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Title: A Daughter of the Bush Author: Ambrose Pratt * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1400191h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2014 Date most recently updated: January 2014 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy 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.—THE MOUNT OF OLIVES.
CHAPTER II.—LIFE AT THE "GOLDEN GATE."
CHAPTER IV.—THEOLOGY AND YABBIES AND EXPERIENCE.
CHAPTER V.—CONCERNING BUSHMEN AND RUM.
CHAPTER VI.—A MATTER OF TRUST.
CHAPTER VIII.—A CHANGE OF VENUE.
CHAPTER IX.—WEIGHED IN THE BALANCE.
CHAPTER X.—CATS HAVE CLAWS.
CHAPTER XI.—THE LAST OF NANDLELONG.
CHAPTER XII.—THE NEW RUSH.
CHAPTER XIII.—THE GRANITE GORGE.
CHAPTER XIV.—THE PARTNERSHIP DISSOLVED.
CHAPTER XV.—GETTING GOLD.
CHAPTER XVI.—ONE OF THE OLD SCHOOL.
CHAPTER XVII.—WEIN-VOGEL EARM.
CHAPTER XVIII.—AN "HONEST WOMAN."
CHAPTER XIX.—"A GOOD FELLOW."
CHAPTER XX.—"YOU FOOL!"
IT must have been a dingo running across the starlit bridle track that threw old Sorrel from her stride. She was far too staid and self-possessed a creature to have permitted herself to be startled by a wombat or a wallaby. But I shall never know for certain, because I was asleep. I awoke to find myself sprawled at the bottom of a little gully that ran beside the path. And the worst of it was my right leg was broken. Sorrel was awfully sorry. She whinnied the most abject of apologies, and when I had contrived to drag myself upon the ledge she rubbed me all over with her nose. Fortunately I had a flask of whisky in my swag, but a tot-full of raw spirit could not prevent me from swooning. But it was better when my senses finally returned. My leg had gotten numbed, and it scarcely pained at all. I propped myself against a tree and looked about me. Sorrel was cropping the dew-wet mountain grass, her body silhouetted sharply against the stars. Strange to say, there were stars all round me. I seemed to-be sitting on the summit of the world. Rover had brought me to by licking my face. He now frisked about, plainly delighted with himself. But I was not so pleased. I had expected to make Nandlelong by dawn, and here was I—goodness knows where! and laid by the heels as helpless as any trapped rabbit. A number of profane thoughts occurred to me, and some of them tripped so freely from my tongue that Rover ceased frisking and Sorrel looked up from her breakfast. The mute criticism of my dumb friends had its effect in time. I felt that I had to counter it to save my self-respect. "It's all very well for you two to stand there and stare at me like a pair of scandalised churchwardens!" I protested glumly. "But you've got all your limbs intact, and it doesn't matter a rap to either of you that Menindi is forty miles behind us and Nandlelong the Lord knows how many miles before."
Rover replied with a scoffing bark, and forthwith ran to the edge of the little plateau that contained us all. Then he barked again, and executed a pas seul against the stars. As plainly as dog could speak he was saying, "Look down there!"
I followed his advice, and was surprised to observe quite a dozen little twinkling lamps shining up at me through a thousand yards of intervening gloom. "Nandlelong, by gad!" I cried. "Come! it's not so bad after all."
Rover barked happily, and ran up to lick my hand. "Good dog," said I. "Go! fetch help!" He snarled intelligently, right in my face, and without more ado plunged headlong into the gulf of blackness at my feet. Sorrel snorted her approval and recommenced operations on the grass.
An hour later the rose-robed legions of the dawn began to put up the shutters of the stars. Gad! what a lovely sight the twilight opened to my gaze. On one side of the ledge endless reaches of eucalyptus-covered slopes and rising glades, which rolled in interminable dark green billows towards Menindi; and on the other there stretched before me the entire valley of the Hume—a silver thread of a stream that wound in the most amazing and fascinatingly irresponsible fashion conceivable among a tangle of woods and rocks and tiny table-lands broken with wild ravines and gullies, and interspersed with emerald farms and sepia-tinted cultivation paddocks past two widely-separated little hamlets sheer to the far blue shimmering horizon. I was entranced into complete oblivion of my misfortune. It was nothing short of bliss to breathe deep draughts of that pure mountain air, to inhale the subtly acrid perfume of the gums, and to watch the while the rising sun's beams strike like golden fingers through the lower mists, and then reach upwards with quivering but tender eagerness across the wide abyss of sleeping shadows to implant a crown of glory on the highest mountain's brow. And there was a she to make the picture absolutely perfect. I watched her climb to a rocky pinnacle that reared its head a little to the left of where I sat. She greeted the orb of day like an ancient priestess making orison—with both her arms outstretched. The sunlight framed her in a shaft of flame and turned her yellow hair to living fire. She wore a plain white frock, but the sunbeams made it saffron. She was young and very good to look upon. I looked long, without tiring in the occupation. Her profile was strong and calm, and moulded like her figure in heroic lines. She was, in truth, a veritable classic incarnation of the dawn; and not the least aware of my existence. Rover yapped and snarled and barked impatiently behind her, yet she paid him no attention. She was silently saying her prayers. Twice she made the Sign of the Cross. But at length Rover forced her to take note of him by seizing the hem of her frock in his teeth. She turned, and permitted me to see her face in full presentment. "What can be the matter with the dog?" she said. Her countenance and voice were equally melodious—that is the word—not beautiful: they harmonised so tenderly with one another and with the composite whole of her. Her eyes were big and ruddy brown and lustrous, and separated satisfyingly. Her mouth was red and firm and large and full of character. Her nose was not too short, but straight and strong, and her chin was like a man's in strength for all its softly-rounded curves and milky whiteness.
"'A wife to fear, a sweetheart to be proud of,'" I involuntarily quoted.
"The dog wishes me to follow him, I do believe," she said.
"Rover!" I called out, "you are exceeding your instructions. I sent you for help; I did not tell you to be impertinent."
Rover uttered a joyous bark to hear my voice, and bounded from the pinnacle. The girl started slightly, and looked across from her vantage post to mine. Fifty feet of space lay between us. I marked an angry colour stain her cheeks and saw her eyes dilate. It seemed that I was an intruder and unwelcome quite as unexpected.
Eager to propitiate her resentment, I doffed my ragged "cabbage-tree" and bent my head. "I have surprised you in sacred private—a custom, perhaps. But I did not know. I am not an iconoclast; merely a stranger to these parts."
She regarded me with steady eyes that expressed astonishment and some hostility, but she did not speak.
Presently her glance travelled from me to Sorrel.
"Ah!" she said, "you are a digger. You are going to the Yabba Gabba Rush."
"Was!" she echoed.
"I have broken my leg. That is why I have not risen to salute you."
The look of astonishment left her eyes. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "How did it happen?"
I laughed and waved a hand towards Sorrel. "You must ask my mare. I was asleep. She betrayed my trust in her: she dropped me overboard into a gully."
The girl nodded and began to descend from the pinnacle. Soon I lost sight of her, but within two minutes she stood beside me.
"Your horse must have left the road at Eden and taken the old Temple track while you slept," she said. "Is your leg badly broken?"
"Simple fracture of the tibia, as far as I can make out," I answered. "Might I ask is that Nandlelong yonder, down below?"
"Yes; and you are on the Mount of Olives. The question is how to get you to the town," she frowned.
I laughed and looked about me. "Mount of Olives, eh? I cannot see any olive-trees. Are there any within a hundred miles or so?"
"None that I know of."
"Ah! that was why they so named it, I suppose—the lucus a non lucendo principle. It's a favourite of my own."
The girl frowned again; she was evidently in deep thought. "The track is fearfully steep and rough on either side," she mused aloud after a short pause. "There's no help for it but to set the bone as well as we can manage on the spot."
"You are, perhaps, a surgeon?" I enquired.
"You must wait," she commanded, unheeding my query. "I shall return as quickly as possible."
No fawn ever sprang more lightly or indeed more recklessly down a mountain side. In faith sometimes I caught my breath to see the manner of the progress. But she never made mis-step, and not once did she look back. I marked her cross the little rocky plateau that intervened the foothill and the village, and enter the garden of a slab-built shanty whose flaring signboard, even at the distance, proclaimed it unmistakably a public-house. Then she disappeared. The village exhibited no sign of life. It appeared to be either utterly deserted or abandonedly asleep. There was not even a dog to be seen, although I scanned each of the five-and-twenty humpies that formed Nandlelong, their yards, and gardens, from end to end. On a neighbouring slope, however, was a paddock where half a dozen milch cows browsed sedately. Their udders were bulging, simply crying to be drained. The lethargic stillness of the place filled me with wonder. It must have been already six o'clock, and yet—but yes—at that very moment the back door of one shanty opened and a young girl emerged, who at once began to stroll about collecting bits of wood, which she put into a fold of her apron. A few minutes later a second shanty woke to life. A dog came out, then a boy carrying a bucket. The pair sauntered leisurely over to the cow paddock, and without a trace of hurry drove the milkers before them towards some sheds and a stock-yard on the river bank. When I again glanced at the village, no fewer than three chimney-stacks were smoking and several figures were in evidence. The quaint thing was they were all females, yet all did men's work. Two chopped wood; another was drawing water from a well; a third plied a spade in her garden, and so on. Where, then, were the men of Nandlelong? It was very curious. But I was even more bewildered presently: it was to see the girl who had promised me assistance emerge from the public-house, followed by a tall stout woman in a chintz gown and a sun-bonnet. They were carrying between them a sort of sled. This they put down upon the ground after quitting the enclosure, and each having seized a rope, they began to drag it after them. It was indeed a sled, and evidently destined for my convenience. But two women! I felt hot and uncomfortable at the thought of the labour before them. To get it up that mountain! Heavens! it was two men's work, and strong men at that. The sled made a noise as it moved—a noise that drew other women from their occupations to look and make enquiries. Presently every fence on the line of march was topped with a head. What inquisitive creatures women are! Soon all Nandlelong would know that a stupid stranger had broken his leg on top of the Mount of Olives, and that the sun-priestess and her chintz-robed henchwoman were proceeding to befriend him. My blood began to boil. What were the men of Nandlelong doing to allow that girl!—Rover howled an accompaniment to my imprecations. Meanwhile, the sled crossed the plateau and approached the mountain's ancle. I leaned over the ledge, and making a funnel of my hands shouted to the toilers to stop. They paused and looked up. I wrote a note on a page of my pocket-book and pinned it to Rover's collar. "Wait for the dog!" I yelled, and fell back gasping. My note forbade her to bring the sled and reminded her of Sorrel. Ten minutes later she once more stood before me. She was laden with cushions and other things, and she was perfectly composed and even smiling; but the henchwoman, although she carried nothing, was breathless from the climb. "Ouch! ouch!" she grunted, and flopped upon the grass. She was fat and red-faced, and five-and-forty.
"It's twenty years since I was here last, and I hope as I'll never have to do it again," she complained between her frantic attempts to reduce her breathing apparatus into normal working order.
The girl smiled and, kneeling on one of the cushions, she began to untie the smaller of her brown-paper bundles. She took out some rough board splints, several bandages, and a great roll of lint. Meanwhile the elder woman studied me. "Went ter sleep on yer horse, I hear?" she demanded presently.
"I did, madam," I answered, with my best bow. "You see how I am punished for my folly. But I regret most of all that you have been victimised. I shall never be able to thank you enough for your kindness in coming to my rescue."
"You wasn't drunk," she replied, "or you wouldn't 've got hurt: they never does. My old man's fallen off all ways, all times; never got even a bruise. Yer see, drunks fall flop like puddin's. It's drawin' up the muscles breaks the bones."
"I was not drunk—certainly," I ventured. "I wish I had been."
The girl swung round from her work and stared at me.
"I should, perhaps, have saved you all this bother," I explained.
She shrugged her shoulders, and answered in her slow, velvet-toned contralto, "You need not apologise for that—in such a way." Evidently she despised me.
"Are there no men in Nandlelong, Mrs.——?"
I asked abruptly.
"Nary one. My name is Missus Garfield. All the men's gone last week to the Yabba Gabba new Rush. What's your name?"
"Joe Tolano, at your service."
"I keep the pub," she went on, nodding in response to my bow. "I'll call you Joe—it's easier than the other to remember. Furriner are yer?"
"No, madam—an Australian, and so was my father before me."
"Furrin-soundin' name, anyhow. Yer ain't got a pocketful er cash, I'm reckonin'?"
"I have two pounds seven, and I own that mare."
"It ought ter see yer through, if yer blood's healthy. Anyway, you'll have ter stay at ther pub, till you can walk. There's nowhere else to go to, and no one ter take yer on to Wakool and the horsepetal."
"Is there a surgeon in Nandlelong?" I asked.
"No, only Myrtle Hofer there. She's the school marm. But she knows enough to fix you up, I guess. Say when you're ready, Myrtle!"
"I'm ready now," said the sun-priestess, rising as she spoke. Then she glanced down at me. "I have mended broken legs in Nandlelong before to-day. Of course, I am not a surgeon, but I know something of anatomy and I have an Ambulance Society certificate. I shall do my best, if you will let me try."
She evidently disliked giving me so much information for some reason or another. She made me feel that I had incurred her disapprobation; perhaps it was my unlucky remark anent drink.
"I shall be only too glad," I replied, looking straight up into her eyes.
"I shall not hurt you any more than I can help, but you had better look away," she said.
She kneeled at one side of me and Mrs. Garfield at the other. Mrs. Garfield plied her scissors, and presently exclaimed on the whiteness of my skin. "Pore lamb!" she added. I suppressed a chuckle, and watched events from the corners of my eyes. Ostensibly I was gazing out across the valley of the Hume. The girl was deft, no doubt about it, and she knew her business. She very soon got the divided bone in place, and she took care, before binding on the splint, to see that both legs should be of equal length. It was wonderful for a woman to remember a detail like that. And no surgeon could have rolled bandages better. They were of the plaster of Paris persuasion, and as she wound them round and round my limb Mrs. Garfield, at her direction, wet them with water from a brandy bottle. They set hard almost immediately.
Yes, plainly the girl knew her business. In less than half an hour the job was done. I had managed in the meanwhile to keep up by making repeated applications—behind the backs of the ladies—to my whisky flask; in fact, I emptied the thing. Mrs. Garfield, unaware of this manoeuvring, extolled my fortitude to the skies. I was, it appears, "a living, breathing wonder," and she only wished a certain Bob Bates—who, I gathered, possessed a somewhat effeminate disposition—could have seen me. He had my profoundest sympathy unasked, poor devil!
Later arose the question of transit. In response to my whistle poor old Sorrel came up and put her nose in my hand, but that did not help me to her back, and all my strength had fled. Miss Hofer said nothing, but quietly began to arrange a sling along Sorrel's neck by looping up my swag across the saddle. I glanced at Mrs. Garfield and, remembering her distress after her climb, was filled with misgivings. But there was no occasion to have worried.
She was a poor climber, but an excellent lifter. I might have been a child of four, so easily did she wield my twelve stone odd. And when I would have gasped out my respectful admiration of her prowess, she sternly forbade me to reflect upon her masculinity. It seemed that she was ashamed of her physical strength, and considered it a serious impeachment on her womanhood. Later on she confided to me the fact that it had kept her single over thirty through all the "blokes" in her part being afraid to take a maid to wife who could "whop 'em, sir, as easily as dammit." She was a delightful creature, Mrs. Garfield, when one did not know her very intimately.
The journey to the village cost my good Samaritans two hours' anxious toil. But I do not remember much about it, for I was insensible most of the time. When I awoke it was to find myself in a small truckle bed, clad in one of Mr. Garfield's pink flannel nightshirts. The room was small, but excellently well ventilated. It was walled with slabs, through the interstices of which daylight could be seen in several directions. Besides the bed, its only furniture was a small board table and a large mirror, ornamented with a hand-painted scroll of words which invited beholders to drink somebody's dry gin if they regarded pure blood and workmanlike kidneys as worthy of the sacrifice.
Miss Hofer was holding a bottle of smelling salts to my nose, and Mrs. Garfield stood beside her with a glass of spirits talking volubly. "Anyone can see he's got a weak heart, the pore lamb," she was observing; "but by all the devils in Hades, Myrtle Hofer, if he dies in my shanty, the blooming loafer, I'll pull ye to Court for damages, my dear. You brought him here, and I'll make you pay for it, my beauty, as sure as my name is Henrietta Garfield. I'll be ruined, so I will. There won't be a soul come near the place for weeks, no there won't. Remember the trade I lost through letting the Crowner's jury sit on Bill Maloney's corpse last Easter. And that was only on the verandah, so it was. Sure, didn't the boys say for months after that there was a smell of blood in their rum, and dynamite. Now, I warn you, Myrtle."
"Hush," said Miss Hofer, suddenly, "he is waking."
"The pore lamb," cried the other, "so he is! The pore lamb. Here ye are, my dear; give him this drop o' gin, with my love; and I won't charge for it neither. I'll just go out and get another drop for myself. Oh dear! oh dear!"
I swallowed the gin and felt immediately restored. "Mrs. Garfield unnecessarily alarms herself. I'll be on my feet before the month is out," I murmured cheerfully.
"Mrs. Garfield is drunk," said Miss Hofer calmly. "She is a periodic dipsomaniac. You probably will not see her again for several days. On that account I regret that there is no other place in Nandlelong where you can be temporarily accommodated, for Mrs. Garfield has just lost her only servant. I shall have to do what I can for you pending her recovery."
"You are altogether too kind, Miss Hofer, but cannot I—is there no other way? I——"
"There is no alternative," she interrupted frigidly. "I must leave you now to attend to my class. But I shall return about midday to prepare something for you to eat. Be advised and endeavour to sleep in the interval."
With that she was gone. Rover was as astonished as myself. He followed her to the door, stared after her a full minute in contemplative silence, then turned and looked at me and barked. I knew exactly what he meant and I agreed with him.
FOR perhaps an hour a heavy silence reigned. Then came a diversion. It was Mrs. Garfield's voice raised in song. She was evidently in a distant part of the shanty, most probably the bar-parlour, but every sound she made reached my ears distinctly. In raucous accents calculated to outrage the nerves of even a stone-deaf dingo, she quavered through "Killarney," word by word. Sometimes she stopped—no doubt to moisten the works—but with scrupulous honesty she always picked up the theme just where she had dropped it. Rover became desperately uneasy towards the finish. I begged him to restrain himself and he nobly endeavoured to comply, but it was no use. Mrs. Garfield terminated on a split high C that rent both our hearts. In spite of myself, I groaned, and Rover relieved his feelings with a long-drawn melancholy howl. Whether or not Mrs. Garfield noticed these tributes to her performance I am unable to conjecture, but mercifully, she did not sing again. She sobbed. I fancy that the gin must have plunged her soul into a state of mournful ecstasy, for after a period of laboured lamentation, she sighed forth this dolorous apostrophe: "Etty Garfield, Etty G—G—Gar—Garfield, what the divil would yer do if there was no more unsweetened gin in the world?" There was a short pause; then she supplied the answer to this cryptic problem in a tone of stern admonition. "Woman—you'd take to rum—yer know yer would!" There was another pause. Then: "Yer'd have ter!" she declared, "bad smell an' all. Yer know yer can't abear whisky. It turns sour on yer stummick. Yes; yer'd have ter!" In these five sentences admonition had merged into sorrowful complaisance, complaisance had become absorbed in philosophic resignation, and resignation had faded into a lugubrious conviction of predestination. I laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks. Meanwhile Mrs. Garfield wept dismally. Perhaps her gin bottle was empty—poor thing! At length, however, the noise of her wailing gave place to a succession of loud snores. It was a relief, I am sure, to all of us—particularly to Rover. He had been on tenter-hooks, but he now yawned, lay down and composed himself to sleep. I thought of Myrtle Hofer and wondered what was the cause of her dislike of me. What a strange girl she seemed; how cool and self-possessed and clever and self-contained; and above all how disdainfully aloof. Still she was kind—or was it merely charitable? At any rate, I was deeply in her debt and it did not become me to be critical. I think I must have fallen into a doze, for of a sudden I heard voices and one was Mrs. Garfield's.
"Ah! it's you, Mrs. Soames!" she was saying. "Yer needn't be staring at me like that. Can't a body be takin' a bit of a rest widout 'er highness' permission I'd like yer ter tell me."
"I've brung yer the milk, an' ther butter and the heggs," replied Mrs. Soames, "an' I've come to tell yer besides that Tommy'll be late wid the mate becase the pony got out av the paddick last night, an' he's had to shank it in to Yabba Gabba an' ther butchers; an' I want an extry bottle av beer becase I'm expectin' Mrs. Twomy ter dinner, an' she can't abide spirits."
"Well, well, Mrs. Soames; yer know where the beer is. Put the things in the safe like a good soul, will yer. Me leg is that bad with the rheumatics this blessed morning I'm just obliged ter nurse it."
"Humph!" sniffed Mrs. Soames, with a scorn that sent tremors down my spine, "it's gin's the matter wid yer leg, Mrs. Garfield; gin, and nowt else."
"Glare away, Missus Garfield. Yer can't get up an' yer knows it."
"No—but——" cried the other in a terrible voice. There followed a loud crash and a sound of shattering glass. Without doubt mine hostess had hurled some handy implement at her mentor's head. It was equally evident that she had missed her mark, for Mrs. Soames' voice continued calmly and with undiminished scorn. "An' now ye've bruk yer motter: 'God bless our home!'" (Sniff.) "I would think yer did ought ter be ashamed av yerself. Yer a disgrace ter the town. That's what yer hare!"
"Don't yer dare ter Missus Soames me, Missus Garfield! I hain't pore Jim Garfield, let me tell yer! Yer can't browbeat me. No, yer can't. Why, fer two pins——"
"Ju-lia," sobbed Mrs. Garfield.
There was a long pause. "Julia," wailed Mrs. Garfield.
"Huh!" sniffed Mrs. Soames. "It's Julia, now."
"We're both fe-fe-fe-males," wept Mrs. Garfield.
Mrs. Soames must have been touched. "Well, there," she said, "tain't, after all, none er my business if yer do make a beast er yerself. But dry up—do! I can't abide yer snivellin'."
"I've not had a blessed bite ter eat this blessed day. That's how it's gone ter me legs," sobbed Mrs. Garfield. "But I know what's what!" she added with a sudden note of dignified asperity. "An', anyways, it ain't fer you ter bully me, you wid yer breakin' yer back ter keep yer Bill off-en-er ther booze, an' can't do it neither."
"Bill's a man," retorted Mrs. Soames; but her voice was appreciably milder.
"And so's my Jim, but I don't lets him beat me!" crowed Mrs. Garfield.
Mrs. Soames had apparently hauled down her colours, for she made no reply. I heard her bustling about for a few minutes, then a voice I scarcely recognised for hers, it was so subdued and indeed affectionate, asked meekly, "Wud yer like me ter git yer anything, Mrs. Garfield?"
"Yes," snapped the other, "git yerself (hic) off'n my premises an' let me go ter sleep in peace."
"The bar's open, Mrs. Garfield."
"Thet's my business," with tremendous dignity.
"Oh, very well," Mrs. Soames now had the huff. "Hi suppose as how yer've no hobjection ter me seein' of the hinvalid."
"That's really wot yer come so early for, I knows. Yer can't kid me."
"An' jist as well I did hif this is ther way yer treats him. Not arnother soul in the house, too. Where hev yer put him?"
"He's in ther lean-to (hic). Oh, git out, do."
"Very good, Missus Garfield. I will git out. An' I hopes as how you'll wake in a more comfortable temper. Good morning—Mis-sus Garfield."
Mrs. Garfield's reply was a prolonged and bitterly insulting snore. Mrs. Soames must have stood regarding her adversary for a full minute in full-hearted anger, since quite that time elapsed and at least four more snores were hurled at her, before I heard her move. But at last she departed and a good deal to my trepidation her footfalls unmistakably approached my room. Presently, without any preliminary ceremony, the door swung open on its leather hinges, and on the threshold I beheld a picture such as Whistler would have loved to paint. My visitor was small and old, and garbed from head to foot in grey—save for one big splash of scarlet—her apron. And the light behind her framed her in a scintillating aureole, that made her little bare and boney arms shine like sticks of weather-beaten ivory, and the edges of her face glow like the rim of a red-hot guinea. She was the most exquisitely ugly little creature my eye had ever looked upon; and yet her eyes were beautiful and full of twinkling kindliness. "I'm Mrs. Soames," she announced; "my man's ther blacksmith 'ere, but he's gone to ther Rush. 'Ow's ther laig?"
"Nicely, thank you, Mrs. Soames. Miss Hofer and Mrs. Garfield looked after that."
"Yer do seem fixed up—properly," she conceded, after scanning the bed. "That's Myrtle; she's a ginger fer thoroughness. Clean sheets, too, I see; an' my land, ther floor's bin scrubbed, positive! More Myrtle! Mrs. Garfield—hum!—she——"
"She suffers from rheumatism," I suggested. Mrs. Soames giggled. "S'pose yer must a heard us," she said. "She's lyin' in a corner er ther drawrern-room, and heaven or earth won't shift her till ter-morrer. But yer mustn't put it agin her, Mr.——"
"Tolano," I suggested.
"Mister Terlarner," she went on. "She's a decent body when she's sober, an' sometimes she keeps off'n er ther gin fer as long as six months at a stretch. I specs it's how as helpin' Myrtle mendin' yer leg druv her to it this go."
"I should be grieved to think that, Mrs. Soames."
"Oh, yer needn't, young man. One excuse is as good as ernother ter Mrs. Garfield when ther cravin' comes on her. Yer laig hurtin' any?"
"Not a bit. I hardly feel it."
"Time enough. When ther bone begins ter knit it'll give yer old beano at ther dog-fight. I've bruk both er mine, so I ought ter know. Was on yer way ter the Rush when it happened, I hear?"
"'Ard luck, an' no mistake. I'm real sorry. Smith's party got a sixty-ounce nugget yesterday, and Daebarn cleaned up forty fer two days' graft—mostly slugs; all pretty gold—pretty ernuff ter go inter a shop winder. Nearly all on 'em's doin' fair, too—ther others I mean, even the parties workin' on the foothills."
"And here am I laid by the heels," I groaned, involuntarily, "lying on my back idle and helpless while old mates of mine are making their fortunes seven miles away."
"Sorry I spoke," lamented Mrs. Soames. "I oughter guessed it'd make yer feel sick inside. Comes er bein' an ole fool jabberin' without thinkin'. But buck up, young man. Parson Jones says everything 'appens fer ther best, an' he ought ter know. He only said it last Sunday. 'Praps it's a blessin' in disguise. Yer never know yer luck."
I grinned to show I did not care. "No doubt a blessing in disguise," I agreed.
Mrs. Soames nodded. "We'll all do our level best to cheer yer," she said brightly. "Mrs. Twomy'll be erlong this after'. She's been laid up at the Wakool 'orsepital with pleurisy. She's a real card, she is, and a terror fer ther men. As there ain't none here just now 'cept you, I specs as 'ow she'll make it a point ter nurse yer."
"I should not like to trouble her."
"Yer couldn't, me son, bein' a man, fer she's twice married whatever, an' 'er chances o' pickin' up ernother 'usband ain't too rosy. It's my opinion she'd take on a nigger if nothin' else offered; and lor! though you ain't 'ansome, 'zactly—you ain't a nigger. 'Sides yer young."
"You terrify me Mrs. Soames."
Mrs. Soames shook with mirth. "An' bashful, too!" she chuckled. "My, we're goin' ter have great times in Nandlelong."
"I am to understand that your friend is a man-hunter?" I enquired, morosely.
"No, a widder," corrected Mrs. Soames, and as though that were the last word possible to utter on the subject, she changed the topic. "Myrtle Hofer's goin' ter fix up yer vittles, she tells me?"
"She has promised to prepare my lunch."
"She's a fine cook, Myrtle. She'll do yer proud, 'specially as she found yer. She'll make yer a stoo, likely's not."
"Ye'll lick yer chops when yer just smell her stoo."
"You make me feel hungry in anticipation, Mrs. Soames."
"She's good at other things than cookin' though—Myrtle."
"You bet. She's as good as er vet fer sick cows an' horses with ther glanders. She'll put yer laig right in lessern no time."
"She appears to be a very learned young woman?"
"So she'd oughter be—brung up at ther Fort Street Trainin' College."
"She teaches in the State School here, does she not?"
"Usual—but she ain't got much ter do just now—only about nine girls ter bang knowledge into—ther boys 'as mostly lit out ter ther Rush at Yabba Gabba. There's only my Tommy, and the Levy's three brats left, an' they're all wanted home fer yakker, milkin', fetchin' wood and meat an' such like."
"Do Miss Hofer's parents reside in Nandlelong?"
"Lordy, no. 'Er ole man's a cocky farmer up top er ther Noo England plains. Myrtle sleeps at ther school house an' boards at ther Post Mistress's—Missus Inglehaere's."
"She's a queer girl, Myrtle. Up every morn at daylight winter an' summer an' climbs ther Mount of Olives—fer exercise, she says. She's got a terrible lot er books an' she's always readin'. But she don't take much account er men. Bill Ickerspoon's clean crazy about her; so is Jerry Arbight; but she don't seem ter care fer either of 'em, though both could give her a decent 'ome!"
"A bit stuck-up, perhaps," I hazarded.
Mrs. Soames closed her left eye. "'Tween you an' me," she answered, "she's bidin' her time—flyin' fer 'igher game. They say as how ther School Inspector is the person she's settin' 'er cap at. He's twice her age, but 'e's got a good screw an' 'e must 'a saved a tidy bit 'aving no one but himself ter keep all these years."
But this confidence had made me feel mean. I, therefore, asked for a cup of water in order to make a break in the tide of my visitor's garrulity. She fetched one immediately and sighed as I drained it. "Could 'er done that myself once," she mused.
I gave her back the cup. "You don't care for water?" I enquired.
"I got ter think er ther spasms," she answered sadly, "so I has ter put a drop er somethin' in it when I drink anythin' but tea."
Then she brightened up. "What part er ther country might yer come from?" she demanded.
"A big place?"
"I've never bin there, but they say it's more'n twice as big as Wakool. Is it?"
"I should say even bigger still."
She shook her head. "They can keep it, fer me. Why, even Wakool bothers me; gives me ther blues an' makes me feel I can't breathe proper. Ole man alive?"
"No, madam; my father and mother both died ten years ago."
"Ah, well! ye've had time ter git over it. What did ther old cove do for a livin'?"
"He was a lawyer."
The lady sighed. "Pore man! I specs he's sorry fer it now. Got any brothers and sisters?"
"One brother living."
"Deary me! deary me! No sisters! An' what might he be doin'—ther boy I mean?"
"He is a lawyer."
"Well, well, well! An' is he makin' a do of it?"
"I believe he is fairly well off, Mrs. Soames."
"An' he lets you go about the country—prospectin' an' breakin' of yer laig? Him well off?" The horror in the old lady's voice was the last straw. I could no longer restrain the laughter that had been consuming me. But she was not in the least offended, only surprised. "I can't see nowt to laugh at," she kept repeating over and over; and when I had recovered my composure she instantly resumed her inquisition.
"I s'pose you quarrelled with him?"
"No," said I, "we are the best of friends."
"P'raps you're the black sheep of the family an' he's tired o' helpin' you?"
"He has never lent or given me a sixpence in his life."
This was plainly a staggerer. Mrs. Soames bent her brows together, stroked her chin with her forefinger and thought hard.
"I specs," she said at last, "you won't let him 'elp you?" and she fixed me with two bright eyes that contained forty separate qualities which each defied a contradiction.
I surrendered at discretion. "I admit, Mrs. Soames, that he has grown weary of offering to help me. He is a splendid fellow in every way and generous to a fault."
"Do you think I look a lady's man?"
She smiled capaciously. "Yer don't," she conceded. "But take my tip and keep yer eye skinned fer Mrs. Twomy, or maybe ye'll be mendin' of yer evil ways. Ah well! I'll hev ter be goin' now, an' that's a fact. I've got ther dinner ter git ready an' ther fire ain't lighted even yet. But I'll see yer agin soon. S'long!"
"Good-bye, Mrs. Soames, and thank you kindly for your call."
"I've enjoyed it," she declared, and vanished. Rover followed her, a circumstance that spoke volumes. It showed that Rover—an unerring judge of character—had approved the old lady as a good, kind-hearted creature who could be confidently trusted to relieve his hunger. For perhaps an hour thereafter I listened to Mrs. Garfield's snores. Then Rover returned, looking almost aggressively sleek and comfortable. He had evidently gorged himself and was too full to spare me a word. He did not even trouble to reply to my salutation, but curled up in a corner and went instantly to sleep. I was yawning for the hundredth time when a shadow of a sudden fell athwart the bed. It was Miss Hofer, carrying a small table. Her movements were completely noiseless. She had fancied me asleep. She placed the table at my elbow and then brought in a tray containing a bowl of soup, some toast and the half of a grilled chicken. The soup was for me, the chicken for herself. She took the latter outside, and sitting on a stool in the shade of the verandah, she began to eat—all without a word, for she paid no attention to my thanks. I polished off the soup and toast in two-twos, and thought hungrily of the chicken. I could hear her munching it distinctly. The torture of Tantalus was a mere circumstance to mine. Eighteen hours had elapsed since my last meal, and besides, I was a breathing animal, not a ghost. I could not bear it long.
"I wonder whether you think I lie in any danger of fever?" I ventured, in tones I strove to render invitational of discussion.
"Do you fed feverish?" came her answer.
"Why do you ask then?"
"I fancied that perhaps you were lunching out there for fear of exciting me?"
"Exciting you! What do you mean?"
"Raising my temperature by inspiring gastronomical anticipations you might conceive it hazardous, from a scientific point of view, to satisfy."
"I suppose that rodomontade means that you have finished your soup," she answered with contemptuous coolness.
I was too crushed to retort. I heard her rise and move away across the boards, but three minutes later she returned, and re-appeared with a plate containing the other half of her chicken and some steaming chipped potatoes.
"You must not expect to obtain any spirituous liquor while I am in charge of you," she announced as she handed me the food. "Tea or water you may have—but nothing else."
"Oh, indeed!" I gasped.
She met my enquiring glance and frowned. "I suppose you wish to make a quick recovery?" she asked impatiently.
"I'm afraid you have misinterpreted an unlucky remark of mine, Miss Hofer," I replied. "The flaws in my equipment don't really include a craving for alcoholic stimulants. I'm sorry if you are disappointed, but the fact is, I never touch spirit when I can avoid it."
She turned scarlet, slowly but surely from throat to forehead, yet she did not turn her head nor withdraw her eyes from mine.
"It appears that I have foolishly misjudged you," she said quietly. "I hope you will forgive me."
"On condition that you excuse me also, for having till this moment fancied you hard-hearted and unsympathetic."
"You thought me that?" she cried.
"Even after your great kindness on the hill? Yes, I did; but I was wrong. Won t you finish your lunch in here, Miss Hofer?"
She nodded, and went out to fetch her tray and a chair. She was silent for quite a long while. So was I.
I glanced at her occasionally, but she was plainly preoccupied, and she ate mechanically.
Suddenly, however, she began to speak. "I have been here for two years, and during all that time seldom a week has passed without a disturbance caused by drink. Almost all the men drink too much. I don't mean to say they are dipsomaniacs or anything like that, but periodically they go on the spree. It's their chief amusement. It is horrible—and the more so because they are such decent good people when they keep away from the accursed thing. I've tried and tried and tried to do them good, but it's not any use. They make vows and promises, but they always break them. Only a month ago young Joyce Spalding fell down a shaft and was killed; he was drunk. Oh! if you knew him. He was one of Nature's noblemen, with that one fatal weakness. But what do you think? Instead of being warned by his dreadful fate, almost the whole town got drunk the night of his burial, and there was fighting and brawling till daybreak. You wouldn't wonder at my hatred of drink and my contempt for drunkards if you had known Joyce Spalding, and could guess what my life has been these two years past."
"I am not wondering, Miss Hofer. I should like you to tell me."
But she shook her head and smiled. "It would depress you, and I must not forget you are an invalid." She rose and took away the tray. Later on she brought me a cup of tea. "I have no class to teach this afternoon—I am one of the unemployed, perforce. Perhaps you would like me to read to you?"
