I anxious to marry for the mere pleasures of matrimony. It's love that prompts me, Merton; I love Miss Attwell. No one can give her a better home than I can; and as for wealth—"
"She has enough of it," Merton interrupted. "She can afford to spurn all you possess. Her husband will be a different stamp of man from you, Susman."
"Then you positively reject my proposal?" Mr. Susman demanded.
"If you are desirous of pressing your suit, Susman, I must refer you to Grant Attwell."
"Oh, —— it, there's no need to stand on ceremony," Susman exclaimed. "You know very well we are not on the best of terms."
"And do you expect me to sanction what her father would not?"
"I don't crave anyone's sanction as to the marriage." Susman cried angrily. "In a year or two she'll be of age, and can do as she darn well pleases with regard to that. If, in the meantime, you use your influence with her, and show her how you stand, she'll marry me of her own free will. That's not asking much."
"You know yourself, Susman," answered Merton. "there is nothing more repugnant to look upon than a young girl tied to an old man who is as near to the grave as she is from the cradle. I'd deserve the contempt of everyone if I participated in a business of that nature. No, Susman, I could never sanction such a union."
"Indeed!" said Susman, turning livid. "And this is your gratitude for all I've done for you! Perhaps, then, you are prepared to pay me back that fifteen thousand pounds within a month?"
Mr. Merton was sobered at once. Like most men who take an innate pride in "talking straight," he was greatly chagrined on hearing another doing the same thing when it told against himself. Most people spoke plainly to Susman; there was that indefinable something about him which differentiates an old person from all others, and tends to increase an observer's idea of his own importance. But the worm had turned at last, and, like the prudent snail, Mr. Merton sheathed his horns until such time as he could meet Mr. Susman on equal terms.
"I'll pay you all in time, Susman—capital and interest," he replied.
"That won't do, Mr. Merton. Listen to me," said Susman. "A quarrel at the present time will be a serious matter to you—perhaps foreclosure and loss of the station. That must happen sooner or later if you haven't my purse-strings to pull. If you are willing to continue on friendly terms, and allow me to come and go as I have been doing, during the interim, I will give you a month—maybe I'll give you a little longer, to consider, by which time you might see some way out of the difficulty, and things might become more favorable to me."
"So be it," said Merton with a dogged air; and therewith Susman took up his hat and departed, fully resolved, while he held this giant's strength, "to use it like a giant."
Having heard enough after his return from Queensland to suspect Susman's designs, Harold determined to act at once. He was sitting in the library with Edith when Susman's effeminate voice within proclaimed him a guest for supper; and he immediately proceeded to plan for the first manoeuvre in his campaign against the enemy.
"I'm going over to Wangooma after tea," he said to Edith, "and I'd be glad if you would indulge the old villain for a couple of hours to provide against our meeting. I wouldn't like him to know I'd been over there."
"Why do you want to go, Harold?" asked Edith, with a look of curiosity.
"To see Gallagher. I have some private business with him," said Harold evasively.
"About my mother?" Edith added interrogatively,
"Yes," Harold admitted. "You know, it was Gallagher who took you from the mad woman at the bridge. I want him to show me the spot where he first saw you that night; and I expect to get other information from him. Now, don't ask me any more questions," he added, as Edith was about to speak. "I am bound to act in secret. Will you oblige me this evening?"
"Certainly, Harold," she answered promptly. "I couldn't refuse so little in my mother's cause; though it will be terrible boredom. He's as dull as he's ugly; there's no fun in him. As Shakespeare says, he's 'not shaped for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking-glass.' He's an old—I don't know what . . . . You wouldn't look to a girl's shoes for a compliment, would you?"
Harold laughed softly. "I should find it hard," he said, "to look anywhere but where I'm looking now when a charming Circe—
" ' . . . sits and gazes at me
With such deep and tender eyes,
Like the stars, so still and saintlike,
Looking downward from the skies.' "
Edith blushed; and she looked so bewitching, standing in the soft, dim light of the library window, where the night wind played with her brown tresses, that Harold caught the sweet flushed cheeks between his palms and murmured: "Stolen kisses are the sweetest!" He stole one from the slightly-resisting lips, and darted swiftly away, leaving Edith writhing in a world of emotion. Her own heart told her she loved him in answer to that kiss. It was the maiden's first taste of nectar—and there is nothing in life so sweet as the first kiss from the lips of love, or more suggestive of the purity and divinity of Heaven—and her very happiness at the moment made her tremble. She sank back on her seat, her elbow on the window-sill, her hand against her chin, gazing dreamily into the silent shadows of the coming night.
Harold went directly to the stables as soon as supper was over, and, mounting at once, trotted quietly away towards Wangooma. There was no moon till midnight, so that he had no fear of observing eyes. He left his horse in a hollow, and walked across to the house.
Gallagher was alone in the kitchen. "Shure now, Oi thought ye'd be comin' over to say me," he cried delightedly.
"Then you know my errand?" asked Harold.
Pat leaned over the table and whispered: "Yez afther the colleen's muther."
"Exactly. Are you willing to help me?"
"Oi am, thin!" said Pat, striking the table with his fist, and giving emphasis to his words with a decisive nod. "Yez jest sthruck it now. Shure it was to do wid a bit av a case Oi come here fust, an' Oi've been workin' on it iver since without gittin' any for'arder. But if Oi could git undher the shanty now it would soon be over. Thin there's a matther av money Oi'm wantin' to have settled afore the bust-up, or, begob, Oi moightn't git that same at all. It's that Susman, bad cess to him! is the blamest rogue as iver broke bread. Musha, there's not a bosthoon can bate him at tellin' the truth by contraries. But Oi'll be one wid him, plaze God—Oi'll be one wid him. Jest tell me what yez want now an' ye'll have it in a brace av shakes if there's a have about it at all."
"Well," said Harold, "I want to look through the rooms as quickly as possible."
"Shure, thin, yez can look through thim that's open, but the sorra a chance is there av gettin' a squint below, so there isn't."
"In the underground rooms?"
"The same. The owld spalpeen niver 'lows me in there at all, at all. Come along till Oi show ye now."
He led Harold into the first room on the left, and planted his foot heavily on the shutter that closed the opening through which Hannah Grubbins had so often looked down on Magnus Susman.
"D'yer know what that is, now thin?"
"It looks like an opening in the floor," said Harold.
"Thrue for you; it's just that same whin it's not closed. It's down there the bog-throtter has his males wid the sorra a sowl wid him: an' it's meself as passes the tucker an' dishes down on a lift, d'yer moind?"
"What the deuce does he dine down there for?"
"The divil a one av me knows that now."
"Have you ever seen anyone else down there?"
"Oi haven't, thin."
"You've been doing all the cooking here for a good while off and on, and are as good a judge as anybody, I suppose, of what an ordinary man can eat. Now, is there more consumed than you would consider sufficient for one?"
"There is! Be the powers, it's that very identical question Oi was moindin' to tell ye, but the divil a one av me could be puttin' it in that iligant whay as ye would be understandin' by. Shure an' Oi thought it was a minagerie he was kapin' to git away wid so much tucker, an' that's as thrue as the shaven praste could spake it."
"I'd give a penny to have the keys this minute," said Harold. "Is there no way possible of getting down there?"
"There isn't, bad luck to it, 'ceptin' ye break the door in. Thin, be jabbers, it's meself would have to skeddadle; an' me case, an' loikewise the bit av money, would be up a gum-thray. It's himself would loike to be rid av me for that same rayson. . . . Did ye lave the little blackguard at the station beyant awhoile ago, now thin?"
"Yes; all's safe in that quarter. He won't be leaving for the next hour."
"The pity he wouldn't break his worthless' nick whin he did lave. Phat is he always doin' over beyant now, av it plaze ye?"
"I believe the old fool has fallen in love," said Harold with a grimace.
"Do ye tell me that now!" cried Gallagher, his eyes twinkling. "The divil stroike a hump on him! The rascal he is to be makin' love whin the sorra a Sunday in the wake he iver wint to Mass. I suppose it's the swate Betsy he's afther, too?"
"Very likely," said Harold, though he knew such was not the case.
"The owld haythin!" cried Pat in high glee. "Is it a-courtin' Betsy he is? 'Pon me sowl, Oi'd give the colleen a tinpenny pace to sthring him on, an' that would spiflicate the bog-hob complately."
They went carefully through the house, trying the doors and windows. Nothing escaped Harold's scrutiny; he noted every means of egress that might be of use to him should he at any time be suddenly surprised. He was not one to neglect any precaution against danger. But accidents happen in the best regulated circles, and perils confront us in spite of prudence.
They were in Susman's dressing-room, commenting on its triangular shape, and the antiqueness of its furniture—the largest pieces of which stood across the corners—when the creaking of the front door was heard, and then the awful sound of footsteps echoed through the long hall. Pat executed a sharp pirouette, and, clutching Harold by the shoulder, stood in a bent posture, hearkening to the heavy, uncertain steps of the intruder.
"Howly Muther, we're done for!" he gasped, straightening up on a sudden. "The little blackguard's come back!"
Harold sprang quickly to the top of a chest of drawers, and dropped down in the narrow angle behind it. As he did so his back struck the wall, and a small secret door flew back.
Quick as thought he crawled through the aperture and reclosed it. He could discern nothing around him, as all was inky blackness, and a noxious odor as of long-confined air assailed his nostrils. He groped about the floor and discovered that he was within very narrow limits, from one side of which a small staircase led downwards. He sat still and silent at the top of this for many minutes, with all kinds of thoughts and speculations running riot through his brain. He heard Susman enter the room which he had vacated in such a remarkable manner.
"What are you doin', Gallagher?" Susman asked.
"Brushin' your trousers, sor," said Pat, who had snatched up a brush and the first thing that came to his hand in the form of a garment. "It's t'him that's got the dirt on 'em," continued Pat.
"Oh!" said Susman. "Why don't you leave that work till tomorrow? This is no time to be brushing clothes."
"Shure thin, Oi didn't know there was a special toime for the brushin' av 'em. But it's the good luck is wid it; what's done tonight will make the less to do to-morrow."
"Indeed!" said Mr. Susman. "Well, you'd better shut up the house, and do that job in daylight. You might be able to see then that there is only one leg to those trousers, and that it's a part of an old pair I've been using for patches. Strange you couldn't see that when you can see dust where there is none. Shut up the house, Gallagher, and go to bed. You're a fool!"
Casting a suspicious look at his henchman Susman shuffled off.
"Bad luck to ye!" muttered Pat, shaking a fist at the retreating figure.
When both had gone, Harold made bold enough to strike a light, and a strange picture was presented to his view. He stood in a very small room, from which a narrow flight of stairs descended to another small room at the bottom. The steps and floor were coated with dust; and from the railings, walls, and ceilings the cobwebs hung in dark masses; while a solitary bat, disturbed by the light, fluttered round and round.
It was an uncanny place, perhaps unknown even, to Magnus Susman, that had been hidden for generations past; and, looking down the frail structure connecting the two floors was like looking into some horrible, ghoulish crypt. His heart beat with hope and excitement, despite the ghostly aspect of the place, for it seemed that he had inadvertently discovered an unknown way into that region which he so much longed to explore; and visions of future splendor, all the gaudy luxuries that only wealth can reach, flittered before his eyes. But it was only momentary.
His first impulse was to return by the way he had entered, and leave further exploration to a more propitious night, lest a false step should betray him and ruin for ever his chances of victory; but after awhile he reflected that Pat Gallagher would return for him as soon as the way was clear. And so he determined to fill the interim with a cursory inspection of the walls below. In doing so he had a faint hope that he might come into the den where the lady was imprisoned, or wherein the chest and papers (if not destroyed) were hidden, by the same happy chance that had precipitated him into these dismal chambers. He struck another match, and, holding it out before him, proceeded at once to descend. The stairs were weak and shaky looking, in places, as if they needed but a touch to crumble away.
Anyone lacking the strong stimulus that prompted Harold in this venture would have foregone any degree of curiosity rather than risk his neck upon so uncertain a structure. The consciousness of this hazard became more apparent to him as he advanced from terra firma.
He was half-way down, treading slowly and carefully, when one of the steps suddenly gave way under him, and his body, dropping heavily on the lower steps, destroyed the light fulcrums; and with a great crash the whole structure fell to the bottom.