"I would prefer you to talk."
"Very good, but I shall first get my needlework." She was away an hour, and she had not used all the time looking for her sewing. She had changed her frock. She came back clad in a complete costume of brown muslin that left her throat and elbows bare. I was charmed to observe that her arms and neck were exquisitely moulded and as white as alabaster. And the brown stuff suited her eyes and her complexion admirably. She made no excuse for her long absence, but sat down and at once commenced sewing. It was some intricate piece of fancy work—a toilet table-cover, I believe.
"I have been chatting with Mrs. Soames; she has given me your history," she observed.
"What a quaint lady she is! She put me through an extended catechism."
"And did you answer her truthfully, Mr. Tolano?"
"Why, of course."
"Then you are really—only by way of being a digger temporarily—for amusement perhaps?"
"Is that what Mrs. Soames has concluded?"
"She considers you either a duke in disguise, or a black sheep—an outcast from some family of honest folks; she has not quite made up her mind which yet."
"The queer old thing has evidently an imagination in keeping with her curiosity."
"I," said Miss Hofer, "am vastly curious and not a bit imaginative. I am prepared to believe what you may tell me—at the foot of the letter. Now I have given you a first-rate opportunity to snub me."
"It is quite irresistible. I shall punish you as you deserve."
She looked up, flushing. "Oh!" she cried.
But I held up an admonishing hand. "You ought to know that there is but one natural force greater than a woman's curiosity, and that is a man's desire to talk about himself. You have only yourself to blame if I bore you with the history of my life."
"I do not expect to be bored," she said with a very pleasant smile.
"That is because you expect to hear something romantic. I defy you to deny it."
She blushed very prettily indeed. "You are by way of being acute," she murmured. "Yet you must not plume yourself too much. I am not a bread-and-butter miss by any means. Commence, then."
"As your Highness pleases——"
"I am an incorruptible democrat."
"Then in the name of the great Australian democracy permit me to salute you and inform you that I, commonly known as Joe Tolano, first saw the light of day in the good city of Sydney five and thirty years ago come Michaelmas. I was born of rich but reasonably honest parents, and I was brought up in the worship of respectable conventions."
"Your story opens well," she said.
"Therefore it must end badly if the law of compensations is not to go for nothing."
"I hope not."
"Judge for yourself. I was educated at a Sydney State public school, and afterwards went through the Melbourne University. My father wanted me to become a lawyer, but I had a silly notion that I had been cut out for a sculptor. I spent four years in a Tuscan studio before I discovered that I was meant by nature to dig clay, not mould it; and then my father died, to my great surprise comparatively a pauper. My share of the estate was £400. That sum enabled me to pay my debts and to return to Australia. I found my brother practising at the law and doing fairly well. He offered me a share in his business if I would qualify. But an ineradicable predilection for undiluted facts sent me instead to a desk in a commercial house, where I speedily learned the lesson that, in order to succeed in life, one must not scruple to prey upon one's neighbour's needs and weaknesses. I searched Australia for an occupation where this rule did not obtain—being, as I am free to admit, an idiot—and I found one alone—gold digging. Being a logical sort of idiot, I embraced it, and as I am also a tenacious sort of idiot, unless Fortune smiles upon me I shall live and die a digger. There you have my history in a nutshell."
Miss Hofer had laid down her sewing. She was regarding me with a curiously intent, far-away, unthinking gaze that I found somewhat disconcerting. But I don't think she was aware of it.
"You do not wish me to believe that you despise—wealth?" she asked presently.
"But—please tell me."
"That I would disdain to acquire wealth by any means that would directly or indirectly oppress or impoverish another living being: that is my commercial creed. I have already admitted it is idiotic."
"Yes," she said, lowering her eyes, "it is idiotic. Some people might call it noble, but not I. I do not set myself above Nature; and Nature intends the strong to prey upon the weak. You are probably a Socialist?"
"Not being a politician, I cannot say."
"Supposing that of a sudden you were to be made very rich: what would you do with your gold?"
"I should try to make it benefit as many people as I could."
She shrugged her shoulders. "Worse and worse; you are a communist."
"I beg your pardon," I retorted. "I may be an idiot, but I'm not a fool. I would take care never to be poor again, believe me."
"Oh!" she exclaimed, with a rich, full-throated laugh. "It is evident that you are not a fool. One may have hopes for you. I had begun to think you nothing but a dreamer. But I see now that you lack that sort of madman's usual mission. Your lamp is merely for yourself. You do not seek to throw its beams on other people's pathways whether they will or not; and you are not looking meanwhile for a martyr's crown."
"Neither am I looking for a convert's, especially at the present moment," I responded tartly. "I have not lived thirty-five years without discovering that the worst and the best of the world's old laws alike depend for maintenance upon woman's deep-rooted detestation of progression. At heart you are all conservatives, Miss Hofer; and when you are the chief victims of the customs that your blind conservatism sanctions and rigidities you expect men to bear witness to your unselfish devotion instead of to your folly."
The girl bit her lip and her eyes flashed. "Not all of us, sir," she corrected. "The Australian women have shown ere this that they can think as broadly as their brothers, and act, too—but I forget, you are not a politician!"
She waved the question aside. "I read, and I vote;" she gave me a demure smile. "Apparently you do neither."
"Oh, I read at times."
"De Quincey, Cervantes, Milton, Heine, and Burton."
"You have been examining my swag!" I cried.
"Your blanket is hanging on Mrs. Garfield's line to dry," she answered smiling. "If cost me half an hour's work and half a bar of soap to make it look like a blanket again."
"It got muddied in a swamp near Doughboy's Hollow," I explained shamefacedly. "Sorrel had the impudence to mistake a patch of slime for a bed of grass. But the books?"
"You shall have them to-morrow. Mrs. Soames is putting on new covers."
"I am accumulating obligations every hour," I muttered discontentedly.
"Do you really mind?"
"You do not discriminate?"
"You had no right to wash that blanket. The thought of it enrages me."
Her lips trembled, and she took up her sewing again. "It was nothing," she said, presently, in a low voice. "I was really born to the wash-tub."
"You!" I gasped. "Impossible."
Her face coloured hotly. "Two of my sisters are servant girls in Bathurst now. I should have been, too, but for winning a State School scholarship, which paid for my education at a Woman's Training College in Sydney. That is how I became a teacher. Why did you say—'Impossible'?"
"Because you look—too——"
She glanced at me and I paused, confounded. "Yes?" she asked, and her eyes commanded me to speak.
"Beautiful!" I whispered, and I coloured as I said it.
She nodded. "I am beautiful, I think," she said calmly. "But I am plain—compared with my sister Margaret. Yet that is not an explanation."
"No," I replied, "'patrician' was the word I should have used. I was a fool."
"The word applies to Margaret," she cried, her eyes aglow. "Ah! if you could see her. She is nearly as possible an angel. And her mind is more lovely than her person. She is the only thing I love in the whole wide world."
I was too astonished to speak. I could only stare at her. She seemed to be dreaming aloud and to have forgotten my existence. "Margaret would adorn a throne," she said, "and they have sold her to a Dutch dairy farmer for three Jersey cows, some poddy calves and four Berkshire pigs!"
"Miss Hofer!" I gasped.
She gave me an inscrutable look. "Here is a romance to your hand," she muttered. "My father is a German peasant who settled on the New England plains more than five and twenty years ago. He has a barren farm and thirteen children, eleven of whom are girls. Yet he loves his farm best. He is poor, and beauty has a marketable value. He bred us all in habits of obedience. Margaret has no thought of resistance, although Carl Anderson has been haggling over the fourth pig for the last six months. An eager lover—ah yes! but then his ardour is nicely tempered with providence, nicht wahr? Margaret tries not to be too proud of him."
The story and the sardonic bitterness of the tone in which she related it produced on me an indescribable effect. I was idiot enough to want to spring out of bed and rush off like another Quixote to the rescue of Margaret. However, I managed to suppress the impulse and also to enquire calmly, "And when is the happy day?"
"Fortunately father is a strict Catholic—therefore not until after Lent," replied Miss Hofer.
"Can nothing be done meanwhile to save your sister from her fate?"
"Oh yes! a miracle might happen, for instance a plague break out among Anderson's swine and so prevent him paying the stipulated price. Or I might find a gold-mine and ransom her from both her tyrants. Or another suitor might come along and offer father a better bargain. Oh! indeed yes!—much might happen in three months."
"It is a long time," I commented stupidly. She put her hands behind her head and stared me in the eyes, a morose and moody sphinx.
"It is a thousand centuries and at the same time half a day—a second! Ah, if I were a man——"
"What would you do?"
"I should beat those traffickers in a woman's soul and body to the very point of death—ay—though one is my father. And then I should take Margaret away where they could never reach her."
"I see—but are you absolutely helpless now?"
"My salary is sixteen shillings a week."
She nodded, smiling bitterly. "I believe you would help me if you could," she presently observed.
"Yes," I said. "But I cannot. What of your brothers?"
"They think only of the new pigs."
"But your mother?"
"She is dead, but were she still living she would only think of the new cows."
"It is a tragedy!"
She suddenly stood up and moved to the door. "I must put on some soup for your supper," she said quietly. "It takes time to boil, soup—to be any good. And I want you to be well nourished. I want you to get well very quickly."
I WAS still endeavouring to piece together the fragmentary impressions of my interview when Mrs. Soames appeared and a stranger whom I guessed for Mrs. Twomy because she wore a widow's bonnet. I was right. She was rather a pretty woman with a somewhat predaceous cast of face, but fat and figure-less. Her eyes were bold and full of sex appeal—but, alas! she had a double chin. I thought as I looked at her of a hawk's soul incarnate in the body of a pouter-pigeon. She enclosed the hand I offered her in two soft intensely female paws, and she patted it and sighed and simpered over me. I was a "pore dear" and she "felt for me." She understood my loneliness—wasn't she lonely? And she gave me a bottle of raspberry brandy she had made herself. Mrs. Soames opened it there and then and the good creature drank a good half-glassful to let me see it wasn't poisonous. So did Mrs. Twomy. The widow's sympathy was stifling. Unlike Mrs. Soames she had no mental individuality at all. There was not a relieving feature, not a contrast in her composition. She was fourteen stone of sex sentiment and crude feminine craving for masculine dominion. In ten minutes I was bored to death. In twenty I detested her. In half an hour I had to choose between boorishness and brain fever. She had by then consumed three more glasses of raspberry brandy and the stuff had given her the courage and impertinence to confess her conviction that it was not good for either man or woman to live alone. In sheer desperation I behaved like a savage.
"Ah!" said I. "It's a crying shame for a sweet, lovely creature like you to remain a widow."
"Dear man," she sighed.
"You owe it to yourself—and the race—to mend your state," I declared.
She uttered an amorous guffaw and cast down her bold eyes in an impudent pretence of modesty.
"But husbands don't grow on every bush," she muttered, then she ogled me. Mrs. Soames caught my eye. She was in a silent ecstasy of mirth.
"Have you got any money?" I brutally demanded.
"Fifty pounds in the bank and I own the house I live in," replied the widow eagerly, "not to speak of a piano, a cow—and three of the best Angora milkin' goats in these parts."
"And yet with all those possessions—and your beauty—I repeat, Mrs. Twomy, your beauty—you've been twelve months a widow."
"Every day of it," she groaned.
"You must be very hard to please," I suggested with deceitful gallantry.
She was silent, but her eyes spoke volumes.
"Very hard to please," I repeated inexorably.
"I've been waiting for Mr. Right," she whispered, and giggled like an elephantine school-girl.
It was the chance I had been waiting for. "Ah! but you shouldn't wait." I earnestly admonished her. "The poor fellow may not be able to come to you. You should be generous, Mrs. Twomy, and go to him."
"Where?" she demanded, plainly puzzled.
I shook my head. "I'm not a wizard, madam—but I should say in West Australia, or perhaps in South Africa. I hear that women are scarce in both those places and far outnumbered by the men. If I were you I wouldn't wait a day. I would convert all I owned into cash and start straight off on my travels to find Mr. Right and make the dear man happy—as I'm very sure you can."
The silence that followed was broken by the strangled laughter of Mrs. Soames. I had meanwhile been staring stolidly at the wall. I became conscious at length, however, that Mrs. Twomy had risen and was standing in the middle of the room. Involuntarily I turned and glanced at her. She was beet-red, her hands were clenched, and she was eyeing me like a wild animal.
"Very funny—aren't ye—Mister Joe Tolano?" she observed; "very funny!" Then she went away. Mrs. Soames stopped laughing instantly, and she, too, stood up to go. To my amazement she looked ruffled.
"You've got a nasty tongue in your head an' that's a fact," she observed. On general principles she was in arms to defend her sex. I understood and honoured her for it.
"No doubt I was a beast," I murmured humbly.
"Humph," she sniffed.
"It's my nerves, I suppose," I lamented. "I don't often behave so caddishly. But I'm all nerves to-day."
Mrs. Soames's queer little face broke into a smile. "Oh! bother!" she cried. "The woman deserved it. She's a man-hunter, that's what she is. Anything with whiskers 'd do fer her. She's only seed ye the once and she was on the brink of askin' ye to keep company. I make sure she would have, too, if I'd 'a gone out 'an left ye half a minnit."
"Still, I had no right to hurt her feelings."
"Oh, shut up!" said Mrs. Soames. "You ain't the first. She stuck up ter old Billy Simpson till the man's life was that miserable he had to pour dish-wash on her doorstep to fend her off 'n him. Nandlelong ain't done laughing at it yet."
"All the same—she is a woman."
"There's women and women," declared Mrs. Soames, as if that settled the matter.
But I would not let her off. "It's kind of you, Mrs. Soames; to try and cheer me up," I said lugubriously, "but it's past question I was in the wrong. Under no circumstance should a man behave unkindly to a woman!"
"Rot!" snapped the old lady. "A female that puts herself forward want's shoving back—an looks fer it. An' if yer arsts me you didn't shove Mrs. Twomy half hard enough! But—what! You're laughin'—ye are! Don't you dare tell me it's at me?"
Our eyes met. "Oh!" she cried. "I see. Ye've made me turn clean round—you rascal!"
For two seconds she was furiously angry, but her sense of humour prevailed and on the third she was laughing consumedly. "You scamp, you hypocritical scamp," she gasped, as soon as she was partially recovered. "I've a mind to shake ye, I have. I would, too; if it wasn't fer yer laig."
Miss Hofer entered at that moment. She seemed surprised at our evident good understanding.
"You appear to have been having a good time," she remarked. "Here are some of your books, Mr. Tolano—and one of mine that you may care to read."
I glanced at the extended volume. It was Balzac's "Eugénie Grandet."
"You have read it?" she asked, looking into my eyes.
I nodded. "But I should like to renew my acquaintance with it."
Mrs Soames hastily said good evening to us both, and hustled out. Plainly she despised literature.
"You had an object in bringing me this?" I asked, pointing to the girl's book.
"Yes. If Eugenie had been beautiful she might be my sister Margaret, and if Pére Grandet had been less successful in his enterprises he might stand for my father's portrait refined of its dullest dross."
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Tolano."
"This leads us—whither?"
She shrugged her shapely shoulders. "I know too little of you yet to be sure. I must wait until I know more."
"And in the meanwhile I am to be mystified?"
"Does that question mean that I have already aroused your interest?" She was watching me through half-closed lids, her head thrown back in a pose of feline but commanding grace.
"Really interested?" she added.
Something, I hardly knew what, provoked me. Perhaps it was a suggestion of coldly superior aloofness in her bearing. At any rate she made me feel as a transfixed caterpillar might on being examined by a heartless lepidopterist. Naturally I resented her attitude.
"You have a trick of stirring curiosity," I answered coolly.
She laughed and put up her hand to arrange a stray wisp of hair. "Curiosity," she murmured, "is the mainspring of progression." Then she abruptly changed the topic. "Mrs. Twomy has been here. How did she impress you?"
"So ill that I was rude to her; rude enough I hope to prohibit any reasonable chance of her return."
"Yes, and she brought me that bottle of raspberry brandy too—the product of her own sweet manufacture. If I could reach it I would fling it out of the window."
"She must surely have bitterly offended you?"
"She insulted my ideal of your sex."
Miss Hofer's upper lip curled scornfully. "You are too muscular and vigorous a man to prate becomingly of ideals. What business have you with such absurdities? Your body was made for hard work—manual labour in the open air—and your brain and mouth to form and express downright common sense convictions."
"I'm obliged for your opinion," I retorted, much amused. "Of all things I value candour and you are——"
"I am a fool," she interrupted tartly. "Bandying words here while your soup is burning." She went off like a whirlwind.
Well it seemed fairly clear that I should not die of boredom while my leg was mending. Mrs. Soames I had taken a real fancy to. Miss Hofer had piqued and interested me beyond words; and Mrs. Garfield, although temporarily hors de combat, also possessed a striking personality. And I was the only man in Nandlelong. I felt I could depend on feminine curiosity, if on nothing else, for continuous companionship in the circumstances. All the same it was hard to lose my chance in the Yabba Gabba Rush, for I had given up a fairly good quartz claim on the Shoalhaven to try my luck in the New England, and I knew it would be impossible to get to work again for two months at least, by which time I should be inevitably deep in someone's debt. This thought I found so infernally depressing that by the time Miss Hofer returned with my supper I had no appetite to eat it.
She might have been a clairvoyante so unerringly did she go to the root cause at once of my chagrin.
"You've been worrying," she declared. "Is it about money? I see that it is."
"Yes," I replied. "I'm poorly heeled, Miss Hofer,—and there's no use blinking the fact that I'm here for keeps—perhaps for a whole quarter."
"You have your brother?" she suggested.
"And some rags of pride, as well."
"I am sure that Mrs. Garfield will trust you."
"I have no right to ask her."
"Try and eat your soup."
"After all my trouble in making it?"
"I'm in the blues and can't even feel the least bit grateful—now. Take the stuff away, please, and don't bother any more about me. To-morrow—somehow or other Sorrel and I shall start for the Wakool Hospital."
"You are mad."
"And horribly ungrateful."
"I know it."
I looked at her and saw that she was deeply hurt. Her lips were quivering and her eyes were simply burning. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm a beast."
"Then make amends—eat, and while you eat I'll tell you something."
I made shift to obey her. "You need not bother one scrap about your board here," she said. "I have guaranteed your account with Mrs. Garfield. I did it before she would help me to bring you down from the mountain."
"Miss Hofer," I gasped—confounded and indeed dismayed.
"Oh!" she said, speaking very quickly. "You've no call to feel round for your dignity and throw it in my face. I didn't do it for fun or because I'm a sweet, kind creature. I'm nothing of the sort. I want help worse than you do. The wry second before I saw you I'd been praying to the Blessed Virgin to send me help. That's why I climbed the mountain—to be nearer her, so that she could hear me. And she did hear me. She sent me, you——"
My mouth fell open, but not a word could I compel my tongue to utter.
"You are surprised—but it is all true—true as heaven!"
"Go on," I contrived to whisper.
"I must have money—heaps of money and ever so quickly," she said rapidly. "I know where it is to be got—but I cannot get it because I am a girl. I need a man I can trust to get it for me—and not cheat me of my share. That is to say—a gentleman. As soon as you spoke I knew you were a gentleman—the one I want—my man! The Virgin wouldn't mock a girl who prayed to her like I did. Oh! I know I cannot be mistaken."
I made an effort and gathered my scattered faculties together. "So you helped me—and guaranteed my account here with Mrs. Garfield—all on the assumption that I shall, when I have recovered, do the work for you—you want."
"That is it," she cried, her eyes blazing into mine. "It's a bargain, a sordid bargain. You have talked of your pride, but there's no excuse for it to be offended here. If I spend anything on you it's only an advanced payment on the work you'll have to do for me. I'll keep a rigid account of everything down to the last farthing."
"You'll not refuse me—will you? Ah, but what a fool I am; you can't. You're not your own master. The Virgin sent you to me."
"What faith you have!" I involuntarily exclaimed.
"I believe!" she said, raising hands and eyes ecstatically aloft. "Oh, Lord! help Thou mine unbelief!"
For a moment or two she seemed to have quite forgotten me. Her lips moved in silent prayer. I watched her in a state of bewildered fascination. She was in that pose and mood of mind the most beautiful creature I had ever looked upon.
But soon she remembered, and with a sudden bashful air of irritating modesty, she turned her face away. Her cheek was scarlet. One hand strayed towards mine across the coverlid. "You will help me?" she asked, in a musical slow whisper.
I caught the hand partly in order to prevent it wandering into my soup, and also because it was a good-looking, nice, white sort of a hand. It clasped my fingers closely and the contact made me unexpectedly aware that there might have happened a worse misfortune to me than the breaking of a limb—the not breaking of it, for instance.
But in order to give myself an opportunity of testing the matter thoroughly, I judged it expedient to temporise.
"I must think it over a bit," I said.
The hand squeezed mine imperiously. "No, no, be kind and generous at once," said its owner.
"In a sordid bargain—kind?"
Fool that I was. The hand dropped me like a hot potato, and Miss Hofer turned with a scornful gesture to examine me. She was curiously pale.
"You must excuse me. For a moment I forgot. It is, of course, a question of terms."
"Naturally," I answered, through my teeth.
"I offer you half—a full half share—of it all," she said, with a magnificent hand-wave.
"Is it all—a gold mine?" I enquired.
"Yes," she answered coldly.
"One that you have discovered?" I questioned, beginning in spite of myself to get excited.
"A good one?"
"Far from here?"
"Within ten miles of where you lie."
"Does nobody else know of it?"
"No living soul but you and I."
"But are you sure? What do you know of gold? It might be a new chum reef, mica or pyrites."
The girl looked at me with quiet contempt. "For two years I have lived here—on this gold field—among practical miners. I have watched them at work. I have seen all their processes. I have examined all their claims. Moreover, during the whole two years I have made a daily and nightly study of geology and mineralogy. I have read all the text-books and know them by heart. There is not a miner on the field who possesses one tittle of my scientific knowledge. Ask whom you please, and they will tell you that whenever a reef dips or disappears they come to me for advice as to where they shall look for its continuance."
"How could I guess?" I asked in all humility.
"But that is not all," she went on. "I have secretly applied my knowledge to local conditions, and I have proved the conclusions unanimously entertained by all the local miners and all the expert geologists who have visited this field to be largely based upon a fallacy. Listen, and I'll explain. Everybody believes that the alluvial gold found in the valleys and river flats has been deposited there through the course of ages by the denudation by water action of the reef-spun mountain tops of the range behind the town."
"Ah!" I cried.
"So it has been to some extent," went on Miss Hofer, "but only to an extent. The greater portion of the gold, however, comes from farther afield."
"You say you have proved this?"
"To the hilt."
"What led you to the discovery?"
"The fact that the best alluvial gold has always been found associated with tin and decomposed granite, and there is not an ounce of either tin or granite in the whole range, though quartz reefs abound. The country is all basaltic—diorite and shale."
"A tremendous argument!" I cried.
"The wonder is that it has never occurred to any of the experts," sneered the girl.
"Ah! bah! experts!" I jeered. "But I interrupt you—pray proceed."
"There is little more to tell," she said, with a shrug. "As you must have already guessed, I looked for granite, and after a long, weary search—I found it."
"Beyond the ranges?"
"That is my secret—until I am sure of you."
"Well?" she asked, fixing her intense grey eyes on me. "Have you made up your mind?"
"I have, matey," I answered whimsically; "we are partners from this moment. Here is my hand to seal the bargain."
She took it and gripped my fingers firmly. "Now eat your soup!" she commanded; "you must be looking well and strong to-morrow morning, for Dr. White is coming from Wakool to see you. I wired for him this afternoon."
"You—wired for him. Fifty miles! His fee will be as many guineas."
"He is my friend. He will wait. Now, no further disputing. Eat!"
I obeyed—my head in a perfect whirl the while. I did not taste a single mouthful, I was so excited and preoccupied. I only realised that I had eaten when she took from me the empty plate.
"Now you must go straight to sleep," she said. "But it is still daylight," I protested.
"I wouldn't care if it were midday. You must do as you are bidden."
"But you haven't even told me where the—the—our—mine is."
"What use—you wouldn't be a whit wiser if I explained. You are a stranger here. Be quick and get well and I shall lead you to the spot myself. Now for the last time—- sleep!"
I bent to her will and reposed my head upon the pillow. To my astonishment I found myself marvellously weary. I muttered "Good-night" and marked her smile at me, and I had just begun to wish she would always smile like that when the whole world faded with a sweet soft suddenness into a delicious darkness of complete repose.
ABOUT six o'clock the next morning I was awakened by a really alarming commotion. Chairs were being banged on the floor and against the walls in a most reckless fashion; furniture was being thrown about and the loud swish of water pouring continuously (to all seeming in and over the entire shanty) appeared to betoken a second deluge. Startled and perturbed, I called out to ascertain the reason of the racket. But not until my third shout did I obtain any response. Then, however, my door was burst open and Mrs. Garfield, armed with a dripping broom, and holding up bedraggled skirts over bare ankles and squashy slippers; appeared on the threshold.
"What the divvle do yer want?" she demanded. "It's not breakfast-time yet and I've the whole house to clean up agen the doctor's comin'——" Here she broke off and yelled, "Molly, Molly, ye baggage, the water's dyin' off. Turn on the cock full splash or I'll break yer neck for ye."
"Right oh!" sang out Molly in the distance. "If yer wants drowning, here goes to oblige you!"
A perfect surge followed. It was almost as though the bank of some dam had burst. Mrs. Garfield uttered a wild shriek, banged the door and fled, calling down fates too horrible to repeat on Molly's head. But she could not have been altogether serious, for Molly answered with uproarious laughter, and I did not hear any noise to indicate a personal encounter. For quite an hour, however, there were enough noises of other brands to keep me in a state of shuddering apprehension lest the shanty would either be carried bodily away or fall in pieces. Fortunately, all things have an end, and at last Mrs. Garfield's "clean-up" was over. Soon afterwards Molly brought me in a glass of fresh milk, thick with cream. Molly was an ox-faced servant with small pig-like eyes. Her figure resembled a bag of flour tied loosely in the middle, with two broom-sticks—for legs—protruding from the lower end, planted in boots of mammoth size and of the blücher variety.
She said "Good-morning, mister," and giggled. "Have some milk?" Another giggle. "Yer oughter see the house." A mighty giggle. "It's clean." A roar of laughter.
I took the glass, thanked her and began to sip. The milk was delicious. Molly just about finished her laugh when I was half through. "It ain't been cleaned since last time the doctor was here to post mortemise a corpus!" said Molly. Then she had another fit of laughter that lasted till I had quite finished the milk.
"I perceive you are a humorist," I remarked, as I handed her the glass.
"Go hon!" said Molly. "I ain't nothing of the kind. I'm the servant here. That's what I am." She was quite indignant.
"I mean that you are fond of a joke," I hastened to explain.
"Ham I?" said Molly. "Well, don't you try none of your capers on with me, young feller, or you might find out you was mistaken." Molly was not only indignant by this—she was on the very brink of fury.
"I assure you—my dear girl," I cried, "I have no intention of offending. As for capers, I beg you to remember I have a broken leg."
"Oh, I forgot the leg," said Molly, more calmly. "How's it bobbing up?"
"Very well, I believe. It is not hurting much."
"Good iron," said Molly, now quite pacified. She stared at me for a moment, then giggled once more.
"What's the matter?" I enquired.
She spluttered and screwed up her mouth. "No," she cried, and shook with repressed giggles like a great blancmange.
"I beg your pardon."
"Don't!" she gasped; and burst into another roar.
"What on earth ails you, girl?" I cried exasperated.
"He-he-he-he's getting bald!" shouted Molly, and quite overcome with this stupendously mirth-provocative discovery, she rushed off holding her hand to her mouth and cachinating like a regiment of giddy kukuburras.
Myrtle Hofer stood in the doorway. She had heard and seemed amused. "You needn't scowl at me," she protested smilingly. "I haven't commented on your personal defects."
"No," I growled, "but you are smiling still at that hyaena. Lord save us, what an owl it is!"
"Oh, Molly is all right. You must not mind her, Mr. Tolano. Her trouble is she sees fun in everything. But she's a good, willing girl, and will wait on one hand and foot for a kind word."
"I should prefer to be served by a three-legged jackass."
"Each man to his taste," cooed the girl, with a wicked smile. "I've come to tell you that the Doctor is approaching. His buggy has been sighted on the second rise. He'll be here in less than half an hour."
"Mrs. Garfield is cooking some yabbies for your breakfast that Molly dug out of the creek bank before daylight, and I am baking you two lovely apples. I walked all the way to the Alley for them last night."
"You walked fourteen miles; to get me some apples? Oh! I say, Miss Hofer, that was too bad of you."
"There's a man's gratitude," she sighed.
"You know what I mean."
She folded her arms and frowned, then, perfectly imitating a man's gruff tones, she growled out: "See here, mate, I'm not taking any nonsense from you. So put that in your pipe and smoke it. Here it is—your pipe."
She handed me my old cutty. I could not suppress a cry of delight. "I thought it was lost—down the gully."
"So it was," she returned; "I found tobacco in your swag but no pipe, so I concluded you had dropped it from your pocket where you fell. And there it was at the bottom of the gully. Talk about your Sherlock Holmes!"
"You climbed the mountain to look for my pipe?"
"Not only that," she answered. Then she bent over me and murmured in low, deep tones that were vibrant with reverent sincerity, "I wanted to thank the Virgin, for having sent an answer to my prayer."
"What a strange girl you are!"
"Strange to acknowledge benefits bestowed!"
"But how can you be sure?"
"My heart tells me. You must be a pagan or you would understand. Have you no faith? No faith at all?"
She caught her breath. "An atheist?" she gasped, her eyes dilating with surprise, and, too, I think, disgust. "Don't say you are an atheist."
"Not that, Miss Hofer, but all narrow things repel me, therefore creeds, which are the narrowest of all. The worshipful part of me demands room to worship in, room as vast and incontainable as space itself. I know of no religion that does not limit one's natural ideas of God."
"Oh, how wrong you are! Every religion, even the crudest, exalts and immeasurably extends the grandest unaided conception of His Omnipotence."
"Is that so? Then will you name me a religion which admits His right and His capacity to be wicked—in the human sense, of course?"
She turned a little pale and her lips parted. But she did not speak.
"All those I know of," I went on, "confine God's power within the restricted frame of what mankind in the aggregate considers good. They assert that He is all-powerful, but in the same breath they deny His authority to step outside the cage they have built for Him. He must not and cannot do what they consider wrong. They are kinder to the Devil They give the Devil supreme authority over evil, and they don't dispute his right to do good too if he wants to."
"You evidently consider good and evil indistinguishable," she said, slowly. "That is, if your philosophy is logical?"
"Not quite that, partner," I answered, with a smile. "But I contest the title of religions to define the indefinable and to apotheosise abstractions. Theologians, to my thinking, have invented the Devil in order to account for the more incomprehensible transactions of the Deity in man's regard. I prefer, as a mere outsider, to confess my understanding finite and to accept everything as good in a Universe presided over by an omnipotent Power of Good. Therefore, I deny the Devil and all his works and pomps."
"And worship God in evil?"
"In everything, Miss Hofer; in the starlit beauty of the night, the blazing noontide heat of day; in the spectacle of a mother crooning over the cradle of her new-born babe; in the martyrhood of Christ; in the ignorance of savages; in the triumphant genius of the educated intellect; in the loathsome cruelties of war; in the desperate blasphemies of murderers about to expiate their crimes upon the gallows' tree; even in this broken leg of mine, and that's a personal misfortune. How serious you are!"
"Your ideas are too vague and vast for me," she said. "I must have something to hold fast to——"
"A set of rigid guiding rules?" I suggested.
"That is, perhaps, because you have never considered morality as an independent force. In your mind it is indissolubly associated with religious faith, eh?"
"And most certainly it is," she cried.
"Ah, well, we shan't argue on the subject."
"You despise me too much to condescend," she flashed. "Or is it that you fear to risk the contest?"
"It is because I realise the invincible irreconcilability of our points of view, and because I hold the theory that while a man should never hesitate to express his convictions when called upon, he has no business to use them as a weapon of offence. We are all governed by superstition, Miss Hofer, in a great or less degree, and we all inevitably arrive at the conclusions fixed and destined by the limits of our individual enlightenment. Your equipment may or may not be perfectly developed. The same thing may be said of mine. But it's quite, evident our processes revolve in unrelated spheres. Why should we bring them into opposition needlessly? We should be bound to quarrel. I feel it in my blood. I can see it in your eye."
"But suppose you were wrong—and I could show——" she paused, blushing charmingly.
"You are burning to make a convert. Confess!" I cried.
"You are not quite generous, do you think?" she answered coldly. "Speech was not given us to conceal our finer thoughts, nor for the mere exchange of trivialities."
"I quite agree with you. It was intended as a medium for use in making friends, in detecting enemies, in conducting business, in sharpening the faculties of reason and in spurning opportunities of unprofitable intercourse. We have examples of its abuse in religious controversies and their historic outcome—'Wars of Faith,' 'The Spanish Inquisition'—the——"
"Stop!" she cried, half-laughing, half-frowning. "You have convinced me that we should quarrel beyond all doubt if we discussed religion any farther. Thank goodness here comes the doctor!"
"With all my heart."
The doctor entered at that instant. He greeted Myrtle Hofer very warmly, and she gave him both her hands, which he dropped his bag to grasp.
"It was indeed good of you to come so quickly," she declared. "I had no right to expect such a generously prompt response to my message."
"But you did expect it," he said quietly, looking her keenly in the face. "That is well."
Then he turned to me, and I read in the light of his eyes a deep and passionate attachment. Unquestionably he loved Myrtle Hofer more than passing well. He was a big man, tall, broad-shouldered, vigorous-looking, with a high forehead, a prominent Roman nose and a sweeping black beard that concealed fully half of his features and spread like a fan across his chest. His eyes were deep set in his head and black as midnight.
"Good-day to you, my man," he said abruptly. "A digger, eh, and a stranger, too; I don't remember your face?"
"From down South," I replied. "I was on my way to the new Rush when I broke my leg."
"Just so, and hard luck you've had of it. They showed me a monster nugget this morning passing through the Point—680 ounces. A man named Utber found it, who only arrived on the field from Tarnagulla yesterday; a new chum miner, too."
"I know him," I groaned. "He was my last mate. Less than a month back we were digging post holes together near Singleton."
"The fortune of war," said the doctor. "Now for your leg."
In five minutes he had cut through all the bandages. "Lucky I came," he observed. "You'd have limped, else, to your grave. How do you bear pain?"
"Then grip the bed-post hard and clench your teeth. Now, Miss Hofer, kindly stand there, and take the foot—heel and instep—that is right. Pull steadily towards yourself when I give the word. Now grip hard, my man—we're going to hurt you, but not for long. Ready. Now, Myrtle," said the doctor.
When it was over they had to unclench my fingers from the post, but I had the satisfaction of not having interrupted the proceedings with an outcry. In the circumstances it was a solid comfort, for the girl was quite upset and she sobbed audibly while the torture was on; no doubt my face was ugly enough under the infliction to frighten any one—even a man not also a surgeon. Afterwards Dr. White grew quite genial, and he wrung my straightened hand. "Nothing like the Australian brand of grit," he commented cheerfully.
"And a woman in the room," I gasped. "How long before I'm on my feet, sir?"
"Oh! you should walk in six weeks, easily. You're in prime condition, and rest is all you want to make the leg as good as new. I've put it up in solid plaster, so you'll not need any medical attention till the bone has set. I'll come again this day five weeks. Good-bye and good luck!"
Myrtle followed him from the room and I heard them talking for some time in low tones on the verandah. At length, however, a bell rang, and Mrs. Garfield's voice was raised noisily inviting the doctor to "come an' look at ther best breakfast yer ever saw in yer born days."
"I'll do more than that," laughed the doctor; "I'll eat it."
I was beginning to feel sadly neglected when Molly suddenly appeared with my yabbies. She flopped the tray on the bed, and stood back, red-faced and gloating.
"There ye are!" she said. "Fresh as mud and as fat as cocoa, I boiled 'em with four rusty nails, too, so they ought to taste simply scrumptious."