When Magnus Susman had left him, Richard Merton sat long at his desk, cudgelling his brains for a solution to the great problem on which his destiny seemed to hang. He was sorely troubled, and knew not in what way to turn. His had been a long and bitter struggle; and, do what he would, his prospects were ever growing worse. It seemed impossible that he could from this matured stage retrieve his lost fortunes and extricate himself from the meshes that immured him. He expected great things, it is true, from Grant Attwell, as the rich father of his ward. But how long would that be in coming? At the least, he could not rely upon receiving any assistance from that quarter prior to Edith's attaining her majority: whereas, to escape the iniquitous clutches of Magnus Susman, he required a fortune within a month. His pride rebelled against any thought of condescending to ask for the aid he needed. His Micawberish philosophy had hitherto kept him from despair; but now that the question was definitely fixed for decision, there was little use in speculating what the far-off future might bring him.
Being thus hemmed in, it was hard for him to cast aside the proposal of Magnus Susman; and the more he debated the question the more he grew in favor of it, till at last, when he presented the whole facts before his wife, he was inclined to advocate the devil's cause. He left her in a flood of tears, and himself in a towering rage. He was, as a rule, a good husband; and though he generally expressed himself with a rugged bluntness, he seldom allowed full scope to his temper when aroused, but lately adversity had made him irritable, and so when Mrs. Merton opposed the scheme as a monstrosity, he called her a fool and an idiot. The poor woman took it to heart; and when Edith came in a little later she found her crying. The girl dropped on her knees and took the old lady's hand tenderly in her own.
"What is the matter, auntie?" she asked kindly.
"Oh, Edie, how can I tell you?" Mrs. Merton cried, catching the girl by the shoulders, and looking strangely into the upturned face. "We are ruined, child, unless . . . . ."
"Unless what, auntie?"
"Unless you marry Susman!"
Edith looked at the elder lady with surprise and horror in her eyes.
"Oh, auntie, is it possible such a thing can be true?" she cried.
"Yes, child, too true. Susman is pressing your uncle. I always warned him against that man—but he never takes my advice," Mrs. Merton lamented.
"And is he so poor? I always thought he was very rich," said Edith.
"He is just the opposite, darling. Your uncle has been borrowing money from Susman for years, and owes him fifteen thousand pounds. It's a big sum, Edie, and—and Susman has given him only a month to pay it in."
"And if it is not paid?"
"He will turn us all out—take everything we have—unless . . . . ."
"Yes, yes; and what would you do then, auntie ?"
"God knows what would become of us, Edie; it would break my heart."
"To lose Tipparoo?"
"I couldn't bear to lose it—and yet I can't see how we are going to save it. I have lived here most of my life—and the old station is very dear to me. There is no other like it."
"Is there no way possible to save it—no other way?" asked Edith.
Mrs. Merton shook her head. "I fear not," she answered.
Edith remained silent for a minute or two. She was wise enough to know it was not her duty to sacrifice herself in this cause. Because they had reared her tenderly from the cradle to the brink of womanhood, it was monstrous to expect her to forego all pleasure and happiness for the rest of her life in return. Duty demanded no such enormity. They would be well repaid by her father for what they had done for her. Duty had no further claim than that, but love is stronger than any instinct of duty. Edith loved her foster-parents dearly, and there was little she would not do to alleviate their distress.
"Auntie," she said at last, as an idea occurred to her, "couldn't my father help uncle? A few thousands wouldn't make much difference to him. You have a claim upon him, and in appealing to him you would only be anticipating his own intentions—"
"I couldn't think of such a thing, Edith," said Mrs. Merton. "I would rather matters took their course than that. . . . . We've had one cheque from him, and that must suffice till he pleases to supplement it with another. You must never mention the subject to him."
Edith felt hurt and disappointed. She retired a moment later, and in her own room she knelt beside her bed and prayed for the deliverance of her guardians from their embarrassments. For some time she remained with her head bowed on the coverlet, revolving in her mind all kinds of plans and schemes and when she at last went to bed she had decided on a course of action.
It was still early when she sought Mr. Merton in his office next morning.
"I would like to speak to you for a few minutes, uncle, if you are not too busy," she said. One look at the serious young face and Mr. Merton guessed what she had come to speak about.
"Very well," he said; "sit down."
"I believe you are in difficulties, uncle," Edith began; "that you are in Susman's clutches—in fact, he's allowed you only a month to settle accounts—with—with the option of an alternative?"
Merton looked at her with a newly awakened curiosity.
"Yes," he answered, "if you consent to be his wife he will cancel the debt, and present me with a substantial sum into the bargain." He watched her closely, as if to note the effect of his words. The insinuation, amounting—it seemed to her—almost to a request, threw a damper on her heart."
"Do you approve of this offer, uncle?" she asked coldly.
Merton's gaze dropped beneath hers, and he replied somewhat evasively: "I approve of nothing which would not meet with your father's approval, Edith. I know Susman is no match for you, though he's very rich—"
"Am I not rich enough without marrying money?" Edith interrupted.
"You will be some day, certainly; but a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."
"I have all I require. Susman's wealth can never dazzle me. I am not a fortune-huntress. A girl should marry for love, not money."
"Love in a cottage?" said Merton, with a grim smile.
"Even that," said Edith, "would be better than hatred in a castle."
"Hatred is a rare thing in married people," Mr. Merton rejoined. "They might squabble at times, but harmony must in the long run eventuate, when they have the advantage of so many privileges not coincident with poverty."
"They are welcome to all such privileges. I am perfectly content with what I have."
"Humph!" said Mr. Merton, no little puzzled at this new development in his ward. "What is it you propose doing?" he ventured to inquire.
"Do you expect me to do anything?" Edith asked by way of reply.
"Of course I can't, Edith." Mr. Merton could not conceal his chagrin at the gentle rebuke. "I thought you had some idea when you came to discuss this matter."
"I have an idea, uncle," said Edith; "but I don't want to say what it is."
"Humph!" said Mr. Merton again. "I hope it's nothing desperate." Again the grim smile came to his lips as he looked at her.
"Will you leave me to act as I think right?" Edith continued.
"Without knowing your intentions I cannot. I am your guardian."
"You would sanction my marriage with Magnus Susman, yet you are afraid to trust me alone—"
"Edith, my girl, you don't know what you're talking about," Mr. Merton interposed. "Keep calm, my girl. Excitement is only a hindrance. I have not sanctioned anything that I'm aware of; and my objection to your doing anything without my knowledge is because I'm afraid you would get yourself into some scrape or other. Your father will hold me responsible for anything that may happen to you. Therefore, it behoves me to withhold my consent until I know something of your purpose."
"My purpose is to release you from your thraldom, and give you possession of the stipulated ten thousand pounds."
"By sacrificing yourself?"
"No; I can take care of myself. I have considered well before determining what course to pursue. You needn't be afraid any harm will come to me."
"I don't see how you're going to do it without marrying Susman, and I couldn't permit that. It's the only thing that could save me from ruin and give your aunt some comfort in her declining years. Poor woman, she's had enough to bear lately, God knows! For all that, I wouldn't see you tied to a man you couldn't be happy with, though he's a very good fellow, with many sterling qualities; and I know there's many a girl would envy you were you his wife. But, of course, that's not to be. I couldn't let you marry yet, even if he were the most eligible parti in the world. I've known girls to pledge themselves when quite young, and marry at their own discretion as soon as they arrived at the age that permitted them to choose for themselves. Of course, you're not thinking of doing anything like that. But—if you can accomplish what you say without getting yourself into any scrape, or appealing to your father in any way, you may go ahead."
"Of course, you understand, uncle," she said, "that I require to act without the slightest interference?"
"No one will interfere with you."
"And I don't want this subject mentioned again, either directly or indirectly."
"When anything is brought to pass," continued Edith, "you must ask no questions as to how it was accomplished."
"That's rather a strange request," said Mr. Merton doubtfully. "I hope you're not thinking of doing anything—wrong?"
"I've given you my assurance on that point."
"Very well," Mr. Merton acquiesced, "have your own way."
Harold had sustained no further injury than a few scratches in the collapse of the staircase at Wangooma. He picked himself out of the debris covered with dust and cobwebs, dreading that the crash had alarmed the household. He listened attentively, but hearing nothing, struck a match. He scanned the ruins in dismay, for they represented the destruction of his only means of escape. The walls were twelve feet high, with no protuberances to afford him footholds in scaling. How was he to get out? Perhaps Gallagher, in looking for him, would discover the hidden door and come to his rescue. With this reflection he sat down on the wreckage, and lit his pipe.
In the meantime Pat Gallagher had shut up the house, and returned to the dressing-room. He put his head over the chest of drawers and whispered: "Yez can come out av that now, Misther Harold. The owld spalpeen's gone below—the divil kape him there. Musha, can't yez hear me, yer omadhaun? It's safe to come out, Oi'm tellin' ye." He expected to see Harold's head pop up like a jack-in-the-box; but there was no response. Pat leaned over again and called to him in a louder key, without, of course, receiving any more satisfaction than at first.
"Is it jokin' ye think Oi am?" he whispered. "Is it a thraitor ye take me for—the Lord save us! Come out av that, ye omadhaun!" Still there was no sign of Harold. "Be gob, he must be afther fallin' aslape!" he soliloquised. "It's himself has the nerve av a brick to slape in this predicament. Avast now, till Oi git the loight an' take a squint at yez."
Chuckling to himself, Pat took up the candlestick and approached the silent corner. He held the light over the chest, and a sly twinkle was in his eye as he imagined the effect it would produce; but to his consternation he saw that there was no one behind it. He looked under it, in all the drawers, and searched the room thoroughly, but could find no trace of his young friend. He was considerably puzzled at this, and not without slight misgivings. What had become of him?
" 'Pon me sowl, that's a wondher av wondhers!" Pat ejaculated, scratching his head vigorously. "The varmint must've turned himself into a cockroach an' squazed into a crack, or shure Oi'd've spotted him a-gittin' away. Musha, but he's as slippery as a boggy swamp eel that wriggles away from yez whin ye've got a howlt ay him. He's gone home, to be' shure. Bad cess to him, he moight've left me his blessin', or summit av the sort. But bad luck to the word he'd say at all, but march off an' lave me a-lookin' for a mare's nest. Well, the top av the noight to yez anyway!"
Harold, receiving no indication of coming aid, knocked the tobacco ashes from his pipe, and rose to his feet. Fortunately he had a good supply of matches, and with the aid of these he examined his surroundings. He discovered a door at one side in which a rusty key was inserted. This, after much trouble, he turned, and opened the door. Holding the light before him, he walked cautiously forward, he had gone but a few paces when he staggered back in horror at the sight that met him. The room was a long, narrow one, its rough walls draped with trailing cobwebs. The only piece of furniture it contained was a low stretcher with canvas decking. Under this lay the skeleton of a man partially enveloped in the remnants of a tweed suit. It required but a glance to see that it had reposed on the stretcher, the canvas of which had rotted.
Recovering himself; Harold pulled the stretcher away to obtain a better view. Something bright showed among the moulded clothing, and a little ferreting revealed a silver watch and chain. Engraved on the front of the case were the initials "L.S." and on the inside was the following remarkable inscription, which apparently had been scratched on the plate with a penknife:—
"I am dying. My nephew Magnus shut me up to starve, because I willed my property to first female descendant of David Attwell, being assured Magnus shot my son Floyd. Will hidden back of hearth in diagonal room end of corridor. J. Brooker duplicate.
For twenty years, as well as he remembered, the general belief, had been that Lincoln Susman was drowned at flood-time in Bilbo Creek, Harold had shared in this belief since reading the scrap in the album his father had left him; but it was now conclusive that Magnus Susman had imprisoned and starved him to death, and that he also shot his cousin Floyd on Kangaroo Flat. Harold felt sure if he could find the will it would disclose an important secret. He did not know till a good while after that this secret was the basis of Pat Gallagher's "case." That worthy could have told him a lot if he wished, but for reasons of his own he kept it to himself.
Harold put the watch and chain in his pocket, and being unable to find any other means of exit left the room by the way he had entered. A further search revealed another door to the left. This was not locked, and admitted him to a long corridor. Bats hummed through the black space, and small lizards ran up the walls. The air was noisome, and spiders had woven a complete network from side to side.
Harold went slowly down until he came to the end of the corridor. There was no door visible, but it was evident the passage had secret communication with other apartments. The greatest caution was necessary in searching for an exit, as Susman might be on the other side of the partition, whence the least sound would arouse him. There was as much likelihood, when he did discover a door, that it would open into Susman's bedchamber as into any other. This, at least, would be awkward, but, for all that, it did not daunt him. He spent three hours in a studious examination of the walls, but without success.