The yabbies indeed looked good. There were seven of them, and in colour and everything else they perfectly resembled (although land animals) miniature sea lobsters. And they were really delicious.
"It was more than good of you, Molly, to bother getting them for me," I exclaimed.
"Oh, rats!" she responded, with her extraordinary giggle. "You're a sick 'un, you are, and Myrtle told me I have to feed you up. This afternoon I'm goin' out with the gun up the creek to try for some wild duck."
"Are you a good shot?"
"Well—I don't need to shoot duck when they're sitting, anyway; though I'm no class to Myrtle. She can hit Jacky Wintons on the wing, she can."
"Molly! Molly, you slut!" yelled the voice of Mrs. Garfield.
"All right, old bullfinch, I'm a comin'!" shouted Molly. "Whatcher want, anyway?" She didn't stir a finger.
"Come here this minute, yer baggage!" screamed the irate landlady.
Molly winked at me and leisurely departed. But I heard all the sequential colloquy.
"Where's them three yabbies I told yer ter keep for the doctor?" demanded Mrs. Garfield.
"Golly! I guess the sick cove's had 'em," replied Molly. "I got 'em for him an' I gave 'em to him. And"—with an ascending pitch breathing the spirit of defiance—"he's been and gone an' eaten every mother's son and daughter of 'em!"
There was a moment's breathless stillness; then I heard a loud sharp sigh and a plaintive enquiry ensued: "Molly, dear, are you my bloomin' servant—or am I yours? Jest tell me, darlin', will yer?"
"I s'pose I'm yours," giggled Molly.
"Then," shrieked Mrs. Garfield, "git inter ther corfee-room an' wait at table or I'll break every blooming bone in yer blessed body! I'll yabbie yer—yer swine!"
"You touch me!—go on—just touch me!" retorted Molly invitingly, and stopping all her giggles as if by magic.
"Ho! So ye'd threaten me, would yer?"
"Git in yerself!"
"Think because you run a pub, you own the earth, I suppose! But I'll show you a point or two if you once get my monkey out."
"Molly," called the voice of Myrtle Hofer from the dining-room, "fetch me some hot water for the tea, will you please?"
"Certainly, Miss Myrtle," replied Molly instantly. "Be there in two twos," and her heavy blüchers thundered off in the direction of the kitchen.
It was the end of the battle, and neither adversary bore the other the slightest malice, it appeared; for a few minutes later I heard them discussing the huge nugget that my friend Utber had discovered; and while Mrs. Garfield's voice betokened amiability personified, Molly's giggles showed that her "monkey" was securely caged again.
Dr. White occupied a full hour over his breakfast, but perhaps he did not eat all the time. Myrtle Hofer was his companion. Later on she and Molly helped him put his horses into the buggy. He had to return to Wakool to perform a dangerous operation on a dying woman, according to Mrs. Garfield, and he had cut his time rather fine. Mrs. Garfield seemed rather glad. Every now and then she passed my door, and she always had a word to say. I gathered that she held the doctor in a good deal of fearful respect, and felt embarrassed in his company.
"A hard man, the doctor," she said at last, and heaved a big sigh of relief; then she shouted "Good-bye!" I heard the sound of wheels and stamping hoofs, and then a light step on the verandah.
"Good-bye," said Myrtle's voice.
"Good-bye—and remember!" replied the doctor.
"Remember what?" demanded Mrs. Garfield, after a full minute.
"How to mind my own business, Mrs. Garfield," replied the girl with a most unusual tartness in her tones.
"Hoity-toity! Can't a body ask a civil question to the madam?"
"As many civil questions as she pleases."
Myrtle stepped into my room biting her lips. Her eyes were very bright and her cheeks were pale as chalk. Something had evidently moved her to her depths.
I looked at her, and then away from her in silence, listening to her panting breaths. She was fighting for control; in a few minutes she had won the fight. She came over and smoothed my bed-clothes, drawing them straight.
"He took a mean advantage of me in the stable," she muttered. "He kissed me against my will, and he swore an oath to make me marry him. I thought he was a gentleman—but he is just like all the others."
"Like all the others," I repeated stupidly.
"Men are all alike—brutes when in the mood to woo," she bitterly declared.
I shrugged my shoulders. "Why this confidence, Miss Hofer?"
"To make you realise how much you owe me."
"Ah, I see. Well, next time the doctor comes here I'll call him to account, if you desire. I can set that right, at all events."
"I neither desire nor require such a compromising championship, thank you, Mr. Tolano!"
"Oh!" I said hastily. "I beg your pardon—that circumstance escaped me. Not for worlds——"
"I'm sure you understand."
"Not for worlds would you compromise yourself. Is that it?"
"I think, matey," I said, forcing a smile, "you are rather out of sorts to-day. It appears the doctor behaved like a cad; but it isn't a necessary sequence that he is one, much less than I am, though we're both men."
"You defend him?"
"I confess a sneaking sympathy for madmen and lovers. They are mental irresponsibles. The doctor, in my opinion, is radically afflicted."
"Oh! So you hold yourself superior to passion?"
"How you jump at conclusions."
"Answer me: do you?"
"For once you have guessed right. I do."
"And that, in the language of common sense, merely means that you have never been in love?"
Her eyes met mine in a long, questioning encounter. I had at first a mind to shrug aside enquiry; but I ended by resolving to be more candid and more courteous. I fancied it might do this strange wild girl a little good. "It does not mean that," I answered. "It means that my native-born capacity for sentimental folly has been consumed by the fires of experience."
"Oh!" she muttered. "Oh!" and dropped her eyes.
In a little while she smiled, and said she would be late for school. I did not see her again for five days.
MEANWHILE, as Myrtle Hofer had predicted, I was waited on hand and foot by Molly, in reward for the occasional bother of uttering a kind word. My only other visitors were Mrs. Garfield and Mrs. Soames. The former came to see me twice a day, prompted evidently by a sense of duty. She never stayed longer than five minutes. Mrs. Soames, however, cheerfully devoted two hours each afternoon to my entertainment. She always brought some sewing work or knitting to occupy her hands while she talked or listened. Her conversation was mainly locally historical. She had been a resident of the field for forty years, and during that period she had so well used her eyes and ears as to have acquired a knowledge of mining lore, and of the innermost recesses of the average gold getter's character little short of marvellous. Her observations had made her rather cynical concerning her kind; but she was a kindly old body, and her stories were always more pitiful than bitter. Some of them were intensely dramatic and all were so interesting that time, passed on wings when she discoursed. And she enjoyed our interviews quite as much as I did, for she loved talking, and she found me always an attentive and delighted listener. The rest of my days I spent in reading. Molly supplied me with books, which she borrowed from the library of the Town Mechanics' Institute, of which she became a member for my benefit. Some of them I read aloud to her—novels of the pathetic order. She liked them all, but especially she adored those stories which made impossible dukes go down on their knees to kitchen-maids of unexampled beauty and goodness, and implore the said kitchen-maids to take pity on their pain and coronets. Molly would burst into a storm of weeping if the kitchen-maids proved too scornful to the wretched dukes.
They were generally scornful at first, but as the novels usually ended happily her sorrow was short-lived. One novel, however, was different. It was styled "Lord Ernest's Weird." The kitchen-maid in this case was a damsel of a nature so abject and crawlsome that, in spite of a beauty rivalling that of Helen of Troy—a virtue more unbending than St. Cecilia's—and an intellect declared fit to match with that of Madame de Stäel (though I'm bound to say the author carefully refrained from permitting his heroine to exhibit any signs of it) she refused to let her lover bridge by marriage the awful gulf set by birth between them. Her father was a gamekeeper. In consequence, Lord Ernest's heart was broken into the smallest fragments, and he faded to the tomb, the obdurately humble kitchen-maid a miserable spectator of the process of his dissolution. The effect of this book on Molly was something to remember: her tears flowed freely all the while I recited the story of the weak-minded nobleman's decay, but she had evidently expected that his lowly sweetheart would, in the nick of time to save his life, relent. When, therefore, the end came, and "with a gentle sigh Lord Ernest's unhappy spirit fled to that bourne," etc., Molly was simply staggered. "Hold on!" she sobbed; then she gasped and stood up and faced me. "Read that again!" she commanded. I obeyed her.
"That means—he's dead?" she demanded in a hollow voice.
"Yes, Molly—dead. Dead as Julius Ccesar."
"It's a bloomin' lie!" Molly cried, in tones that told me she was thoroughly roused. For she snatched the book out of my hands and rent it into pieces with a strength and fury I have never seen equalled. "That'll teach you, you hound!" she remarked, and she cast the torn fragments out of the window. "It'll cost me four bob," she went on, "but I wouldn't mind graftin' a month for nix to get half a minute alone with the sneakin' cove that wrote it. He's a low, mean beast—that's what he is. He wants shootin'—he's a dirty murderer!" Then Molly uttered a howl that might have been heard for half a mile, and stumbled off to the little kennel—her bedroom—whence not all Mrs. Garfield's threats and blandishments could lure her out until the following morning. After that I always glanced at the end of a novel before venturing to pump its contents into Molly's system.
When the end of the week came round I had two new visitors—policemen. They dropped in to have a look at me out of mere curiosity, but they remained for a short chat. Both were armed to the teeth. It appeared that they had come to Nandlelong to prevent Sunday liquor-trading on the Sabbath, as the diggers working during the week at the Yabba Gabba Rush who lived at Nandlelong were in the habit of returning to their homes late each Saturday evening in order to spend the Sunday with their wives and families. I was soon presented with proof that the policemen had made a timely appearance in the town. At about eight o'clock a chorus of gruff male voices announced the arrival of the first batch of diggers. They came to the shanty as though it were an unavoidable duty to liquor up before greeting their wives. And liquor up they did in deadly earnest. Shouts for beer and rum and more beer and more rum speedily resounded through the building. And within an hour there was a veritable pandemonium on foot. The musically-inclined revellers were the hardest to put up with. They sang ceaselessly—with no regard to tune—and their voices were beyond description raucous and unmelodiously hideous. One wretched creature droned through "Her bright smile haunts me still" at least a score of times; another slaughtered Tosti's "Good-bye" in the same remorselessly persistent fashion; while a third murdered "Little Annie Rooney" with a bleating, broken baritone liberally interspersed with hiccoughs, until my unfortunate nerves were in tatters. At a little after nine the first fight occurred. I was almost grateful, because it put a short term to the singing. But the noisy profanity of the onlookers, the heavy stamping of feet and the dull, thudding sounds of hard fists meeting flesh were by no means pleasant things to listen to. The fight was interrupted by the police, who bore off both contestants to the lock-up. But hardly had they departed when another broke out; and fresh diggers were arriving all the time. Mrs. Garfield presided over the proceedings—to judge by sounds—like an Amazon. Her voice was never still. It poured forth in a constant stream of blasphemous objurgation intermingled with profane appealings to different diggers by name, to shut up and keep the peace. The police, nevertheless, had to be called in three times to divert a riot, and more than once I heard them threaten drink-maddened fools with bullets. It was fully eleven before the noise abated, and then it came about almost suddenly. The wives of the miners had come in a body to take their husbands home. Doubtless they had learned from long experience the psychological moment to step effectively between the drinkers and their cups. They stormed the bar-room, uttering shrill protests, complaints and commands, and in less than five minutes each Joan had her Darby in tow and under reasonable subjection. I listened to the querulous female voices die off into the distance. Then the bar-door slammed, and there was nothing to be heard but the chink of coin and the crooning monotone of Mrs. Garfield. She was counting the night's proceeds. "Two, four, six, eight, ten," she chanted interminably. But at length a jingling crash portended the emptying of it all from the bar drawer into a bag.
"Twenty-one quid and fourteen shillin's and two ounces, five weights besides. No bad takin's for a Saturday," she announced.
A weedy male tenor answered her. "Not (hic) so bad—me dear. 'Ave a drop o' somethink on the strength of it."
"No, I won't, Jim Garfield, and neither will you. You're full to ther back teeth already. Come straight along to bed."
"Just one more tot—Etty—one little measure—Well, half."
"Not a blessed drop. D'ye hear me?"
"I hear ye, 'Etty," meekly. "But what about the night? You might get a cramp——"
"Off you go! Now."
"Alright, 'Etty—alright. Don't 'it me, Lovie, I'm a-going."
I could picture Mr. Garfield quite easily from that. Poor little man. His spouse pitilessly read him a curtain lecture, too—after he had gone to bed—on the evils of drink and her contempt for mankind in general and him in particular. Meanwhile, outside the shanty in the street two wives were pleading with the police to release their drunken husbands from the lock-up. They got their way, too—in the end. After all, police are human beings, and to judge from their voices the women were young. They might have been good-looking. The last thing I heard that night was the wailing of a curlew in the hills. It sounded like the cry of a lost soul. It was a fitting requiem for the many souls in Nandlelong already sunk in the lethargy of sensual repose. Some day, let us hope, the traffic in alcohol will be nationalised and controlled by the strong hand of the State, and then no longer will men, made in the likeness of their Creator, be permitted and indeed encouraged to debase His handiwork by indulging to excess their brutalising fondness for the lethal drug. I am no teetotaler myself, nor prohibitionist, but I know too much of the miners and bushmen among whom I have lived so long to believe in any other plan for the unshackling of the chains that bind them to the soul-consuming wheels of appetite.
Next morning my breakfast did not materialise until past eleven o'clock. Molly brought it in to me—a Molly I hardly recognised, she was so tired and subdued. She had been up all night, trying to pacify a step-father whose brain was steeped in the horrors of delirium tremens. She showed me a scratch on her arm some inches long that he had inflicted on her with a broken stirrup-iron. He had beaten her mother half to death, and they had been obliged to bind him hand and foot at last. "And to think," said Molly, her eyes streaming, "he's that kind and good when he's sober; he wouldn't hurt a fly. He's been more'n a step-daddy to me."
Molly put it all down to Mrs. Garfield's rum. She declared she had often seen "Mother Gar," as she called her, putting kerosene and chopped-up tobacco into the kegs. I saw no reason to doubt the story either. It is an old game with bush publicans, and one that will endure as long as bushmen demand their "snake-juice" to be fiery enough to burn and scald "all the way down."
As for Mrs. Garfield, she did not rise until the afternoon, and the mate of her bosom not at all. Molly had to do all the work of the house, but I was not lonely. About midday I became conscious of human unseen neighbours keenly interested in my welfare. I heard every now and then the shuffling of feet on turf, and cautious whispers that concerned me. I tried to read for a time, but it was no use. Evidently I was spied upon. Sometimes through the cracks between the slabs I would glimpse a bronze hand, a patch of face or beard, and occasionally an eye. The eyes were extremely diffident. They vanished with the rapidity of magic whenever mine encountered them. But, at length, after much practice, I luckily succeeded in fixing one hypnotically to its place. Then I spoke to it. I said: "Good-day; mate."
The eye made no reply.
Thinking to encourage it, I assumed my most ingratiating smile. "Pretty hot out, I should say?" I observed.
The eye stared at me unwinkingly, and there were others. I felt them rather than saw them, but I was convinced of their presence at neighbouring cracks. I did not, however, look away from the eye that I had hypnotised for fear of losing a thing I had found so difficult to catch. It seemed necessary to force the conversation, so I drew bow at a venture. "You boys must have had a good time last night, judging from the row you kicked up?"
The eye never flickered in its critical cold gaze, but a gurgling chorus of guffaws behind the slabs told me that the shaft had found several marks.
Thus incited to proceed, I launched another: "Reckon some of you awoke with big heads and furred tongues this morning?"
The eye showed its first sign of sympathy. The iris contracted round the pupil and a hollow groan was heard.
"Say, boys," said I; "why not come in here and have a yarn?"
The eye spoke, and speaking vanished. It said, "Garn," in loud hoarse accents; and "Garn" was echoed by a dozen other voices.
I was astonished, so astonished that I forgot my manners. "Well!" I cried. "You're a new sort of diggers; a pretty sort, too, to turn your backs on a sick mate."
There was dead silence for a moment, then came the sound of whispering; and a little later every crack was furnished with an eve again. I chose one at haphazard, and glared at it defiantly. It returned my glare with interest.
"You may be sick," growled a voice. "But you ain't no mate o' ours. You're a bloomin' gentleman, you are."
"A what?" I indignantly demanded.
"A blanky toff," replied the voice.
"'Tain't. Molly told us yer was; said we wasn't to worry ye either."
"Bosh!" I cried. "Molly was pulling your legs. I'm as good a digger as any of you."
The eyes in deep silence regarded me with hostile, unbelieving stares. I perceived at once that in order to convince them of my bona fides, I should have to speak to them willy-nilly in the shibboleth of Australian-bush masonry. This consists of but one word. It is a curious word—and ugly. There is nothing immoral or evil in it, but I know of no other word which has a greater power to shock, and indeed dismay, refined susceptibilities. Personally, I loathe the sound of it, but I have been frequently compelled to use it in mere self-defence; for it is the one and only open sesame to confidential intercourse throughout the back-blocks of the entire Australian continent, and without a certain fluency in its employment it is utterly impossible to get near to any bushman's heart. Why this should be so I cannot perfectly explain. But it is a fact beyond the region of dispute—one of those hard, incontestable facts of life which it is pure folly to counter. Bushmen of the true blue stamp have it eternally on their tongue-tips. It is their method of emphasising every statement they consider worth the trouble of expression. And as bushmen never discuss trivialities, but are only conversationally concerned with the relation of observed truths, emotions, and experiences, they find it necessary so to emphasise each and every statement to which they commit themselves unless they happen to be in the society of strangers they suspect for gentlefolk. Thus, among themselves a hot day is never merely hot, it is always a "blanky hot day." Their friends are "blanky good sorts," and their enemies are "blanky bad lots." If they happen to visit a church and the preacher touches them, they will nudge each other, and remark, "Blanky fine sermon—my oath!" I hope I have said enough to show that this bush habit has no sinister significance. But I am not apologising for the bush all the same; not even defending it. Bushmen have their faults, and this possibly is one of their greatest, but their virtues weigh the balance out of count.
And now to return to the eyes that were discussing me, and my resolution to use the great Australian expletive.
I said to the eyes: "You blanky coves don't believe me, I see. Well, if it wasn't for my blanky broken leg, I'd blanky soon wring some of your blanky necks for giving me the lie, I promise you."
The effect was magical and instantaneous. The eyes vanished and within ten seconds no fewer than fifteen lanky, bronze-faced, bearded diggers trooped into my domicile. They didn't say anything immediately, merely lounged around the walls and propped themselves against the slabs. Each man had a pipe and could use it. I filled and lighted mine, so as to give them time to feel at ease. The operation occupied about four minutes, and it was critically examined by fifteen pairs of hawk-eyes, whose owners, without the slightest doubt, would have silently and contemptuously taken themselves off if I had conducted the said operation like a new chum—if, for instance, I had cut too much tobacco from the plug, or spilt any on the bed-clothes, or stuffed my cutty bowl too full, or cut the leaf too fine, or, finally, have used more than two matches at the most in lighting up.
As I made none of these mistakes, by the time I had begun to puff, my visitors and I were incomplete sympathy. The room was soon thick with smoke, despite its splendid ventilation. I had to wait for one of them to commence talking, since to have made a remark on my own initiative would have amounted to a gross solecism, indeed a deadly breach of bush etiquette. But not for long was I kept tongue-tied. A big fellow with a red beard and sandy hair turned suddenly and spat through a crack into the wide, wide world.
"No need o' spittoons here, mate," he observed.
His companions turned to the cracks nearest them and discharged a rattling volley of tobacco juice with the nicest possible precision in the same direction as the red-beard's range-finder.
"Make your blanky miserable lives happy," I commented, politely. "But don't knock my blanky walls down."
"Tip us your blanky monnicker," said red-beard. "Mine's Sebby Garrard."
"Joe Tolano," I responded.
Instantly a fusillade of names rang out, in spluttering gutturals raspingly accented wherever a dental note occurred.
"You don't suppose I can remember that blanky catalogue?" I demanded gruffly. "Mate's blanky well good enough for me."
"Me too," said the fifteen as one man.
I felt we were getting on nicely now, so I opened out and volunteered the tale of my accident. It was received in a tomb-like silence. No one interrupted, and no one commented. Indeed, so little apparent interest did it excite that almost as soon as it was over Sebby Garrard raised his voice and feelingly cursed the police. He informed me that both troopers were seated just outside the bar door of the shanty, and that they had vowed no man in Nandlelong should have a drink that day. "Just because it's Sunday," wound up Mr. Garrard, with an oath that shook the roof. "And us all here with our blanky tongues hangin' out, and heads on us from last night we'd blanky well sell for blanky mud-cakes."
I surveyed the gathering and came to the conclusion that the poor devils were actually suffering, and that a moderate dose of stimulant would really do them more good than harm. I, therefore, shouted for Molly as soon as the storm of curses had subsided, and directed her to fetch me two bottles of whisky. She would not hear of it at first, but I explained that I was a lodger and the law allowed me to have as much drink as I chose to pay for. So she went out and consulted the police, who reluctantly admitted I had told the truth. But when she returned with the bottles the troopers came with her. They were full of wrath, but they were wise enough not to express it. They watched me pay for the whisky, however, very narrowly, and they warned me they would keep an eye on me, and, if I was not careful, leg or no leg, I'd find myself pretty soon in Wakool gaol. My answer was to invite them in to have a drink, or alternatively to go to the deuce and shake themselves. The diggers roared an approval so hearty that the troopers thought it better to mend their manners, and one was courteous enough to help Molly draw the corks.
My part was to measure the nips, and I managed this ticklish job with such dexterity that no man was offended. The two bottles sufficed to give my seventeen guests almost half a glass of raw spirit apiece, and a thimbleful was left over for myself. Every man of them disdainfully declined to drown good liquor with water, but standing round my bed in a double row, they chorussed forth, "Here's lookin' towards ye, mate," and gulped the spirit neat. Then they said, "S'long, mate," and trooped out to their homes and dinners. "S'long" meant that they would return as soon as possible, so I did not waste any time over my own midday meal, but as soon as I had swallowed it I got out all my books and began to mark passages, here and there, which I knew would appeal to them. Bushmen love nothing better than listening to emotional stories, or verses, or philosophic disquisitions; and I had it in mind to try my best so to entertain them during the afternoon that they would not regret their enforced soberness; for I was resolved that they should not use me as a means of obtaining more liquor if I could help it—that they would try was, of course, a foregone conclusion.
They returned shortly after three o'clock, and, with the exception of Sebby Garrard, all immediately squatted on the floor, their backs against the wall. The red-beard took the one chair my room contained. I knew at once that he had been appointed the administrator of the crowd, his business being to conduct negotiations for a "booze"—that is to say, a general spree and shindy. Being a bushman he approached the matter warily. After smoking silently for some minutes he observed—
"Blanky hot day, mate."
"Yes," said I.
"Not a cloud in sight."
Five minutes' deep thought ensued, then the red-beard shifted in his chair and placed his right leg across his left knee.
"Keeps on like this blanked if there'll be any rain till Lawd knows when!" he drawled.
"True for you, mate," I answered, after a proper pause to digest the proposition.
"Dry prospect," he proceeded.
It was evidently a signal, for the crowd on instant rapped out, "Blanky dry!"
Red-beard looked both relieved and encouraged. Evidently the preliminary skirmish had been a task not altogether pleasant. He was glad it was over. With a sudden jerk of the wrist he threw two sovereigns upon the bed-spread before me. "No use us bein' dry," he declared, with a beautiful air of making a perfectly casual remark. "Reckon it's up to us coves to shout. You've stood your round like a blanky man. Sing out for the blanky girl, will you? Rum is the word."
I took up the sovereigns, handled them carefully for a moment, then tossed them on the floor. They rolled towards the door, followed by fifteen pairs of astonished eyes. One, nearing the threshold, spun round and wheeled back under red-beard's chair. The other stopped and fell flat on its face on the middle floor, showing Australia's coat-of-arms on the reverse side exposed.
My guests turned their eyes from the coins to me and gazed at me solemnly for several minutes. I stared at the ceiling. The silence was electric. It grew appalling at last. I felt that I had made fifteen deadly enemies. At length I heard a soft shuffling sound; it was the crowd getting afoot. Red-beard, who still remained seated, put up his hand as if in protest. He looked quite dazed. But a thin, wiry-looking digger on the extreme left was not to be kept in check. "Av we can't get it by fair means we'll blanky well git it be foul," he rapped out, "even if it comes to wreckin' the blighted shanty. As for the traps, let 'em look out, that's all! I ain't afraid o' any blanky traps! Wot's the differ atween Sunday an' any other day?" He spat on his palms and rolled up his sleeves. "Come on, mates!" he cried, and strode to the door. With a hoarse roar the crowd sprang to follow him. But in the very nick of time I raised my voice. "Hold on, boys!" I shouted.
They paused—gladly, I believe, thinking perhaps that I had relented.
I waved them back to their places in grave silence, then, when the wall seemed sufficiently well propped, I sat up in bed and faced them.
"I suppose you coves thought it fair game to insult a man with a broken leg," I began quietly, but as cuttingly as I knew how. "Come to see him as his bloomin' invited guests and then toss him a couple of blanky quid to call for drinks, eh? Reckoned because ye heard he was down on his blanky luck yer could treat him like any blanky pauper sundowner! That your notion? Tell you what, mates, I've met some low-down blanky cusses in my time, but your lot takes the biscuit easy."
Their faces were fifteen separate studies in emotions. Before I had finished not a man there but had his eyes on the floor, his pipe out of his mouth, and was hanging his head with shame. And all were stricken speechless, dumb as rocks. Ah! the dear fellows with their great warm hearts and hot misguided ways. Good bushmen all! Lord! how I loved them as I stung and sneered at them! There is no man, the wide world over, so big and simple-hearted as the bushman. I could have hugged the rugged ugly lot of them in sheer delight at the manly childishness of their primitive natures which had given me so great a power over them.
"You blanky dogs!" I said, and spat out my contempt.
They seemed to wilt under my scornful gaze and grow smaller every one.
"Molly!" I shouted suddenly. Not a man of them looked up.
Mrs. Garfield appeared at the doorway.
"Ah! Good day, Joe," she cooed. "Havin' a good time with ther boys? How nice and socherbul yez all look!"
"Two unopened bottles of your best rum—none of your draught thunder and lightning, mind you! We've got enough tobacco-juice in the room already," I commanded.
Mrs. Garfield bristled up like a colossal kitten whose fur has been stroked the wrong way. "Sure, Joe, you knows we only keeps the best o' stingo in our shanty. But I s'pose you boys must have your joke. Two bottles, was it, yer said? Fourteen shillings, please."
I opened my attenuated purse and extracted, after some search, the requisite amount. Mrs. Garfield took it with a smirk and bustled off.
I glanced around at my guests. They were all attentively studying the floor as still as a company of statues; and thus they remained until I had carefully measured out the fifteen glasses which Mrs. Garfield brought me. When that good lady had departed I proceeded to pour coals of fire on the bushmen's heads.
"Well, mates!" I said.
One by one they raised appealing faces to my stern regard. But not one moved.
"I've got a gammy leg; I can't hand the rum round," I rapped out testily.
This galvanised them into action. They stumbled sheepishly forward to the table and each man took a glass.
"Don't drink it now. Get over and sit down and sip it!" I ordered harshly. They obeyed like automata—all except red-beard. He gazed at me beseechingly, his face working in the strangest fashion. Twice he tried to speak, but gulped his words. At length, however, he stammered out, "You see, matey, it's this way. The boys——"
"Shut your blanky mouth!" I ordered sharply, "and sit down with the others. I'm not going to stand being insulted twice. Sit down, I say!"
He retired, crushed and utterly subdued.
After a moment or two I opened a book and held it up for all to see. "You coves remind me of a tale I've been reading. There's your sort here."
Not a word was said.
"Like to hear it read?" I asked.
A man here and there nodded, afraid to speak. The rest kept moveless silence.
The book was one Molly had got me from the library—a translation of Cusin Sec's inimitable Hungarian folk stories.
I had chosen the Cynical Tapster to begin with, as it told a tale of unmerited contumely most generously retorted on the actor by the victims. They listened with the most profound and painstaking attention. The dramatic finale, however, only moved one man to enquire, "Is that all, mate?"
"Yes," I replied.
A spontaneous sigh went up from the assembly.
I waited for a minute or two, then casually enquired, "Perhaps you'd like to hear some poetry?"
"Go ahead, matey," they chorussed softly.
I had no book of poems there, but I knew many things by heart which I was certain would appeal to them from long experience of their kind, so I recited Gordon's "Rhyme of Joyous Garde" as a start, and thence wandered from Gordon to Kipling, and from Kipling to Scott and Keats, Swinburne and Tennyson.
My reward was in watching the play of their expressive faces. It was like playing upon a musical instrument of which one is a deft and certain master, reciting to those bushmen. And the result was equally exhilarating and a thousand times more pleasant, for musical instruments are not usually afflicted with thirsty throats, as were my bushmen; and I had the triumph of making them forget their craving; indeed, an hour had passed before one man had a quarter emptied his glass. But after all the great test had yet to be made. All this was but the necessary ground work of the campaign I had decided on—the fixing of videttes, outpost skirmishing, and reconnoitring of the enemy's redoubts. I had yet to marshal my battalions and make a general advance. I confess I essayed the task in a good deal of trepidation, for were the diggers once to suspect my purpose they would have broken loose and laughed me to scorn as an impudent teetotal demagogue. And then the deluge! But I have Cusin Sec to thank for a somewhat droll opening to his great tragic masterpiece, "When the soul dies." This captivated the bushmen's fancy, and their keen sense of humour once tickled, they were tricked into supporting the growing gloom and horror of the narrative by the natural expectation that the clouds would disperse presently so they might laugh again. Thus they were bound hand and foot to the spell of the mad author's marvellous genius before they guessed. Thereafter it was all plain sailing. The story unfolded only the more surely to chain them with its weird soul-compelling thrall. The desperate struggles of the drunkard to master the insidious influence of his inherited affliction provoked them to occasional impulsive curses, even groans. But that was only at first. As the story proceeded, gripping them more strongly every moment, they shut their eyes and listened silently. The drunkard's wild bargain with the devil—the sale of his soul in exchange for one year's freedom from the tyranny of alcohol so that he might give even so short a period of happiness to the woman who adored him—this made my bushmen writhe in their places. And then—the end! The miserable, hopeless end: the surrender of body and soul; the extinguishment of the last spark of unselfishness and nobility that had forced the drunkard to his awful light; the accumulated horrors of the ruin that he spread around him; and his final dull insensibility to all—become a sot, a brute a body unillumined with consciousness of either good or evil. I have always felt that the end of this story is too truly human to be true to art, and yet it never fails to thrill me to my very marrow despite its deliberately rugged diction, its faults of style, and its theatrically untheatrical abruptness; and it never fails to burn my eyes with fantastical emotion that should belong entirely to the mind. It makes me feel, indeed, that I want to be a little child again and pour out my grief at my mother's knees, and have her charm my fears and hopelessness away. But my bushmen did not acknowledge stupid sensitiveness to their own minds' criticism or to other people's ridicule. They were stirred to their deepest depths and they showed it: they breathed heavily, and big tears rolled down their hairy, copper-coloured faces. Only one man did not weep; he moaned. Dusk had come; I was tired. The story had taken me three hours to read. And Mrs. Garfield's heavy footfalls lumbered to the doorway.
"Did ye call, Joe? Is it more rum you'll be wantin', me good man? You boys are all that temperate to-day—bein' Sunday—and yez all holy boys I suppose. Ho, ho, ho! ha, ha, ha!"
The darkness of the room prevented her from seeing anything amiss. But I, more used to it, saw the bushmen covertly wiping their faces and fumbling about for their long-forgotten pipes.
I said to Mrs. Garfield, "Lucky for you, mother, that there are no police here, or your question would result in a summons. No—we do not want any more rum, and if you'll take a fool's advice, don't try to force trade—especially on Sundays."
"The devil!" she shrilled in a rage. "The devil! Well, I'm sure!—me forcin' trade. The idea of it! Me—me!" She bounced off in a perfect fury.
As for the bushmen, they got up.
"I suppose you boys will be off to the Rush before daylight to-morrow?" I asked gently.
"Yes, mate," answered one of them.
"It's good-bye then, is it?"
"Ay," said red-beard; "leastwise for me, mate. I ain't feelin' like high jinks no more to-night."
"An' me—an' me," said the others slowly, one after another.
"Well, good-bye to ye, mates," I murmured, "and thank ye kindly for your company."
"Goo'-night—g'-night, mate!" they responded gruffly, turn by turn, and nodding as they passed the bed they tramped out slowly and soberly into the night.
A moment after the last of them had vanished, Myrtle Hofer entered, carrying a lighted candle. It was the first time I had seen her for five days.
"You!" I cried.
She nodded and put the candle on the table.
"Mrs. Soames and I have been listening to you in the bar-parlour all the afternoon," she said in a low, soft voice—it was positively velvety.
"Oh!" I said.
Her eyes beamed into mine. There was a most beautiful light in them.
"Mrs. Soames—understood—at once," she muttered.
"Did not you?"
She shook her head. "That is why I have come—to apologise," she whispered. To my great wonder she was crying. I could only lie and gaze at her, helplessly. But soon she brushed the tears away and turned around to hide her face. Suddenly she laughed. "Look!" she cried, "there are only three glasses empty; and, good heavens! those diggers are all married men. You must surely be a magician, Mr. Tolano."
"Of course," I answered modestly. "Didn't you know that? But, I say, isn't the smell of rum hideous? Do you think you could get Molly to clear the rum away?"
"Not Molly," said Miss Hofer. "She is too fond of draining glasses, and there's enough spirit in these to make two men drunk. I shall take them out myself."
And she did.
Afterwards she came and stood beside my bed.
"Why have you kept away from me?" I questioned.
It was long before she answered. She was looking through the window at the stars. "I am not quite sure that I know—myself," she replied at length. Then her lips curved in a strange, uncertain smile. She said "Good-night," and glided off, leaving me alone.
LATER on the following afternoon Myrtle Hofer came to pay me a call. She was very grave, and she seemed a little nervous. "Last night," she began, "one of the miners brought me this parcel and asked me to give it to you."
"Yes. Good-night, Mr. Tolano."
"Won't you wait a little while and see what the parcel contains?" I asked.
"I can guess."
"You are in a hurry?"
"Then please wait," I entreated.
"Very well, if you wish it." She took a chair. I began to untie the parcel. It was not a large one. It seemed to be a small box, but it was enveloped in fold after fold of stiff brown paper. The bed was simply covered with brown paper before I reached the box. But I did reach it at last, and it was to find a letter pinned to the cardboard lid. The missive said (I have literally transcribed it):—
"We, Us and Co. are mighty sorrie for yor Leg. It's hard cheeze and no errur becos you ought to be graftin' with us at the Rush. Beeng Mates we want you to take the inclosed Ready to help you throo your leg no questions Arst or Arnserd seing its easie Spared and Easie made and Cum handie.
Better luck next Time.
(Sined) WE, Us AND CO."
I read it over twice, then handed it to Myrtle. She read it and sighed and frowned.
"For all its ill-spelling," I said softly, "no prince, employed since birth in giving and receiving benefits, could have phrased it with a nicer courtesy. Do you wonder that I have tried to become a bushman, Miss Hofer?"
"It is a kind note," she answered coldly. "Bushmen are always kind."
I opened the box. It contained fourteen one-pound notes, two small nuggets weighing about an ounce apiece, four sovereigns and eight half-sovereigns. All told, I was the richer by £30. Glancing up by chance, I found that Myrtle was studying me with rapt intentness.
"How will you give it back to them?" she asked, as our eyes met. "Will you send it by post—or shall I ask young Tommy Soames to be your messenger? He goes to the Rush every second morning for meat."
"How shall I give it back to them?" I asked, speaking slowly. "I shall tell you—if you'll listen. It will be by helping other lame dogs over stiles when I am better and opportunities occur to me; by passing on their generosity to those who need it more; by adding to the measure, in the act, some little of myself so that the interest earned by kindness may increase and multiply the capital of kindness in the world."
"Fine words," she said, with curling lip, "full of sound. But what you really mean is, you intend to keep the money."
"That—but not only that, Miss Hofer."
"That—is enough for me."
"You think I should return it?"