It was now past midnight, and Harold was tired and sleepy. He returned to the ruins, and sat down with his back against them. He had given up all hope now of his colleague coming to his aid, and began to fear that the entry behind the cabinet was known only to himself. If so, he might remain there, a self-made prisoner, till he died of starvation, while no one would ever know what had become of him.
It seemed that he had been there but a few minutes, with his thoughts wandering from himself to the skeleton in the next room, when a sigh caused him to look round. He saw a tall, grey-bearded man in a brown, shadowy sort of robe standing beside him.
"Who are you?" cried Harold, springing up.
"Lincoln Susman!" his visitor replied.
"Why, I thought you were dead!" cried Harold. "What do you want?"
"Revenge!"' cried the old man, with a vehemence that shook his shadowy frame. "Hark!" he continued, with another deep sigh. "This place was mine. My brother Septimus, the father of Magnus, was my manager. I took charge a short time before he died. Then Magnus came to live with me and my son Floyd. He was a rascal. He hated my son Floyd because he was my heir. He shot him . . . that made him next-of-kin. But I willed all I owned to an unborn of the Attwells. When Magnus Belial discovered this, he shut me in this room, and left me to die. Now it has come for you to avenge my wrongs."
"To me!" cried Harold.
"Even so. Follow me!" said the old man. He moved silently down the long corridor, closely followed by Harold. A secret panel slid back in the left wall at the end, and they entered a diagonal room, which contained a spacious hearth, in whose dark recess there stood a massive cauldron. The old man pointed to this as he stood by the hearthstone, and said: "No fire ever burns here. Behind that cauldron, in a receptacle which you will find in the wall, is my last will." Then he went to the corner where a small cedar chest stood on the floor. "That is Grant Attwell's; take it up." he commanded. Harold did so, and held it in his arms. "Follow me!" continued the aged one. He passed into a big hall, a little way down which he halted before a half-opened door, which Harold discovered opened into Magnus Susman's bedroom. A key was in the lock, and a dozen others hung suspended to the ring to which it was attached. The old man pointed to them and said, "Take them!" Harold did so, and was then conducted to the side of a double bed where Lincoln Susman's nephew lay on his back asleep. Harold could see him plainly, and all that the room contained. Lincoln, pointing to the unconscious Susman, said: "Kill him!"
"What am I to kill him with?" asked Harold.
"With that box," said Lincoln. "He stole it; so let it be the instrument of death."
Harold raised it to a level with his head.
"Higher!" cried Lincoln. "Bend back, and let your aim be sure!''
Harold stood over the recumbent man, and, bending back as he was bidden, raised the box at arm's-length—then his fingers slipped, and with a loud thud it dropped on the floor behind him. The noise startled him, and he seemed to wake from a horrible nightmare. The room was enveloped in darkness, and he heard a sound as of someone rising in bed, but could see nothing. All was still again in a moment, and Harold stood marvelling and trembling. Was it only a dream? and was he still by the ruins? He groped about, and presently he found the box he had dropped. Its substantiality, coupled with the bunch of keys in his pocket, partly convinced him that he had held converse with a spirit while in the state of a somnambulist. He brushed the cold beads of perspiration from his brow, and was beginning to collect his scattered wits about him, when Susman's well-known voice demanded from the bed! "Who's there? Speak, or I'll shoot!"
A cold tremor shot through Harold. He stared breathlessly into the darkness where he had seen Susman sleeping a moment before. He thought of rushing out of the front door and locking it—of throwing himself on the man on the bed, and binding him hand and foot—but there sounded the sharp click of a hammer! It was now too late to take the offensive, and stratagem alone could save him. Quickly and noiselessly he retreated to one side. As he did so there was a vivid flash, followed by a loud report, and the thud of a bullet against the wall; and immediately after the scamper of a cat from under the bed.
"Blast the cat! I thought it was a man in the room," growled Susman, thrusting the revolver under his pillow, and covering himself up again.
Harold remained quietly standing until certain stertorous sounds emanating from the vicinity of the bed betokened that he might depart in safety. He took up the box and went out, closing the door after him. He continued down the hall until he kicked against something and nearly dropped the box again. On striking, a light he was overjoyed to see a flight of stairs ascending to the top.
Taking up his burden, he ascended as quickly as possible, and let himself out into the upper hall with the aid of one of the keys he carried. Gallagher had fortunately left the key in the back door, and in less than a minute Harold had left the house and was hurrying away under the lowering fog-clouds.
When he reached his horse he sat down and examined the box. He found a key to fit it among the assortment he possessed, and the opening of it verified all that Grant Attwell had told him. It contained a mass of raw gold, on the top of which were several papers, all bearing the name of David Attwell. This was the chest, then, that had been stolen from Dead Man's Well; and Harold understood why it had been stolen, and why Magnus Susman had so earnestly striven to get all the Attwell papers. He did not doubt now that he had learned by supernatural means the truth of the past, and that Edith, the first female descendant of the Attwells, was the owner of Wangooma Castle. But, before he reached Tipparoo, doubts again began to creep up in his mind. He was not superstitious, and on serious reflection he thought it impossible that he could have received any communication from the other world. That was merely a dream, acting in coincidence with his somnambulistic feats. He had walked before in his sleep, both at Tipparoo and in Grafton, and had performed things which he would have deemed beyond his ability in his waking moments; and it was no marvel to him to wake up in a strange place. The one thing that puzzled him was his cognisance of what he had said and done in his sleep; for somnambulists, as a rule, though performing the most wonderful and perilous feats, mixing in company, and conversing intelligently and with all the appearance of unsophisticated wakefulness, know nothing whatever of this period of their existence on waking.
Harold had never remembered anything after his previous experiences, and this again inclined him to the belief that something more than a mere dream had come to him in conjunction with his somnambulism. So in this vacillating state of mind he rode home, yet feeling somewhat of a hero after such a night's adventure.
Harold was rather mortified on the following afternoon when Merton instructed him to start next morning with a mob of fats for Byron Bay. Of course, one expects this kind of interruption on a station; but Harold thought it hard that it should come just then.
He managed, during Susman's absence, to send a note to Pat Gallagher, requesting him to defer matters until his return. He also wrote a letter to Grant Attwell, telling him of his wonderful adventures, of the recovery of his grandfather's papers, and of his confidence of meeting with further success. "I have all the keys," he wrote, "and on my return will thoroughly search the place. . . From what I can make out from the papers, an ancestor of yours was godfather of a kinswoman of Susman, whom he financed in some venture that set the family firmly on the way to fortune; and in consideration of this Lincoln Susman promised an endowment to the first female descendant of the Attwells. His will, I daresay, will make this more clear, though probably you are aware of the ties that bound your ancestors to those of Magnus Susman. . . ."
Harold was on his way to Minara before the stars were off the sky in the morning, and Edith felt lonely when he had gone. But Susman was pleased. It was dangerous to have a young man of Harold's calibre knocking about just now. Mr. Susman, indeed, would have liked to have seen all the young men in the neighborhood seized with a pestilence that would sweep them out of existence. He could not tolerate the presence of a possible rival. Edith saw him every day, and, after parrying him for a week, she resolved to have an understanding with him. So on the evening she expected Harold's return she consented to walk with him. This caused Richard Merton and his wife no little surprise, and they watched the ill-mated pair with many speculations as to what Edith's intentions were.
They walked slowly across the hill where she had so often rambled with Harold in the long ago, and since.
"This is a nice spot," said Susman, as they approached the Bilbo willows. "Shall we rest awhile, Miss Attwell?" .
"As you like," said Edith, sinking on the soft grass with a sigh of resignation. Susman threw himself down beside her, feeling that his victory was all but won; and he took off his hat to cool his heated pate. At this, however, Edith, who had made up her mind to be as candid and sarcastic as possible, raised objections: "Please don't remove your hat, Mr. Susman; I have the greatest repugnance for bald heads."
No one but herself knew what it cost her to speak thus, and her cheeks were instantly suffused with burning blushes; still, she determined that, cost what it might, she would cut him yet more in his most vulnerable parts. The interview need not be necessarily long—it would only require a little courage to make him more chary in the future; and when the ordeal was over they would understand each other.
Mr. Susman became painfully embarrassed, and very awkwardly obeyed the mandate. It was some time before he mustered courage to address her again, and she took care to make matters as difficult for him as she could.
"I have a great deal to say to you this evening, Miss Attwell," he began, fidgeting with the offending hat, which felt as if it were not on right wherever he put it.
"Indeed!" said Edith. "That will be quite a change. Generally you have so little to say."
"A man who doesn't travel or mix in society has little opportunity of developing conversational powers," Mr. Susman returned.
"Some people have none to develop," said Edith. "I can find 'tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.' "
"Then you have an advantage over me. Miss Attwell; but, of course, you know, I'm not like the some people you mention. I am not a numskull, nor tongue-tied if it please me to give it play."
"You are difficult to please, I take it?"
"That depends, Miss Attwell. With you I am always pleased. I seem to gather inspiration from your eyes. . . . and your smile . . . and I wish to say all sorts of beautiful things to you. . . . My bosom heaves, Miss Attwell, it heaves with that wish—that inspiration—and I am overwhelmed "
"And conclude by making a fool of yourself," Edith interrupted.
"Ah! My feelings are so impetuous, Miss Attwell—I am so emotional—I mean—but perhaps I am tiring you?"
"I am glad you know it," Edith answered.
"Hem!" said Mr. Susman, repressed at once. "'Of course, you know," he continued, "what I've said is not what I'm going to say—that is—I mean—I haven't mentioned the subject yet; but the fact of the matter is, Miss Attwell. I really don't know where to begin—"
"Most people begin at the beginning," Miss Attwell suggested.
"Ah, just so! Well, er—the beginning has to do with money matters—"
"That Mr. Merton owes you fifteen thousand pounds, et cetera. Am I to have all that droned into my ears again?"
"Ah! They have mentioned it to you?" cried Mr. Susman joyfully, for such was an intimation that Mr. Merton had made the requisite concession.
"Yes, they have mentioned it to me," Edith replied sententiously.
"I am glad to hear that, Miss Attwell—I mean—I'm glad to be able to spare you the weariness of a repetition. They told you, of course, of my offer—"
'"They told me all I want to know about it," Edith broke in.
"Then I may go on with—with the more important subject—"
"Oh, certainly! . . . I must soon be going back, Mr. Susman."
"You are very impatient, Miss Attwell," Mr. Susman reproved. Edith sighed, and changed her position so that she looked up the track by which Harold would come. Susman noted the movement and derived from it a sort of vindictive courage. "Wangooma is a fine place, Miss Attwell," he said, "a beautiful place—only it's so lonely. It requires a presiding angel—the influence of a good woman—to make it cheerful. In short, Miss Attwell, I have decided to marry!"
"Indeed"' said Edith. "Has the requisite other half formed a similar decision? It requires two to decide a question of marriage."
"We are two, Miss Attwell; let us decide it. You see, it's quite necessary for me to marry. I might have married years ago—"
"If the lady had consented," Edith added.
"Ah! You have heard of that little freak. Miss Attwell? It's really remarkable when you come to think of it. But I was only a boy then—or little more. It was nothing; but, somehow, I've never cared to marry since, though I've had plenty of good chances. It seemed to have made me a misogamist, and nearly a misogynist as well; but lately, Miss Attwell, a great change has come over me—I am altered in every way—"
"Except for the better in looks," Miss Attwell broke in. The discomfited wooer bit his lip, but consoled himself with the reflection that revenge would come, when the tantalising Miss Attwell had become Mrs. Susman.
"Beauty is only skin deep," he said aloud, "and the wisest men may be foolish at times, for when a man loves, his passion generally makes a fool of him."
"The passion must be exceptionally strong in you, Mr. Susman; indeed, I am inclined to think that you have loved from a very early age."'
"That is not so," Mr. Susman rejoined. "The fire of love has been consuming me, Miss Attwell, only since you returned—since you burst upon my enchanted gaze like a vision of loveliness from Fairyland. I have loved you ever since—I will die loving you, Miss Attwell!"
"Thank you very much!"
"Of course, you know what I mean—I—that is—will—er—will you be my wife?"
"Under what impression do you ask me that question?" asked Edith, now turning her eyes full upon him.
"In the first place I may say that I am not prompted by any feeling of vanity or self conceit; I am conscious of my own defects. I know I am not an Adonis. But I can give you a home fit for a queen, and all that wealth can buy, coupled with a love that knows no bounds. Your marriage with me will free your guardians from debt and trouble, and at the same time make them the recipients of a handsome fortune. That is why I ask you to marry me, Miss Attwell."
"In plain English," Miss Attwell responded, "you are buying me for the sum of twenty five thousand pounds. I ought, indeed, to consider myself highly flattered. I don't think there are many girls who could command such a price in the matrimonial market."
"Miss Attwell, this is not a jesting matter," Mr. Susman protested.
"No; it's more of a business transaction. It reminds me of the ways of the heathen Chinee. The introduction of a friend in China is usually given in these words: 'This is my friend; if he steals anything I will be responsible; and another of their customs is the purchasing of wives for so many pounds. Well, John, I have neither Mr. Merton's nor my father's consent to marry you; and as I can't marry without until I'm twenty-one, and my guardians are meanwhile in need of assistance, I must ask you to pay the purchase money two years in advance."
"That's a hard bargain, Miss Attwell. I think it's time enough to pay when you are my wife."
"Indeed!" said Edith, with petrifying scorn. "You ask me to be your wife, and yet, as a lover, you can't take my word as a bond, and you—who have the wealth of Croesus pause to consider the paltry significance of a few thousands. That doesn't augur well for the future, Mr. Susman. Have you given a thought as to what my stake is—hope, life, and liberty?"
"I am not considering the amount of the money," said Susman. "But so many things may happen in two years. You or I may be dead and buried long before then. I can't pay a fortune for nothing! . . . Two years is too long to wait. You can marry me if you like; for instance, we—er—we could elope."
"Oh, wattle blossoms!" Edith exclaimed, with a ringing laugh that sounded very real. "Elope! Elope with you!—with you, Mr. Susman! Oh, dear, what next!"
"I see nothing shocking in that, Miss Attwell," protested the mortified Susman. "Elopements are not original things, I can assure you. They are very ancient."
"There would be something 'very ancient' about ours. When I elope, Mr. Susman, it will be with the man I very dearly love—the man I love with the purest love from heaven."
"I—I was not aware that your heart was given to another."
"I was not aware that I said so."
"Then I—I may hope—that—that you will love me?"
"Love you!" cried Edith mockingly. "I won't leave you in any doubts on that point. I am not courting you, Mr. Susman. I hold you in abhorrence; I look upon you as a cad; I shiver at the sound of your voice; I shudder at the glance of your eye; your words are pollution, your breath is poison; and were I married to you fifty times over, the only feeling I could ever know for you would be . . . hatred!" Her eyes flashed as she spoke, and her cheeks were aflame.
"Indeed, Miss Attwell, you are extraordinarily candid, if nothing else," said Mr. Susman, his face blanching at the coincidence in the opinions of mother and daughter. "I—I always considered you a lady!"
"You can consider what you like," said Edith, now fairly on her mettle, and wholly careless of what she said. "I would never have dared to speak before a gentleman as I have spoken to you. No gentleman would have advanced his neighbor money for the purpose of holding a claim over his daughter or his ward. That is what you have done, and if you don't want people to know what a mean coward you are, I'd advise you to be a little more chary. As to the main point at issue, I have given you my terms in plain bush language; you can accept them or reject them, but do not argue with me. I can't endure an argument on such a subject, Mr. Susman. It's intolerable."
"I wonder, that you consent to be my wife at all with such an opinion of me as you express," said Mr. Susman, with an expression of face that was almost pitiable.
"So far as I have consented, my consent is given ex necessitate rei."
Mr. Susman meditated a moment or two; then he sat bolt upright, and brought his fist down with a bang on his thigh. "I accept—I'll accept your terms!" he cried, fumbling in his vest pocket.
"Very well!" said Edith quietly.
"You will wear this in token of our engagement?" he continued, producing a plain gold ring, and endeavoring to take her hand. But Edith drew it away. "When the money is paid I will wear it, not before," she replied.
"Then it shall be paid first thing in the morning!" Mr. Susman asserted.
"Very well," said Edith. "And when you are about it, keep your own counsel; I don't want my guardians to know what has passed between us."
"My sentiments exactly!" cried Mr. Susman flamboyantly. "It's the best policy to keep our secrets to ourselves. If we impart them to a friend," He went on, "we show that we are unable to keep mum, and we can't blame that friend for telling what we could not keep ourselves. Very good. I see you are a sensible girl with all your waywardness, Miss Att—Edith—I may call you Edith?"
"You may not. To you I am Miss Attwell. I permit only those I love to call me Edith."
"No doubt you will extend that permission to me when you are my wife," said Mr. Susman, with a rueful countenance.
"When I am. At present I am under responsible government, and I will permit no liberties, nor sanction anything, before my years accord me the privilege of governing myself. Then"—sotto voce—"caveat emptor!"
"Will you permit me to kiss you—just once?" Mr. Susman solicited, failing to see the hidden meaning in Edith's words.
"No," said Edith; "you may look on my face, but never kiss it."
"Indeed, Miss Attwell, I think you are really too severe in your restrictions. Other people always seal their engagement with a kiss."
"We are not like other people. With them the bond is love, two hearts beat as one, and two minds have similar thoughts; with us the bond is an adverse mixture, and all else is vice versa. Therefore a kiss from you would be an insult."
"If it were not that I loved you too well to live unmarried, I would be inclined, Miss Attwell, to resent this conduct, and quash such an engagement. As it is—well, I'll indulge your caprices, and submit to your veto, as I am satisfied you will take a more sensible view of the matter later on."
"You can please yourself," said Edith. She stood up and brushed the creases out of her dress with well-feigned indifference. "As I said before," she continued, "I am not courting you. And now I am going home."
"Why, bless me—Miss Attwell," cried Susman, leaping up as Edith walked proudly away, "I—I'm not going to stop here! Jehoshaphat!" he muttered, trotting after her, "this is a strange wooing! But my time will come, Edith Attwell, my time will come!"
When Harold returned he found Edith in apparently good spirits. She had had her "say," she had spoken her mind, and got her little scheme into working order. Merton had shown her the receipt and cheque Susman had given him; but he had asked no questions, however much he thirsted for information, and she had volunteered none. She had changed positions with the bondsman, for he, having surrendered the only claim he held in the eyes of the law, was now in her power. But it was not her intention to abuse that power. She might scoff at and mock him, but she would be true to her word.
For a time she avoided a tete-a-tete with Harold; but one evening, when she thought he had gone out, he surprised her in the library, sitting by the window where he had kissed her not very long before.
"Well, old girl, what has come over you lately?" he said cheerily. He sat down beside her, and planted his hand playfully on her shoulder. "Have I been so unfortunate as to offend you in any way? If I have, I can't tell you how sorry I am."
"No, Harold, you have always been good to me," Edith replied, looking down at the carpet.
"Then why do you keep out of my way?" Harold continued.
"I have not endeavored to do so. I wanted to be alone; I've received bad news from Sydney."
"Not from your father?"
"No, from Marian Bainbridge. We'll never see her again."
"Why not?" asked Harold rather absently. He did not know Marian as Edith did, and was already beginning to forget her.
"She's gone into a convent," Edith answered.
"That's a strange thing for Marian to do, is it not?"
"Well, no; not when you consider all that's happened. She was awfully in love with my father. She was very foolish, I think, because she ought to have known what the end would be. Father never concealed from her his hopes of a reunion with my mother. Then he told her he'd got a letter telling him that mother was alive and would probably soon be with him again. Marian was ill for several days, and then she entered the convent. She would always have her own way; that was Marian's besetting sin."
Harold was silent. This seemed a lame excuse withal for the coldness and indifference she had shown him of late.
"Mrs. Bainbridge has gone to Yaranta," Edith continued. "You know Charlie is managing the station for my father. He married Mrs. Hibbit, Jed Roff's sister—that was another unhappy thrust for poor Marian—and Jed's been sent to Narrabri. There's to be another marriage next month."
"Yours, perhaps," said Harold, as Edith paused.
"No, indeed. I have no idea of getting married," Edith replied, lowering her eyes.
There was another pause, during which Edith put away her letter. "I meant Miss Moncton; she's to be married to a young barrister," she finally resumed. She wished to speak of these engagements; but it was manifest that Harold had no interest in these things. He was looking out through the window, and she glanced up at him with a listless sort of curiosity. Presently be turned to her, and took her hand with an impulsiveness that startled her.
"I think it's time, Edith, that you and I should understand each other," he began. "Once you were my constant companion, and the first to meet me on my home-comings. We were brought up together like brother and sister, and played together since we could lisp a mother's name. Do you forget those childish games, Edie? How we used to play at lovers? and little man and wife?"
"Why do you mention those childish foibles now? We can't be children always. Life is a drama; those little follies have passed with childhood, and to-day we have graver parts to play."
"That is right enough; but still, for all that, I would not forget those little follies if I could. I loved you then, Edie; I love you now. You loved me, too—I know you did; and you must love me still."
She dared not let her eyes meet his. Her cheeks were ashy white, and she felt it hard to tell him that they could be no more to each other than they had always been. Harold waited patiently for a moment, thrilled by the faint touch as—
"Her long brown hair lay floating o'er his arms,
In all the wildness of dishevelled charms."
Then he spoke again:—
"Have you no word for me, Edie? Have you forgotten the lover of your childhood? Have I become indifferent to you? Edith, let me see those eyes—bright and glad as I used to see them—and hear you say you love me still."
But Edith did not look up; and she took her hand away.
"I wish I could make you happy, Harold—but I cannot," she answered in a low voice, "I am sorry that you have spoken. I have always loved you as a brother, and you cannot be anything more to me."
"Why not? You can't mean it—you surely cannot mean it!" cried Harold, and a chill like a blast from an iceberg shot through him. He had been so certain of her love.
"Yes, yes," said Edith, almost inaudibly. "I am sorry, Harold—I cannot help it—I am not free as you suppose " She bit her lips with vexation the moment she had spoken; she had not meant to tell him that.
A terrible thought flashed through Harold's mind. She, the girl he loved, was engaged to another man, and could no longer be to him even what she had been in the past—a sister. He rose from the seat and stood before her, and his face was white.
"I suppose," he said, and he spoke now with a coldness that wounded and chilled her,
"I suppose I have no right to question you further. I loved you, God knows, as honestly as any man could love a girl, and asked you to be my wife in all sincerity; but as your affections have been given to another—of course, that ends the matter. I thought you loved me. . . . However, it can't be helped. But may I ask, as your quondam confidant, to whom are you engaged?"
"Hush! Someone is coming!" she whispered, hoarsely. "It's auntie—she is coming here—leave me. We had better not be seen together!"
Those were the cruellest words she had spoken, or so it appeared to him; and when they had parted he seemed to have left all that was good in life behind him. What had he to live for, he asked himself, when no one had an interest in his welfare? When one strives for the attainment of some end it is not for the mere accomplishment of it that he exerts himself; he has always in his mind some face that stands out like a beacon star above all its compeers, and upon which he can ever depict the shadowings of sympathy varying with his every movement. It is that which sweetens success, and without it the greatest triumph falls into insignificance.
The sweet, winsome face of Edith had never been absent from the mental eye of Harold, ever urging him on to greater things, and guiding him with its angelic influence up the rugged hill of Laurel. Even now he might reach the top and make his nest there, but what pleasure could it give him when the little bird he had long caressed and fondled would not share it with him? Triumph is a poor comfort when there is no loved one to share it. He felt that his life was a blank.
He had only one thing to do now, and then he would be a lonely, friendless orphan, a wandering exile, without home or object; for he felt it impossible to remain on Tipparoo with Edith while she received the attentions and caresses of another man.
Harold had no heart for the continuation of his work with Gallagher for a time after his parting from Edith. He saw her daily with Susman, walking with him, playing to him, and the old deformed pigmy receiving every consideration and encouragement from Merton. This was, indeed, a bitter potion. He had at first been inclined to ascribe her moodiness to sympathy with the Bainbridges; but a latent investigation of the affairs at the homestead, with a little information injudiciously imparted in a burst of confidence by the head thereof, revealed that she was indirectly the victim of an imbroglio. This incensed Harold, and would probably have driven him into a fierce contention with the parties concerned in the collusion had not a casual incident completely turned the scales against them.