"Rebuff an act of generosity that enchants me? I should no doubt pamper my pride thereby, but I would also rob their kindness of its virtue and they and I would lose all pleasure in its contemplation. They would infallibly be bitterly offended, and my treatment would tend to dry up the fountains of their generosity to their injury and to the injury of other people. You must remember that although to give is a noble thing—one man cannot give unless another receives. To receive, then, is a condition precedent to the completion of the act of nobility in giving. Remember again, that to give fills one with pleasant feelings, while to receive hurts and humiliates. The giver occupies the superior moral plane in sentiment; the recipient the inferior. Is not, then, there some nobility perceptible to you in receiving? Does it not also imply the faculty of generosity? My dear young lady, I tell you that however fine it may be to give well, to receive well is the finer part to play. It demands maturer sensibilities, stronger will and wider judgment."
"You will end by making yourself out—ah!—--" she stopped.
"Go on," I said encouragingly.
"No, I am no psychologist, and you may be an honest man. It may, after all, be not only your pocket you are considering."
"Although you do not think so."
"I am incapable of subtleties and I hate them," she replied with some passion. "I don't split hairs like you do. I don't distinguish between generosity and charity where the recipient is poor like you. Were I in your place, I'd fling their money in their faces. They'd not pauperise me with their kindness. That is what charity does to the poor—it pauperises, debases, degrades."
"Yes, it pauperises, debases, and degrades—but only the mean-hearted and the poor in spirit, girl."
"It would do that to me," she cried.
"No—because you would die before accepting it."
"I would indeed." Her eyes burned so scornfully upon me that the blood came to my cheeks in spite of a real effort to keep calm.
"Are you quite sure yours is the only proper standard?" I questioned. "It suffices for your self-government, no doubt; yet might not a person differently constituted, cherish perhaps quite as high ideals, but choose another road to reach them—ay, and reach them too?"
"Perhaps," she answered with a sneer. "It is not the first time you have hinted that I am narrow-minded. Possibly I am—and ignorant too. It is your opinion, eh?"
"I think you possess a capital understanding which your passions and your prejudices try with some success to veil."
"Thank you," with sarcasm. "And now to return to the point; you intend to keep that money?"
"It will make you quite independent of me."
"Do you disapprove?"
"I disapprove of your keeping the money."
"So you said before—please not to equivocate."
"I do not want to be independent—until afterwards," she replied, looking me fearlessly in the eye.
"And that, as you live, mate," I said coldly, "is the root of your objection to my pauperisation. I challenge you to deny it."
She shrugged her shoulders. "It is only natural I should want you to feel deeply obliged to me, as I must depend on your gratitude and nothing else to protect my interests later on."
"It would be different if you were to fall in love with me," she said. "I should then have a guarantee that you would not cheat nor swindle me. But it seems that you are not that kind of man."
"And what kind of woman, in heaven's name, are you?" I gasped, confounded utterly by her audacity.
"No coward," she retorted. "I look facts straight in the face always, and when I feel inclined to speak out, I speak."
"Am I to infer that you wish me to fall in love with you?"
"I need hardly tell you that I shouldn't have spoken if I thought it likely. I'm not a fool."
"What a queer pair of business partners we are, mate, eh?"
"It's better to confess I do not altogether trust you—than think it and be a hypocrite. Is it not?"
"I suppose you think it unladylike—unwomanly to be outspoken?"
"I'd like us to be friends," she said with unexpected wistfulness. "But I don't see how we can, do you?"
"You don't trust me either then?"
"I trust you fully; but you see my opinion of you does not count in this business. I'm the one that has to be trusted."
"Why don't you try to make me trust you? It's perfectly intolerable. You lie there and let me discuss you as if you were a stranger we were talking about. You don't seem to care at all."
"What can I do?"
"You could at least protest and tell me I am wrong—or promise things," sire declared with energy.
"But you may be right," I objected, after a considerable pause.
"What!" she cried, amazed, and then, "I beg your pardon."
"I'm not too well acquainted with myself, mate," I explained. "I've made, it's true, a number of experiments with my sense of responsibility and it has generally turned up a trump card in the right place. But I do not pretend to have exhausted a fourth part of the tests that have casually occurred to me—and here are you proposing an entirely new one—a gold mine. How on earth can I tell what will happen?"
"Don't you trust yourself?"
"Between ourselves, mate, I wouldn't trust myself a yard further than I could throw the brute—me, I mean."
"Now you are laughing at me," she declared, drawing herself up a little haughtily.
But I shook my head. "I am not laughing."
"Your eyes are twinkling." Her tone was quite haughty now.
"Only at my unappreciated gift of humour," I assured her. "I can't always manage it, you know, but it's lying down now."
"You are so indifferent," she complained presently, and rose abruptly as she spoke. But she returned when she had reached the door and stood by the bed.
"I should have preferred you to be an uneducated man—one that I could dominate quite easily," she said.
"Are you sure honesty is always the best policy, mate?" I asked gravely.
But she answered more seriously still, though instantly:
"For me there never can be any other."
"But it might be wiser, perhaps, to hide some things, or rather not to reveal them—dealing with persons not entirely trustworthy."
"Look!" she cried—flinging out her arms with a gesture of abandon. "In the city I did that. I had to do it to keep not a friend—I had none—but an acquaintance—some one to talk to, to talk at. Oh, the mean souls, the mean souls! They were so good; so much better and cleverer than me, those girls in the training school. They hadn't my wicked thoughts, and oh, their horror and contempt for mine. But they tricked and lied to one another over tiny trifles—I've known them steal each other's note-books and bits of soap, and smile and kiss and be so friendly with the ones they hated most. I put it down to the cramped-in, crowded city life. One doesn't breathe easily. The air is filled with dust and smoke and nasty thoughts, and people push and jostle one in the streets and in the houses—everywhere, in fact. But it's different here. You can look across eighty miles of virgin country from the Mount of Olives and not see a living thing for hours on end. Other people's thoughts can't mock and jeer at yours in this expanse. You can fill your lungs with honest air and hurl it out again in words as straight as truth can make them and feel good all the time and satisfied, though you may want things impossible to get and some not quite impossible—which is harder to bear than anything. That's why I left the city. They offered me a place in one of their biggest schools—I didn't do so badly in examinations. And that's why I'm here. I don't want to hide things. Can't you understand?"
"But you cannot explain this to every one—and——"
"Oh!" she exclaimed, and wrung her hands. "Can't you see it's only one living person here and there one ever wants not to hide things from. And if there wern't any living person of that sort there are the moon and stars and the great big lonely world for honest friends. Why won't you understand?"
"I think I do—at last. It is because we are mates that you want me to know you as you are, and because you would like to trust me you want me to follow your example and be open too?"
"I wonder if I could?" I murmured.
"And never lie to me," she went on, "never twist a thought—nor deliberately tell me only half a thought."
"It's a big order, mate."
"Is it? To me it seems nothing. You must be naturally fond of treachery."
"I haven't your single-minded, whole-souled scorn of it. But I'm not uncommonly untruthful for a man, and I'll do my best to please you since you care."
"Thanks, mate," she smiled and lingered on the word. It was the first time she had used it. "I can call you 'mate' now," she added as if to explain. Then her satisfaction took her further still. "You may call me Myrtle, if you feel inclined."
"Inclined!—you touch and honour me," I cried.
"I seem to have known you for years already," she said musingly.
"But you do not trust me yet."
"I believe I am beginning to. I have a feeling that you respect me now and that you will like me better by and by."
"Oh, you wonderful creature!" I exclaimed.
"Do you mean to tell me that your trust in me will depend on my regard for you?"
She reflected for a little while, then solemnly replied: "A good deal—yes—but perhaps not altogether. It would help, though—terribly—from the conviction of security a liking that you know of gives. It's to some extent a matter of sex, I suppose. I am not sure—but I fancy it might be—or is." She was thinking, aloud, no more, no less.
Suddenly she stooped down and took up the box of money that the bushmen had given me. "I'll take care of this for you," she said. "I'll send and pay Dr. White at once; and I'll write to Wakool for some fruit and other little delicacies that you ought to have. You don't object?"
"Only to the trouble it will give you."
"Nothing is a trouble to me but teaching. I loathe it. That's another reason why I want to be rich so that I may never have to teach again. To-day a child was rude to me and when I set her an imposition she flew at me and bit my thumb just like a little animal."
"And what did you do—in return?"
"I wanted to pick her up and crush her in my arms—but I did not dare. It is a Medean rule that a teacher must never give way to temper. Besides I did not wish to be an animal too. But I made her sorry by telling her how I would have liked to treat her and then gently sending her to her seat after forgiving her for both offences. She cried bitterly—oh, pitifully. I shall be surprised if she does not bring me a bunch of everlasting flowers to-morrow morning. They grow on the ridges close by where she lives. It is growing dusk, I must be going. Good-night—mate."
"What do you do with your evenings, Myrtle?"
"I read or sew. I make all my own dresses and Margaret's, my sister's, too. Ah! that reminds me. Mrs. Soames has invited Margaret to spend a week with her. She did not tell you—did she?"
"Mrs. Soames. No, not a word."
"I forbade her to. Margaret will be here to-morrow week. I shall be so sad and happy then. Happy to have her—sad that I'll lose her—so very soon. Those seven days have been spent a dozen times over already in my expectations. You don't comprehend—yet, of course, but wait till you see and know her. She is wonderful, my Margaret."
"She has a wonderful sister," I said smiling—"a woman made of fire and steel and blood and hate and love and devotion and distrust."
"You speak of me?"
Her lip curled. "I wonderful! Pshaw! It's only because I'm new to you that I surprise you. One does not need to study me. I am all on the surface, a glance and I am seen and understood and tired of. But Margaret! You could know her for ten years and be with her daily and hourly and she would only be the more mysterious to you. She is not only wonderful, she is worshipful."
"I gather that she does not share your gift for candour."
"She has too fine a sense of dignity for that and yet her soft shy silence is as truthful as my blunt outspokenness. But I'll not tell you another thing about her. I want you to see her and discover for yourself."
"Shall I see you to-morrow, mate?"
"Do you want to?"
"Then you shall. Sleep well!"
But I scarcely slept at all. And it was Myrtle Hofer's fault. I could not still my thoughts of her the whole night long. She interested me intensely and at the same time she inspired me with a sentiment of commingled reverence and aversion. But I somehow felt that I ought to like her as much as I admired her and a diseased endeavour to analyse these contradictions—a task of utter vanity—robbed me of my rest. In consequence, the next day and for several days afterwards I was feverish and ill. Myrtle waited on me like a slave. I hastened my recovery by a sheer effort of will in order to be rid of her attentions. I found that when at all out of sorts her mere presence irritated me. Evidently there was a natural antagonism between us which a disordered condition of the nerves inflamed.
THAT Margaret should prove a disappointment was inevitable. But such an one! It was cruel, incredible. First of all, she walked like a goddess. To see her in movement was to want acutely to shout Virgil's line, "Vera incessu patuit dea," by way of properly saluting her. But, "walk," "gait," "carriage," are miserable, unsatisfying words. The alphabet is all inadequate to frame a proper designation of her noble tread and gracious bearing. And nature had endowed her with a form to match the graces of her slightest actions. It was the incarnate tune to which they sang themselves; the very-essence of melodious harmony, heard by all the ears of the eyes. This is an extravagant method of declaring that she was a perfectly proportioned female animal. But the face. It was an animated classic mask. I cannot more effectually dispraise it, surety? The features were regular and quite irreproachable. They were also supremely dignified and dull. Apparently they were incapable of unbending from their beautiful, chiselled repose. One felt it would have been a profanation amounting to vulgarity to watch her or to wish to watch her eat or even smile. Yet it did not matter, for it was a rigidly immobile face. The eyes were steady and shallow, and dumb. I never met eyes so stupidly intelligent. Their only expression was a fixed dog-like pathos, which Myrtle's love for her sister had led her to mistake for mystery and melancholy. Yet, in my opinion, it denoted nothing but the vague beginnings of a dim consciousness of a genuine desire to please, and an uncertainty both of the desire itself and her own capacity to gratify it. She was amiable to the very last degree. She made friends with me at once, and at Myrtle's suggestion she spent with me most of the hours during which Myrtle was chained to her unruly class. Her conversation was slow and primitive. She had read no books but the Bible, Butlers martyrs and her catechism. But she was not as religious as her sister. Her tastes were almost entirely agricultural. She loved talking of her father's farm and the vicissitudes the family had encountered in its clearing and its cultivation through uncoiling years of drought and storm and flood, and Spartan toil, and bull-dog grit and unshakable tenacity of purpose. Oh! she had admirable qualities, without a doubt; all the virtues, and, as far as I could divine, none of the vices of the good sturdy peasant stock from which she had sprung. She could plough as well as any man, and often did, it seems, for all the white plumpness of her hands. She could bake bread and cook meat, and milk twenty cows a day. And she preferred hard work to idleness; fourteen hours of it of the twenty-four. She boasted a genius for curing the sicknesses of cattle, and rearing lambs that had lost their mothers. She was a clean-minded woman. She adored her father, and she thought it terribly unlucky either to kill a spider or to spill salt on a table-cloth. In a word, she was a passably educated peasant girl, with a small mind and a vigorous constitution, who had been badgered into a certain detested skill at torturing the pianoforte, and whose ideal of happiness consisted in a house of her own to look after in the future and a sufficiency of congenial toil with three good meals per diem in the now. I laboured to understand her, hoping against hope for the smallest triumph of a psychological discovery in the process. I ended by liking her and accepting her limitations. She ended by making me her father-confessor. She admitted in a quiet, ceaseless flow of tears that her one great unhappiness was Myrtle's contempt and hatred of her lover, the Dutch selector, Carl Anderson. She was so afraid and fond of Myrtle that she had pretended to share in her sister's indignation at her projected sacrifice! Sacrifice, ye gods! But in reality she was truly attached to the Dutchman, and, so far from being angered by the dilatory spirit of bargain-hunting thrift manifested in his wooing, she considered it properly displayed his deep devotion for her. True it was that he had been haggling with her father for months past over a certain Berkshire hog of exalted size and worth, but was it not her advantage as well as his own he was fighting for? Tell her that—just tell her that! As his wife wouldn't she be just as sorry as he if he had to part with the pig. Wouldn't it be her loss as well as his. Just tell her that! And truly the answer was quite unanswerable. But unhappily one couldn't reason with Myrtle. Her prejudices were irresistible and insurmountable. The only thing for the sake of peace and sisterly love was to deceive her. And Margaret had quietly and steadily and thoroughly deceived her sister for two long years—ever since Carl Anderson had appeared upon the scene, in fact. Margaret, of course, was sorry, most lachrymosely sorry. She wasn't in the least proud of her success. Indeed, it made her feel "real mean," especially as Myrtle made and gave her nearly all her frocks, and constantly sent her presents of books which she never read, but stored up like a careful girl at the bottom of her "glory box" wrapped in tissue paper, to put on the parlour table of her new home when it materialised. Myrtle was "that good!" But what could a girl do? A girl couldn't give up her lover to please her sister—could she? And then came the last straw—a eulogy of Anderson!
For my sins I endured it all, and pitied Myrtle from my soul even while I marvelled at her folly and the failure of her woman's instinct to detect the truth. Margaret was as grateful as a dog for my sympathy. She kissed me on the forehead when she came to say good-bye. It was a thank-offering pure and simple; and by no means intended for publication. But, unhappily, it was overseen.
Next day Myrtle recalled that innocent caress. She looked as though she had been weeping all night over her sister's departure. That irritated me. The foolishness of clever people is the most irritating thing I know of. Also I was angry with Margaret, for her confession had bound me as a partner in her crime and pledged me to a new crime on my own account, the evasion of the faith I had vowed to Myrtle—the faith of open-dealing. Thus, when Myrtle said in her characteristically direct accusing fashion: "Margaret kissed you?" I snapped back: "Did you think she bit me?"
Myrtle was hurt. She drew close her robes of dignity and froze me with a stare. "I did not invite you to be rude," she said icily. "Has familiarity already bred contempt?"
I hastily and slavishly apologised, and thereby became her destined victim.
"I have never known Margaret—kiss any man—a stranger—before," she remarked reflectively. "She is extremely undemonstrative."
"She was sorry, no doubt, for me; on account of my broken leg," I suggested. It had commenced. This was the first untruth; and I foresaw an unavoidable series. I hate lying; therefore I came very close to hating Margaret.
Myrtle completely disregarded my remark. "I cannot understand why she kissed you," she declared. "I asked her, but she could give no reason except that she likes you. It is very strange. She is too unsophisticated to dream that a kiss might have a sequential significance, might commit——"
"I am sure of that," I interjected quickly.
She waved her hand. "She also denied you had been making love to her."
"Myrtle!" I exclaimed.
"And she denied that she cares for you—more than as a friend. But I fear—she is mistaken. Her unconsidered action—its very spontaneity, its suddenness, all proclaim an unconscious unrecognised attachment. She is utterly incapable of deceit. Therefore I know she is unaware—she has not realised it. But I fear that it exists."
Here was a new, exasperating complication. Its absurdity amused and enraged me in a breath. But with a person like Myrtle one had to act warily. I decided to try the efficacy of ridicule.
"I'm sure you are very flattering," I drawled, smirking atrociously. "To what part of me do you suppose she is attached? Many persons have admired my nose."
"There is a form of vanity that affects to depreciate its utterer's attractions," said Myrtle. "It is even more despicable than the species which renders its victims besottedly oblivious of their defects."
This was crushing with a vengeance. But I rose to the occasion with the courage of despair. "Such a deplorable waste of energy," I warned her mockingly. "You have lots to spare now, but some day you'll realise the wisdom of using a hammer, rather than a pile driver, to straighten crooked pins or drive home tacks." But I question if she heard. Certainly she did not heed. She looked me straight in the eye, and "Do you love my sister Margaret?" she demanded, in accents that admitted of no trifling with the mood that they revealed.
"On my honour, I do not," I answered in the same downright fashion.
"Does she care for you?"
"On my honour, not one rap."
"That is, of course, so far as you know," she commented gloomily. My cross-examination had by no means finished. "You do not pretend that you were not surprised?" she asked.
"No," I said. "No."
"And you must have thought the matter over?"
Oh! the moth on the pin. "Yes," I said. "Yes."
"Then how do you explain it?"
A contemptible subterfuge occurred to me, and I was mean-spirited enough to essay it.
"How should I assert an opinion before yours, mate? I have only known your sister seven days, and you—all her life. You are puzzled. She puzzled you. Consider how much more confused should my confusion be."
But she was inexorable. "You have an opinion. State it!" she commanded.
I bowed and prepared to lie like a man. "I think," I said with a judicial air, "it is due to her lack of years and my experience. Naturally interested in a girl so beautiful and a character so subtle and mysterious, withal so charming and so innocent, my sophistication guided my interest into seeking her confidence. In such circumstances acquaintanceship is not a mere affair of time, rather of sympathy and a willingness to understand. Yet we had even time to become acquainted. Accorded the assistance of your extreme complaisance and her own kindness, solitude has been banished from this chamber by your sister for four hours each day this week past. And she was finally led to see in me a friend who might be trusted."
Myrtle's face was a panorama of expressions. Surprise, incredulity, belief, jealousy, succeeded each other. Jealousy finally assumed entire sway.
"She made you her confidant?" she asked slowly. She was hurt to her very soul.
But I could cure that hurt and would, as far as the perjury of half-truths might avail, at any rate.
"She did," I said. "She paid me that signal honour. You must not blame her, mate. It was about you. I need not remind you of the exquisite unselfishness of her nature or of her love of you. She realises the aversion you entertain for her projected marriage, and her projected husband. Her own feelings she regards as nothing. She is ready to obey her father cheerfully. It is her duty, and she orders her inclinations in accordance with her duty. But your suffering on her account causes her the acutest sort of pain. She has perforce had to endure it in silence. There was no one to share her sorrow, no one in whom she could confide, until she encountered me, and experienced my sympathy."
"Oh," said Myrtle. "Margaret, Margaret!" The love and sorrow in her lovely eyes set hands about my heart that made me feel a cold and clammy hound. But there was no use, and indeed some danger, in leaving the thing half done. So I drove my faltering courage on. "Of course, I was sorry for her; sorry for you both," I murmured. "I did what I could to cheer her. And she was grateful. That, I think, explains why when she said good-bye she overlooked our short acquaintance and, with all deference to you, my unattractiveness, and remembered only that she had found me brotherly and helpful in demeanour and not unkind in words. So she impulsively and graciously rewarded me, by blessing my bald pate with her gratefully fraternal greeting."
Myrtle walked up and down the room twice and thrice, then she went round to the head of my bed and stood behind me, where I could not see her.
"You were a dear, good fellow to be so kind to her," she whispered. She stooped over me and softly touched my forehead with her lips. She was kissing not me, but Margaret; or rather she was taking from me Margaret's kiss.
"I was cruelly jealous for a little while," she said.
"Your affection for your sister is positively uncanny," I declared aggressively. "It's blind. I don't like emotional blindness. It tempts Fate to the preparation of a tragical awakening. One of these days you will be disappointed, perhaps disenchanted; I won't say disillusioned, though I might."
"Knowing Margaret you can say that!" she cried.
"Kissing me proved her a very human being," I retorted. "You wouldn't suggest that sort of thing as an exercise for angels, I suppose."
"Ah!" she exclaimed, laughing archly. "I am not an angel either, eh?"
"You!" I jeered; "you didn't kiss me. It was an act of absorption. I might have been the bed-post."
"It's your penetration that is uncanny," she muttered, putting up her hand to hide her flaming cheeks. "I wouldn't be your wife for all the world."
"In exchange for which insult let me assure you that as your husband my faculty for penetration would very soon shrivel up for want of use."
Her chin went up in air. "There are always things that a girl keeps to herself," she said disdainfully. And looking into her eyes I realised that for all her amazing frankness there were depths in Myrtle Hofer's character beyond my power to fathom. Her eyes were half closed and insolent with the insolence of knowledge particular to her unshared and never to be shared with any other being. It was a thrilling experience to see and comprehend her challenge; to submit, as was merely inevitable, to the incontestable dominion of her womanhood.
I felt like a practised fencer whose opponent by superior skill has managed to disarm him. I had neither foreseen nor understood the pass, but I perfectly grasped the effect of it. I was at a hopeless disadvantage, and for the first time since I had known her I felt a little afraid and uncertain of myself.
"After all," went on Myrtle, coldly and insolently, "you are only a man." The tone infused me with a fluttering apprehension of the subtler sex's entire armoury of omnipotent natural weapons mercilessly employed towards my undoing. The whole world of womankind spoke with her tongue and threatened me.
I surrendered at discretion. "I was a fool," I said abasedly, "you have properly chastised my idiotic egotism."
If possible, the girl's hall-closed eyes became still more insolent, still more mysterious. She astounded me with the following announcement: "Your beard is growing too long and straggling. You should cut it short and to a point, in the Vandyck style. Molly will lend you a pair of scissors and a mirror. Good-bye."
I did not reply. I could not. I shivered in my shoes—that is, I should have shivered in my shoes if I had owned any and had chanced to be wearing them. As a matter of fact; my wardrobe only contained in the shape of footgear a single pair of hobnailed boots, and they were under the bed. Nevertheless I shivered, and every confirmed bachelor who reads these lines will easily guess the reason. That night I trimmed my beard. It made me—to my unaffected satisfaction—uglier than ever.
MY second Saturday evening in Nandlelong so closely resembled the first that it needs no fresh description. The only difference—that one drunken miner closed the proceedings temporarily by "laying-out" a policeman with a beer bottle. The Sunday, however, contained some variations. The miners decoyed the police up into the mountains with a nicety-concocted story of an unfortunate wanderer who had fallen down a disused shaft. The wanderer turned out to be an Angora goat. But it took some hours' toilsome climbing and hard work for the troopers to discover the "sell," and in the meantime Mother Garfield was prevailed upon to open her bar and the wildest section of the diggers got uproariously "tight." The police returned in the afternoon sullen and furious, but they had to swallow their discomfiture as best they could, for the shanty was decorously closed, and although drunken men were to be seen all over the village there was no evidence to be collected of illicit trading. They tried me, of course; they even offered me a considerable bribe to speak out. But I declined to have a word to say on the matter, a circumstance which induced Mrs. Garfield in sheer gratitude to give me chicken broth and chopped asparagus for tea. Afterwards the miners came to pay me a call. They were still a good deal the worse for wear, but the worst effects of their indulgence had disappeared. They were, indeed, in the aggregate almost aggressively sober. When all were seated and had got their "guns"—that is to say, their pipes—charged and puffing, I thanked them for their generous present of the previous week.
This is how I did it. I said: "Look here, mates; no more blanky collection plates for this here bloke. He's heeled handsome, thanks to your blighted foolishness. Anyone'd blanky well think you were blanky millionaires!"
Sebby Garrard answered for the crowd. He took his pipe from his mouth, pushed his thumb into the glowing bowl and remarked in casual tones, "Oh! go to blazes!"
"'Nuff said," I commented, and the incident was closed.
A little later a miner named Slick Johnson spoke up and recounted the story of the fooling of the police. He, it seems, had conceived and carried out the brilliant plan. He was intensely proud of it, and confidently demanded my approbation.
I replied by asking him his age.
"Twenty-six," said he, surprised.
"You're no doubt the oldest one here?" I went on.
The crowd roared a denial. He was the very youngest. They looked at me to explain myself. I gratified them. "When I was at school," I said, "any monkey trick suggested by a youngster wouldn't be much thought of by the older boys. We used to treat it as impudence same as grown-ups'd treat our monkey tricks. It's a kind of surprise to me, mates, to find a lot of grown-ups here monkeying worse than school kids and straddling the ante-blind of the youngest blanky idiot amongst 'em. I s'pose, though, some of you will get sense some day."
There was a dead silence.
"Funny, ain't it?" I went on. "How long it takes some coves to grow up. They get hair on their faces and marry and raise families of their own, but they keep on looking at themselves as school kids all the same. Only difference is they stop being frightened of the schoolmaster and get frightened of the law instead. They look on the law as they used to look on the schoolmaster, just as if they owed a sort of duty to themselves to cheat it and get the best of it; entirely forgetting that it's their votes make the law and that it's their business in their own blanky interests to respect it. Yes, it's blanky curious."
The diggers stirred uneasily in their places and exchanged furtive glances.
Sebby Garrard stuck out one of his boots, gazed at it solemnly a while, then said, "You've got a blanky nasty tongue of your own, mate."
"That's right, Seb," chimed in Slick Johnson. "A durned insultin' tongue I calls it."
I looked from one to the other. "I'm not denying your perfect right to play the kid and act like blanky hogs. But my opinion was asked and I gave it."
"Hogs," repeated Garrard. "Strikes me that's a bit strong, mate." There was an ominous note in his low, deep-throated tones.
"Well, maybe," I conceded. "But, barring some sort of human beings and hogs, I can't this moment call to mind any other animal that hasn't enough 'common' to stop guzzling when its stomach's full and its thirst is satisfied. Can you?"
The silence that ensued was perfectly electric. A storm was gathering and I felt it. I decided to help it along for there's nothing like a storm to clear the atmosphere.
"First of all," I proceeded, "you broke the law. It was because you reckoned it was a bad law, you'd say, and ought to be broken, and because you were thirsty. There was plenty of water in the creek, but we'll let that fact slide. You were thirsty. But were you still thirsty after you'd had a blanky quart of beer apiece? I reckon not; yet every man of you called on top of your beer for rum. What for? I'll tell you. It was to get drunk; blind, speechless, paralytic drunk. My word, it's fine to be drunk, eh? Real hoggish drunk! It makes a man forget he's just a man; makes him realise there are points in being a hog. It's great to be a hog; great while you're a hog. Afterwards, though, when you've stopped being a hog, when the drink clears off your blanky brain and you're a man again it's not so great. You begin to remember you're a man and not naturally intended for the sty. And you realise in a dim sort of way, perhaps, but, mates, you realise it all the same, that the manhood in you resents being turned into a hog, even temporarily. Then you begin to wonder why you did it, and you want to go and hide your blanky heads for the shame that's in you. You look around you, and what do you see? Your mates in the same case as you. They're really thinking the same thoughts as you. But as soon as your eyes meet you feel so blanky ashamed and frightened they'll see how ashamed you are that you sing out, 'Mates, what a blanky fine spree that was. Come and let's have another.'
"And they say the same thing, because they're afraid you'll see how blanky well ashamed they are. So the game goes on, and you spend your lives between hard work and the hog-shop because there's not a blanky cove amongst you has got the courage to stand out and say: 'Say, mates, I'm blanky sick o' the pigsty. I reckon I'll give my missus a chance at my divvy this week. She needs some new clothes bad; and it's time, too, I started to save up for a rainy day, so if you coves want to keep on being hogs and make Mother Garfield's fortune instead of putting by to make a lady of the missus so she won't have to graft at the wash-tub in her old age, and make doctors and lawyers of the nippers, well you can blanky well go off on your own hook without me!"
"Mates," I added, with all the impressiveness I could muster, "I don't believe there's a man amongst you hasn't had just such a speech as that a score of times on his tongue tip. But has one amongst you let it out?"
There was a grave-like silence in the room.
"I'll tell you why," I said. "I'll tell you why not one of you has ever uttered it. It's because the blessed hog-shop has sapped your moral courage and turned you from human beings—men on two legs afraid of nothing—into a set of moral, four-footed, snout-faced cowards!"
The storm broke. In ten seconds both my eyes were blacked, my mouth was cut and bleeding, my nose was a pulp, and I was lying on the floor involved in a mass of bed-clothes, and cursing, struggling forms of men made maniacs with rage. Sebby Garrard and Slick Johnson saved me from worse ill-usage by sheer hard fighting and by yelling for the police. But the police were not permitted to enter. Two stout fellows sprung up and hurled themselves against the door. Then came a moment's breathing space. The miners slowly arose, breathing hard, but still convulsed with fury. Outside women were screaming, but there was silence in the room. The miners looked at me. I looked at them. Thus a full minute passed. Then a fist smote on the door, and a policeman's voice demanded admittance. The situation had developed exactly as I had intended, except for my bleeding nose. There's nothing I dislike quite so much as a blow on the olfactory organ. Fortunately, however, in the excitement, I did not feel it much. I took charge of affairs, immediately. "What the deuce do you want?" I demanded. "Open in the Queen's name!" shouted the trooper.
I laughed and retorted: "This is a private room, sergeant, and I am in lawful possession. You'll need a warrant to enter."
"Oh!" said the enemy. "Is that you talking, Mr. Tolano?"
"No one else."
"Then what was all that racket for?"
"Play-acting, sergeant. We're rehearsing for a concert. Sorry can't invite you in, but we're all disguised, and it'd spoil sport afterwards. Say, sergeant, get mother to burn some corks for us will you, we've run out."
"Laugh, you blanky idiots," I whispered to the miners.
They laughed hideously.
The trooper was evidently nonplussed. "There was cursing enough for a riot," he growled.
"It was to mark the triumph of the villain," I explained. "But there'll be no more, sergeant. The 'juvenile lead' has his own way from this out. But please get us the corks; next scene we have a nigger ministrel show, and I must have another corner man at least."
"Laugh, you blighters."
The miners laughed.
The trooper gave it best. But he did not go away, and we heard him call for a chair.
"You coves had better get me on the bed again," I whispered.
"How's the laig?" asked Slick Johnson, in a stilled voice.
"Right as the bank," I replied. "It's set in stone, but all the same I'll be thankful if you'll lift me up more gently than you set me down."
They performed the office with the tenderness of women. Then Sebby Garrard dipped a towel in water and helped me wipe my face. "It was me bunged your left eye," he muttered. "I forgot clean about your blanky laig."
"The hog-wash you soaked in this morning made you do that," I cheerfully remarked. "Oh, it's great stuff taken wholesale. Makes coves as brave as lions; fifteen to one, and the one on his back with a broken leg. Say, mates, feeling pretty cheap, ain't you?"
"Worse'n cheap," said Slick Johnson.
"I say, serves you blanky well right," said a man named Fullwood, giving me a look of animal-like hate.
I caught his eye and held it. "It's yourself you are not angry with, mate," I said slowly. "Come here."
He did not move.
"Come here!" I repeated.
Some one gave him a push. He turned on that person like an adder, but a warning "hush" went up, and a moment later he stumbled, urged and crowded by the others, to the bed.
"Wot the devil d'ye want?" he growled.
I held out my hand. "Your forgiveness," I said. "The forgiveness of all here, but chiefly yours, because you feel most keenly what I have done to you all."
He stared at me, with knitted brows and raging eyes, black as a thundercloud.
"I don't catch on," he said.
"It's this," I explained. "I deliberately stung you on until I maddened you. It was just to see what sort of coves you are. I had no right to do it; no sort of right. But I wanted badly to see if you were better coves than me. I'm right down glad you're not. We're all built alike. Shake hands on it—won't you?"
"I'm hanged if I do," he snarled.
"I mean I'd have done the same in your place. Straight wire, I would."
"Hit a cove down?"
"My oath—the drink in me. Kick him, too."
"You're too many for me," said Fullwood. "I call; I'm hanged if I know what you're driving at."
"A booze-up," I explained. "Let's all be hogs together. We can do it, too—as I am a lodger—and poke fingers to our noses at the law. Come on, mates, shell out your beans for a Tambaroora to start, and then we'll have the biggest sort of drunk this shanty ever knew in its experience. Lend us your hat, Slick Johnson."
Not a soul moved. The whole fifteen stared at me aghast.
"What are you staring at, blow you?" I demanded irritably. "Frightened of the word 'booze'? Don't want to drink, don't you?"
"Say, mate, have a bit o' common," growled Sebby Garrard.
"Common!" I echoed. "Ain't it common sense when coves have clean proved they're hogs to go on being hogs and do it thoroughly. Who wants to be anything but a hog? Who talks about reform and turning over a new leaf? Out on the blighter! Down with him! Kick his ribs in. Break his legs. Put his blanky light out. Faugh!"
Sebby Garrard turned positively grey. Fullwood's eyes dropped from mine and sought the floor. Slick Johnson sat down on the chair and hid his face behind his arm. The others clenched and unclenched their great fists and opened and shut their jaws with queer, tasting noises.
I watched them for a moment, then went on with remorseless cruelty. "Well, by gad, mates, you coves are blanky slow. Any one'd think you were counting the cost. Thinking of your wives and families robbed and kept paupers by your filthy appetites, as the parsons and temperance fools would tell you? Take it from me, mates, there's only one thing in this world worth while, and that's drink. What's a wife but something to beat when you're drunk? What's a child but an unwelcome encumbrance that takes money to keep, better spent in boozing up? What's——"
But a great hairy-backed paw put a sudden clapper on the torrent of my eloquence, and was tenderly but firmly pressed across my mouth.
Then Sebby Garrard, the owner of the paw, spoke: "We can't stand any more of that, mate," he declared through his teeth. "'Tain't wanted either. We've acted like hogs, but you've taught us a blanky lesson. Let it go at that, will you?"
I nodded and the paw was immediately removed. "Reckon I'll be getting along," said Sebby Garrard.
"One minute, mate," said I; "we don't quite understand each other yet. You coves think I'm a teetotal lecturer, no doubt. Not a bit of it. I can take my glass with any one of you. But I pull up at the hog line, and that's where you ought to take a leaf out of my book. There's not a real drunkard among you, or your looks belie you, but come Saturday night you all get drunk as regular as clockwork. It's a habit. That's what it is. But it's a blanky bad habit, and if you are men you will break it."
Slick Johnson swung round suddenly and faced me. "What's a cove to do?" he demanded. "After graftin' like a blanky nigger all the week he wants a bit o' recreation."
I looked him squarely in the face. "Look here, mate," I said, "you tell me this; ain't Monday always your hardest day in the week?"
"It's a fact," he admitted after a little thought.
"Do you know why? It's because you take more out of yourself by your week-end booze than by all the hard graft you put in during the week."
"Oh!" said he. "How?"
"Call that recreation!" I demanded scornfully; "it's the blanky opposite. It's making old men of you before your time. What you want is rest, amusement, change of occupation. Make your-selves gardens; plant vegetables. Paint your houses; make up your bank-books; you haven't any now, but you will if you let your common sense have a chance. And drink, too, if you want to, provided you feel thirsty, and it's only to kill thirst. And as for the evenings: get up fun for yourselves, recitations, private theatricals, penny readings. It's an easy one you asked me, mate!"