Coming in early from the run, and having nothing particular to do to while away the evening, Harold took up his rod and line and went down to the creek. It was not that he hoped to derive any pleasure from the pursuit, but he wanted to have a "good think." He lit his pipe, and threw himself down under a willow-tree where he and Edith had gathered maidenhair ferns and bluebells in happier times. And over this he was brooding, unmindful of the fish that was tugging at his line, nor was his attention drawn to it till his rod was partly in the water; then he caught it up, and, after a severe tussle, landed a fine, big perch. But as it went floundering up the bank, his foot slipped, and he fell sprawling among the moss and ferns. An imprecation was on his lips, when there rang in his ears the silvery ripple of maidenly laughter. It came from Edith, and it was the first time he had heard her laugh for many a day. She was standing just above, looking down in amusement at his discomfiture. But she was cold and stiff again in a moment, and appeared, if anything, the more embarrassed of the twain.
"I beg your pardon," she said. "I didn't know you were here."
"I have only just come," said Harold, hardly knowing how to respond. "It's as good a way as any to put in an evening when you're not wanted . . . elsewhere."
"How many have you caught?" asked Edith, unheeding the innuendo.
"This is the first," said Harold, as he took it off the hook. He threw his line out again, and almost instantly landed his second fish. A third time he cast out, and a third time drew up with a huge perch dangling at the end of the line. So he continued till he had bagged half-a-dozen in as many minutes, and all the while Edith stood watching him from the top of the bank.
"They are biting well this evening," she remarked.
"Yes, it's not often they bite so well," said Harold. "The creek's very low, and there's not much food for them. Would you like to try your hand? This is a nice, light rod, and you can fish while I'm hunting for more grasshoppers. I only brought three or four with me."
Edith hesitated. She could have wished for nothing better, but she dreaded the consequence of a tete-a-tete with him, now that a barrier was raised between them. It was one of those calm, beautiful autumn evenings, when the lowing of cattle sounds mournful, yet sweet and distant; when the aspect everywhere bespeaks the approach of winter, and conduces the mind to wander dreamily back to the long ago. The mellow hues of the setting sun glinted on the sere leaves, and trailed in long vistas across the russet hills, and here and there a last ray streamed through the interstices of the forest top, and fell aslant on the limpid stream.
She looked again at Harold, the man who, from long association, had become almost part of her life. She had tabooed herself the happiness that he alone could give her; and it was hard to further deny herself the pleasure of a few moments here alone with him and nature. It was comforting to be near him and to talk with him. Three or four years had passed since she had last stood here and watched him fishing; and this lovely autumn evening called back memories of those days when she was fancy free. The times they had rambled together here were legion, and the record of their lives seemed marked on the banks of Bilbo Creek. On the point below them Harold had caught his first fish when a boy; by those tall rushes be had made his biggest haul; here they had quarrelled and "kissed again in tears"; there in the green arbor they had played Cupid and Psyche; and beyond, where the arching willow limbs touched the water, she had left Harold minding her abductor's lines. Then they had no cares, no anxieties, and talked blithely all day without fears of what would be said next.
She longed to accept the invitation, but feared he would renew the conversation that Mrs. Merton had so opportunely interrupted. And while she hesitated, Harold rebaited the hook, and shortened the line so that she could handle it well. Could she trust him? Yes, she would trust him. She went down the bank with an affected insouciance, and stood beside him.
"There," said Harold, looking his gratitude for this deference as he handed her the rod. "Throw well out into the stream, or you'll get fast in the weeds. You used to be a good hand at this one time, and anything that is well learned is never forgotten."
"I don't think I was well learned," said Edith laughing, as the hook caught on a branch above her head.
"You're out of practice," Harold rejoined. He sprang nimbly up the tree and released the hook. "Now, let me show you," he continued, coming to her side. "Throw out like this—so!"
"It looks very easy, but, then, you are used to it," said Edith, taking the rod.
"Well." said Harold modestly, "this is a thing that's very easily learnt. I only wish that everything else was as easy to understand." With this palpable hint he went away to hunt for bait, and the girl's eyes followed him involuntarily till he disappeared round a bend of the creek.
He was gone but a few minutes, for he was impatient to be back with her now that the ice was broken and he was on a fair way to come to an understanding; but when he again approached the bend the sound of voices below attracted his attention. Peering round some bushes, he observed that Magnus Susman had joined Edith. The old villain was zealously instructing her in the art of angling, at which he was by no means an adept himself.
For a moment Harold was deeply angered, and his eyes flashed ominously as he noted the assiduous attentions and les doux yeux of this interloper. He muttered a malediction on him, and threw away the bait he had crushed in his clenched hand. He did not require it now, for the sight of his ungainly rival supererogating there destroyed his penchant for further sport. He had a mind to remain in concealment, thinking that a little espionage here would put him in possession of some important facts pertaining to the intrigue that was going on; but presently his anger was dispersed by feelings of merriment, and he was walking boldly towards the pair, laughing heartily as he came.
The unhappy Susman had hooked the tail of his loose jacket, and jerked it nearly over his head; while his hat, being whisked off, went floating along with the current.
"No mistake, Susman, you're a fine one to be giving lessons!" cried Harold, with malicious enjoyment! "I think the shoe would fit better on the other foot."
"It's those confounded limbs overhead that struck the rod," said Susman peevishly.
"Or was it the rod that struck the limb?" asked Harold, laughing. "If you don't mind, Susman," he added, en badinant, "you'll catch cold; you have nothing on your head."
"Maybe there's something in it, maybe there's common sense in it," retorted the irate busman, giving the line a vicious tug that split his coat half way up the back. This added to Harold's merriment, and he abandoned himself to the most incontinent laughter; and the more he laughed the more enraged became the unfortunate Susman. He tugged and pulled, twisted and spluttered, but all in vain. He was well hooked.
Unable to stand the jeering of this "shameless boy" any longer, he caught hold of the tenacious coat-tail, and with a savage jerk tore it off the hook. But, alas! he had wriggled on to the edge of the bank, and, overbalancing, slipped into the water. Harold's mirth was now outrageous; he shrieked and roared; he bent double and twisted about in all the spasmodic contortions of hysterical laughter; the wood resounded with his loud guffaws; his face was aglow with animation, and his eyes filled with tears.
"Better go after the hat now, Susman, while you're wet;" he cried. "See, it's nearly to the bridge. You won't catch it if you don't hurry." This was said with pleasant raillery, but Susman's little grey eyes fairly blazed, and his face was white with anger; and, observing these signs of animosity, Edith looked askance at him, holding her handkerchief to her mouth, and tacitly endeavored to enjoin Harold to cease his banter.
"It ill becomes you, sir, to make fun of a man's misfortunes," said the fiery-eyed, bald-headed man, striding away with that execrable swish-swosh of waterlogged boots.
"Qui docet discit," said Harold tauntingly; "and I hope you have learnt how ludicrous it is to attempt to play the gallant at your age. It's pure sottise, Susman."
The disconsolate and crestfallen Susman was too furious to respond, and went straight on to where his horse was tethered to a tree. Edith had all the while covertly rejoiced at his misfortunes; for his obtruding there had given her much displeasure, and it seemed that what had befallen him was a befitting retribution. They saw him recover his hat at the bridge, and a moment later he was galloping away in high dudgeon, his arms flying wildly in the transports of his passion, and his heels thumping incessantly against the sides of the astonished chestnut. Thus madly he dashed on to the castle.
"What brought that fellow down here, Edith?" asked Harold. He was now serious, though some twinkling of merriment still lurked in his eyes. Edith turned to pick up the rod, but Harold saw the carmine that rose quickly to her cheeks.
"He was coming home from Long Jim's hut in the mountain, and Betsy told him I had gone walking along the creek."
"And he came down looking for you?"
They were walking home by this time, Harold bearing his fish with him, Edith carrying the light rod on her shoulder, and her hat in her hand. Her hair was floating in the wind, and her beauty looked soft and pathetic in the dimness of dusk. Harold studied the peerless profile for some seconds before he again spoke.
"Why should Susman go looking for you, Edith?" he inquired.
"To give me a lesson in angling, perhaps," she answered, with a little rippling laugh.
"I wish he had tumbled in head first," said Harold vindictively. "He didn't get half a ducking. What right had he to intrude?"
"You were very ungracious. Harold," laughed Edith. "He will never forgive you. I hope there'll be no further unpleasantness?"
"There may be a good deal for Susman, though not on this account," Harold answered. "You don't know him yet."
They were nearing the house, and there was no time to discuss the subject further; so Harold bent near and whispered: "Will you meet me the library at nine to-night?"
She cast a quick, wondering glance at him, but lowered her eyes almost immediately.
"At nine to-night?" she repeated.
"Yes; I have to go across to Jesse Crowle's after tea, and it will be two hours at least before I am back."
"What is it you want, Harold?"
"I have something important to show you. Will you be there at nine?"
"Why to-night?" Edith objected. "Can you not see me in the morning?"
"I have reasons for not leaving it till morning," said Harold impatiently. "You can trust me, Edith—it is important."
"Very well" she answered, after a moment's hesitation.
"You'll meet me at nine?"
It was a still, moonlight night, and Edith was sitting at the library window looking out into the garden. The clock had struck nine and Harold had not returned. She wondered what he could have to do with Jesse Crowle, and why he must go there before he could see her. "Perhaps," she meditated, "he has gone to meet Gallagher at Minara. He is a friend of Jesse Crowle's, and is often there. A quarter past—what can be keeping him? That sounded like the gate latch. Yes, here he comes!" She drew the window blinds down, and went to the door. Harold entered the next minute with some papers in his hands.
"What a time you have been!" she remarked.
"I thought I was punctual," Harold replied, "Is it much after nine?"
"Oh, it's early yet; you are not sleepy?"
"No," said Edith, "but il ennui a qui attend."
"It was not always so, ma chere," Harold retorted. She was sticking a pin in the front of her dress, and her face was from the light; but still be saw the heightened color that came into her cheeks. It occurred to her now that she had been indiscreet in acceding to his request, for his eyes were resolute yet amorous in expression. He moved nearer to her.
"May we not be friends, Edith?" he asked, imprisoning her hands before she could draw them away.
"Yes, Harold," she answered in a low voice, "I will be your best friend if you will let me."
"No more than a friend? Edith, I have told you how much I love you; won't you be my wife?" She tried to withdraw her hand.
"Harold, this is not fair," she said reproachfully. "I gave you my answer the other day. It's unfair to ask me again. I cannot be your wife. Let us be friends, and, believe me, I am not unmindful of the compliment you have paid me. I am really sorry for you; someday you will know my secret."
"Your secret, Edie!" said Harold, his face clouding. "I know it now; you are engaged to that infernal scoundrel, Magnus Susman!"
"How do you know that?" asked Edith quickly."
"I am not blind. I have noticed his frequent visits here, and his attentions to you; also the ring that you wear only in his presence; and I have noticed your unhappiness. . . . What did Magnus Susman pay Merton the equivalent of twenty-five thousand pounds for?"
"Surely he did not tell you that?" cried Edith, surprised and hurt.
"He is deceiving you, Edith," Harold went on. "I wish you had seen the last of him long ago. Why didn't you trust me as you always did? I could have saved you, and put an end to Susman's claim in a trice."
Edith did not answer, She sat with bowed head, her hands clasped on her lap. The mask was pierced, and her eyes began to moisten.
"Look here, Edith," Harold continued,"the money that Susman gave him was not his, but yours! Susman owns nothing. He's a murderous usurper. All that property—all Wangooma, Edith, is yours!"
"Mine?" cried Edith, staring at him with incredulous eyes.
"Yours!" Harold repeated. "It might seem impossible to you, Edith; but it's true, nevertheless. Come to the light and read this; it's Lincoln Susman's last will; and then we shall begin to understand one another better."
He opened out a soiled sheet of parchment and gave it to Edith, and then commenced pacing the floor; while Edith bending towards the light, read the document slowly through. The tenor of it was, indeed, important to herself, for in it the testator bequeathed all his property, landed or otherwise, to the first female descendant of David Attwell; and there was a codicil, written by James Brooker which certified that the heiress was at the time unborn, and thus must come in a direct line from Grant, the only descendant of David Attwell.
Edith read this over a second time before she could believe her eyes, and was even then inclined to question its validity. That such an extensive property, and under such circumstances, should come so suddenly into her possessions was too marvellous to comprehend all in a moment. She could not realise that the tyrant who had threatened to turn Richard Merton out of Tipparoo was but the usurper of her property. She trembled with excitement as she refolded the document, and turned away from the lamp: Harold came to her side.
"Can this will be proved?" she asked, as she handed it back to him.
"Certainly," said Harold. "You've often heard of Jim Brooker? He used to live where old Jesse Crowle is now—at the back of Minara. He was Lincoln Susman's best friend, and the only man, I believe, who enjoyed his confidence. Before he died, Lincoln willed his property to the first female descendant of the Attwells—which is yourself; and this will was witnessed by Jim Brooker and Jesse Crowle. Brooker had a duplicate, but it was stolen after Lincoln's death, and as they could not find the original, they were unable to take any action against Susman, the usurper.
"For a long time after that Brooker abandoned the case as hopeless. It was not till you were about six years old that he heard of your mother's disappearance, as the matter had been very closely hushed up. He went to your father and told him he believed that the Attwells had some interest in Wangooma, and that Lincoln's will, if recovered, would be important to him. They had a long interview, and upon Brooker intimating that he'd like to work out the case, your father told him he'd give a thousand pounds for information of his wife's whereabouts. Brooker received an advance; but what became of him after that I've not been able to ascertain, and I think Pat Gallagher is the only one who knows. Anyhow, he assures me that Brooker will appear as soon as the work is finished."
"That's rather mysterious, isn't it? Why won't he tell you where Brooker is?"
"Well, I think, somehow, he is Brooker's emissary, and is under orders to keep that a secret. However, it's to be hoped we'll know all about it to-morrow night."
"Wasn't it reported that Jim Brooker was drowned?"
"Yes, because he went away quietly one night at flood-time, and nothing more was heard of him. The same with Lincoln Susman."
"But why did Brooker go away like that?"
"He suspected Susman of having robbed him of the will, and wanted to be put down in the obituary list to throw Susman off his guard, so that he could return after a time in disguise."
"Where did you get the papers, Harold?" asked Edith, after a pause.
"I called at Wangooma on my way home from Byron Bay, and Gallagher told me Susman was over here. So I came home on the quiet, and having got what things I wanted, rode back to the castle, and Gallagher and I got the will and other papers from a niche in the brick wall underground. . . . I have also the treasure chest, which was stolen from Dead Man's Well. I'll show you all the papers to-morrow. Previous to these discoveries, I found the skeleton of Lincoln Susman lying in an unused room. His nephew, Magnus Belial, had shut him in there and starved him to death. Before doing so he shot his cousin Floyd on Kangaroo Flat. His motive in trying to get possession of the papers of David Attwell was to destroy all evidence pertaining to the claimant of Wangooma. Another thing, it was in the castle you were imprisoned, and by Magnus Susman's orders. Your mother, as I have every reason to believe, is a prisoner in the same place, whither she was taken after being abducted from Tallagalba."
"Oh, God of Heaven! Can all this be true?" Edith exclaimed in horror.
"Quite true," said Harold. "Susman wanted your mother before she was married, as he now wants you. And you would throw me over for a scoundrel like that!" he concluded bitterly.
"Harold!" Edith pleaded, clinging to him, "you don't understand—you don't know what was behind it all!"
He led her back to the seat, and she looked at him with eyes full of mute appeal. "Will you trust me now, Edith? Will you tell me everything?" he entreated.
"Yes, everything," Edith answered; and then she told him all that had taken place between her and her guardians, and, later, between her and Magnus Susman.
"And did you intend to marry him, Edith?" asked Harold.
Edith dropped her head in confusion. She wished no one to know what her real scheme had been, not even Harold. She had settled what to tell the Mertons when the time came for explanations. This she gave to Harold.
"I never engaged myself to marry him," she said. "I told him I could not marry on my own responsibility until I was twenty-one. In any case, when I came into my fortune, I could have refunded the amount he paid. . . . But it's over now—it's no engagement—no bond. Think of it only as a farce, and do not speak of it again. I shouldn't like my mother to know it—you say she is in the castle—can you not release her, Harold?"
"Yes, Edith; she will soon be with you now. I have formed my plans, and to-morrow night we'll have her in spite of everything. I expect your father here to meet her. He doesn't know, though, that the attempt is to be made so soon. The recovery of his grandfather's papers, I think, is the cause of his coming so quickly."
"What took you over to Jesse Crowle's tonight, Harold?" asked Edith.
"To get some papers I had left there, and to keep an appointment with Gallagher; also to see Crowle about the will. He's one of the witnesses."
"And you are certain of success to-morrow night?"
"Quite certain. I wanted to look for your mother the day we got the will, but Gallagher was afraid Susman would return; and even if we had found her, we couldn't have taken her out safely in daylight. Poor woman! It will be like Heaven to her to escape."
"How she must have suffered! Oh, my poor mother!" cried Edith, clasping her hands on her lap, while the tears came to her eyes.
"You must keep up the dissimulation with Susman a day or so longer, for in that lies our safety. You won't mind that, Edith, after what you have already gone through?"
"No, Harold; I—I will do anything for you!" she replied.
"Then you really love me, darling?"
"I have always loved you, Harold—you know I have," Edith answered, laying her head trustingly on his shoulder.
"And yet you were so cruel!"
"Not cruel; your unhappiness was my greatest pain. But—forget it."
"Yes, unpleasant memories are best forgotten—and yet how can a thing forgotten be a memory?"
"Oh, Harold! Do you mean that only death can erase it?" cried Edith.
He looked at her with laughing eyes, and drew her to him.
"It is your goodness, little sweetheart, that I can never forget," he answered.
For most part of the next day Harold and Edith were closeted together, looking over manuscripts, discussing matters, and writing; while Richard Merton and his much-neglected spouse were left to themselves.
"Confound the fellow!" said the former, coming in, much heated, after a fruitless hunt after Harold. "He's never to be found when he's wanted. Between him and that girl, it seems I can go to the wall. I told him this morning that I wanted him to go through some stud matters with me; and he's gone off and left me to do it myself."
"Perhaps he's in his room," Richard," Mrs. Merton suggested.
"I tell you he isn't," said Richard peevishly. "His door's locked—what he keeps it locked for I don't know."
"You should show your authority, Richard. You are too lenient with him. As for Edith, I can do nothing with her. She will have her own way in spite of me. It seems that she is the lady of the house, and I'm the companion. I really don't know what's come over her lately."
"Let her alone, Maggie. She saved us from ruin, and we can afford to put up with her caprices. She's been a gold-mine to me, Maggie. So let her have her own way."
"I should like to know how she accomplished all that, Richard," Mrs. Merton continued. "I don't like all this secrecy, and I can't make out what she means with Susman. They're very often together, and that don't look well. If she means to throw herself away on Susman, we'll be blamed for it, Richard. Her father would never consent to such a match. There's trouble brewing, I'm afraid. He'll be here to-night, too—and that'll be awkward. He'll soon see for himself that there's something afoot, and then there'll be a row—particularly if he finds out about that money. He'll say that you sold her, Richard."
"That'll do, Maggie—that'll do! You don't know what you're talking about. I've had no hand whatever in throwing Edith and Susman together. You know that as well as I do. I can't be responsible for the actions of a wayward girl. It's the result of your bringing up, Maggie. You should have taught her obedience, as I told you often enough. You've made her what she is. One might as well try o bleed a stone as to get anything out of her. I don't know what her scheme is—but I've got the benefit of it in one way; that's something. If she goes and ruins herself now it's nothing to do with me. She's old enough to take care of herself."
"It's everything to do with you, Richard; you're her guardian," Mrs. Merton reproved.
"And what are you?" demanded her husband. "Do you mean to tell me it's a man's place to dress a girl, and comb her hair, and all that? A nice object I'd be!"
"You are unreasonable, Richard. You know very well what I mean. I'd pity her if she had no better one than you to fill a mother's place."
"A mother's place! Hem! A nice way you've filled it. See what you've made of her. A proud, cold, self-willed creature that will do nothing for you. You spoilt her—and that's what I always told you you would do."
"I did not spoil her, Richard. It's only lately she's been unkind and facheux—only since the time of Susman's conference with you. I don't understand that at all, Richard. I should like to know a little more about it."
"Of course you would! You're always wanting to know something, and concerning yourself about things you've got nothing to do with. Ne sutor ultra crepidam, my dear."
"It's my business to look after Edith, Richard," said Mrs. Merton.
"Look after her, then; it's more than I can do," Richard rejoined, shuffling away, and perspiring freely. In the next room he encountered Edith, who had just entered, looking flushed and elated.
"Where's Harold?" he inquired abruptly.
"I think he's in the office, uncle," Edith answered.
"You think. Why can't you know?" Mr. Merton demanded.
Edith's looks became morose in an instant. "I wasn't aware that it was my business to know," she retorted.
"Humph! More business—it's all business!" muttered Mr. Merton, turning sharply on his heel, and striding off to his office. To his surprise he found Harold at the desk, poring over a paper. He appeared deeply interested, for he did not look up at the entrance of Mr. Merton. The latter moved up to the desk, and stood for a minute looking down at Harold with contracted brows. At last he spoke. "Can I do anything for you, Mr. Havelock?"
"Eh? Oh, I beg your pardon! I thought it was someone else. I suppose you've been waiting?"
"I suppose I have," said Mr. Merton in a gruff and jerky fashion. "Where have you been?"
"Down in the back paddock. The fence was down, and the cattle mixed. It took us most of the day to get things straightened up again."
"Oh!" Mr. Merton softened a little. He sat down. "Do you know what Grant Attwell is coming up for?" he asked abruptly.
"To see Edith, I suppose."
"And he announced his visit to you! It looks very much as if we've changed places."
"I've been corresponding with him regular—"
"So have I."
"—and he mentioned it casually in his last letter to me."
"He didn't mention it casually in his last letter to me. It won't do. There's something afoot. The whole box and dice of you are mixed up in some plot."
"If there is any plot, you know as much about it as I do," Harold rejoined.
"I know nothing about it," said Mr. Merton testily. "There's Edith and Susman—what's between them? There's a yarn about that she's going to marry that man!" This bit of hypocrisy was intended as a feeler.
"Edith is not such a fool; she has no idea of such a thing."
"Who put the ring on her finger, then?"
"Edith is my betrothed," said Harold.
Mr. Merton opened his eyes and mouth in astonishment. "Have you dared to address her without my consent?"
"I didn't need your consent." Harold was nettled at the thought that Merton had always been opposed to his suit; also, it seemed, he had intrigued against her for his own emancipation.
"You didn't need it, eh?" Mr. Merton repeated, almost speechless. "Look here, young man, be careful . . . be careful! This sort of thing won't do. I shall make it my business to speak to her father to-night, and maybe you won't ask him here again."
"I spoke to him long ago," said Harold quietly.
"You spoke to him!" cried Mr. Merton.
"I have his consent to marry Edith."
"Eh?" Mr. Merton gasped, and there he stopped, too dumfounded to say more at the moment, and there was more stupefaction and fear showing in his face now than anger. Such revelations as these were enough to make his hair stand on end. Everything was turning topsy-turvy, and he began to think that he would next be tumbled into Pandemonium. "I can't make head or tail of this," he said presently. "Will you have the goodness to explain?"
"You will know time enough, Mr. Merton!" said Harold.
"Know time enough, eh?" cried Mr. Merton, growing furious. "You seem to think you can do as you — well like! Do you think I'm going to put up with your confounded cheek? Just moderate your speech a bit, young man—and attend to my affairs a bit better than you've been doing."
"I think you'd better attend to your affairs yourself," said Harold.
"What?" Mr. Merton gasped, and his face was a study as he stared at his young overseer. At this moment Mrs. Merton and Edith entered.
"Why, Richard, what is the matter? What a temper you're in!" cried the former on seeing her husband's face; while furtive glances were exchanged between the young couple.
"Isn't it enough to put anyone in a temper?" cried the enraged squatter. "Here's this fellow here tells me to my face that he is going to marry Edith, and that I can look after my affairs myself. Temper! Is that not enough to put anyone in a temper?"
"Is this true?" Mrs. Merton asked, turning very gravely to Edith.
"I am going to marry Harold, and I believe it is my father's wish that I should do so," Edith replied.
Mrs. Merton's only response was a stony stare. This bold refutation of her tenets left her completely nonplussed; while Mr. Merton was even in a worse predicament. The cheque he had received from Susman was dated two years' ahead, which he did not discover until he went to bank his money at the end of the quarter; then it was the ingenious trickster informed him of the nature of the compromise; and Mr. Merton had concealed the fact from Edith that she might consider herself under obligation to marry Susman at the stipulated time. The receipt was genuine enough in itself, but it did not give the immunity that Edith supposed. Susman had advanced him an additional sum of money, which left him a surplus after the liquidation of all debts, and for this he held a mortgage over Merton's property, which would be forfeited if Edith had not fulfilled her promise within six-months after her coming of age. Merton had fully relied upon the latter event taking place, and thus he considered the girl had as good as given him a fortune. Hence his consternation on her intended espousal of Harold being verified. How was it possible to avert the calamity? To open his mouth to Susman would be immediate ruin; to seek information from Edith would be a violation of his agreement with her, upon which, in all likelihood, she would leave him in the gutter. It appeared to him now that a marriage with Susman had not been a part of her scheme; she had either made a muddle of the business, or Susman had deceived him, and he had fallen into a trap. There had been duplicity on all sides; and he was still woefully entangled!