"It's all right talkin'," he answered sullenly; "doin's the thing. My word, your eye's gettin black," he added in a strangled whisper. "Nice lot o' blighters, ain't we? Say, I'm full o' this. Come on, mates."
I knew better than to try to keep them, for the sight of my face was gall to them, and indeed it was a marvel they had stayed so long. Mrs. Soames cried over me next day but Myrtle was more practical; she brought me some arnica and my protusions quickly vanished.
The third Saturday not a single digger save Mr. Garfield and Sebby Garrard returned to Nandlelong from the Rush. They went instead to Dunolly, and from all accounts they had a particularly wild time at the pub there, which lasted until well into the Sunday evening, for there were no policemen present to prevent the breaking of the Sunday law.
Myrtle and Mrs. Soames were keenly disappointed at this, but I was not. The fact that the men had funked returning to Nandlelong and their homes, as was their custom, showed that they were ashamed to face me, and I argued good from that, notwithstanding their mad spree at Dunolly. After much consideration I called a council of the wives, and put a plan I had devised before them. This was for an entertainment, to consist of charades, a guessing competition, some recitations, and a few songs. The women agreed to it, dubiously at first, but when I explained that charades meant rigging themselves out in fancy costumes, they became as enthusiastic as a set of children. Then I wrote to Sebby Garrard and took him into my confidence. I told him I depended on him to bring all the Nandlelong diggers straight from the Rush to the Nandlelong Mechanics' Hall without calling even for a moment at Mother Garfield's shanty on the following Sunday night. His answer was laconic and to the point. "It's a big order, mate, but it's yours, and I'll have a go. Yours obedly, Seth Garrard."
Lord, what a week it was! The women of the town pestered the life out of me. They brought their sewing along to my room, and I had to convert myself into a fancy milliner, designing costumes, inventing patterns, and helping them to cut out the material. Myrtle Hofer was my lieutenant, but unfortunately only in the evenings could she lend me her aid, so the bulk of directing work of necessity fell upon my shoulders. After tea each night, four of the women carried my bed, myself lying thereon, in state over to the hall to stage manage and arrange the charades and tableaux vivants. There I had also to listen to the declinations of the reciters and correct their elocution. It was really astonishing what a lot of fair dramatic talent was latent in the village. Even Molly revealed an unexpected genius, and of all things, for heavy tragedy. Wrapped in a purple winding-sheet, arranged toga fashion across her ample form—she disdained any colour but purple—she ranted Antony's remarks over Caesar's dead body (me) in a manner to curdle the blood. I was real proud of Molly, and also of others of my pupils before the week was out. But oh! was I not glad when Saturday came round.
Sebby Garrard proved a perfect trump. He brought not only the Nandlelong diggers, but a contingent, forty-two strong, of the Rush boys along, and straight to the theatre. Mother Garfield looked in vain for her usual custom; no doubt that was the beginning of her deep hatred and contempt for me, poor woman.
When the curtain went up, it was to reveal a tableau vivant composed of nine ladies, three dressed to their own infinite satisfaction in their husbands' clothes. The others were arrayed in all the colours of the rainbow. I reclined, half-sitting, on my mattress at the extreme corner of the stage behind the footlights propped up with cushions. I was the master of ceremonies. The miners greeted the wonderful spectacle in profound silence, save for one remark made by Slick Johnson on recognising his wife: "Great snake!" he exclaimed. "Blowed if my ole woman ain't got my Sunday go-to-meetings on!"
As soon as I could control my voice I spoke out and explained that the audience had to guess what each tableau was meant to represent. And I appealed to their sporting instincts by announcing that each failure would involve them in a trifling forfeit, to go to the rent of the hall and the expenses of future entertainments. This set the miners thinking hard and loosed their tongues. Soon the whole place was a babel of laughter and good-humoured raillery. But presently I touched a bell and demanded their guess. They each said something, and each was wrong. Myrtle Hofer, arrayed as a Spanish dancer, instantly flitted down the steps amongst them, armed with a tambourine to collect the forfeits, and the amateur actresses left the stage to prepare for the next set. The diggers were tremendously delighted. Myrtle was simply splendid. She chaffed the men in keeping with her character, and in a few seconds the hall resounded with the most wholehearted mirth and merriment. When I rang the bell to recall her, she brought me a whole plate full of coins, and she was followed with laughing shouts of "Robber!" "Catch her!" "Stop thief!" etc.
From that moment the whole thing went with a bang. The recitations were greeted with vociferous applause. The charades were encored, and the guessing competition had to be three times repeated. At ten o'clock I rang down the middle curtain and announced a ten-minutes' interval, as follows:
"Mates, now is your chance to go over to the pub and swill your throats with Mother Garfield's beer. But remember this, the man who is not back in his seat when the second bell rings is not going to be admitted, and the man that stays back to booze on is not only going to miss a good thing to-night, but he's going to miss it for all time, for these entertainments are not got up for boozers. Savvy?"
They answered with a rousing cheer, and fled down the hall as if for their lives.
I think it was the proudest moment in my life when, having rung the second bell, I directed the hall door to be shut and locked, for only five miners out of the whole crowd had failed to return.
"It's smoke ho! now, mates; you can fill your pipes!" The yell of satisfaction that greeted this permission could almost have been heard at the Rush. It certainly made my head ache. We commenced the second half with songs, the accompaniments of which Mrs. Soames played on a piano of sorts horribly out of tune and tinney-toned beyond description. But no one was disposed to mind a trifle like that, and the piano thumped in vain when the miners joined the choruses, which they did spontaneously as often as they recognised the song. Afterwards I read them some passages from "Little Dorrit," until the place began to echo with sobs. Those big-hearted men are easily moved—too easily, maybe. And then, to enliven the gloom, Myrtle Hofer recited with admirable humour and dexterity of elocution the "Heathen Chinee" of Bret Harte in costume, packs of cards and all. The house simply rose at her, and she had to do it again and again, until she finally collapsed half-way through the piece for the fourth time, smiling but voiceless, on a chair. It was the great success of the whole performance. There followed a final big charade, full of farce and fun, and we wound up the proceedings with "Auld Lang Syne" at twenty-past eleven o'clock.
The pub was shut. No doubt the miners were disappointed, but they did not say so, and as the police were standing by the verandah, by prior arrangement, they trailed off to their homes. The Rush contingent, poor fellows, had a seven-mile walk to theirs, but they were gallant enough to pretend they didn't mind a bit. Sebby Garrard and Slick Johnson carried me back to my room between them, and they did an extraordinary—an almost miraculous—thing for two such typical undemonstrative bushmen. They shook me by the hand as they said "Good-night."
Next morning Myrtle Hofer broke in upon me, breathless with delight and surprise. "Oh, mate," she cried, "what do you suppose Sebby Garrard is doing?"
"Well?" I asked.
"He is laying out a garden in front of his cottage, and every other man in Nandlelong is leaning over the fence and looking on. Isn't it splendid?"
"Are they chaffing him?" I demanded anxiously.
"No, they're as still as daylight owls."
"Then you are right, Myrtle, for their silence means that Sebby's example is sinking in. I guess each man is laying out a garden in his thoughts. A few more Saturday-night entertainments, and Nandlelong won't know itself."
"No!" growled a voice. "Nandlelong won't know itself." And Mother Garfield, hoarse with rage, drunk, furious, and blear-eyed, stood at the door. "Three-pun-fifteen I took last night, devil a penny more—me that's been used to a twenty-five-pun Saturday these thirteen year an' more! And it's you—you!" she shrieked, pointing a wet and grimy forefinger at me. "You that's doin' it! Come here to rob the orfin and the fatherless out er their lawful business—you that I brung down with a bruk laig an' nourished like a death-adder in me bussum! You—you—to turn on me—me that befriended ye like that! You——But I'll show you——! Curse you! Not another hour do ye stay in my shanty, d'ye hear? You swine! I give you half an hour to pay me what you owe me and clear—or, by heaven, I'll take you in me two arms and pitch ye out into the road!" With that she lurched off, swearing horribly.
"She'd do it, too!" gasped Myrtle. "I know her well. You must leave here, mate, at once. I'll run over and get the money to pay her—and bring some men to carry you away." She was off like a deer.
Mrs. Garfield soon came back to gloat over me, and not only to gloat. She doused me with a can of sour beer; and, not satisfied with that, she brought some soap-suds from the kitchen. Molly, however, saved me from that indignity at the expense of a severe thrashing, poor girl, for the wretched harridan had the strength of a horse, and in her drunken madness she made full use of it. It was a dreadful fight, but the noise of it brought the police on the scene, and fortunately just in time to hinder a fatality, for Mrs. Garfield had caught Molly by the throat and had begun to strangle her.
Sebby Garrard and Mr. Soames carried me over to Mrs. Soames' house, where I spent the forenoon. But I could not stay there, as the place was something more than fully occupied already. It contained only two rooms, and Mr. Soames' family numbered nine.
It was Slick Johnson solved the problem of my housing. He owned an old prospecting tent not in use, and this he erected in a corner of the school-yard ground.
Another miner placed an old trestle bed at my disposal, and a third provided me with a table; a fourth, a lamp; and a fifth, a toilet stand. All told I rather gained than lost in comfort by the exchange; and I took possession of my new abode with much satisfaction. It was settled that Molly was still to wait on me; that Mrs. Soames should furnish my meals; and that Myrtle should generally look after me.
As for the miners, they held a meeting and unanimously resolved to send Mrs. Garfield to Coventry, and thenceforth to buy whatever they should require in bottles to be consumed, not in the shanty bar as of old, but in their own homes. This meant a sure guarantee of future temperance; for bushmen never drink to excess anywhere but in a public-house. Great, therefore, was the triumph of the party of Reform. But, alas! scrub myself as I would, I smelt of sour beer for days. Every rose has its thorns.
DURING the week following there began to drift back to Nandlelong a number of young miners—many of them mere lads—who had been employed prior to the Yabba Gabba Rush on driving work in some of the quartz mines in the neighbourhood. They had deserted from their employment when the rush started, in the hope of making rapid fortunes at the new field, and some of the larger mines had been obliged to shut down in consequence. But these lads, through lack of alluvial experience and bad luck, had failed to secure payable claims at the Rush, and they now came back, in debt and penniless, hoping to resume their former jobs. Most of them put up at Mother Garfield's, to await the return of the mining managers from Wakool and the re-opening of the temporarily closed reef-mines and crushing batteries.
Mother Garfield trusted them to pay her out of their future wages, I suppose. But the extent of the credit she allowed them was reckless to a degree in the circumstances. The lads came to visit me frequently and the majority were nearly always the worse for liquor; and they boasted they obtained their drink "on tick." A bad citizen was Mother Garfield. I soon found she had declared war on me. The young miners made no secret of it indeed. The reputation I had acquired in the town puzzled them at first and made them curious to judge for themselves. They would bring bottles of beer with them on their visits to test my temperance. I shall not easily forget their amazement on finding that I would take a glass with them, nor their "men-of-the-world" air of disgust when I refused to take two. My philosophy of drinking to cure thirst did not appeal to them in the least; and they soon voted me a kill-joy and a bore. But if that were all I should not have cared. One day a round dozen came in a body and announced their resolve to make me "tight" whether I pleased or no. Rum was to be the medium; Mother Garfield's special brand of "snake-juice" strengthened with kerosene and tobacco shavings. It appeared that they were sick and tired of my "airs," and they were determined to make a man of me. It was a case of mischief and idle hands, and Mother Garfield had adopted the proverbial role of mischief-finder. They made me very drunk indeed. It was no use resisting. Two secured my hands; one sat on my chest; a third held my nose; while the others took turns to pour the vile stuff down my throat through an iron funnel. When their aim was achieved they carried me round the village in triumph on my trestle bed, shouting and yelling like maniacs, and exhibiting me at every cottage door. I do not remember how I behaved personally, for I was dazed with the fumes and almost quite unconscious of events. But no doubt my conduct did not differ very materially from their own. There is a hideous sameness about the doings and sayings of drunken men.
Naturally my moral pedestal was smashed into smithereens, and I came to earth with a crash.
The entertainment committee I had formed held a meeting on the spot and expelled me from the office of president. Mrs. Soames came to my tent at six o'clock the following morning. I was still a good deal dazed and wretchedly ill, but my condition excited no pity in her breast. I had bitterly disappointed her, poor woman. She had formed ardent hopes through my agency of morally reforming her own husband and the whole town, and she had sense enough to see that such a thing was no longer possible. I told her exactly what had happened, but I might as well have saved my breath. She declared I was not only a backslider but a low hypocrite. She did not believe me, poor soul, nor can I blame her, considering her views on human nature and her experience of the male human biped. The other matrons visited me later just to express their scorn. They appeared to consider it a duty. I grew tired of protesting at last and silently endured the outpourings of their ludicrously platitudinous contempt.
"Snake in the grass," "Wolf in sheep's clothing," were two of the mildest terms addressed to me. By the time my breakfast arrived (young Tommy Soames brought it with the impudent announcement, "Mother wants her money, and she says ye can git yer dinner yerself; she ain't caterin' no more for no broken-down drunkards") all adult female Nandlelong had assured me of its uncompromising hostility and rooted disrespect, with two exceptions, Myrtle Hofer and Molly.
Molly came down as usual about eleven to dust out my tent, and bring me fresh water for a wash.
I was rather curious to hear her views. "Good morning, Molly," I said pleasantly.
"Mornin'—Hog," she replied, with a ferocious scowl.
Evidently Molly had placed me on a pedestal in common with the rest; and, like the others, she thought it right and proper to trample on the fallen idol. But her heart was softer than the others, as I presently discovered.
"Hog, as ye are," she said, when her work was over, "you've treated me like a white man as some o' yer betters (anybody was my "better" now) haven't. So I won't see ye go short o' yer clean up."
"Molly," I ventured. "Do you think it just to condemn a man unheard?"
"Pooh!" she answered scornfully. "I've heard your yarn about bein' forced. But the boys has another story to tell. So has Mother Garfield. You gave 'em the money to buy the drink. Mother Garfield showed it to us—a bran new sovereign. So it must be true, for none o' the boys has a bean. You're a——liar, that's what you are."
"But, Molly; how do you know it was my sovereign?"
"How do I know?" she demanded, bristling up with anger. "Because Mrs. Twomy was passin' yer tent, an' she heard yer invitin' the boys ter have a beano. The game's up, I tell yer. You needn't lie any more. Makes one want to spit on you. Good-day!"
So Mrs. Twomy had joined forces with Mother Garfield to effect my ruin. No doubt this was her revenge for my cavalier rejection of her fulsome compliments on the one and only occasion we had met. I at once perceived the uselessness of struggling against such a combination. The word and, if necessary, the oaths of twelve young larrikin miners and of two women were opposed to my bare assertion of the truth. I was sorry for Nandlelong, because I really believed I had been using my sick time with effect in the public interest, and I had hoped to do still better work in return for the hospitality so cheerfully accorded me; but the anti-reformers' star was in the ascendant, and Nandlelong was not to be helped any more by my exertions. It seemed a pity, but I tried to act like a philosopher, and I spent the rest of the morning reading good old Burton. He helped me to laugh at the whole thing at last.
I was interrupted once by the young rascals whose brutal trick had made me a social pariah. They came to jeer, but they did not stay very long. I made them so ashamed of themselves that they sneaked back to the pub, and, as I afterwards discovered, so thoroughly frightened Mother Garfield with their penitential aspect that she forthwith "shouted" them enough rum to drown their qualms. Well, at any rate, it must have cost the avaricious old lady a good deal of her precious money to triumph over me. I had that much consolation.
Myrtle made her appearance at about ten past one. Her back was bent beneath the weight of a huge armful of parcels. She just nodded, and without a word began to open them. First of all she disclosed a little primus stove and a can of kerosene. Then came two saucepans, a tiny copper kettle, and several packages of food and groceries—flour, tea, sugar, coffee, tinned meats, etc.
I looked on in astonishment. She went to work with extraordinary precision and rapidity. In ten minutes she had everything neatly arranged on boards and packing cases, which she brought in from outside and placed against the firmest flap of the tent. Then she lighted the stove, and as soon as the stove began to flare, she put on the saucepans to boil, and began to open a tin of curried chicken.
It was then I remembered I owned a tongue.
"Appears as though you were going to house-keep for me, Miss Hofer?"
She turned round, frowning, and looked into my eyes. "Why not 'mate' or 'Myrtle,' eh?" she asked.
"Sort of seemed impertinent after yesterday's escapade. That is to say I fancied you might take that view."
She put down the tin and the opener very deliberately on the table, wiped her fingers and stepped over to the bed. "Your hand, please?"
I held it out—wondering.
She felt my pulse, frowning the while. Presently she dropped my hand and shook her head.
"You are not feverish. It must be you are a simpleton," she observed in acid tones.
"I beg your pardon," I stammered.
"Or you think I am one?" she suggested. Her cheeks were by now ornamented with two brilliant pink spots. Her eyes were simply blazing.
"What!" I exclaimed. "Is it possible you believe in me?"
"I could strike you!" she cried passionately. "How dare you insult me so?"
"What! when the whole town has——"
"Stop!" she said. "Do you want me to cry?"
"Myrtle!" I gasped.
But her tears had already began to flow. She tried to keep them back, but when she found she could not she covered her face with her apron and hurried out of the tent.
Within five minutes she returned, her usual sedate and cool collected self, though I was still quivering, so keenly had her confidence and kindness touched me. From that day we ate our meals téte-à-téte, and most of them were cooked by Myrtle in the tent.
When next Saturday evening came round and the Nandlelong miners arrived from the Rush there were ructions in the town. The entertainment committee had, it appears, fallen under the sway of Mrs. Twomy. Myrtle, in defiance of my advice, had foolishly resigned. There was therefore no influential voice to check the "rot," and, in consequence, Mother Garfield's party was only too well represented in the matrons' council, and Mrs. Twomy soon had things all her own way. She made a speech to the diggers, in which my name prominently figured, and I heard the storm of hootings that her eloquence provoked. I should be sorry to accuse the enterprising widow of a deliberate intention to do her fellow-townsmen harm, but such was the result of her misapplied activity. By ten o'clock most of male Nandlelong was embarked upon one of the ancient, time-dishonoured orgies. It lasted till midnight. Myrtle sat all the while at the flap-door of my tent on a camp-stool, nursing a revolver on her knee. She had feared lest the drunken diggers should visit me intent on mischief. But not a soul came near the place. I fancy the girl was disappointed in her heart, although she pretended to be gratified, for when she bade me, finally, good-night, it was in a particularly cold and almost resentful fashion that she turned aside my expressions of gratitude for her long watch.
Next morning about half-past nine Sebby Garrard and Slick Johnson without any ceremony came into the tent and silently found seats for themselves. Myrtle Hofer was washing the breakfast things. She paid them no attention, neither did I. And the diggers returned the compliment. They smoked and stared at each other and at their boots. Not a word was spoken for quite ten minutes, by which time Myrtle had finished her work.
"What book would you like, mate?" she then asked me. "I'm going to church to hear Mass. Father Glyan is here; he arrived this morning. So I won't be back till nearly one. But perhaps you'd rather not read? I see you have visitors."
"I do not see any," I replied coolly. "Give me 'Tristram Shandy,' please."
She handed me the volume, nodded and departed.
I opened the book and affected to read as a cover to glance now and then covertly at the two diggers. They were quite sober, but both looked much the worse for wear, and showed evident traces of the night's debauch. Their profiles were turned to me. I knew what they had come for. They were a deputation sent by the town to pass sentence on my conduct. As they were bushmen I knew that they would not do this in a direct, straightforward way, but in the play-acting fashion adopted invariably by all bushmen when any such unpleasant task has to be negotiated concerning a third person. They would not talk to me but at me, making in the act a fine pretence to ignore my existence and proximity. About five minutes after Myrtle had set out, they commenced their business.
"Say, Sebby, got a wire? my blanky pipe ain't pullin' too good this mornin'; it'd take a bullock team to draw it properly."
"Try a mustard plaster back o' yer blanky neck," replied Garrard. "How often d'ye clean the thing out? 'Ere's a wire."
Slick Johnson pulled the stem of his pipe from the bowl and inserted the wire the other had given him. A deadly aroma of nicotine instantly smote my nostrils. To dissipate it I began to fan myself.
"Faugh!" exclaimed Garrard. "You can keep that wire, Slick. Yer blanky gun stinks like a tannery. S'truth!"
"Ye're mighty dellikit, I don't think," sneered Johnson. "Got as much side about yer this mornin' as the blanky cove what come here a bit ago to wallop ther town sober with his broken leg."
This was the opening shot of the campaign. My feelings may be imagined.
"That blanky hypocrite!" said Sebby Garrard, squirting forth a contemptuous jet of tobacco juice through his front teeth. "Can't say you're in a complimentary mood to-day, Slick."
"Well," replied the other in a slow, judicial way. "I ain't going to insult you by forcin' the blanky comparison if you objects to it. S'truth! what a take-me-down the blighter was."
"Pulled our legs a treat," admitted Sebby, "he'd make his fortin as a spieler."
"Just what he is, I reckon," said Slick. "An' I ain't the only one."
"No, Slick, you ain't. The meeting was unanimous on the point if my memory serves me right."
"Your mem'ry's in good working order, Sebby."
"Don't know it's so blanky good, Slick. What was that ther last blanky motion the meetin' passed. I mind the effect of it—but the wordings gone clean out of me blanky numbskull."
"S'truth!" sneered Slick, "I thought ye'd have it pat, ye said it over so often."
"Well you spit it out, since you're so darned clever, or ye think yerself."
"Easy!" jeered Slick. "We, us and Co.——"
"Ah yes—We, us and Co.——"
"We, us and Co.," repeated Slick, "has come to the unanimous conclusion that the fair town of Nandlelong——"
"The fair town of Nandlelong——" echoed Sebby.
"That the fair town of Nandlelong ain't got no use for crawlers. And we, us and Co. hopes——" he paused.
"We us and Co. hopes," suggested Sebby.
"We, us and Co. hopes as how Mr. Joseph Tolano, Esquire, will cart his broken leg to the Wakool Hospital as soon as convenient. And we, us and Co.——"
"And We, us and Co."
"And We, us and Co., will put up the money to do it with if Mr. Joseph Tolano is agreeable and charge the expenses——"
"Go on Slick—an' charge the expenses——"
"And charge the expenses to the sewer system of the fair town o' Nandlelong," concluded Slick in accents of mordant rancour.
"Loud cheers," commented Sebby Garrard. "Loud cheers! Say, Slick, pity there wasn't a reporter handy at the meetin'."
"Oh, I dunno," said Slick. "The laugh was against us, you must remember. I ain't denying either that the cove was up to snuff. I had a sneakin' regard for him up to last night meself. Hadn't you?"
"I'd a tied to him if he'd arst me," sighed Sebby. "I'd like to break his neck. Talk about a treacherous rotter. Lord! how he must a' grinned up his sleeve at the lot of us!"
"Well—he'd best take a fool's advice an' clear out before his leg is mended," said Slick.
"Ay!" said Sebby Garrard. "If he don't!—--" There followed a deeply suggestive silence.
In the midst of it I put down my book and slowly turned my head to find—as I expected—both men gazing at me intently and most ominously.
"Boys," I said as gently as I could. "Supposing I am a backslider—what was I trying to do? To hurt you, to persuade you to do a bad thing, a thing that would empty your pockets and disease your bodies and sap your senses? Or was I trying to get you to lead clean sober lives, and look after your wives and families, and save up your money against a rainy day."
The diggers swung quietly round and faced each other again.
"Cheek, Sebby?" asked Slick Johnson.
"Cheek, Slick. It's blanky cheek," replied Sebby Garrard.
"Supposin' I am a backslider," murmured Slick, mimicking my words.
Both men laughed scornfully.
"Mates," I said.
Once more they turned, as if on pivots, and sternly regarded me.
"There's no doubt I was drunk the other day, beastly drunk, and I admit it without reserve." I began. "But I daresay you boys have heard my defence. It's been told you how I had the cheek to accuse the battery lads of forcing the liquor down my throat with a funnel——" Here I put up my hand to silence their angry objections.
"Of course you don't believe it," I went on. "You believe I am an impudent liar."
"Just so, mates, and I am not going to bother attempting to alter your opinion. The fact is I'd probably have the same mind in your place. It's so much easier to think badly of a man anyway; and nine times out of ten, so much more sensible. Well, put me down as a hypocrite and a crawler. I don't blame you. The fair town of Nandlelong has a perfect right to shut out such creatures from its sacred precincts; and I'm glad it knows it has, and in the interests of its own purity is going to enforce its right, even though I'm the victim. But say, mates there's no need for 'We, us and Co.' to anticipate the public sewer fund. I have enough cash to see me through; and I'll cheerfully spend it, to assist in purifying the town's moral atmosphere. That's to say, I'll clear out at my own expense; and to-morrow if you like—but on one condition."
"Oh!" said Slick Johnson.
"Ah!" said Sebby Garrard.
"It's an easy condition," I pursued. "It's simply this. You must get as many of the battery lads together—who were my partners in last Wednesday's spree—as you can find and bring them here to this tent this afternoon; and they must be sober, mind. They must be perfectly sober. That is all."
"What do you want them for?" demanded Garrard.
"Just to ask them a few questions—before you two. There needn't be anyone else present. What do you say?"
The diggers consulted each other's eyes.
"Don't see no objection, do you?" said Garrard.
"Not me," replied Johnson.
"Then shall we call it a bargain, mates?" I queried.
"Don't see why not, do you?" said Garrard.
"Not me," replied Johnson.
They put their pipes in their pockets and got to their feet. "Well, s'long." they chorused, and strode away.
When Myrtle returned and I told her of the bargain, she was furious. She considered me a fool and she did not hesitate to say so. But I had too much faith in the honest hearts of sober bushmen to have any fear of the result; and I felt certain that the lads whose wild trick had killed my reputation would be unable to carry their work to its logical conclusion, when forced in cold blood to face the task of completing the ruin they had caused. And the event proved that I was right. Within an hour of the making of the pact, news of it had got abroad; and while the diggers were eating their dinners in their several homes, Mrs. Garfield's boarders quietly slunk out of the town—all save one, who got drunk instead. The end was that Sebby Garrard and Slick Johnson entered my tent shortly before dusk absolutely unaccompanied.
They were in a manifestly chastened mood. They sat down and stared at their boots for a good quarter hour before either found courage to speak. Meanwhile I smoked a cigar that Myrtle had given me, and she, seated at the foot of my bed, read a novel with her nose ostentatiously in air.
As before the diggers talked at and not to me.
"Say, Slick," said Sebby. "I reckon you've got my match-box."
"No," said Slick. "Give it back to you at the meetin'."
"So you did," agreed Sebby. "I clean forgot. Meetin' must have put it outer me head."
"You got a rotten memory," said Slick.
"I have," admitted Sebby. "Good thing yours is a blank——'ahem! beg pardon (this in deference to Myrtle's presence)—a bloomin' better brand. For the life of me I can't call to mind the last resolution."
"In at one ear an' out t'other. You've got a head on ye like the bottom of a bla——ahem—cradle."
"How was it worded, Slick?" appealingly. "Spit it out, sonny, won't you?"
"Oh! my troubles. It started same as t'other—We, us and Co.——"
"Of course—We, us and Co.——go on Slick."
"We, us and Co., not being able—owin' to the mysterious disappearance——"
"The mysterious disappearance. Good word, 'mysterious,' Slick!"
"Stuff it and hang it up on your parlour wall for an ornerment if you like it," growled Slick.
"Beg pardon for interruptin' of yer, Slick."
"Owin' to ther mysterious disappearance of ther battery coves (it was simply beautiful to hear Slick rolling out the words after tasting their lusciousness to the full with evident delight), has no option but to consider the offence not proven—'cordin' to the dictates of British fair play."
"That's it, Slick," cried Sebby admiringly. "British fair play."
"So, We, us and Co.," proceeded Slick, "holds as how the said Joe Tolano is for ther present discharged from the bar of justice without a stain on his kiractar, and a recommendation to be careful for the future."
"Hear, hear," cried Sebby. "Hear hear! Loud cheers being expressly forbid on account of the absence of conclusive conviction regarding both the prosecution and the defence."
"British fair play predudin' the hangin' of a cove on primy facey or circumstantial evidence," added Slick.
"Hear, hear," concluded Sebby. And both diggers then sighed in relief at the completion of their task.
After the proper interval of dignified stillness prescribed by bush custom and by the occasion I turned to face the expectant deputation. "I'm not guilty, but I must not do it again," I observed.
The diggers looked at one another.
"Slick," said Sebby, in accents of deep pathos, "what did I say at the meetin'?"
"Sebby," answered Slick, "you up and told the gatherin' it was a joint and several blank——ahem!—bloomin' fool."
There was solemn silence for two minutes, then Slick raised his voice again.
"Sebby," said he, "kindly mention what I told ther meetin', will you?"
"Slick," answered Sebby, "if me memory rightly serves me you politely hinted to the assembled coves and ladies met in company that you'd see 'em all soaked in blazin' ham-fat before you'd let their bla——bloomin' resolution stop you goin' up to the bloke"—he indicated me with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder—"and savin' to him, 'Mate, there's me bla——bloomin' hand."
"That's right, Sebby," said Slick, "right as the bank. And you said 'Hear, hear,' meanin' as how you'd do the same."
"S'truth—Gor's truth," declared Sebby with enormous emphasis.
They stared into each other's face for another full minute.
"Well?" said Slick in tones of gentle enquiry.
"Well?" replied Sebby, anxiously and somewhat uncertainly.
"Well?" repeated Slick, still enquiringly but not so gently.
"Well?" replied Sebby in an exasperated way. "You said you'd do it. I only said, 'Hear hear.'"
"Meanin'," said Slick with biting scorn, "you want to be shown the way. Oh, well—dogs follow their masters." He stood up.
Sebby stood up too. He looked extremely angry. "Yes," he said; "yes, well, yes. Dogs follow their masters; it's truth. An' dirt goes before the broom; that's truth too." Slick clenched his fists. "For half a weight—just half a weight," he snarled, "I'd—I'd——"
Sebby's eyes flashed fire, and he stuck out his bearded face tauntingly before the face of his friend. "Just you try it," he invited in a perfectly imploring voice. "Just you lift your dear pretty little mud-hook and put it——"
But I judged it time to intervene. "Mates," I said, "remember there's a lady present."
The diggers on instant were all suavity. They turned and bowed gravely to Myrtle.
"Hoping as how you understood we was only funnin', Miss Myrtle," cooed Sebby.
"Just a friendly little bit of a joke, ma'am," added Slick.
"Oh, I quite understand," said Myrtle in a stifled voice. She was in the throes of suppressed mirth.
The diggers bowed again to her, and strode over to my bed.
"There's my blanky fist, mate!" cried both at once, the great Australian adjective slipping out in sublime unconsciousness of its employment.
I shook Sebby's first and then Slick's.
"I take it," I asked, "that you no longer consider me a lying hypocrite?"
Sebby for answer rolled up his right shirt-sleeve and displayed a brawny mass of hairy bone and muscle that conveyed an almost appalling evidence of brutal force. He patted the forearm with his left paw and murmured feelingly, "It's waitin' for any of 'em says you are."
Slick rolled his eyes to the tent roof and spread out all his fingers in a deprecating way. "The blokes aren't all blanky fools, mate—but the women! S'truth! And the worst of it is you can't bash 'em and you can't shut 'em up. Howsoever, it's to be hoped they'll stop surging an' get a bit o' sense some time. They blanky well run the meetings, tho'; leastwise, the last o' the meetin's. Howsoever, as I said before, it's a case o' swimmin' steady an' holdin' your breath 'tween dives. Shouldn't wonder they'll be wantin' to lick yer boots when the fit's over. Mother Garfield and Mrs. Twomy are at the bottom of it. I says, let 'em have their heads, and grin and say nothin'. That's your dart."
"Thanks," I answered quietly; "and it's just what I shall do."
Slick nodded. "Ah well, s'long, mate! See you next Saturday," he said a moment later, and strolled off.
Sebby said "S'long—me too," and followed Slick.
Myrtle arose and silently began to prepare our tea. When it was quite ready she permitted herself the luxury of a comment on the happenings of the day.
"I'm beginning to despise women," she remarked. "They always want to believe the very worst of a man. It is their strongest natural inclination, it appears to me."
"And not yours, Myrtle?" I shyly queried. "Has it never occurred to you that men are predaceous animals, and need to have their motives audited by your suspicion?"
"You are impertinent," said Myrtle. "Here is your tea."
How it commenced I cannot tell. Mrs. Twomy and Mrs. Garfield were the underground engineers beyond all doubt, but they concealed their sappings from our eyes very thoroughly—that is to say, from the eyes of Myrtle and me. For four weeks Nandlelong was the pleasantest and soberest little mining settlement on the continent. I had recovered all my influence over the diggers, had indeed increased it. And, although the women held aloof from me, I saw in the circumstance evidence only of their natural obstinacy and female disinclination to admit a mistake. And I was actually stupid enough to hope that it only needed a little further time to restore me openly to their confidence and good graces. Then quite suddenly arrived the deluge. It was two days after Dr. White had removed the plaster of Paris from my leg and pronounced me fit to move abroad on crutches. Fate came upon us in the shape of a weazened little gentleman, with the face of a ferret and the demeanour of a dandy. I was exercising my leg with Myrtle's help in the school-yard when he passed us, riding towards the town on a beautiful coal-black horse. The day was Monday, and the hour about 4.30 in the afternoon.
"Goodness!" exclaimed Myrtle, "that is Mr. McClellan, the School Inspector. What can he want, and why was I not warned of his coming?"
As I could not answer these problems the girl incontinently left me and hurried to Mother Garfield's public-house, before which the little Inspector was at that moment dismounting. Looking after her, I noted that Mrs. Twomy and several of the Nandlelong matrons, all arrayed in their best bibs and tuckers, were grouped on the shanty verandah. But even then no suspicion of the truth occurred to me; and I hobbled to my tent in all the bliss of utter ignorance.
About an hour later my attention was distracted from the perusal of a magazine article on the destruction of termites by the sound of a loud "Ahem!" I looked up, and was a trifle startled to see the Inspector standing in the doorway.
"Mr. Tolano, I presume," he said in cool, pompous tones. "I am Mr. McClellan, Inspector of State Schools for the New England District."
"Glad to meet you," I replied, and getting afoot I placed the camp-stool on the smoothest patch of floor. "Won't you be seated, sir?" I asked, and myself retreated to the bed, wondering why he had not offered me his hand.
"No; I thank you," he said firmly. "My visit is not one of courtesy, Mr. Tolano; indeed, you may be disposed to consider it a frank impertinence. I have come to proffer you a piece of advice."
"I shall make it as brief as possible. You are unquestionably aware that Miss Hofer's reputation has been hopelessly compromised in your regard. In the circumstances I cannot doubt but that you will marry her. It is my deliberate opinion that the ceremony should take place at once. I may observe that nothing else could justify me in mitigating the tone of the report which it is my duty to send to headquarters. Miss Hofer's prompt resignation of her position is, of course, to be implied. Kindly communicate your decision to me by wire to Wakool. I shall be there all to-morrow. I think there is nothing more that need be said between us. Good afternoon!"
He was gone—whole minutes before my stunned faculties had recovered from the shock which he had given them. And when I did manage to stumble to the door it was merely to see the narrow-minded little dandy disappearing in a cloud of dust on the road to Wakool. In a space of less than two hours he had come, seen, and conquered, riding rough-shod over a good girl's dearest earthly possession at the instance of a number of deluded women and two insensate harpies.
Myrtle was simply magnificent. She marched up to where I stood in full view of all her gloating enemies, and stopping before me she broke out into a merry peal of laughter.
Then she dropped me a curtsy. "Have you ever remarked," she asked, "what a pleasure good women experience in picking to pieces a bad woman's reputation?"
"Yes," I replied, "I have."
"In justice to them, those yonder honestly believe me bad. But oh! how they enjoyed the pastime. Joe Tolano, look at me, will you?"