Rumination on such an intricate problem in this moment of anxiety, surprise, and anger was impossible. The effort to grasp immediately at some method of extrication set his thoughts whirling in utter chaos. Like one in a dream, he saw Harold cross over and stand by the side of Edith as if to protect her.
"It appears, Mr. Merton," said Harold, and his words seemed to the squatter to come from afar off, "that you consider me beneath Edith. If so, I have all the more reason to be proud of her. I do not seek to exalt myself in your eyes; she knows what I am better than you do. You raised no objections to Susman's designs. You received his money, knowing very well what it was paid for, and allowed him the freedom of your house to gain his ends. But I will thwart him, and you will be none the worse. I am going to Sydney with Grant Attwell as soon as you can do without me, and I shall take Edith away with me."
"Harold!" Mrs. Merton reproached. "I am very sorry to hear you speak like this. It is very ungrateful of you. I am sure we have never merited such conduct from you."
"No, Mrs. Merton," said Harold, and his voice was kindlier. "I can say nothing but good of you. You were always kind and motherly to me, and I shall part from you with the deepest regret. I don't think you'll have much to reproach me for, however, when you know all."
He took Edith's hand and led her from the office as he finished speaking, while Mrs. Merton dropped into a chair and burst into sobs.
"This is the result of taking your advice, my dear, that golden advice you're always complaining of being neglected," said Mr. Merton maliciously. "I showed my authority, and he showed his fangs; and where are we?"
"It's all your own fault, Richard. You fly into a temper over nothing lately. I don't wonder at Harold remonstrating. You should not have deprecated the engagement when it had Grant Attwell's sanction. He knew your motives, whatever they are. You've been deceiving me. Richard. You sold Edith—"
"Maggie!" thundered Richard, with a fierce stamp of his foot on the floor, that shook the rafters.
"If it isn't true," Mrs. Merton continued, "why didn't you deny it to his face?"
"I tell you it's a lie! If it wasn't, how the blazes could she be going to marry that fellow? Confound, his impudence! He didn't give me time to deny it!"
"You had plenty of time, Richard. You are very quick at denying to me; in fact, my words are scarcely uttered before you have denied the truth of them."
"It's easy for me to anticipate your twaddle, my dear. I always know what's coming; a rigmarole of paraphrastical trash. I've had quite enough of it, my dear; and as I want to get on with my work, and can do without your advice, I shall be happy to be without your company."
"Indeed, Richard," said Mrs. Merton, rising. 'This is a nice state of things for Mr. Attwell to see. What will he think of it all?"
"Let him think what he likes," growled Richard, turning to his desk.
"And I'll think what I like!" she retorted, and made her exit with the satisfaction of having had the last word—which is a momentous matter indeed!
The quarrel with Richard Merton, together with what had indirectly caused it, served to strengthen Harold for the last act in this drama of actual life. It must be accomplished to-night at all hazard, for the old station was no place for him now. He had given himself little grace for the preparation of his departure from the scenes and associations of his boyhood, but sufficient, he thought, if no hitch occurred to frustrate him at the last. Once his ambition was to become a Tyson in these Arcadian wilds; but now that wealth was as good as won, the bush, with its weird hush, or its musical whisperings, had no charm for him, and the stirring scenes of camps and cattle-yards failed to touch a chord of enthusiasm. His life and Edith's would be spent together, but in new and different fields, and far removed from the haunted hills of Tipparoo.
Grant Attwell arrived in time for tea, and all by then had put on their best looks, so that no trace of the recent storm was observable. Edith's spirits were mercurial; at times she was excited and glowing, and again she would grow sad as she thought of her mother. What a strange life was hers—how full of bitter memories! She contrived to avoid a meeting between her father and Magnus Susman; and when the latter came stumbling in as usual, the two principals were consulting in Harold's room.
"I'll go over with you to-night," said Grant, "for I should like to rescue my wife in propria persona—though, of course, I give you the credit nevertheless. It would please her above all things to meet me there. You would require help, anyhow, if you were surprised."
"Yes, it'll be better for you to come," Harold agreed. "I'm taking the blackboy to look after the horses. I daresay he has them ready by this. So we may as well be going. Put this revolver in your pocket. I've purloined the boss's."
"I hope there won't be any occasion to use them," was Grant's observation as he slipped it into his pocket.
"I hope not," said Harold; "but it's as well to have them in case of accident."
They left the room quietly and went down to the stables. The blackboy led the horses out immediately, and in five minutes they had mounted and were on their way to Wangooma.
The sky was overcast, and huge banks of black clouds were slowly rising above the southern horizon, whence the deep rumble of thunder came at long intervals, mingled with low flashes of lightning. They scarcely spoke a word as they passed like flitting shadows through the gum-trees, and the rising wind murmuring through the branches muffled the hoof-beats of their horses. They dismounted at the side gate, and the stable henchman led the horses away to the rear of the outsheds. Gallagher, dressed as if for a ball, was in the kitchen cleaning a bull's-eye lantern when the pair walked in sans ceremonie.
"Well, Gallagher, how's things?" asked Harold.
"Shure the world's a jewel," said Pat gaily. "Have ye brought the kays, now thin?"
"Av coorse ye 'ave. It's the iligant head ye walk undher—an' there was the shindy over thim same kays too. He thought Oi had 'em, an' faith, Oi had to turn me wardrobe out afore he'd belave Oi wasn't a liar; for, d'yer say, sez he, the cook as was here afore Oi come to be a cuss to him was afther sniggin' a kay av his, an' shwore black an' blue as she'd niver cocked a eye on't; an' thin, bless me sowl, if he don't go an' foind the instrumint in the dress av her! D'yer say that now? An' the box! Murdher! it was him that was stharin' mad. Oi was afther goin' to foight the little blackguard, or he'd perditioned me shure. Yez'll be wantin' this lantern now, Oim thinkin'?"
"It may be handy, Pat; fetch it along, and we'll set to work at once," said Harold, making a move for the hall. The door was soon opened, and they peered down into the darkness.
"What's this mean—lights to-night?"
"There isn't," said Gallagher. "The divil a one is below to look afther thim, thanks be to God. We left this door open t'other day, d'yer moind; an' the owld varmint was askin' me if Oi was afther seein' any colored ladies a-kickin' about! Phat d'yer think av that now?"
"It seems that you did someone a good turn without knowing it," said Grant absently.
Harold turned on the light, and descended slowly, followed by Grant and Gallagher. He stopped at the first door on the right. It was secured with a light chain and padlock, the lock belonging to the door appearing to have been broken. This primitive fastening was easily forced, and the three men entered the little sitting room. They had only time to cast a cursory glance around, when they were startled by a sharp scream and a heavy thud as of someone falling. Harold dropped the lantern, and rushed through the tapestry that screened the boudoir. A woman robed in loose white was lying unconscious, with her face to the carpet. As he lifted her up a cry escaped Grant Attwell. "Daisy! My Daisy!"
"Is this your wife, Grant?" asked Harold.
"Yes, yes—my poor, dear wife! Gently—on the sofa there. She's fainted."
They laid her on the couch, and Harold turned to look for water, when Gallagher, who had been unusually quick to comprehend the situation, met him with a glass jug and tumbler, "Here you are, sor. Give the darlint a bath with the jug. Be jabers, it's the shemales that can't be bate for jumpin' into swooney-land. Dab it on quick an' lively, sor. It's suddenness that takes the thrick. Oi remember me mother—God rest her bones—"
"Never mind your mother" said Harold, who was vigorously chafing a little limp hand, while Grant bathed the temples with water. "Take hold of her other hand, Pat. This might be serious."
"Phat about her fate now? Don't they want jest a tiny rub too?"
"No," said Harold shortly.
Under their gentle manipulation the sufferer soon showed signs of reviving. There was a quivering of the lips, a tremor of the eyelids and then she opened her eyes, but closed them again with a shudder.
Grant bent over her and whispered, "Daisy!" She looked at him in a vacant way for a moment, and rose slowly to a sitting position, still looking at him. "Is it—is it—" she murmured, and a shudder again shook her, and she put her hand to her face as if to shut out some disagreeable vision. Grant drew it away.
"Don't you know me, Daisy? Look, it is no dream—I am here—I have come to save you," he said in a husky voice. A sudden glad look came into her eyes, a half-startled, half-wondering expression, a moment's hesitation, a look of recognition—and she was his.
"Oh, Grant—Grant—my love—my husband—at last!"
Harold nudged Gallagher, and they repaired to the next room.
" 'Pon me sowl, that's a quare go!" said Pat. "Afther yez wid that match now. Shure, it's the dudeen that's no ind av a throuble to me. Whisht! Jest hear him now—jest hear him! It's the swate predicamint he's in. Musha, but it's a toime she's been here now."
"Still, it's nothing of wonder," said Harold. "This sort of thing used to be common one time. What strikes me as the most remarkable is her being confined all these years in her daughter's house; for all this place, you know belongs to Edith."
"That's so; and many a night's sleep I've lost through thinking of that. I've planned and schemed to no end to recover that will since I knew the claimant was born. That's another queer thing, now. All this place was made over to her before she was born. No mistake, the history of that girl is a stonisher. Be gob," he said, dropping again into his Hibernianisms, while Harold stood staring at him in wonder, "if Oi was only a shannachie now, maybe Oi'd open the eyes of som'ody. But, shure, phat will she be after doin' wid a whole sthation av her own? That's phat bates me all to bits, so it is."
"Grant will settle all that," said Harold. "As soon as the probate is granted, he'll give the management of Wangooma to Alec Mathers. Miss Attwell couldn't bear the place any more than her mother could. He'll take them to Yaranta, in Victoria. But, mon ami, who are you ?"
"Niver yez moind that now," said Gallagher, with a humorous side-look. "Shure Oi'll be after tellin' yez a little sacret in good toime. Haven't we the foine job now to ghrabble the bosthoon whin he comes to say the little jewel that's chuckin' away the swate kisses as if they wur chape as swamp wather. Whisht! d'yer hear him now? Troth, he's the dacent man, an' it's the rale jewel he has wid him, thanks be to God!"
Grant's voice here interrupted him, and both returned to the boudoir. Mrs. Attwell was now quite composed, and clinging to her husband, with a happy, contented smile on her careworn face. She was pale and grey-haired, but there was an unusual lustre in her mild blue eyes, and despite the years of pain and worry she had passed through, she was still beautiful. There were a few premature wrinkles upon her brow, it is true, and her cheeks were sunken; but a return to the old pursuits and pleasures, the pure air of the bushland, frequent intercourse, travel, freedom, and happiness, would quickly restore the faded bloom. They looked more like lovers, Grant and Daisy, than husband and wife, gazing and smiling into each other's faces as Harold and Gallagher entered.
Grant introduced them, and Mrs. Attwell showed a deep interest in both.
"We are about to avenge your wrongs at last, Mrs. Attwell," said Harold. "We have been terribly slow about it; but it was the want of evidence. I hope your life from now will be proportionately happy. For a time, at all events, you will be dwelling in Paradise."
"Indeed the most commonplace things will seem beautiful and wonderful to me after the years I've been shut up here," Mrs. Attwell answered. "I will look on things as one who has suddenly regained sight after a lifetime of blindness. This is my day of resurrection, for one could not really be much more lost to the world in a sepulchre than in this den of infamy. Thank Heaven, I am free to leave it. Don't keep me here a moment. Take me to Tipparoo—to my child—at once. Every moment's delay is fraught with danger. I don't want to see that brute of a man again." She made a grimace and shuddered at the thought.
"We must take him to-night, Daisy," said her husband. "He's been a plague to us long enough, and must pay the penalty of his crimes."
"Oh, Grant, don't leave me here to see that! He won't be taken alive now—I know he won't!" Mrs. Attwell cried, clinging to him, with fear depicted in her face.
"There's no need for you to stay, Grant," said Harold, who, like most men, had a strong dislike to a woman being present at a melee. "We can do all there is to be done. Susman will be alone, and Gallagher and I are more than a match for him. Your best course is to take her away before he comes. Some accident might happen. Go at once and be sure."