"I am," I said—and she was worth it. Her beauty was simply amazing. She seemed to float above the ground. She was all fire and spiritual essence. Her eyes shone like stars; her lips were quivering scarlet bows; her hair diffused an electric radiance of lambent gold.
"I can't believe myself one of those—and yet I suppose I must be—just a woman!" she said softly and with a governed gentleness that thrilled me like a strong galvanic current.
"Myrtle," I exclaimed, "you are as far above them as the Southern Cross."
"Am I?" she asked, and smiled. "I think it possible; perhaps—because I do not want to kill them. But oh! Mother Mary, how I hate them! How I want to be revenged—revenged in some new way—a terrible new way!"
Of a sudden she turned and faced the women on the verandah. We heard them laugh. But Myrtle did not move; and presently, one by one, her enemies, abashed by her electric gaze, slunk out of sight within the shanty.
Then Myrtle turned to me and smiled again. "I ordered them—I willed them to go," she said. "I felt that I could force them to obey; and see—they did!"
I placed a hand upon her arm. "Mr. McClellan came to me," I began.
"I know," she interrupted; "I did not try to prevent him, because it was necessary for you to hear what we are accused of—and I could not bear to tell you myself."
"He believes it, Myrtle; he has condemned you——"
"But not unheard," she cried. "He gave me every chance; he is a kind man. Once he wished and asked me to be his wife. I might have been some day, perhaps. But he has no faculty of faith. They told him fearful things—based on half-truths: I have been seen coming from your tent early in the morning; I had been up hours before and brought you flowers I had plucked on the hills, but they imagined I had been—you understand! Oh! but it was horrible! And Mrs. Twomy went much farther still. She has the heart of a cunning, cruel dingo. There was no use fighting against her and them all; it was hopeless. When I saw that, I gave up the contest and resigned. I am no longer the schoolmistress of Nandlelong, Joe Tolano."
"Myrtle Hofer," said I, "it is impossible for me to ask you to be my wife without adding a new insult to your list of burdens. But if you could bring yourself to stoop and take my name you will have a comrade who will respect and serve you to his life's end."
She gazed at me with the most miserable and pitiable look conceivable. "I made sure you'd spare me that," she muttered, and choking back a sob she went slowly and haltingly away in the direction of the school.
All that evening I watched the light in her window. About midnight it vanished, and a little later I heard her door open. She came straight to the door of my tent.
"Are you waking, Joe?" she whispered.
"I am here," I replied.
She put out her hand and touched me; then drew back with a little shiver. I made out dimly that a swag was strapped across her shoulder. "How dark it is," she said.
"You are going away!" I cried.
Something fell with a clinking sound in the middle of the tent. "There's money in that bag," murmured the girl. Then her hands clutched me firmly by the arm. "No, mate—you let it be till afterwards. You must take it," she commanded fiercely. "Remember our bargain; there's more need than ever to keep it firmly now!"
"Oh!" I cried. "The bargain—it's not to go, then?"
"Listen to me, Joe. To-day is Monday; by Saturday you should be fit to travel—as far as the Rush, at any rate."
"Of course; don't doubt it—mate. Shall I meet you there?"
"Not there, but three miles farther on a bar of serpentine crosses both road and river and dips into the hills. Follow the bar over the second ridge and you'll come to a little reedy marsh. You'll find me camped among some grass trees beyond the line of reeds."
"And now about ways and menus. Your mare, Sorrel, is in Sam Blakeney's paddock at the Hanging Rock, and your tools and swag are at Slick Johnson's cottage. For a shilling Tommy Soames will bring in the mare and get your things for you from Mrs. Johnson. Load up as much flour and tea as you can carry from the store—there's ample money in the bag; and buy also a good big string of onions. I'll bring all else you'll need while prospecting from Wakool."
"You don't propose to walk to Wakool, Myrtle?"
"No, only to the Rush. I'll take the coach the rest of the way. Well, good-bye, mate!"
She did not offer to shake hands. She strode to the fence and climbed through the rails; but she did not start from thence immediately.
"Are you there, Joe?" she called.
"Yes," I said.
"I cannot see you."
"What is it, mate?" I asked, hobbling to the fence.
"The bush is so vast. I am so lonely—and so frightened of the dark!" It was almost a wail that came to me. It brought the tears to my eyes and a burning lump in my throat.
"Stay," I muttered, "at least until the dawn."
"It would kill me—to let those women see me again," she whispered.
"Curse their cruel tongues!" I groaned. "Curse them—curse them!"
A small soft hand quivered over my face. "Joe," said Myrtle, in low, deep thrilling tones. "You are crying. You—a man!"
"Oh! my dear," I said. "How I wish that I could help you."
"You have," she answered softly, and was gone like a shade into the shadows. Only for a few seconds could I even hear her footsteps on the dusty velvet padding of the road.
THE only thing I could do for Myrtle I did. This was to write a letter, indignantly repudiating the charges made against her, and giving the history of our acquaintance and her most generous care of me. I added a statement, expressing my readiness to testify on oath to the truth of every word I had penned, and I posted the letter not to Mr. McClellan, but to the head of the Education Department of the State in Sydney.
My chief care during the week was to exercise my leg. I went for long walks along all the more easy roads, with my crutches for companions. One day I chose a more venturesome route—the steep road to the Swinging Rock—and my reward was a discovery. Having climbed the first rise I skirted the corner of a big hill and came upon a charming little plateau. Hereon were perched three prim but pretty little wooden cottages, set in a row and adjoining one another. Each was flanked with a neat, well-tended flower-garden, and the front of each was covered with carefully trimmed masses of Virginia creeper and wisteria. I paused in sheer surprise to gaze at them; and at once, as if on a given signal from the open door of each cottage, there emerged a white-haired old man. Each old man immediately walked to his front gate and, leaning on the picket-top, stared down the road at me. The co-ordinate precision of their movements was most comical. Involuntarily I smiled. Instantly the old men smiled in unison. I resumed my hobble and very soon came opposite to the middle cottage. The first old man had permitted me to pass unchallenged, but the second, the inmate of the central cot, hailed me. "G'day, mate," he called out.
I stopped and replied "Good-day."
"In a hurry?" he enquired.
"No," said I; and, taking the question as an invitation, I limped over to the gate.
It was a signal for the other two old fellows to close in on the central figure. They left their gates and, moving towards one another in their own grounds, bobbed their heads and shoulders over the dividing fences and rested their arms on the rails. Each favoured me with a nod, but neither spoke.
The man who had hailed me was a noble-looking old chap, with a magnificent head of long, fleecy hair, white as snow, and a nose like the Duke of Wellington. The others were equally antique, but not so striking in appearance. The centre figure acted as master of ceremonies. "Bob Bates, George England," he observed, indicating his neighbours with his thumbs; "I'm Jerry Sherrard."
"Glad to know you all," I answered, bowing to each in turn. "I'm Joe Tolano."
"Queen Anne's dead," said Mr. Sherrard, shrugging his shoulders.
"Well, you are new to me," I returned. "I had no idea of your existence."
"No." The three quaint old things exchanged a glance and smiled. "'Tain't amazin'," said Mr. Sherrard presently. "We keeps to ourselves; and ain't much account in the town. We're tee-to-ta-lers."
"Yairs. We made our pile out of the Pitcher's reef ten years agone, and not feelin' like boozin' it up, Mother Garfield don't like us and never will. But here we are and here we stay. How d'ye like our fixin's?"
I hastened to express my appreciation of the cottages. The old fellows nodded happily at almost every adjective I uttered. It was easy to see that they were a mutual admiration society, and immensely proud of themselves, of one another, and of all their possessions. My encomiums pleased them extremely. They became loquacious.
"Our money is all in Government stock," said Mr. Bates.
"Interest is low but sure," cut in Mr. England.
"Our troubles for bursting banks," sneered Mr. Sherrard. "Country can't go broke whatever else does."
"We get it paid us twice a year," said Mr. Bates.
"And we put it in the Savings Bank," said Mr. England.
"Another Gov'mint Instertushon," commented Mr. Sherrard.
"Mates," I said. "You are far and away the most sensible men I know."
The old chaps exchanged an interrogative glance. Then Mr. Bates and Mr. England pointed smilingly to Mr. Sherrard. He looked at me. "S'elp me," he declared. "We'd arst you in if it wasn't fer the missusses. They're all in the swim to down the school teacher."
"Oh!" I said, feeling myself stiffen at the information.
"Blamed lot of tortoise-shells," observed Mr. Sherrard, in a low voice, but looking apprehensively over his shoulder as he spoke.
"Women's all alike," whispered Mr. Bates, also with a furtive glance to the rear.
"That——uncharitable," murmured Mr. England, after investigating the background with a searching stare.
"I'm delighted to hear," I said, "that you don't countenance the infamous slanders to which Miss Hofer's name has been subjected."
Mr. Bates screwed up his eyes. "We know a straight girl when we see her," he cooed.
Mr. England winked solemnly at me. "Miss Myrtle may be a bit romantic, getting up early and pluckin' flowers and that sort of thing, but she can look you in the eye—my oath."
Mr. Sherrard hitched up his trousers: "Well-brung up girls don't fling 'emselves away on broken-legged bald-heads," he sneered, pulling, as if to point his words, at his own splendid white mane. "No offence, mate," he added. "But yer see, we know that girl; she's a schollard and a lydy. She's never missed comin' here one day a week these two years past to read us a chapter from the Book. An' tho' she may be a Cartholic, 'tain't her fault. She was born to it."
"Ay!" said Mr. Bates.
"By gum!" said Mr. England.
Suddenly a voice rang out, a sharp female staccato, from the interior of Mr. England's house. "George, you come in 'ere this minit."
It had hardly spoken when another voice of the same species issued from the central cottage. "Jerry, you come in 'ere this minit."
A third voice from the remaining cottage ripped out on the heels of the second. "Bob, you come in 'ere this minit."
The three old men started shrinkingly, and, without troubling to glance at me or at each other, swung round and rushed into their cottages. They had been whistled to heel like so many sheep-dogs; and like well-trained sheep-dogs they had slavishly obeyed their masters' calls.
Three loud bangs indicated three slammed doors and an irate lady standing behind each be-rating her senile, delinquent husband. The ensuing stillness made me nervous, so I hurried off as fast as I could hobble. I did not pause until I had reached the corner of the hill. Then I stopped, and getting behind a bush I sat down and peeped back between the leaves. But it was no use. I remained at my vantage post for more than an hour, but the three quaint little cottages kept obstinately, mysteriously still. A potent spell had been cast over them. To me they and their delightful occupants were like a page out of some old-world fairy story. But it was a page that had no sequence in my experience, for although I resolved there and then to return next day by hook or crook and hold further conversation with the old men of the mountain, fate intervened. Returning to my tent I found young Tommy Soames awaiting me.
"The post-missus give me this fer yer," he announced. "This" was a telegram, unsigned, but I knew from Myrtle Hofer. "To-morrow, if you can," it ran.
"No," I muttered; "to-day."
"Tommy," I said aloud; "you know where my mare is. A shilling to bring her in at once."
"Hi! yi!" yelled Tommy, and he was off like an emu with the hounds behind him.
Dear old Sorrel was overjoyed to see me. She whinnied and snorted and nosed me all over. It was just beautiful to be made so much of, and she was in the very pink of excellent condition.
I should have liked to have stolen away from Nandlelong without saying a word to any of the mean-spirited women whose evil thoughts and actions had driven Myrtle from the town. But it was not to be. I had to buy provisions from the store. The store—a tiny little general emporium—was situated opposite to Mother Garfield's shanty. It was kept by a close-mouthed and fisted weazened-up little Hebrew trader, named Solomon, who never had a word to say to a soul, who seldom crossed the threshold of his own door, and whose whole soul was steeped and wrapped up in his sordid calling. He served his customers in a sphinx-like silence. He might as well have been born a mute. He tried to swindle me out of four shillings, but he showed neither shame nor resentment when I exposed the cheat. It was an experiment that might have been successful. He did not even shrug his shoulders. His philosophy was mean, but perfect of its order.
When I went out with my purchases to load on the back of patient Sorrel, who awaited me beside the verandah of the store, I found the road in our immediate neighbourhood occupied by the entire female population of the village, save only Mother Garfield and Mrs. Twomy. Those noteworthies lounged on the pub verandah across the way. After one hasty glance I ignored the existence of the gathering, and proceeded, whistling an air the while, to strap Sorrel's new burdens across her withers, before the weather-worn old saddle. The ladies watched me intently, whispering together in little groups. But my indifference emboldened them at last, and as I toilfully climbed into the saddle, they closed round the mare. Thus, when I was finally seated, I could not well move without riding over one or other of them.
"Well," I said, seeing no help for it but to address them. "It seems you have some business with me." I looked straight at Mrs. Soames as I spoke. I had liked, really liked that woman, and her defection had been a positive disappointment.
"So, Joe Tolano, you are goin' off," she cried. "An' without a word to any one of us."
"As few words as possible, Mrs. Soames."
"After all we've done for you," she cried.
"Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind, Mrs. Soames."
"Hoity, toity!" she sneered; and the others heartily acclaimed the sentiment.
"If you will let me pass," I suggested, "I'll discharge my debt in full by ridding you of a presence you have found to be offensive."
Mrs. Fullwood, very red in the face, stepped a little forward.
"Not so fast, young man!" she said reprovingly. Then she turned her face to the women. "Unaccustomed as I am to public speakin', I take the liberty of cravin' of indulgence ter put a question 'fore the meetin'."
"Hear, hear!" cried several.
Thus encouraged, the lady looked me in the eye. "Are ye agoin' ter marry Myrtle Hofer?" she demanded.
"No," said I.
As if by magic the entire assemblage smiled. "Quite right, too." "Serve her right." "The bloke has some sense; that's evident." "Teach her a lesson." "Put her in her place." "The minx'll know what's what now." These were some of the expressions that were fired off by the gentle creatures who surrounded me. I waited as coolly as I could till silence fell again. Then I raised my voice. "Say, ladies," I began; "there's something you ought to know."
"Yes, yes," they cried, quite eagerly.
I fixed Mrs. Soames with my eye, and through her addressed the lot. "I've got to thank you for mating my name with Miss Hofer's," I observed. "She's a heap above my class, and it was right down complimentary in you to mention me in her street. But all the same I owe you a grudge for it. You see, when I heard what you'd said it puffed me up and made me as proud as a peacock and as vain as a sparrow; so vain that before I stopped to think I up and asked her to marry me. Naturally, she was insulted. She rated me soundly; I might have been a dog. Of course, I deserved it. I realised it at once. Fancy me, a broken down, out-at-elbows prospector, bald-headed and ugly, not too good and not too young; and she, as pretty as a picture, as straight as a die, finely educated, and full of proper pride and personal ambition. Yes, ladies, I deserved what I got, and I got what I deserved. She hinted that it was bad enough for you women to have assaulted her honour with your tongues, but she felt more degraded by me, knowing how pure and blameless she is, daring to dream that she could lower herself so much as to touch the hand of any man, save in charity or friendship, who was not fully worthy of her love and her esteem. I tell you, ladies, it was a bad five minutes for me, as bad as one day you'll experience if ever Providence is kind enough to make you comprehend what a crime you've committed in blistering with your foul suspicions the reputation of a truly good woman."
Mrs. Soames went quite pale. I did not remark the others, but it was noticeable that they were as still as mice.
Mrs. Soames opened and shut her mouth twice. She found an evident difficulty in speaking. "You mean—you mean to say," she stammered, "that you—that she—that you didn't——"
"Mrs. Soames," said I, "and all you ladies here. I'll make you a present of a bit of information. I love Myrtle Hofer, and I love her as deeply and as tenderly as ever man loved woman yet. But I have no hope of winning her, I never had, she's out of reach, and I always knew it. I did hope, though, that some day, years hence, perhaps, she might one day, if I did something real fine to deserve it—saved someone's life or something like that; or perhaps if I lay dying—that she might let me kiss her hand! And you've made these insinuations!"
"Joe!" cried Mrs. Soames. "I never thought—I—oh, Lord!" she began to cry.
"If you were men," I said, "I'd want to kill you. You'll let me go now, won't you?"
Mrs. Fullwood stood directly before me. She caught at Sorrel's bridle with a trembling hand. "By God! You're telling us the truth?" she gasped.
"You know it in your soul!" I said.
"We'll—we'll—write to the Inspector. We'll get her back," she cried. She was shaking like a leaf. Other women were sobbing.
"You can try," I said; and leaning down I tore her hand from the bridle, throwing it aside. Then I touched old Sorrel with my heel and set out on my journey. Mother Garfield rushed after me. Poor old Sorrel's best pace, so loaded, was an ambling jog. So she soon caught me up and clasped my stirrup.
"I'm sorry, s'elp me. I'm sorry. I'll do my best to get her back," she panted, running by my side.
I pulled up and looked down at her. "You mean it, Mrs. Garfield?"
She nodded. "I ain't all bad. It was spite an'—an' Mrs. Twomy. I'll make an affidavy. I will, s'elp me!"
"She'll never come back to Nandlelong," I said. "But you can help to clear her reputation. It's your duty."
"I'll do it, Joe; 's'elp me!" She began to cry. "An' I'm sorry too—for the way I treated you. I'd do anythin' you said."
"Then write to the Inspector and get all the other women to sign."
"I'll do it."
"I trust you, Mrs. Garfield."
"I'll do it, Joe. Good-bye. I'll do it, Joe."
And that refrain "I'll do it, Joe," rang in my ears for miles. Lord, what marvellous strange mixtures of impulse and calculation women are! Little is the wonder that men almost always fail to understand them.
THE road was exquisitely beautiful. It led through a park-like forest of trim myalls and noble round-boled apple gums, with here and there a splendid currajong, down a gentle spreading declivity to the far seen river. Thence it glanced off and abruptly pierced a dense belt of timber, emerging on the other side to traverse the dry bed of a billabong and once more greet the stream. Thence again it followed the river's windings at a distance of a quarter of a mile or more leading by a series of long, steep descents and shorter rises through some magnificently wild and picturesque gorges out upon a grassy tableland. Here mining proceeded. The little plain was rabbited with a thousand heaps of clay and wash. Only about four claims, however, were being worked, and these by Chinamen who had a puddling machine going on the bank of the river. Evidently this part of the field had been long since abandoned by white diggers. The coolies waved their hands to me as I passed, in friendly greeting. To judge by their contented looks, their predecessors had left much gold in the ground.
Having traversed the tableland, the road took another sharp fall into a patch of scrub, at the other side of which I found a long narrow gully. Here a stamper battery was at work, the motor power a Pelton wheel fed by a stream of water falling sheer through a huge pipe from the top of the hill where a race terminated that had been deflected from the river a thousand feet higher up. I had to coax Sorrel past this spot because the pipe arched from the hill wall across the road to the battery, and not only did a perfect cascade drip from its iron sides but the water within made a most thunderous uproar. The poor old mare had never seen anything like that before and she was deadly afraid of it. But she gathered courage from my shouts at last and shivered through the archway, spreading out her legs and depressing her body like a beast of prey rushing on a victim. A shout of laughter on the other side greeted the achievement. We had been watched by half a score of miners who were waiting for their shift to go down the main shaft of the mine. Naturally, I pulled up and had a chat with them. They knew all about me, and Myrtle and everything. News does not loiter in the bush. They were unostentatiously but sincerely sympathetic, not to me but to Myrtle. As far as I was concerned I was just a "blanky man" able to look after myself, and if anything deserving of a kick or two for being the unwitting means of Myrtle's misfortunes. But Myrtle! It was quite apparent that they regarded her as a superior being, and when they found me inclined to encourage that opinion I acquired a passport to their confidence. I told them exactly how I had spoken to the women of Nandlelong—for Myrtle's sake. They did not say a word, but one after another they came up and shook my hand. I went on in a happy glow. I tell you—it's not an easy thing to get diggers, unasked, to shake hands with you. I have seen the most popular miner on the field say good-bye for ever to his mates and only be "farewelled" with simple nods. The deepest feelings of the heart have to be tapped before a true bushman can be tricked into parading his emotion.
Two more miles of gullies and dipping hillocks covered with stunted gums—the soil was poor and shallow—brought me down into the Yabba Gabba Rush. Ah! but it was a sight to thrill a miner's heart. To the left spun the river, bounded on the farther bank by a towering range of jagged hills, rising sheer from the water's edge. On the right the ground sloped gently out and upwards from the bank in a succession of low rolling mounds extending to the taller foot-hills. And straight before me rose a transverse mountain spur—a thousand yards distant. The Rush itself was thus entirely enclosed with hills. It might best be likened to the bottom of an oblong box, one portion of the superficies possessing an inclined tilt. Each mound was dotted with tents and burrowed like a warren. Against every tree all over the field and from the edge of each prospecting hole thousands of tons of wash dirt were stacked in cone-shaped heaps. And the whole scene was instinct with life and strenuous activity. Twenty puddling machines were toiling in the river. A thousand men laboured on the slopes, and even on the foot-hills a hundred picks and spades were flashing in the sunlight—a sight that told its tale of new adventurers constantly arriving. No more notice was taken of me than if I had been an ant. The entire population was absorbedly engaged in getting gold. I rode carefully between the lanes of pegs to the top of the first mound and gazed about me. I counted twenty-six puddler carts busily engaged carrying the wash dirt to the river. There were at least a dozen races winding across the hills as well, feeding the claims of the more lucky and independent diggers. Carts and races and machines combined to express the abounding prosperity of the field. I could have looked on for hours in other circumstances and never tired. But I'll confess it—I began to feel a little bit jealous. I was an outsider—a late comer. Had fate been a trifle kinder I might have been one of those happy labourers—as busy as any bee there delving in his golden honeycomb. It was a mean thought and poor philosophy—but there it was. I envied them—not so much their gold—no—not at all their gold—but this gallant striving, their joyous hopes and their glad companionship. They were daily spending every atom of their strength and energy, and daily it was magically renewed and the exercise was doing them good; making better men of them, broadening their minds, vivifying their muscles and their characters. But I was bound on a wild-goose chase, the partner—nay, the servant of a girl who, through me, had incurred a mortal injury for which she could not help but hate me as the instrument. Hate me; she ought to loathe me, "and doubtless," I told myself, "she does." I could have wished never to see her face again; and I wistfully thought I might be doing her a better service to desert her service than continue in it. However, she had spoken and it was not my part to demur, although I felt I should have admired her more if she had cast me off for ever that day at Nandlelong.
"Well, I'm blest," cried a hearty voice. "If ta'int Joe Tolano! Hey, Slick!"
All unconsciously I had ridden to the very edge of Sebby Garrard's claim. And now I learned for the first time that he and Slick Johnson were partners.
Sebby dropped his shovel and came to me at once. Slick appeared a moment later, mounting from the prospecting shaft in a bucket on a double self-working line rolled across a winch above.
"'Struth!" he shouted, as he hopped out nimbly upon the edge of the hole. "Thought Sebby was pullin' me laig, an' I come up to give him what for."
"It's me," I observed, and, resting my bad leg on the saddle-tree, I took out and began to fill my pipe.
"Don't let me stop your work, mates," I suggested politely.
"Huh!" said Sebby, "we ain't pressed for time. Got a six-ounce slug this mornin'."
"It's barely five o'clock," I urged.
"Oh! dry up," said Slick. "How's the laig?"
"I've chucked the crutches, Slick."
"A word's as good as a nod," commented Slick, inverting the proverb. "Well that's good anyway."
He pronounced anyway in a manner that implied his doubt of my having any other store of good news to impart.
"Suppose you coves have heard about Myrtle Hofer," I asked after a good long pause.
They both nodded and averted their faces, discovering a sudden interest down the valley.
"Saw her going through t'other day—to Wakool," observed Sebby at the end of five minutes' steady contemplation of nothing in particular.
"Yes," I said.
"Yairs," said Slick.
"She didn't tell you, though," I observed.
"No," said Sebby.
"Not much," said Slick.
"The women are sorry now," I volunteered. "They are going to write to the Inspector and retract their statements."
The diggers did not seem surprised; but they did not offer any comment.
"I asked her to marry me," I said a little later.
"Slick and me's both married," sighed Sebby with a regretful and deeply apologetic note. "We put up a purse o' ninety-six quid between us—it was all we could do on the notice. She kind o' came along unexpected, ye see. But it was all one. She wouldn't take a brown. Still it was somethin' p'raps for her to have us to tread on and walk over. Might have done her a bit of good, p'raps. Though I'm doubtful."
"She—er—She—er—er—She—you see, mate—she cried," said Slick. He seemed to have something wrong with his throat.
"Of course she turned you down, Joe?" said Sebby, just as the silence was growing unbearable.
"Of course," I said.
"Oh! well!" said Slick. "Oh! well!"
"The worst of it is she made us take our Bible oaths we wouldn't say a word to the missusses," said Sebby, and he positively groaned, adding thereafter a word it would be bootless to repeat.
"Incidental-like we give her our straight wires never to exceed three beers and two rums at any one go—even on Saturdays. She was dead set on it," murmured Slick.
"Good-bye, mates," I said suddenly, and putting down my leg I turned the mare around.
"You'll be goin' fur, Joe?" asked Sebby.
"I'm going prospecting in the ridges," I replied.
"And for cash, Joe? How is it? Don't be blanky well afraid to open your mouth; Sebby and me's got full pouches, mind!" said Slick.
"I'll come to you for a leg up if I go broke," I answered.
"Thanks, mate," said Slick.
"Good for ye, boy," cried Sebby. "That's hearty."
We nodded and exchanged the glances of wholehearted friends. Then I passed on and took the road again.
IT was easy enough to find the serpentine bar of which Myrtle had informed me, but the prosecution of her other directions was another matter altogether. First of all, it took me half an hour's hard work to discover a loose panel in the fence of the Government Stock paddock that bordered the road, and another quarter hour's tugging to displace it when found. And my task had barely begun: there was a precipitous diorite ridge to climb, seven hundred feet high at the least, and another behind the first still taller. That certainly was Sorrel's job, but it wasn't in me to force the good old mare too far, so we slept that night dry-mouthed on the crest of the first divide. Next morning Sorrel stayed her thirst with the dew wet mountain grass, but Rover and I were obliged to wait for three long hours. It took us all that time to negotiate the pathless range. But it was worth the toil and trouble, ay and more, for the sake of the cool spring-fed lagoon that nestled in the shadows of the second valley fold. It tempted one to wish for an eternal thirst to slake eternally. There was a family of young crested grebes nesting on a log island in the middle of the reeds. Rover wanted badly to bag them, but I called him sternly to heel; the poor little things were so confidingly unafraid of us. Rover, however, was a sport, and he was so disappointed in having a milksop for a master that he bit Sorrel on the fetlock. Sorrel promptly bowled him over with a well-timed kick. Then the grebes flew away and all was peace again—when Rover had finished howling. But he did not forgive me those grebes for days. The grass-tree ledge was certainly an ideal place for a camp. It was about a hundred yards from the lagoon, covered with self-sown buffalo grass, and exquisitely shaded. I had a fire going in no time and a billy on to boil. Then I made a damper and threw myself down on the grass to wait for breakfast and Myrtle. She, however, did not arrive until close on noon, and it was by another route than the one I had selected; in fact, almost the opposite direction. She was riding a pony and leading a loaded pack-horse.
She said "Good-day, mate," and slipped to the ground before I had time to rise. I hobbled up to look after the cattle, but she waved me aside and tied them to a grass-tree herself.
"We've a good way to go, but I must have a cup of tea before we start," she said.
She sat down and began to fondle Rover, whose effusive welcome was something to see. I went to the fire and kicked it into a blaze. Very soon the billy was boiling. I whipped it off the fire and threw in the tea-leaves before the first bubbles had had time to simmer down; at least she would have a decent cup of tea. I looked at her for the first time as I handed her the tea. It was a relief to find that she was perfectly cheerful, bonny and well, so far as appearances extended.
"Sugar?" she asked.
I flew to supply the need and fetched as well some damper and salt butter.
She accepted, and began to eat and to sip her tea, I watching from a distance.
Presently she spoke to Rover. "He hasn't uttered a word to me yet, Rover," she complained.
Rover whined. I took off my "cabbage-tree" and wiped my forehead. This was so much better than I had dared to hope, I felt quite stupid.
"Is he angry with me, Rover?" asked Myrtle.
I made a desperate attempt at conversation.
"Where did you get the horses?" I demanded.
"I borrowed them from Mrs. Caulfield, an old school friend. Why?"
"I just wondered. Will you have some more tea?"
"No, thank you, mate."
She sprang up and ran down to the lagoon to rinse the cup. I whistled for old Sorrel, and loaded her up again. We were ready for the start when Myrtle returned.
"Is it far, mate?" I asked her, as I helped her to her saddle.
"Two hours," she replied laconically. "Come on."
She did not open her lips again the entire way. It was rough travelling, the route she led me, but we had only one more range to climb. After that it was merely a question of picking our steps along the sides of precipitous declivities, dodging trees and giant boulders, and stumbling over fallen trees and stones and tussocks. Our general direction lay to the north-west, following the trend of the hills. The country was untouched, virgin wild. I judged we had covered about seven miles, and that we were about that distance on the apex of an equilateral triangle from Nandlelong and Yabba Gabba, when we turned of a sudden the angle of a mountain, and came out into an enormous gorge, such as in America would be called a canon. It was about half a mile in width, and it wound for miles among the ranges. It was flanked on each side by jagged cliffs, not one of which was less than 800 feet high, and almost all composed of bald uncovered rock. It was a grand and somewhat forbidding scene, its only streak of homely grace being a tiny trickling stream that played hide-and-seek among the boulders on the gully bed. To my amazement the stream flowed north-west—away from Nandlelong and the valley of the Hume. It was plain we had crossed at least a spur of the big divide, and were now facing an inland watershed.
Myrtle touched up her pony when we had descended to the gully floor, and proceeded at a trot across the gorge. It was not in Sorrel to attain that pace, so needs must we jogged on far in the rear. But once across the gorge Myrtle stopped before a great towering cliff with an overhanging summit, and quietly awaited us.
As I came up she looked at me and smiled. "Well," she said, "here is our journey's end."
I glanced along her pointing finger at the cliff.
"By jove!" I cried, "it's granite."
"And seven miles, at least, from its first resting-place," she coolly remarked. "Listen, and I'll tell you a story. About two hundred thousand years ago—a little more or less, it doesn't matter—this line of hills formed the granite cap of the diorite range behind Nandlelong. The rains and suns of a thousand centuries beat on it in vain, except to glaze its surface, as you see, and strip away the ragged edges and soft intrusive veins of mineral which the waters washed down upon the plains in disintegrated form, carrying the contained wealth of gold and tin, which they spread out on the flats and in the hollows along the watercourse of the Hume. That is how the Yabba Gabba Rush was made, and all the other rich alluvial patches on the river. But one day, our good old Mother Earth grew tired of supporting the weight of so much granite super-imposed, by accident perhaps, on the heavy diorite in the cooling of her crust. She therefore bunched herself up and shook herself, determined to distribute the weight that chafed her sides more equably. The result was a violent upheaval. The diorite was rent and shattered, and it settled down from huge mountains into little ones; but otherwise it did not move, at least not very far. The granite, however, was hurled by the upheaval into an entirely new position. Have you ever seen a swimmer rising from a dive and mark how he tumbles the water into diverse streams from his chest and back? It was that way with the gases of the earth upheaval: as they rose up from the vent which they had made they parted the earth's crust on either side; but the full force smote the lesser defended granite caps, and in folding over the strip of torn earth crust our friends yonder were tossed hitherward, like feather-cocks driven by the battledores of playful gods. They were sadly broken in the passage, but, as you see, some parts of them survive. I have traced the course of their tremendous flight and verified my fancy; indeed, I have set it beyond the sphere of doubt. There are three half-covered granite tors in a straight line between this spot and Nandlelong. Well, sir, well?"
"I like your story, mate," I said. "It rings convincingly; it only needs the final confirmation of a little quartz. Have you found any in these cliffs?"
"I have been content to find the cliffs so far; the rest is for you. What do you think of this for a camping ground?"
"Better that rise," I suggested after a glance around. "But don't you worry about me, mate. You've a long way to go—and only about four hours' daylight before you. You'll have to ride hard to reach Dunolly to-night."
Myrtle laughed and slipped off her pony. "I guess Dunolly won't see me for awhile; nor any other place than right here," she announced smoothly. "I've come to stay."
"You—you've come to stay!" I stammered utterly confounded. "But, my dear girl, that's impossible."
"I'll show you," she said, and, laughing like a school-girl she began to unfasten the traps from her pack-horse.
"But, Myrtle!" I cried.
"But, Joe!" she mocked.
"Think of your reputation," I entreated.
"My what?" she asked. The tone cut me to the heart.
"Myrtle——" I began.
"See here!" she interrupted, and strode up to my side; "don't waste words, mate. I've made up my mind. It's not likely that anyone will know; nobody ever comes here, and I'm not going to flaunt my actions; but understand this—the whole world can know and wag its tongue, for all I care. I am straight, and no one can make me crooked but myself—no man or woman living. What folks say cannot alter me. They've said enough already, but it has not made me bad or better. I am what I was and what I hope I always shall be. As for you—you are my business partner and friend."
"Ah!" I cried, "but I should be doing you a cruel wrong to aid your purpose—in this fashion. No man would look at you—in the proper way who knew—however he might wish. It's not in human nature. No, Myrtle, it can't be done. One of us must go; we can't both stay here."
"The voice of age-old convention," she sneered.
"The voice of common sense," I replied.
"You insist?" she asked.
"One of us must go," I repeated quietly.
"Very well," she said, and her mouth set in a hard, straight line. "I'll go—you'd better help me unload the horse. These things will do for you. They are no use, now, to me."
I dismounted and went to her assistance. She had brought a most amazing store: there was a whole pantry load of canned meats and fish, conserves and other dainties, and any quantity of rice and meal and biscuits. And she had brought a bag of her own clothes. Of course I did not touch that. What I valued most was a single-barrelled fowling-piece and a box of cartridges: for I had already noted the presence of game, paddamalons, quail, and wild duck in the gorge, and it is good to have fresh meat at times out camping.
I knew better than to thank her for her attention to my creature comforts. She was bristling; there was a sheen of angry electricity all about her, and her eyes detested me. She climbed upon her pony in a tempestuous silence, and taking the much relieved pack-horse by the halter, prepared to go.
"I'll work my hardest, mate," I assured her humbly, hat in hand. "I'll not leave a stone unturned."
"Just so," she replied, and chirruped to her pony. "Good-day."
"Good-bye, mate," I answered sadly.
It was a full mile she had to go before she left my sight. Yet she did not once look back, or turn her face even sideways towards me.
I cannot pretend that I was anything but keenly disappointed. Happily, however, there was plenty of work to be done there and then, so I was not helped to brood. I had to build a dry place for my stores first; one that would be out of reach of sun and flood and wind and rain and dingoes. It was not so easy, but an open-faced, shallow cleft in a big boulder gave me something to start upon; and an hour's toil with the drill, followed up with half a charge of rack-a-rock, finished the business. The explosion shook down forty tons or so of loose stone and earth from the top and facings of the crag, and it gave me a fairly deep and spacious hole capable of being closed up with a big flat pebble such as the creek bed contained in thousands. When I had cleaned out and stocked my new cupboard the gorge was cast in heavy shadows, being shut in like a deep box from the sunlight. Yet it was barely five o'clock, and the sky straight overhead showed that the day was far from its close. I chose the crest of a grassy knoll, near by the cupboard boulder, for my sleeping camp, and spent the rest of the afternoon collecting timber for the fire. During this business I came across two black snakes. One almost got away, and the other almost bit me. They were monsters and as fat as mud. It was not hard to guess why, for the gorge was full of frogs. There were millions of the little beasts. As soon as the dusk began to deepen the youngsters came out from their hiding-places and hopped about in myriad legions over the grass and stones. The older members of the family were more sedate. They stayed at home; but heavens, how they croaked! Some bayed like bloodhounds, others barked like pugs, some clacked like ducks, some quorked like roosters, some clanged like bells—all sorts of bells from a fire alarm to a lady's silver summoner. The concert was appallingly loud and rendered still more awful from the echoes cast and bandied back from cliff to cliff. On that account I was forced to shift camp to the very centre of the gorge. Here I escaped the worst reverberations of the echoes, and the noise, being more diffused, was easier to bear. Indeed, after a while, it was not altogether a burden. The countless voices of the croakers blended into a many-noted harmony predominated over by the deep-throated basses and the more piercing tenor bells. If one could but have taught that night choir to sing some noble tune, what an anthem it might raise! Poor Rover did not like it in the least. He would not leave my side a yard, and every now and then he whined. He was unaffectedly afraid. Hours passed before I fell asleep that night; and long before dawn I was awakened by the dog. He had his fore-paws on my chest and was whining piteously. I started up, silenced him and listened. The frogs had given up their concert, and a large mysterious stillness lay along the ground. There was not a breath of moving air, and nothing to be heard but the monotonously musical gurgling of the stream. For a full five minutes I kept all my nerves on strain trying to detect the cause of Rover's strange demeanour. But nought occurred to explain it, and at length, seeing that his uneasiness had abated, I decided that he must have sniffed a passing wild cat or dingo, and I reposed myself to sleep again.
How very far astray had been my guess it was left for the morning to reveal. I was strolling down creek just after daylight, looking for a pool in which to have a comfortable dip, when I was brought to a sudden halt by surprise and swift-ensuing apprehension. Myrtle Hofer's pony and pack-horse were grazing with Sorrel in the angle of a deep grassy cul-de-sac. For a moment I was certain an accident had happened, and I turned cold with fear. Then, however, I noticed that the animals were not only bare of harness but hobbled. All the same I had to sit down on a rock to recover myself. The shock had not been pleasant in the least. Later on I was able to size things up. So Myrtle had not left me after all. She had only pretended to go in order to win her point and to demonstrate beyond dispute the futility of my resistance to her will. I think it was her courage that staggered me the most. Fancy a mere chit of a girl possessing sufficient strength of mind to spend the night in that wild lonely valley without even a camp-fire to defend and cheer her!
And where is she now? I asked myself. Rover knew; I saw it in his eager face and his expression of self-satisfied importance. And he was off like a rocket at the word "Go!" He led me to the mouth of the big cleft by which we had entered the gorge the previous afternoon, and thence around the escarpment of a jagged promontory. Looking up, I saw Myrtle perched on the topmost dizzy pinnacle. She was combing her long golden hair and singing to the sun. Rover's joyous bark of greeting caused her to glance down. Next second she disappeared, and her song abruptly stopped. I sat down upon a big pebble and awaited her approach, conscientiously endeavouring to feel outraged and angry. She came to me slowly and haltingly, with her head down and one finger to her lips, like a little girl who knew she was going to be scolded. The other hand was behind her back, and to add to the illusion she had braided her glorious hair in two thick plaits, which she had drawn across her shoulders and allowed to fall adown her breast. She halted about two yards away and after one quick, bashful look, she stood with downcast eyes, tremulous, to be interrogated and to hear her sentence. As a piece of acting it was perfect.
"You should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself," I began, drawing bow at a venture.
"I am," she responded meekly.
"It was a mean, unworthy trick," I proceeded.
"Y-yes," she murmured, and heaved a big, affected sob.
"This sort of nonsense"—I waved my hand with a magisterial gesture—"does not better it. Have you lost all sense of responsibility?"
"It's all very well," she retorted, dropping suddenly her affectations and facing me with scarlet cheeks and flashing eyes. "You say, go! and expected to be obeyed, but where am I to go?"
"To your home!"
"Home!" she repeated, and gave a hard, bitter little laugh. "Home! with an empty pocket and damaged reputation. What a welcome I should have from all save Margaret. You don't know my people, mate. Father would set the dogs on me, and my brother would help him. They have enough mouths to feed already, and a prodigal daughter has no place in their economy."
"Myrtle!" I cried.
"Oh! so you think I exaggerate. Well, perhaps, I do. Maybe they would give me a temporary refuge, but I should have to pay a price for it. Father would insist on beating me as a start. He would never doubt my guilt. He believes all female creatures vile."
"Myrtle, is that true?"
"As God hears me, Joe Tolano. He shortened my mother's life with his brutal tyranny, and he has never spared either Margaret or me. For the smallest suspected offence his way is a word and a blow, but the blow first, the word afterward."
"Have you no friends?"
"Yes; two men I know would marry me to-morrow and glad of the chance. I do not care to offer it to them."
"But women. There is the woman who lent you those horses."
"She is jealous of her husband. I have no other. Really, mate, you might give me credit for a little sense. I did not choose this way because there was another and a better offering."
"But, can't you see, girl; this is the way of ruin. It will fix a stain on your repute all the water in the ocean could not wash away."
"Joe, there is a risk, and I am not denying it. But it is not a risk to prate about. Not more than a dozen people in the district are aware of the existence of this gorge. It's worthless as a sheep-run because of the steepness of the ranges and the danger of foot rot in the marshes of the creek. And it is never visited by prospectors, because no gold has ever been found on the west of the dividing chain, and miners look upon it as an infallible law that none ever can. We are, therefore, not likely to be visited. The chances are a thousand to one against. But even so, I came provided. I intend to stain my face and to wear man's clothes. Now will your objections cease?"
"And your hair, mate?" I asked.
"I shall cut it off," she answered.
"By heavens, you shall not!" I shouted, on an ungovernable impulse.
Her lips curled. "And why?"
"Because," I said, then paused in confusion. "It's gold," I went on lamely; "perhaps all the gold we'll ever see within this gorge. And there's no need to cut it off, mate. Couldn't you bind it round your head, say, with a turban. I have an old silk one in my kit I brought from India."
She regarded me with a curious smile. "Oh, well, since you make a point of it," she said.
"I'll get you the turban," I said rising.
"Hold on, mate," she cried. "My swag."
She darted round the boulder and presently returned laden with bridle, saddle, blankets, and a kit-bag. I hoisted them on my back, and we set off across the valley towards my camp.
"I am hungry," she announced presently—"hungry enough to eat salt horse raw. I had no tea last night, you know."
"How could I when I gave you everything I brought? Well, no tea anyway except a few jujubes I had in my pocket."
"Your own fault," I commented dourly.
"So nice of you," said Myrtle. "You'll be pleased to hear I sat up on that rock shivering all night with terror."
"Delighted!" I snarled.
"Were they really only frogs, Joe, that make that awful noise?"
"What did you think they were?"
"I fancied they might be dingoes. I was afraid they would chase me up the rock and tear me to pieces. They are quite brave in packs, you know."
"Did you waste a thought on my probable fate?"
"You had the gun," said Myrtle. "Besides you are a man."
"Girl!" I muttered. "What a nerve you have. I cannot stop wondering at you. Indeed you should have been a man."
She blushed to her neck. "I'm a coward, really," she answered, presently. "The dark fills me with fear; every noise is a bug-bear, every puff of wind a bogie."
"How can you do it, then; face it so courageously?"
"It is, I think, because I am so lonely, Joe. Because I know that no one really cares. When I consider that, it makes me laugh and ask myself why should I care either."
"Myrtle!" I said reprovingly. "According to your own confession two men love you."
She shrugged her shoulders. "It's a great thing to have a shapely body and a comely face, Joe, but it's a mistake to give women so endowed a soul as well. You see, the soul can't help asking questions, and everyone it gets an answer to makes it lonelier and lonelier. But don't let us be wasting time in silly thoughts to-day. Joe, isn't this gorge just splendid? Isn't it good to be alive and away from everybody, and free as well? Look at that bar of sunlight creeping over the spur! And oh! Joe, just look at that rainbowed cloud mist. Could anything be jollier or lovelier? Come on, Rover, I'll race you to the creek!"
From that moment throughout the morning her spirits overflowed the valley. If she was not talking nonsense she was laughing, and when she did not laugh she filled the air with song. Never had I encountered a more joyous or elusive creature. She flitted about playing with Rover while I made breakfast, and when the meal was ready she ate like a bird, ready for instant flight, hovering about from point to point, from rock to rock. Afterwards I spent several hours cleaning off a ledge half-way up one of the greatest boulders near my camp. It was about sixty yards away, to be precise. The ledge faced in the opposite direction, and it was overhung with an arching roof of rock. It was about twenty feet square, and about sixteen feet from the ground I built up a small stone chimney in one corner and carted up a good pile of timber, which I stacked beside the fireplace. Then I collected a huge heap of ferns for bedding and spread her blankets over the rude mattress so constructed. Finally, I hewed away all the rock projections from the face of the boulder with my pick, leaving it quite level (it was easy since the stone was soft), and I cut a few steps in the vertical face of the cliff to give her access to her cave-sleeping chamber, such an access as would guarantee her absolute security from dingoes or even snakes. When all was finished I looked for her. She was a good mile up the valley. It was long past noon, so I put the billy on to boil and lay down for a rest. Naturally, I fell asleep. When I awoke I found her seated beside, me offering me a plate of tinned beef and tomatoes. And she was dressed like a boy.
"You can call me Bill," she said. Then, meeting my eyes, she incontinently dropped the plate upon the sand, spilling all its contents, and springing to her fret she fled like a sprite up the valley till a boulder hid her from my sight. I did not expect her to return, and she did not disappoint me. After I had eaten I collected my tools and started prospecting in sober earnest. My first care was to explore the surface of the granite cliffs. I soon discovered that they were cased and streaked with porphyry and diorite. A long, toilsome climb up a narrow chimneyway between two giant crags brought me to the crest of the spur. The granite formation continued for a quarter mile beyond the edge of the gorge and then fell away in an abrupt descent upon a rolling mountain chain of basaltic country curiously intermingled with shale and trap and tertiary sandstone, that stretched out a ragged desert and almost treeless waste to the farthest western horizon. Some of the peaks were lofty and had grand bold outlines, but the most were small and featureless, and the natural tendency of the land was to fall in a sloping gradient downwards towards the far interior plains. My aneroid informed me I stood 4,600 feet above sea-level. I must, therefore, have attained to one of the highest northern elevations in the Australian Alps, or, as they are locally called, the Great Dividing Range. I commanded an uninterrupted view west for fully fifty miles. In all that waste there was no sign of a river or stream: no sign of life. It struck me that therein lay the real reason why those ridges were believed to contain no gold. No doubt they had been prospected in a fashion, but how cursorily, the arid nature of the vast expanse easily explained. Miners cannot work without water, and to carry enough water into that rugged wilderness for more than a hurried trip across was plainly next door to an impossibility. I dare swear, however, that one day, when settlement shall have extended up to each wall of the huge mountain belt, future generations of Australians more blest than the present in resources and machinery for exploration, will discover stores of mineral wealth on the western slopes of the Divide that will out-rival in riches the eastern declivities which have yielded so many millions already to the pick. To the pick, I say advisedly, for Australia has only been surface-scratched as yet, not mined. Indeed, the places where real solid, scientific mining has been instituted can be counted on one's fingers. And that is a fact to stagger the imagination, for in spite of it Australia produces annually more gold than any other country in the universe.
It is almost needless to say that I did not find any reefs on the summit of the granite ridge. My observations, however, went a long way towards convincing me of the extreme plausibility of Myrtle Hofer's upheaval theory, and I made my way back to camp at nightfall with a heart full of hope for the future.
The light of the fire extended a cheerful welcome from afar. Myrtle, dressed as a girl once more, was seated beside it. She had evidently spent a busy afternoon: she had built up a table with stones and rubble, and fixed a top thereon of smooth flat pebbles, and she had made two chairs by a similar device, which she had cushioned with bracken. The table was quite daintily arranged with eatables, and it was graced with flowers, some lovely sprays of wattle and clematis stuck in jam-tins nearly filled with water.
"That is your chair," she announced, pointing to the larger and more solid structure. "Well, haven't you a word to say?"
"It is just wonderful!" I exclaimed; "wonderful! And you are a girl again!"
"I always shall be at night. We need fear no visitors at night," she said demurely.
Then she got up and began to pour out the tea. "My cave is just splendid; thanks, ever so much," she murmured presently. "What a good sort you are, Joe, to go to all that trouble."
"Yes, am I not? I have never met a better," I responded modestly. "You have a treasure for a partner, mate, and that's a fact."
"My opinion of you cannot be enlarged," she observed with a merry laugh. "You had no luck this afternoon, of course?"
"No discoveries, if that's what you mean, mate. But I have got the hang of the country in my mind now, and to-morrow I begin a systematic examination of every diorite and shale streak to be found in the lower edges of the cliffs. I tell you frankly I'm not expecting a reef—the basaltic capping is everywhere too shallow to allow of that—but if there's anything in your science we may expect to find stray quartz leaders and pockets almost anywhere."
She put down her cup and looked up at me, her whole face aglow. "Rich ones, Joe?" she cried.
"Please the pigs," I answered solemnly. "By jove! girl, how ardently you wish to be rich. Is it really only for the sake of Margaret?"
Her eyes fell, and for a long while she appeared to be heeding only the great frog concert, now in full blast up and down and through the gorge. But at last she spoke. "I want to take Margaret away—to travel with her all over the world," she said, "so that she may have the chance to enjoy life as she deserves. Yet—I confess—I am not entirely unselfish. I want to enjoy life, too."
"Quite right," I commented; "that is to say, of course, that you wish to learn how to enjoy life properly. If fortune waits upon your wish, experience may be trusted to teach a woman with a brain like yours that the simplest pleasures are the most enduring and the best. Those, you know, are only to be found in productive occupation. For my part I never hope to be happier than I am at present. I have work to my liking, decent food, gentle companionship, and the sky for my canopy."
"Just so," said Myrtle. "But you are a philosopher; you have been through the mill and purchased your experience; you were not always so wise, I fancy."
"Not always, mate."
"Joe, don't you—haven't you any real desire to be rich?"
"Indeed, I can't tell you, Myrtle. Once I was eaten up with political ambition. I considered myself a born statesman, and I railed at fate for the narrow, shallow pocket it had given me."
"But," cried the girl, "one does not need much money to become a member of Parliament. Why, look at the member for the Nandlelong district! He hadn't a shilling when he was first elected; he was just a day-hand, working for wages at the Lorne battery."
"Ah, my dear girl, that was not my difficulty. To enter politics would have been easy enough—ay, and to stay in politics. But what would have become of me there—a penniless adventurer?"
"You'd have had your three hundred a year," she cried.
"And my ambition," I supplemented smiling. "That is to say, Myrtle, I should have become another of that little army of political mercenaries whose petty struggles and sordid aims and selfish devices have made the Legislatures of the Australian States an arena for the eternal waging of battles between grasp and greed. Men who look at every question whether of local or national significance from the personal standpoint, who are constantly hungering for place and pay, constantly striving for office, constantly subordinating the good of the people to their own advantage."
"But," expostulated Myrtle, "you needn't have done that—have joined that small ignoble crew."
"The temptation, my dear girl. Have you considered the temptation?"
"But you could have resisted it—scorned it!"
"As a rich man—easily."
"Joe, do you mean to tell me——"
"That I was afraid of myself? certainly," I answered with a laugh; "also that I was afraid with good reason. That is why, instead of entering politics, I became a digger. I wanted to remain a passably honest man, so I deliberately chose the line of least resistance. It required a big effort to overcome natural inclinations and ambitions. I remember I quite plumed myself on being a hero at the time, especially as there was a woman who did not agree with me, and whom it was a costly matter for me to disagree with. Lord! how long ago it all seems now! I was young and hot-blooded then, Myrtle." I put up a hand half-consciously to my head. "With curly locks," I added whimsically.
But Myrtle did not respond as I had expected. She was preternaturally grave indeed. She gazed out across the dusky gorge, and after a moment questioned, in a timid voice, "What became of—her—Joe? Would it hurt to tell me?"
"She married my brother," I replied.
"Ah," said Myrtle. "Did you care—very much?"
"Do you care still?"
"Have you seen her since?"
"Then how can you be sure?"
"There is another she, Myrtle, another she. And when her star appeared above the edge of my horizon its brightness even masked the setting of the first."
"Oh!" said Myrtle. She stood up a few seconds later, and walking over to the fire threw a log from the stack upon the glowing coals. A shower of sparks ascended, which for a moment flung a golden glory around her face and form, making her appear a veritable creature from another world. Then she faded into blackness, and from the gloom her voice came slowly to my ears. It was cold and as toneless as the dark.
"One would think that for her sake—the second star's—you might wish to mend your fortunes, Joe Tolano."
"And if one knew me better," I replied, "one might think that for her sake it were just as well Joe Tolano's fortunes were not mended—if, of course, she cared."
"She does not care?"
"I have never asked her, Myrtle."
"But you must know."
"I think—perhaps she might one day."
"Then you ought to wish to be rich," cried the girl decidedly.
"You have all the beautiful cocksureness of youth," I observed. "You think that 'caring' is the only consideration."
"Surely it is the chief," she indignantly protested.
"Would you have two rich consumptive lovers wed—or two lunatics?
"No," she flashed; "but you are neither a consumptive nor a lunatic."
"Truly, Myrtle, I am neither one nor the other, nor is she; and yet there are difficulties. My capacity for promoting her happiness, for instance, is an entirely unknown quantity."
"And hers for promoting yours?" she sneered,
"Well," I drawled, "the man is not a necessarily negligible factor, I suppose. It is inconceivable to you that he should look before leaping?"
"The man, no," she replied in accents of positively vitriolic scornfulness; "but the lover—oh! I have no patience with you, Joe Talano! You deserve to die unloved, and lonely and poor in every sense!"
"Amen!" said I. "Yet listen, Myrtle——"
But she had gone, and a little later the glow of a second fire tinging the edges of her boulder sleeping-chamber showed me where. I think she might have said "good-night."
I BREAKFASTED as dawn was breaking, and went off to work before Myrtle made an appearance, taking some pressed beef and damper in my pouch for lunch. I was determined to do something solid in the way of prospecting that day, and I did. I followed the granite ridge for more than two miles up the gorge—to the very end, in fact, of the curious accidental formation of the valley, where it lost its peculiar character and merged into the ordinary native disposition of the hills. And every bit of diorite or shale or porphyry I encountered on my march I blazed with my pick for future investigation. On the whole I was not ill-pleased with my examination of the cliff's face. I found no fewer than three fair-sized quartz out-crops and nineteen small blue leaders rich in promise. The trouble was that in no case was the volcanic matrix that enclosed the quartz of any great apparent depth or extent. It seemed to be a mere chance adjunct of the granite, and associated with that rock in a sort of mysterious sleeping partnership whose determination had been resolved on ages since, for, strange to say, the floor of the gorge contained more quartz than granite and more diorite than either—a circumstance to wonder at, for the mountains facing the granite ridge across the gorge were composed for the most part of a lighter and more triturable stone. I could only conclude that the waters, in the course of centuries, had carried the denuded masses from the softer walls of the pass out into valleys to be deposited in the form of gravel and silt upon the western inland plains.
I returned to camp at dusk, dog-tired, to find tea spread out on the table awaiting me, but no Myrtle. But the fire at the mouth of her cavern was aglow, and later on her voice came to me in weird little snatches of song. I was so worn out that I fell asleep where I sat and I awoke at daybreak next morn to find myself stretched across the table. That day I blasted through two of the big quartz outcrops and bottomed at a depth of two feet six in one case, and nineteen inches in the other, on solid granite. I could have wept with rage for the quartz carried free gold all the way. I was just cleaning up the last when Myrtle sauntered along—a boy—with Rover at her heels and the gun across her shoulders. She carried two wild ducks which she had shot, down stream. There was an air of swaggering braggadocio about her, as though male apparel had inspired her with the notion of posing as a swashbuckler. But her face was not blackened, neither were her hands. Certainly her hair was artistically hidden away in my turban, but she was plainly a counterfeit.
"G'day, mate," she said gruffly.
"G'day," said I. "Happen to have seen a black boy knocking around, anywhere? A plump, rather nice-looking young vagabond."
"I think you are very rude," she cried.
"Pah!" I sneered; "that masquerade is too thin as it stands. Why haven't you coloured your face?"
"I have the stuff in my pocket. I could put it on in two minutes easily," she protested. "You needn't be cross, Joe. I could easily. And you can see anybody coming for miles, you know you can."
"Vanity, thy name is woman."
"Cheap, Joe. Cheap as dirt. What luck have you had?"
"Look!" said I.
There was no need to explain. In two minutes her sharp eyes had told her all. She was a miner to her finger tips.
"Bad!" she said, "bad!"
"The other was worse," I growled. "There's only one outcrop left to try. If that fails us we'll have to depend entirely on the leaders, and I've no hope of a fortune thereabouts unless they turn out pure metal, for they only twine about the granite. It's not their home. They're like creepers growing on a plate-glass window."
"We must hope for the best," she said, and sighed. All her bravado had departed. I gathered up the richest bits of quartz into a bag, and we set off homeward in dejected silence. The meal was silent, too. Afterwards, I got out my iron pestle and mortar and dollied the quartz fragments by fire-light. Then came the bitterest disappointment of all, for the wash-up gave me eighteen weights, proving that the reef of which the outcrops had originally formed a part were worth at least twenty ounces to the ton. When I told Myrtle she went straight off to her cave with the instinct of a hurt wild creature to be alone.
Next morning when I reached the third and last outcrop I found Myrtle already there. She had been at work for some hours by candle-light. She had picked away every bit of quartz and left exposed a blank face of iron hard granite. She was seated beside the cliff, crying like a baby. I kneeled down and drew away her hands and wiped her face with my kerchief just as though she were a child.
"You must not," I said. "You must not."
"No one cares," she wailed.
"Silly girl," I muttered. "There are the leaders left us still—nineteen of them."
"Ah, yes; the leaders," she whimpered, and stumbled to her feet. "Oh! I am so miserably unhappy, so miserably unhappy."
She went off sobbing distractedly. I let her go.
For nineteen further days we bore up against fate, hoping against hope, fighting against despair. Each day I proved a leader, an ignis-fatuus. Each evening Myrtle's stock of courage dwindled. Yet we made some money. Each of the leaders yielded something, and before we had been three weeks in the gorge I had contrived to amass £16 worth of gold. But, of course, this trifle only mocked the girl's ambition. She needed, according to her reckoning, £50 at least, to save Margaret from the Dutch clodhopper, her suitor; and at least £1,000 if she were to take her sister away from home to travel with her round the world.
I had come to such a pass that I would have bartered half the years of my life and a limb into the bargain to have been able to give her her desire. Yet all I could do was to toil like a slave, and, alas! my work was fruitless.
Unluckily for myself, unhappily for us both, Myrtle's wretchedness so wrought on me that some portion of my secret attitude to her unconsciously—to me—became manifested. It was thus I learned something fresh about women—that they are never too absorbed either in happiness or misery to prevent their sex instincts from visualising the emotions they inspire in men.
One evening Myrtle said to me, "Joe, take care, or I shall end by despising you."
"Why?" I asked, confounded by the suddenness of her attack.
"Because you seem incapable of fidelity. You forgot your first she in worshipping the rising star of number two—and now——"
"And now, my friend?"
"And now," she answered, looking me pitilessly in the eye, "Pity or sympathy or contiguity or something else—what it is matters nothing—is making you begin to care for me. Indeed, you have begun already."
For a moment I was utterly unmanned and at her mercy. But a lifetime's habit of self-control enabled me to check the folly in my soul before it could collect its forces and burst the flood-gates of expression.
There was only one way I could think of to divert her terrible directness. I chose it instantly. I laughed.
"Oh, you may laugh," she sneered.
"Myrtle," I said, assuming with a rude effort a demeanour of whimsically grave superiority. "I charge you to examine your conscience, and then confess how far the accusation you have brought against me is a reflection of your own state of mind in my regard!"
"Joe!" she cried, indignantly. "How dare you?"
"Love," I observed, "is a species of intoxication. All philosophers are agreed on that. Have you ever remarked how unerringly one can rely upon an intoxicated person to accuse, on the slightest provocation, his soberer companion of being drunk?"
Myrtle went pale, nay, pallid, in a moment she was white—white to the lips and shaking. It was with anger, with fury.
Twice she tried to speak, but the words refused to come. Of a sudden, however, she snatched a tiny mirror from her pocket and held it before my face. "Look!" she said—indeed, she hissed the words—"Look at the man you dare to pretend has intoxicated me!"
No doubt she intended the taunt to strike to the wry quick of my vanity. And, indeed, it did sting a little, but I had been too long a bushman to care really a farthing for appearances. And now I was her master. I gazed into the glass and nodded.
"There's no accounting for a woman's taste," I observed, with a shrug. "He's not nice to look at, Myrtle, to my mind; but then I'm not you, and they say love glorifies its object in a woman's eyes."
"You—you——" said Myrtle, inarticulate with indignation.
"Of course," I went on, "civilised toggery might improve him. But it puzzles me how you could get over that straggly beard. And his hair is rather thin about the temples, isn't it?"
"I'd like to—hurt you," said Myrtle. "To hurt you, do you hear?"
"But you showed me the picture. I didn't ask to see it," I protested. "Naturally I thought you had invited criticism. But I see now what a silly I was. I should have known that the beloved's portrait is sacred to the lover, and that dispraise is desecration. I humbly ask your pardon. Myrtle, he is perfect—perfect."
In spite of herself she laughed, but it only made her angrier. "So far from caring for you, there are times when I positively hate you," she declared, with fiery vehemence.
"Passion," I murmured, "is protean, and it masks itself in proportion to its violence. I begin to be a little afraid for you, Myrtle; a little afraid, too, of my responsibility. My fatal—ahem!—beauty appears to have——"
"Joe!" she interrupted, "enough of this, if you please."
"Certainly," I replied and bowed. It was plain that I had pushed her to the very limit. She was on the very edge of tears. I took the opportunity to go off for a long stroll into the darkness, but it was a very narrow escape for me, all the same. There had been a moment when a look, a sigh, a breath would have wrecked for all time our friendship, have broken up our partnership and sent me for the second time in a not too happy life a lonely wanderer in the wilderness haunted with the memory of a vain sacrifice and a woman's pity, not less vain and harder to endure than positive disdain. Pity, they say, is akin to love. What folly some proverbs have embalmed. Pity is the twin-sister of contempt.
On the twenty-fourth day of our inhabitation of the gorge, the wheel of fortune turned. All the morning I had followed a leader through a shallow patch of diorite, not more than forty inches deep, that filled a triangular fissure in a towering granite crag. It was the last of the nineteen. The stone was so frightfully hard and tough that I had to blast it out, foot by foot. I had never met with diorite less brittle. The quartz, though, was as soft as clay. Indeed, it was so rotten as to be easily friable in the hands. The vein was, however, a very tiny affair and poor in gold, and not until the final blast I put in the matrix opened up, the last bit of face showing its termination in the shape of a small round pocket cased in an ultimate bedding of granite, were my pains rewarded with a colour. But then it was different. Before me, to be had for the trouble of taking out with my fingers, lay a piece of bluish grey mould about the size and shape of a smallish emu egg. I had seen just such an egg before, the same shape and colour, its discovery attended, too, by very similar conditions. I knew, therefore, exactly what it was—not a nugget, but a concentrated mass of golden reef dust, encased in and infiltrated with decayed silicates. Curiously enough, Myrtle sauntered along while I still stood regarding it, leaning on the handle of my pick. There is something irresistibly inspirational of emotion in the unexpected uncovering of gold, however long and passionately hoped for be the discovery. Myrtle knew, as soon as her eyes rested on my face that it had come to pass. She ran up and caught me by the shoulder. "What have you found?" she cried; then peered into the open face of the pocket, following my pointing finger.
"I see nothing!" she exclaimed, in anxious tones. "What is it?"
I bent forward and extracted the egg. "This," I said, "represents the fortune we have been searching for. Alas! I fear it is all the fortune we shall meet with in this gorge."
"But it isn't gold," said Myrtle.
I smiled in her disappointed face. "It does not glitter, mate; and it's blue instead of yellow, but it's the real Mackay! It weighs, on a guess, five and twenty ounces—that means, say, £90. Here, mate, catch hold!"
She took the egg with a look of wonder, then cried out at its weight. "Gold! gold!" she muttered, her eyes agleam. "Oh! gold."
I shrugged my shoulders and gathered up my tools.
"It's not five o'clock," said Myrtle, in deep reproach.
I swung the tools across my shoulder. "Ay, mate; but we've exhausted the last leader on this side of the ridge, and I don't feel inclined to start prospecting on the other side to-day. Besides, it would be dark before I could get there. It's a stiffish climb."
"You mean," she said, compressing her lips and narrowing her lids, "that the gorge is worked out—worked out?"
"Just that, Myrtle. There may be something in the creek bed, but it would be a big job to find it; a job I'd not care to tackle without you insist—at all events until I have carefully examined the western capping of the ridge. You see, mate, the creek bed is like a big sluice channel. It has been washed out by the floods of centuries, and, extensive as it is, the underlying rock-floor, as far as I have been able to determine, is all smooth water-worn sandstone. Whatever gold it once might have held is thus in all human probability now lying under the plains and valleys yonder where the water has carried it. For all the way thither there is not a single bar that could have boxed it in. Just cast your eyes around you. Nothing, you see, but rocks and boulders; all big and hardly a pebble even smaller than your head. No, mate, it is not the place to look for gold in."
She bent her head. "I know," she murmured. "I have been trying to deceive myself for the last three weeks, ever since the reefs petered out so quickly. Trying not to think. But it's no use any longer. We are up against the wall now, Joe."
"Right up against it, mate."
"With a paltry hundred and a few odd pounds for all our hope and effort."
"It's something, mate. We've not wasted our time, at any rate."
But Myrtle did not heed. She was thinking aloud. "And who knows, perhaps my share won't suffice even to buy Margaret's freedom. Perhaps father will demand still more. Perhaps Anderson will want something, too. As for taking her away from them—what an idle dream it was!"
"There's the other side of the ridge, my girl," I put in.
She turned and looked at me. "You know, Joe, that you have seen it already, and you considered it a forlorn hope."
"Still, one never knows. It may——"
"No," she interrupted. "This is the end. I am beaten and I'd be a coward not to own it. Joe, our partnership is over. It only remains for us to share the gold your skill and industry have won. To-morrow I shall start for home, and see what I can do for Margaret."
"And afterwards, mate?"
"God knows," she answered, and started for the camp. Even Rover shared our dejection. He slunk along at Myrtle's heels, looking the very picture of canine hopelessness. We spent a very silent, melancholy evening. About ten, Myrtle arose from her seat, and said that she would retire; she would have to do her packing in the morning and she should rest.
When she had gone, I tore a page from my pocket-book, and wrote the following note:—
"I'm not leaving this gorge yet. I'm going off though for a day or two on old Sorrel down on to the plains to look for signs, and I will work back the other side of the ridge. I'm taking your gun, and leave in exchange my share of the gold. I want you to use it as your own. It's quite useless to me, a paltry sum like that, and we've been mates—so I expect you not to hurt me as you will if you refuse.
If I find anything, the partnership continues. That, of course, is understood. Good-bye, and God bless you!
I put the note on the table and pinned it there with the gold. Then I collected a few tools and provisions, planted away the rest in the cupboard-boulder and went to look for Sorrel. I found the good old mare quite close to the camp, feeding with Myrtle's cattle. These I caught and staked to a boulder so that Myrtle should be saved some trouble in the morning. Then, having saddled up my own mount, I rode boldly down the gorge. There was no need to take precautions against noise, for the frog concert was in full blast, and it would have masked the movements of a regiment. Rover absolutely declined, at first, to leave the camp where Myrtle was, so I let him be, but before I had gone more than half a mile, I noticed him sneaking up. Strange to say, I should have thought more of him had he remained behind, although he had never given me surer proof of his fidelity, for Myrtle had just loved him and been kind to him beyond belief all through those weeks; and he had never got more than a bare living from me. Dogs are queer creatures.
When day broke I was out of the gorge and toiling slowly over a spur that flanked the downward course of the creek. I had been really minded to follow it to the eastern plains, but when I reached the crest of the hill and saw the tremendous difficulties in the way, line after line of precipitous ranges with never a break for a good score of miles, I funked the task and turning on my tracks, I camped at the foot of the spur. We loafed that day, Sorrel, Rover and I. We were too lazy to build a fire even—that is, I was. So we just lounged in the shade of the tree-ferns that spangled the gully sides, and we did nothing but doze and dream and munch grass—Sorrel—and biscuits—Rover and I—and mutter occasional profanities at the demoniacal persistence of the bush flies. On the following morning we worked around the eastern edge of the granite ridge, and I did some hard prospecting. I found nothing but granite, however, not a single trace of diorite or shale or quartz, and as for gold—well, the less said about that the better. The third morning found us back in the gorge. I rode straight up to the table by the deserted camp—ah! how empty the valley looked!—and found my share of the gold lying there for any chance comer to make a prize of. A piece of paper fluttered from underneath the crumbled quartz. I dismounted, unsaddled Sorrel, and turned her loose, then strolled over in as casual a mood as had ever mastered me, to the table. "Nice sort of mate to have!" I observed aloud. "Well rid of her, by jove! Talk about an insult!"
Then I disengaged the paper from the gold. This is what it had to say to me:
"JOE,—How dared you treat me as if I was a girl! A bargain is a bargain. We said halves, and halves goes. It was horrible of you, too, to leave me like that, without even shaking hands. I might just as well have been a man. I don't think I shall ever be able to forgive you. Our partnership is at an end. Leave the gorge. The place is accursed to me. It is the grave of my hopes, the cemetery of my ambitions. I cannot bear to think of you staying there alone, toiling uselessly. Try somewhere else; and, oh! may you be blessed with better luck than I. Some day, perhaps, we shall meet again.
Your true friend,
"P.S.—I am tired of life. I think I shall marry Dr. W. and get Margaret to live with me.
"PP.S.—On second thoughts I am not your friend. I do not wish ever to see you again. Good-bye for ever. I hate you.
IT came on to rain suddenly, the first time in more than nine weeks that a drop had fallen in the district, and so hard that Rover and I were constrained to take refuge in the boulder-cave that I had built for Myrtle. There was plenty of wood still left there, so we soon made ourselves snug before a fire. Later, under cover of an oil-skin, I crossed over to the cupboard-boulder and brought back a good armful of provisions, for the sky was very black and lowering. It was lucky I was thus precautious, as it turned out, for two hours later the bed of the gorge was covered in our locality with a seething foaming torrent, and by midday the flood waters had extended right across the gorge and risen to within three feet of our cave floor, while still the rain poured down in an incessant sheeting stream. The force of the current was tremendous. It whirled logs and tree-trunks past as with railroad speed, and although the boulder in which our cave was perched was as big as a fair-sized church and composed of almost solid stone, the terrific assaults of the mountain deluge made it rock on its uneven base like a mammoth crazy chair. By nightfall the water had gained on us another foot, and I began to fear that we should be driven from our cosy refuge higher up the boulder. But that was not to be. The immense width of the gorge gave such a play of escape that once a certain level was attained, despite the vast watershed of the valley, it would have required something more than a waterspout to increase the depth and volume of the stream an inch. That level seemingly was fixed by Nature some eighteen inches below the edge of the cave platform, for, although the storm, if anything, augmented in violence through the night, and when the next day broke the downpour continued unabated, the flood did not further encroach upon our resting-place. Through that awful night I lamented Sorrel's fate. The last I had seen of the poor old mare was her panic-stricken retreat before the torrent towards the entrance of the Wakool pass. But I had not been able to make out whether she gained her point owing to the intervening boulders and the blinding pall of rain. My first act when daylight broke was to look for her, but the search was in vain. There was nought to be seen in any direction but boulder-tops rising above the swirling wastes of flood, the driving rain-veil and the misty lines of shadows far beyond that bespoke the hills and cliffs. I could better understand then the reasons why this valley was banned by sheep farmers and breeders of stock—ay, and why there were only big pebbles to be found on the surface bottom of the gorge. The place was nothing but a monstrous sluice-box, a gigantic death-trap, wrought by Nature in an errant mood. The fury of the torrent was indescribably appalling, and its frightful strength made an irresistible appeal to the imagination from the fact that it had nothing to contend against but great massed tiers of rock. And one after another of these crumbled up and disappeared before my eyes, soundlessly, because the firing of a thousand cannon would have been drowned in the prodigious ululating roar made by the commingled voices of the stream and storm. When would our turn come? I asked myself. But the folly of anticipating such an evil was so evident that I could not help but smile. There was nothing to do, you see; for death was everywhere within a radius of four hundred yards of us—if death by chance did not lurk within our boulder. So, willy-nilly, I made merry like the old philosopher, and ate and drank and patted Rover and read her letter over many times. And, finally, I tore it into little shreds and cast the pieces to the flood. And that was what the storm-fiend had been waiting for. Almost on instant the rain abruptly stopped. It was just four o'clock. Ten minutes later, I counted fifty boulders where before there had not been a dozen. All had strange, new, unremembered shapes. I rubbed my eyes to make sure I did not dream. When I looked again there were a hundred. I stood up and pinched myself. Then I spoke to Rover and he barked at me and licked my hand. Surely I was awake. But, oh! the miracle of it all. Within half an hour the bed of the gorge was dry and the sky was blue and cloudless overhead; and the evening sun was diffusing glory on the glistening granite crags. But the greatest miracle was the silence of the place. Have you ever stood at midnight in the centre of a vast untenanted cathedral where every flagstone covers the consecrated dust of some ancient tomb-encumbered hero, saint or king? If so, you will comprehend what reverent stillness is, and your memory will treasure an emotion you have never cared perchance to profane, with literate expression. You were not afraid, and yet you feared. You were never more courageous, yet your courage was firmly and tenderly restrained with a thrilling spiritual recognition of holiness and mystery. All your senses stood on a tip-toe of expectancy, awe and wonder and wistful longing for you knew not what. Vague tremors touched your heart into a passionate and insistently persuasive restlessness that yet demanded perfect rest of body as the price of its condition. Nothing seemed impossible. The dead might speak, the living listen. And all your soul melted into an impersonal essence of attentive receptivity. For the moment—short or long—you were in tune with the Infinite. Thus it was with me. There were no buried kings or heroes in the gorge that my soul could hold such dim and inarticulate communion with. But the Spirit of the Earth was there, resting from the travail of the storm in this her grand wild fastness which Nature had designed and built for her, and building had resolved should never be debased to spoiling human uses. And every rock and stone were trying to explain to me the secrets of the universe. And I, alas! while dimly understanding that that deep silence was a spirit speech, could understand no more, and for my lack of comprehension was afraid and reverent and remorseful, as though I stood in the presence of the dead. Experiences and moods like that remembered afterwards amuse or charm according to the vividness of recollection. It charms me still to recall that I did not leave the cave that evening, that I lit no fire that night, and that I went supper-less to sleep at last, worn out with the excitement of waiting for something that did not come. I did not know then what that something might be. Even now I cannot formulate a guess. I only knew it never came, or if it came that it did not reveal itself to my dull, clay-bound senses.