"I'll take your advice, Harold," said Grant, after a short deliberation. "But, whatever you do, don't let Susman escape."
"We'll look out for that," Harold answered. "Cut straight across to the creek, and follow it down on the other side. He'll miss you then if he's on the road; and far from making Mrs. Attwell tired, I am sure she will enjoy the walk. You are safer afoot than on horseback for Susman would not hesitate to shoot you down if he recognised you in the bush. Be very careful, and don't speak except in whispers. You'll have to hurry, too, or you'll be caught in the storm; so au revoir!"
He saw them out of the house, and stood at the gate with Gallagher, peering through the blackness for half an hour after they had departed; and then, assured of their safe retreat, returned to the boudoir to await the last homecoming of Magnus Susman.
The wind had increased to a gale, and whistled and shrieked round the gables of the old castle; loud peals of thunder burst overhead, rolling away into distance like the beating of muffled drums, and at times the sky was ablaze with lightning. Rain began to patter in huge drops on the roof, when a horseman galloped up to the stables. It was Magnus Susman, whom the storm had driven home much earlier than was his wont. He let his horse go, and hurried through the garden, and round the house to the kitchen. Here he called loudly for Gallagher; but only the deafening thunder answered him; a fierce gust whisked his surtout like twining snakes about his legs, and the rain pelted on his face.
"Curse the fellow!" he muttered. "He's a — nuisance. Doors and windows wide open, and wind and rain beating in everywhere. What's the fellow mean? Gallagher!"
A sharp flash of lightning danced before his eyes and nearly blinded him, while precursory hailstones pattered about him and ricocheted along the passage. Cursing the negligent Hibernian, he crossed the passage to the hall, and there he stood, amazed to see the door above the stairs wide open.
"Umph!" he muttered. "This is Gallagher's work! I see it all! It was he who stole my keys and let those devils out! It was he who robbed me! By heavens, Gallagher, you've tried it once too often!"
A roar of thunder shook the building in response to his mutterings, and the rain came down in a perfect deluge and, driven by the howling wind, bespattered him where he stood. He ground his teeth together, and, with cat-like tread, crept down the stairs. A faint streak of light lay across the dark corridor, before which he came to an abrupt standstill. His rage gave way to deadly fear on seeing the door of Mrs. Attwell's apartments standing ajar; a chill ran through him, cold perspiration broke out all over him, and his breath came in short, dry gasps. He pushed the door back, and stood as an aspen leaf on the threshold. The chandelier was burning on the table, as it always was, throwing a glimmerless light on the mute objects around it. He could see no one, nor hear a sound, save the fusillade above. In that instant he knew he was a doomed man; for his life depended on the safe-keeping of his victim. She was gone! What had he to hope for now? What could save him?
Hardly knowing what he did, he tottered, rather than walked, to the tapestry, and into the boudoir. A half-suppressed cry burst from him, in which rage, terror, and despair were mingled, as his glaring eyes lit on the figures of Harold and Gallagher sitting closely in the right-hand corner. "Ugh! You scoundrel! What have you done?" he gasped, shaking his fist at Gallagher, and clutching the curtains with his other hand as if to support himself.
"Scoundrel yerself, ye murdherin' dog, you! Where's my hund'ed poun'? Av ye'd paid that years ago an' let me be off, maybe yez moight not 've been bowled out, ye ugly, deformed hape av cussedness!" cried Gallagher, rising and advancing with Harold,
"Back! back! Hear me!" cried Susman frantically.
"What have you to say? Words can avail you nothing now; your game is played out," said Harold.
"Hear me!" Susman repeated. "I know that the game is over; I surrender, I have only one regret—that I did not strangle Edith Attwell to-night before I left her. But it's nothing to her credit, Harold Havelock, that she was my bride-elect."
Harold laughed mockingly. "She would never have been your bride; she knew what you were. We have been plighted longer than you have any idea of, and she has been acting under my instructions. She knew her mother was in this place, where she herself was imprisoned by you; and she knows this property is hers, not yours!"
"What?" gasped Susman, staggering back.
"The will of your late uncle is in her possession, and will shortly be proved, as Jim Brooker is fortunately still alive, though I don't suppose he would have been if you had come across him. This is Jim Brooker's emissary, Pat Gallagher."
Susman groaned audibly, but made no comment.
"As he is a valued friend of Miss Attwell's," continued Harold, "she was never left to ignorance as to your movements. She knew why you shot your cousin Floyd, on Kangaroo Flat, and why you locked your uncle Lincoln up and starved him to death—to get this property!"
"Who—who took that—that woman out of here?" Susman asked, writhing in mortification and despair.
"Her husband, Grant Attwell. She is now at Tipparoo."
Susman groaned. "Together again! After all these years of waiting—all my trouble—has he won?—and I have lost! Curse him! Curse him and her!"
"Spare your curses; they'll do you no good," said Harold.
"Curse her!" he repeated more vehemently. "A curse on all your heads! I'll baffle you yet—I'll cheat you now and die . . . cursing you all!"
Before they knew what he was about, he sprang back through the tapestry and made off. Harold and Gallagher were quick to follow, but the renegade was in the hall by the time they had entered the sitting-room. Naturally, they ran for the stairs, thinking his intention was to escape into the bush. Susman, however, was not visible in that direction, and, on pausing at the landing, they heard his retreating footsteps at the opposite end.
"He's safe as a bottled ant," said Gallagher. "Divil a fear av him gittin' out that way."
"Stop here, Pat, and block him if he beats back. I'll follow up."
"Look out the spalpeen don't be shootin' bullets at ye. Shure, they're hard things to sthop!" Gallagher shouted as Harold ran on.
At the far end of the corridor he heard sounds as of someone shifting things hurriedly about. The door was locked, and, unable to get in, Harold drew his revolver and stood on guard outside. For five minutes Susman's movements within were audible; then was heard a heavy jerk, followed by a peculiar noise. On a sudden the truth flashed upon Harold, and he ran back to Gallagher in great excitement.
"Pat, Pat, get the lantern quickly!" he cried breathlessly.
"Phat is it?" asked Pat. "Has the bogthrotter fell over his scare an' kilt himself?"
"He's hung himself. Quick, or we'll be too late!" cried Harold.
"Is it the truth ye're tellin' me? Wirra, wirra!"
The lantern was got, and both hurried to the door. Putting their shoulders to it, they forced the lock, and the door flew back. Gallagher held up the lantern, and its rays fell upon a ghastly scene. To a thick rope suspended to a beam Magnus Susman was hanging by the neck. He had jumped off a high table which stood against the wall. Harold sprang on to this, and sawed the rope through with his clasp-knife.
"Dead as a door nail!" Pat remarked, holding the light close to the rigid features. "It's a quare collar he thought av wearin' at the lasht. Shure, he's cooked himself wid his little games this toime."
"He's cheated Jack Ketch, at all events," said Harold.
"Arrah, musha, he's cheated me too. The divil a bit av me money Oi'll iver say now. Didn't he know now it was in the hot place he wouldn't 'ave me at his heels—for didn't Oi shake half-a-crown from him to give to the praste whin Oi wint to Mass! Ayeh, an' wasn't it the praste—God's blessin' be wid him—as towld me Oi'd be goin' to heaven if Oi kep' on the coorse. Troth, it's the good blessin' yez can git for half-a-crown, an' if yez don't part wid it, it's bad luck to ye, the praste will say, an' thin it's all as one as up wid ye divil a lie in it. The spalpeen forninst ye was moindin' the good banshee wouldn't let me go afther him wid me bill, so it's the nasty kippeen av a divil's collar he drisses wid. Hadn't he the iligant head on him now?"
"A wicked one, I should think?" said Harold.
"Will yez be lavin' his carcase here now?" asked Gallagher.
"Of course. We can do nothing more tonight. You'd better get your kit together and come with me to Tipparoo. We'll send for the police to-morrow, and they can take charge till the court work is over."
Shure, it's the divil av a rumpus there'll be whin all this comes out."
"Undoubtedly it will cause a great sensation. People will be flocking here from all directions for the next week or so. That's the worst of tragedies. One is pestered so with inquisitive folk. But I suppose we'll survive the ordeal. He's beyond harm-doing now, and it seems meet enough that suicide should have ended his long career of crime."
"Faith, it's the truth ye're tellin', an' Oi couldn't 've sed it much betther meself. There's only wan thing Oi'm wishin' to say now, an' that's the look that Tiddy the sergeant will put on him whin he hears the rapparee has throttled himself. 'Pon me sowl, the owld fanist av the bobbies will be sthruck all av a hape, so he will." And greatly titillated at the surprise in store for Sergeant Tadeas, Gallagher went skipping up the stairs in the most quixotic manner; and while he collected his chattels Harold went through the house, locking all the doors. Then they left the old castle to guard its dead, and went out into the pelting rain.
"Musha, but it's a terrible storum," said Pat, bending before the trenchant blast. "But, divil a fear, it's not a dhrop av wather will sthop us. Shure, it's Jesse Crowle that has the iligant thatch on his shanty, an' the sorra a wan can thrate ye to a betther noggin' o' poteen. We'll sthop wid him a toime, an' Oi'll tell me little sacret, av it plaze ye. Phat's that? Arrah, it's the gossoon wid the ponies."
The sable henchman, shivering with cold, brought the horses forward, and Harold gave him a small flask from which he took a long "pull."
Half an hour later the three were warming themselves at old Jesse's fireside, and telling their "sacrets," while waiting for the storm to pass over.
It was nearly midnight when they reached Tipparoo, where all were merry-making; and Mr. Merton, who had been toasting more freely than wisely, was expatiating on the faultless character of his ward and her fiance.
While the twain were denuding themselves of their wet garments in Harold's room, Grant Attwell came in. He was profuse in his thanks to Harold and Gallagher for all they had done for him, but was somewhat shocked to hear that Susman had ended his record by taking his own life.
"Oi'm thinkin' it's the only dacent bit av work he iver did," said Gallagher, "it'll save yez no ind av throuble, for, d'yer say, there'll only be the inquest an' the provin' av the will, an' then it'll be all over barrin' the shoutin'."
"Do you think there'll be any trouble over that will, Harold? You see, we don't know where to lay our hands on Jim Brooker."
Harold and Gallagher exchanged glances and smiled. "He is nearer than you think. Do you remember the old gentleman who entertained us on the Woodburn coach?"
"I thought I recognised him," said Grant, rather puzzled.
"Do you recognise him now?" asked Harold. "This is Jim Brooker."
"Pat Gallagher!" cried Grant in astonishment.
"Yes, Mr. Attwell," said the skilful personator, "I am the man who went to you in Sydney, and to whom you offered a thousand for tidings of your wife. I've been working on the case off and on ever since, and with Harold's help, I've succeeded in clearing up the mystery."
'This is, indeed, a pleasant surprise," said Grant, wringing the old man's hand with considerable emotion. "You shall have the thousand to-morrow, and anything else I can do for you shall be done with pleasure."
"Avast wid yer blather, now! Don't mintion it," cried Brooker, taking up his role again with a facility that evoked a burst of laughter.
Harold left them to talk matters over between themselves, and went in search of Edith. The three women were seated in the little back parlor, where a light repast had been spread for Mrs. Attwell. Not wishing to intrude, or to disturb them, Harold beckoned Edith. She was by his side in a moment, and he led her to a seat before a warm fire in the drawing-room.
"It's all cleared up now, Edith," he said, as they nestled together, "and you have your mother and father at last."
"Yes, Harold dear, and she is very, very grateful to you. It makes me shudder to think what she has gone through. Is it not terrible?"
"It is, indeed, Edith. But Susman won't harm her again."
"What have you done with him, Harold?"
Harold told her what had happened in the castle. "We can do no more till the police come," he added. "As soon as the inquest is over, and the probate of Lincoln's will is granted, we are going away from Tipparoo."
"And Wangooma? What is to be done with that?"
"I think your father intends to sell it by-and-by."
"I hope he will." Edith added. "I shouldn't like to call it mine."
"For the present," Harold continued, "Alec Mathers will take charge of it. . . . And when all is settled, dearie, may I claim you for my own?"
She looked up with her full, blue eyes, and if he had doubted her once, he could not now, when he saw all the love and tenderness that was there; and as he pressed his lips to the fair, warm cheek she whispered softly: "I am yours, Harold; you can claim me now."
He took her in his arms, proud and delighted beyond expression that now, in the happy calm, he could call her all his own, now and through all futurity.
"Thus let me hold thee to my heart,
And every care resign;
And shall we never, never part,
My life—my all that's mine!"
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