The flood had well-nigh ruined me. It had destroyed the cupboard-boulder and swept the cupboard's contents, including my gold which Myrtle had disdained to accept, far and wide. And it had slain my poor faithful old Sorrel. I found her body at the bottom of a crevasse three miles below the camp—led to the discovery by a legion of foul carrion crows. But I defeated their intention by piling the crevasse with rocks. I was filled with misery to leave her grave. She had been my good servant and friend for eight long years and never had man a better. When I came to collect the scattered remnants of my possessions, it was to find myself stripped of everything but the three pick-heads, a billy, a hammer, three chisels, my old iron pestle and mortar, about eight pounds of flour, two tins of pressed beef, a small packet of tea, a wash-dish, Myrtle's gun, some cartridges, and a bar of soap. I searched the gorge from end to end, but could find no more. As for the gold, it had disappeared for ever and a day. Returning late that afternoon disconsolately to camp after a last vain examination of the lower valley, undertaken in the hope of discovering Sorrel's bridle, which had a silver bit, my misfortunes reached a climax. I came upon the body of a big black snake. I thought the brute was dead and touched it carelessly with my boot. But it was living. It coiled up quick as light and struck me savagely, burying its fangs in the ball of my left thumb. I sucked the wound; it was all I could do at once. My hatchet had vanished with the flood or I should have sacrificed the hand. But with only a sheath knife that was impossible, and it was equally impossible in my tired state to essay a seven-mile climb over the ranges to Nandlelong or to the Rush in the gathering dark. However, after the first shock had passed, I contrived to stagger back to camp and to light a fire with the timber in the cave; and in this I heated a chisel red-hot and cauterised the wound. Within an hour my hand and arm had swollen to a prodigious size, and I was growing cold and numb all over. I tried to keep moving in order to stimulate the circulation, but gradually I lost consciousness and there followed a big gap in my reckoning. I awoke upon another day. I was lying in the bed of the creek far from camp, my head pillowed on a big flat pebble, the rest of me submerged in the stream. Rover was sitting on the bank steadfastly regarding me. Some blind instinct must have driven me to the stream, and the magic of running water had wrought my cure. I was very weak and stiff and sore and my arm was still shapeless, but I was safe. I remained in the stream until the sun was riding high over the gorge, then I dragged myself to the bank and dried my drenched clothes in his steady beams. About midday Rover brought me the body of a hare that he had killed. I drank deeply of its warm, fresh blood, and was revived. Rover's delight knew no bounds. He capered about, barking and whining, and almost laughing in his pride and joy. And when, finally, I contrived to stand up, he behaved like a veritable lunatic. For a time I could not exactly make out where I was, but a few steps out from the cliff solved the problem. The camp lay half a mile ahead of me, and I was standing beside the second of the three bigger quartz outcrops which had so raised Myrtle's hopes of fortune when we first came to the gorge. Why I had failed immediately to recognise the spot was because the flood had changed the watercourse of the creek and brought it from the middle of the valley almost beside the cliff in this particular locality. "Come on, Rover!" I said. "We'll get back to camp and make ourselves some damper. You bring the hare and I'll cook it for your supper."
Rover obeyed at once, but my intentions ran before my strength. Within ten yards I was forced to sit down suddenly upon the ground to save myself from falling. Then the world began to swing round and round with a dizzy vertiginous rapidity. When the vertigo had passed I found that Rover had forsaken me, but I did not mind. An exquisite sense of lethargy possessed my faculties. I was propped by accident against a smooth curve of rock, half-seated, half-reclining on a patch of yellow mould. I had never felt so comfortable and happy in my life, never so luxuriously idle and inclined to dream. Perched on a stone about twelve feet away was a huge green frog. He basked in the sunlight with the frankest expression of enjoyment. Every now and then he opened his cavernous mouth and yawned and croaked. For a long while I liked his croaks; they evidenced, said a whimsical thought, a sincere and open disposition. Nevertheless, they were unmusical, and by degrees they became tediously monotonous. Finally, they became unendurable. They prevented me from dreaming. A vague sense of irritation against that frog rose up in my bosom. It grew into a sense of injury at length. What right had he to croak like that? Surely he must know he is annoying me, I said. I felt that I had been mistaken in his character, that he was really a quarrelsome and selfish fellow. Each succeeding croak helped to convince me of the truth of this, for I read into their hollow notes, self-satisfaction, defiance and a certain mocking insolence. And the great fat brute, to cap all, must needs turn round and stare at me and croak right in my face. Flesh and blood could not stand it. "There is not room here for both of us," I declared aloud. "Either you or I must go."
The frog croaked. I tried to get up, but I seemed to be charmed. I could not rise. However, my right hand I could use. So I felt about the ground within my reach for a stone. My fingers felt several sharp little excrescences in the mould. These were movable. I dislodged the nearest, and grasped a small but heavy pebble. I did not glance at it, but gazing at my enemy, with a great effort, I heaved the pebble at him. It fell short, but it effected its purpose. The big emerald frog uttered a startled expostulatory squawk and hopped off in three great flobby bounds out of sight in the direction of the gorge. Then I prepared to give myself entirely up to dreams and the delicious enthralling lassitude that had beset me. But I could not. First of all, my poisoned hand began to pain; then my right arm hurt. I could understand my poisoned hand paining, but why should my uninjured arm trouble me? Then I remembered that I had felt a sort of muscular jerk on heaving the pebble at the frog. How singularly heavy the pebble had been. There it lay, ten feet from my toes. I regarded it inquisitively. Such a little thing it seemed to strain a mail's arm. Surely my position and condition were to blame rather than the stone, but deuce take it, how the arm did hurt. My wonder at the pebble grew. Absurd thoughts came to me. They were inspired by the colour of the pebble. It was a dull brownish yellow, with one or two brightly gleaming spots on its sides. How utterly absurd those thoughts were. To silence them I closed my eyes. But it was a vain experiment. I opened my eyes again and stared at the pebble. "Joe Tolano," said I. "This is, of course, a dream. You are delirious or something. Maybe you are daft. But that pebble is gold, you know, pure gold." Then the blood began to flow through my veins as it had not for many, many hours and days and weeks. And I knew that I was awake and neither dreaming nor delirious, but strong and well, and perhaps a lunatic. At any rate, I was boiling with excitement. Without an effort I scrambled to my knees and arose on one foot. I was just drawing up my second foot to press the sole on earth when I paused, paralysed with swift amazement. My eyes by merest accident had fallen on the mould from which my unconscious fingers had extracted the pebble to hurl at the frog. They saw a long, thin, yellow line running parallel with the face of the granite cliff for sixty feet or more. It was about five inches wide at my knee; it trailed off in the distance like a riband. It was a line of pure gold, enclosed in a mass of rotten quartz between two well-defined walls of decomposed shale and diorite. It was a reef—such a reef as I had never seen pictured, save in dreams—and it had been uncovered from its old-world hiding-place beneath a mass of rocks and boulders by the all-resistless fury of the flood. For a long while I gazed at it, only half daring to be sure and to believe. Then came a stroke of agonising fear that cast out doubt for ever. I heard a noise and sprang afoot prepared to do battle with any intruder for my prize, even to the death. But it was Rover, dear old Rover, dragging after him with immense effort my bag of flour, which the wonderful dog with an intelligence almost human had somehow contrived to get from the cave boulder and bring to me. He dropped it, while still fifty yards off, seeing me erect, and rushed up, barking frantically. I was so touched that I sat down and took the dear doggie in my arms and hugged him, and for a little while I actually forgot the reef. It is glorious to be loved so splendidly and fondly, even by a dog. Of course, I had to carry the flour back to the cave again, but what did that paltry trouble matter weighed with the lovely thought that had produced it.
I let the reef be that evening. In sober truth I was afraid of it. It possessed such a compellingly powerful attraction that I simply had to stay away in order to prove myself the owner of some force of will. But next morning at break of day I gathered up all my belongings and shifted camp to the very edge of the gold. Then I crossed the gorge, and, climbing into the Wakool pass, I collected a good stack of dead wood for fires and pegs which I hefted back to the reef in three most burdensome and toilful journeys. It was noon before I had finished, but even then I did not rest until I had pegged out a "discoverer's" claim in approved legal fashion, along the reef line, leaving the outcrop in the very centre. I had been five weeks in the valley, and not a living soul had ventured to disturb my loneliness—save, of course, Myrtle, who had led me to the gorge—but the discovery of the gold had filled me with the wildest apprehensions of invasion. It seemed quite impossible that the world would long rest unaware of it. I felt that the breezes would whisper the secret in the miners' ears; that the birds and other forest denizens would fly to proclaim it broadcast through the continent. It was all very ridiculous, yet it amounted to an esoteric species of compulsion which refused to permit me a comfortable second until I had taken all possible precautions. Just as I had driven in the last peg, two black cockatoos came flapping leisurely across the gorge, screaming as they flew. On a blind impulse I sprang for my gun and shot them both. "No, I'm blessed if you'll betray me," I cried aloud, then I burst out laughing at my folly. "Joe Tolano," I said dourly, "this won't do. A bit of fair fortune is making an avaricious child of you. You'll have to take yourself in hand."
For a penance I obliged myself to build a fire, to make a damper, to pluck and broil the cockatoos, and make a pot of tea—all before I permitted myself to so much as glance at the reef again. Also to eat a substantial dinner. The cockatoos were delicious—at least mine was; though, to judge from Rover's expression—he ate the other—his was every bit as tasty as mine. All but the last few mouthfuls. They were nice and my appetite was good, yet I was thinking of the gold, and the meal was nearly over, and it was an effort to swallow them. Never shall I forget the deep thrill that trembled through my frame when finally I arose and took up a pick. "Be calm, my friend," I said. "Now look at your hand, and be ashamed of yourself." But not only my hand was shaking; I was quivering all over like an aspen. A moment later I bestrode the reef and raised my pick. I held it point in air for a full minute, the while I closed my eyes and swam in fancy through the universe. My thoughts were wishes and each wish was a prayer. It was the most memorable, and perhaps the happiest, moment of my life, and not entirely selfish, for I thought of the good that I might do, if Fate should let me, to those less fortunately situated than I did really seem about to be.
Then my lids uplifted and I struck. The iron sank deeply—up to its haft, in fact—in the rotten matrix of the gold. I pushed on the handle, and, with little difficulty, levered up three jagged pieces of quartz, richly studded with the precious metal. Pushing them aside I struck again, and presently scooped out a hole a foot in depth and eight inches across. On the next stroke, however, the pick rang loudly and rebounded back from the solid granite. Already I had bottomed. I strode forward a dozen feet and tried again. Here the reef was eighteen inches deep. A dozen feet farther still, the gold capping was six inches shallower. I hurried to the end of the outcrop and bottomed at twenty inches. It was, of course, a tremendous disappointment. I had dreamed of millions, and must, perforce, be content with thousands. For a while I was thoroughly dejected, but, glancing along the surface of the outcrop, a sum in mental arithmetic cast half-consciously sufficed to raise my drooping spirits. I fell to work again and laboured like a Titan. By sunset I had completely exposed the granite bedding along the entire line of reef. There only remained to clean up. It took me two whole days to do this; and to separate roughly the gold from the quartz, by dollying and washing, another three. When all was done, I had stacked up a heap of nuggets and dust that I reckoned could not in the aggregate weigh less than thirteen hundred pounds. It was an immense fortune for less than a week's work, representing at least sixty thousand sovereigns. But it did not satisfy me. I dug a big hole in the ground, buried the gold and once more went prospecting. This time I had experience for a guide. I followed the line of granite cliffs, digging as I went, right down the gorge. Two days later, I struck another reef, very similar to the first, only much smaller, immediately abreast of one of the poorer leaders that I had previously explored in the face of the cliff wall.
It was separated from the cliff by a space of about thirty feet, and had manifestly, like the other, been originally an integral part of the cliff formation. Much against my will, however, I had perforce to leave it for the moment, as my provisions had completely given out. It was necessary, at length, to leave the precious valley. I took about ten pounds weight of gold from the reef, put this into my pockets, and carefully covered over the rest. Then I set out to cross the ranges, Rover at my heels. A tiresome six hours' climb brought us to the Wakool road, just as dusk was falling. There we camped, supper-less, for the night under the spreading branches of a fine old apple gum, and early next morning we caught the Wakool coach. I could, of course, have obtained all my requirements at the Rush only a few miles away, and Wakool was almost forty miles off, but somehow or another I could not bring myself to face the miners. They would have pestered me with questions on my luck, and I did not want to share my good fortune with any of them just then. I had just enough of Myrtle's money left to pay my fare; Rover, of course, followed the coach on foot. We reached the town just before sunset. It was a most beautiful little place, set in an immense hill-girt hollow on either side of the river; and all the streets were charmingly set out with avenues of well-grown pepper and acacia trees. On the advice of the coach-driver, I put up at the Post Office hotel. My disreputable appearance caused the landlady to gape with surprise when I asked for a room, but she became a miracle of courtesy when I handed her a small nugget as evidence of bona fides. Ten minutes later I was indulging a simply ravenous appetite, and Rover sat beside me on another chair eating, much to the amazement of the waitress—there were no other guests—from a plate, "as nicely as a Christian." as the girl remarked. Rover's table manners are impeccable. After dinner we strolled into the town and I sought out a gold buyer. This man, of course a Hebrew, gave me bank-notes to the tune of £450 for my gold, and he was discreet enough to ask no questions. I next called at a livery-stable establishment and purchased six stout cobs by lantern light. Their owner evidently took me for a madman, for I neither haggled with him nor disputed his appraisement of the horses' virtues. I also bought from him, at his own price, a saddle and bags and five sets of leather panniers. Then I strung my steeds together with raw hide, bitted halters in a double row of three, and led them forth into the street. There only remained to fill the panniers with provisions and some trade commodity to account for my proceedings in a manner to divert suspicion. This I accomplished by buying out a little clothing store, lock, stock and barrel. Two hours' work converted me to all appearance into a pack pedlar in a large way of business. Wasting no time I forthwith mounted the saddle-hack, and, directing Rover to heel up the string of pack horses and keep them moving, I set off at a low jog trot from the town, followed for a mile at least by a mob of jeering youngsters.
Largely owing to Rover's good offices—he had been born and bred to the business of "heeling" stock—I contrived to reach Dunolly (fifteen miles) by a little after midnight. There we rested for the night, and there we breakfasted next morning. By evening we reached the serpentine bar without mishap. But then my troubles commenced—the negotiation of the ranges. It cost me well-nigh two days of tireless effort to bring my little mob across the mountains to the gorge; and when the task was finally accomplished, I was a nerveless ruin. So was Rover. I could hardly speak louder than a whisper. As for Rover, he could not even whine. When I had finished staking out the horses, in the gorge, I sank in my tracks utterly outdone, and I slept for a solid fourteen hours where I had fallen. It was bad business. When I awoke, it was to find half a dozen mounted and dismounted prospectors nosing about the gorge in all directions. Two were examining the pegs of my first claim. Fortunately I had not pegged out the second. But it was expedient to take rapid action to save myself from perilous complications. My big cache was on the first claim. But it was also necessary to be cool and not to exhibit anything like anxiety or over haste. I strung my horses together, untied them from their feeding pickets, and put their harness on; then calling on Rover to assist me, I leisurely led them over to the big worked-out claim. It was a signal for the miners farther afield to converge and cluster round their two companions already on the ground.
"Good-day, mates," I said pleasantly, as I came up. A glance showed that they were all strangers to me.
Only one answered. "Good-day," he returned. "Seems as if you'd done something good for yourself hereabouts. That there's rotten blue quartz or I'm a Turk."
"Yes," I said; "I've been working here for more'n a month, and I ain't grumbling."
"What did yer clean up at?"
"About sixty thousand quid on this here reef," I replied.
The miners guffawed.
"What yer giving us?" asked the spokesman. "Sixty thousand quid! You couldn't have carried off a heap like that."
"No," I said; "but I'm a-goin' to. You watch me."
With that I immediately began to unload the panniers of the two pack horses, casting the slop-made clothing I had purchased at Wakool contemptuously about on the dew-wet pebbles and boulders.
"Them clothes was a blind, eh?" asked one of the prospectors.
"You bet," said I. "You boys can help yourselves to a suit a-piece and no charge, if you want to."
But not a man of them stirred a finger or uttered a word in response.
When I finished the unloading work, I gave Rover the leading rein to hold, and I took a small shovel from my tool bag. Then I carelessly approached the spot where I had buried my treasure. As luck would have it the spokesman of the invading party was standing within an inch or two of the edge of the little mound.
"Have you seen my pegs?" I demanded.
"Yes," he said.
"Are they in order?"
"Then you won't mind if I get to work and ask you in the first instance to stand aside."
"There's no reef here," he replied, with a stupid, stubborn look. "What d'ye want me to shift for?"
"Mate," I answered coolly. "I've nothing to conceal from you. I'm going, on the contrary, to be as open as the day. Just step back a yard, and I'll engage in five minutes to make your mouth water."
"It's a game," he growled. But he stepped back and the other miners immediately crowded around. All wore an expression of thinly veiled hostility. They were by no means convinced I was not fooling them. But they suspected me of having made a big haul, and each man felt vaguely resentful that the luck had not fallen his way instead of mine. I began to dig, and very speedily I reached the old coat with which I had covered the mound of gold. At that juncture I cast aside the shovel and, kneeling down, removed the last few pebbles and bits of rocky quartz mould with my fingers. Then, quietly and with an exaggerated, almost reverent care, I drew away the covering.
"What price a jeweller's shop, mates?" I asked, standing up.
They made no reply. They were spell-bound, paralysed indeed, with the excess of their astonishment. Before a man of them moved, I drew up two of the pack-horses, and, quick as thought, I started tossing the gold, nugget after nugget, into the leather panniers.
Of course, I did not fill these receptacles in either case.
The enormous weight of the treasure forbade. Indeed, I was soon obliged to lead up two more horses. I found that four could comfortably carry the entire store, but it was quite as much as they could manage, and they were substantially laden by the time I had finished. All the while the miners looked on motionless and most ominously silent. I seized every opportunity during my task to covertly examine them. Two at least were natural rascals, that sort of human scum with which every mining-field is always more or less infected. They had villainous faces. They were not "bushmen," thank God!
As soon as I had strapped up the last pannier I strode forward and tore up the nearest peg—a sign that I had abandoned the claim.
"Hullo!" cried one of the men, finding voice at last. "Clearing out?"
"To a new claim," I replied; and, vaulting into the saddle, I urged my team forward.
The miners by common consent followed me. Ten minutes later I reached the second reef. Not being exposed to view—I had carefully covered the traces of any former handiwork—my escort did not immediately see what I was up to; thus I had my pegs in and had marked out a new claim before they properly guessed. Then, however, they came forward in a body, the face of each man black as midnight.
"Appears like you know your ways about here, mate," said the spokesman.
"True for ye," I replied, and, taking up my pick, I bestrode the line of reef.
"Ye're blanky hard to satisfy," growled the fellow.
"Ay, ay," chorused the crowd.
"Think so?" I observed, and set to work
As before they watched me. But immediately the reef was disclosed three of them rushed away and instituted a spirited contest in pegging out adjacent claims. The other three stood for five minutes longer regarding me, then they went off, too, but not so quickly.
By that time it was nine o'clock. I had had no breakfast, but there were so many signs of trouble ahead that I dared not cease work. To have quitted my claim for an instant would have been to lose it for always. Moreover I felt it in my bones that I must depart from the gorge before sunset or remain there through the ages. I had read—to be plain—cold-blooded murder in more than one pair of eyes. Working feverishly I soon tore the stripping from the reef. It did not end with my claim, but only one portion of it—about twelve feet in length, was phenomenally rich. This was the part that I attacked. And I did not trouble to do much separating either. If a blow or two from the pick did not rid a nugget of its quartz companion, quartz and gold together were pitched into one or other of my remaining pack-horses' panniers. When the poor brute showed me by plain signs that he was loaded sufficiently I gave over and filled the saddle bags of my own hack. Then I stuffed my coat pockets with slugs and dust, and finally, that done, gave over. Four of the invading diggers were working on their claims like madmen. The other two were seated on a neighbouring boulder, smoking their pipes and watching me. I led my horses to the creek and watered them; then I unslung my gun ostentatiously, loaded both barrels, and slipping it over my shoulder I mounted for the journey that was before me.
As I had expected (and indeed, to be honest, hoped) the two loafing diggers immediately launched themselves upon my claim and began a desperate fight, cursing and yelling like lunatics for its possession. This enabled me to get clear away without opposition, for the remaining diggers would not leave their claims. It was true that they sang out and bade me to stop or to return. But naturally I paid no heed beyond civilly waving my hand in mute farewell. A quarter hour later I entered the path without mischance and began the long climb back to civilisation. It was exactly two o'clock and I was both weary and famished. But rest was not for one in my condition. It was imperatively pre-requisite both to put as great a distance as possible between myself and the gorge and to discover a camping ground that could also be used if the need arose as a fortress. By dusk I had crossed one ridge and was half way up a second. I reached the crest of this just before the deeper dark. And there I found exactly the sort of place I had been looking for—a cone-shaped hillock devoid of trees, defended on one side by a precipice, on another by a towering unscalable pinnacle of basalt, and on a third by a sharp declivity which offered little hope by reason of a mass of loose shingle to any direct assault. I had therefore only to defend seriously one point of vantage—the approach along the saddle of the ridge. Tethering my team to the basalt I took off their harness, piling up the panniers of gold at the extreme edge of the precipice, and I gave the weary brutes a good rub down. Water, of course, I could not spare them. I had only enough for Rover and myself. But I had passed a small currajong-tree as we topped the lower back of the range, and this I sacrificed to their needs with a few strokes of my axe. The luscious leaves were already wet with the mountain dews, and it was only necessary to drag along a few branches to the picket to supply them with a fair substitute for water and fodder. They scorned to touch it at first, but they grew wiser and more humble minded as the night wore on. Ah! the unforgettable bliss of the rest and food that I at length allowed myself. A fire, of course, I dared not light. It would have been too sure a guiding beacon for the enemy. I was thus obliged to forego tea. But I opened two tins of curried chicken and, once I began to eat it, I would not have exchanged the stuff for ambrosia, nor the warm water in the canvas water-bag with which I washed it down for nectar. I really believe that Rover was of the same opinion. At any rate I never remember having seen a dog eat and drink more heartily.
Afterwards I led him fifty yards down the saddle of the ridge and placed him in the dark shadow of a rock. Then I spoke to him: "Rover," said I, "your master is only a mere man. Therefore he is obliged to sleep, as he is worn-out and could not keep awake, however much he might try. It becomes your business to take care of him. Watch there! good dog! Nothing must pass this spot."
"Wough!" growled Rover, and with a discontented grunt, he crouched on all fours and peered down into the valley. I patted him and let him lick my hand, then I stumbled over to the spot I had chosen between the horses and the gold, and threw myself upon the ground. In ten seconds I was sleeping like a log.
SOMETHING cold and wet was pushing and jabbing at my cheek, kneading it in fact. Two or three times I brushed aside the irritation with my hand, thinking in my sleep-dazed condition it was a stirrup-iron—this from for years having used a saddle for a pillow. But it always returned to the charge and ended by arousing me. It was Rover's nose. I sat up—thrilled. The dog was in a state of tense excitement. He was quivering all over, yet he had not uttered a sound—not even the lowest of whines. Plainly no quadruped had startled him. My gun was still strapped to my shoulder. I swung it round and drew back the hammers to half-cock. Then pressing Rover silently to earth I sank down and flattened my right cheek upon the ground. Thus I was enabled by slightly squirming my body as occasion warranted to silhouette closely every inch of the black surface of the ridge against the luminous star-spangled horizon. For some time, I saw nothing that was invested with the faintest trace of motion, and heard no sound. The earth was as silent as a tomb, and the air, too, was absolutely still. Thus perhaps ten minutes passed. Then a rattling sound and a succession of dull thuds informed me of a stone on the side of the hill dislocated by some climbing creature's foot. Rover seized my left arm in his mouth and gnawed gently at the muscle. "It's all right, boy," I whispered, "lie still."
Another five minutes passed soundlessly by. I was getting really nervous at last when quite suddenly I was relieved to perceive three dark objects rise like shadows above the sky line about sixty yards away. They resembled dogs. They came toward me slowly and soundlessly. Rover gave my arm a good nip and began to pant. He saw them as well as I, perhaps better, and he longed to rush at them. They were men crawling on their hands and knees. But I struck the dear old doggie on the nose—a command to go to heel he had never disregarded—and he immediately slunk back. Then I took up my hat and when the crawling humans had come to within fifty feet of me I spoke out loudly, but into the crown of my "cabbage-tree" in order to disguise from them the direction of my voice. "Good morning, mates," I called. "You're a bit early for breakfast, but I've been expecting you. I can give you something nice and hot; swan shot or slugs—just as you prefer."
They came to a halt. They had been in a line abreast of each other about three feet apart, but now they closed up and held a whispered colloquy. I trained my fowling-piece upon them, fully cocked the hammers and waited. Presently all three drew up their legs, ready on a signal to spring erect and make a charge.
"Boys," I cried. "You are fools. You might do it and think to succeed if I only had a revolver, but you cannot escape my old blunderbuss. Both barrels are cylinder, and she scatters like the very deuce!"
They had another colloquy. Then one of them spoke. "See here, mate," he said. "You're treed, gun or no gun. We ain't going to let you take all that gold away. You've got to share or go under."
"Under where?" I demanded.
"Under ground," he answered, with brutal candour.
"You want me to share—with how many?"
"There's only three of us, mate. You've got plenty to go round."
"But how could I trust you coves to give me a fair divvy?"
"We'll treat you fair, mate. You needn't be afraid of that. Well; what do you say?"
"Just this—Rats!" I cried and uttered a taunting laugh.
Their reply was a revolver shot. The flash dazzled my eyes a second, the next they were rushing towards me, firing as they came. I aimed low along the ground and let drive the right barrel among the maze of moving legs. For a little while there was a perfect bedlam of savage yells and curses. The horses added to the confusion by neighing and stamping, and Rover, with one long glad howl, leaped over my shoulder and plunged to meet the foe. The next thing I realised was the lean figure of a miner reared above me. I could have killed him by moving a finger, but I did not want his life. I dropped the gun and sprang at his throat. He fired at me point blank, but the bullet merely grazed my neck without inflicting more than a scratch. It was the work of a fraction of a second to seize his wrist. Afterwards it was an ordinary wrestling match, in which I had all the advantage, as he was absolutely ignorant of ju-jitsu. Within half a minute he was lying on his face. I felt the bone of his right arm snap as I brought it with a wrench behind him as he fell. But at that I was none too pitiful. He had meant to murder me. Depriving him of his revolver, I sprang down the slope to where Rover's strangled growls and a din of shouts and blood-curdling profanity proclaimed a fierce fight in progress. I was just in time to save the dog's life. One miner was sawing at his throat with a sheath knife, the other having clasped the gallant animal in his arms. I laid out both wretches with the butt end of my revolver, and having removed their knives—they had no other weapons—I forthwith proceeded to build up a big bonfire so that we should have some light to reckon up results.
It was well I did so, for the horses were in a panic, and one, my saddle horse, having been desperately wounded by a chance bullet, had half slipped over the edge of the precipice. He hung by his forefeet, and, by the efforts of the others, their halters all being fastened together, he had so far been prevented from falling. But the poor animal was doomed. He had been shot through the shoulder and his hindquarters were paralysed. I cut his halter and put a bullet through his ear. It was the kindest thing I could do for him. He found his grave 600 feet below. It needed all the art I could muster to quieten the others, but I did so at last and was then at liberty to examine the enemy. The man whose arm I had broken was sitting on the stump, groaning and rocking himself to and fro. Rover stood opposite him with bared teeth, defying him to move. I strolled down to the others and dragged their unconscious bodies one by one to the fire. They were simply salted over with shot—not swan shot, however, that had been mere bluff—the only shot I possessed was No. 6. But they were nevertheless quite sufficiently injured to demand immediate medical attention. I did what I could for them, but I could effect little more than staunch the bleeding. Their groans when they recovered their senses were simply heartrending. Happily the day soon dawned. When it did I bound up the chief robber's broken arm and mounted all three on my horses, leaving the gold lie—it was not so valuable, I thought, as human lives. Then I led them over the mountains to the Wakool road, which we reached just before sundown. There I dismounted them and laid them out on a grassy bank beside the highway—a babbling, delirious, and utterly helpless trio; and tethering the horses that had borne them to the fence I galloped to the Yabba Gabba Rush. I found exactly what I needed before the pub—a journeyman hawker seated in his waggon, chaffering his ware to a group of miners. Drawing him aside, I speedily made a bargain with the fellow, and for a consideration he at once accompanied me back to the serpentine bar. We brought the robbers to their senses with a liberal dose of spirit apiece. We then helped them into the hawker's waggon and made them comfortable on the floor with sacks and straw.
"It's gaol, I suppose," said the leader. He was very humble by this, and had even temporarily given over cursing me.
"Not unless you wish—only hospital," I answered. "I reckon you are punished all I want for your blackguardism. I've paid this man to run you straight through to-night to Wakool. I've also given him enough gold to see you through your trouble—all three of you. Have you got anything to say?"
"No," said the fellow.
"Nothin', 'cept cuss you!"
"Ah!" I said. "I knew that I was right. You are not bushmen, you thankless scum. Off you go, driver! I wish you joy of your load."
"By the lord, if they ain't civil to me I'll plump 'em straight to the police-station," cried the hawker. "Neck-stretchin' is what hogs like them want. Good-night, mate!"
When the cart had vanished I gathered up my cattle and wearily proceeded to retrace my tracks across the ranges. But we only reached the grass-tree swamp that night. My horses absolutely refused to budge from the water's edge, and I had not the heart to force them on. We did not reach the hill of the fight until late the following afternoon.
The gold was safe. I had so nearly made up my mind it would have disappeared that the relief was a positive pain. But my mischances were now at an end. I had only to convey the gold to Wakool to reap the reward of all my toil and trouble. And this Providence permitted me to accomplish without another untoward happening. Three days later I drew up my tired team just as the Wakool clock was chiming for noon before the Bank of New South Wales in the heart of exquisitely shaded Long Street. Tying the horses to the guard rail, I stepped through the door of the bank and asked to see the manager. The bank chamber was empty of customers, but a dapper little clerk looked at me across the counter with a grin.
"He's engaged," he said.
I knew how I must look—a seven weeks' growth of beard on my chin, a suit of greasy, dust-caked overalls on my gaunt frame, and face and hands streaked black and brown with dirt and perspiration. So I sympathised heartily with the clerk's point of view, he was such an exceedingly tidy and nice-looking, clean young man.
I smiled in answer to his grin and took from my pocket a fair-sized nugget. "Say, sonny," I observed. "Your mammy must have told you the proverb about the book and the cover. I can't leave the door, as I must keep an eye on my cargo—it's a floating species, but catch."
The clerk was surely a cricketer. He caught the nugget with his left hand easily. "My," he exclaimed, "it's a beauty, and no mistake. Two ounces fine, or I'm a Dutchman."
"Buy your girl a toy with it," I returned. "But say, sonny, fork out your manager, won't you. He must come to me, too. I can't go to him."
"Is it gold you've got out there," he cried, "that you're so careful?"
I nodded. "Stacks of it. Hurry's the word, lad."
That young man surprised me. He must surely have been a cricketer. Within ten seconds the manager's door opened and a pleasant-faced man stepped out, urged on by the dapper clerk, who whispered excitedly in his ear.
"You want to see me," enquired the former.
"You're the manager here, I take it."
"I want to make a deposit of gold and open an account with you."
"Certainly: how much?"
"We can reckon that afterwards. Just take this revolver, will you, and keep my movements covered while I bring in the gold. See! the stuff has been scented already. In two minutes there'll be a crowd."
He took the pistol wonderingly. "Oh! pshaw!" he murmured. "It's nonsense."
But I did not wait for more. I hurried to the horses and began to unload the panniers. They were too heavy to handle, laden as they were. And the manager had need of his pistol soon enough, for in less time than it takes to tell there was an excited, struggling crowd, panting round the bank door and straggling across the road, hemming us in with a living cordon of eager hands and bodies and hatefully cupidinous eyes. The manager was forced to wave his pistol in their faces to clear a path for me, and before the police came, robberies had taken place. In the end the dapper clerk had to assist me; but at last it was over and the last pannier dragged across the threshold. The manager instantly slammed the door in the face of the mob, and not until the whole hoard was secure in the bank vault did he permit it to be opened again.
An hour later I sneaked out of the bank by the back way, taking with me a deposit receipt for £80,000 and a cheque-book. My horses were still before the bank, but I speedily arranged for the livery-stable keeper from whom I had purchased them to send and fetch them to his stables, and I sold them to him at his own price, in the same manner as I had become their owner. One can afford to be careless over pounds, possessing thousands.
My first care was to visit a barber's shop, and there to shed some of my gorilla attributes and have a luxurious hot bath. Next I went to a clothier's and rigged myself out from head to heel like a tasteful and fairly prosperous bushman. That is to say, I donned new corduroys, boots and leggings, a blue Crimean shirt, a black coat and a broad-brimmed black slouch hat. A silk neckerchief and waist belt completed my attire, and as I chose black for their colour scheme instead of the usual scarlet, I felt that no one had a right to call me "flash," a term a true bushman loathes as sincerely as he usually endeavours in purblind fashion to deserve it. For, being a primitive person, his colour tastes in nine cases out of ten lean towards barbaric tones and gaudy hues.
When I was completely furnished, I ate a late lunch, and then Rover and I went to pay a call on the School Inspector, Mr. McClellan.
I was directed to a pretty little brick cottage at the end of the main street, close to a big brick railway viaduct. Mr. McClellan was sprinkling his geraniums with a brass syringe when I came up. I opened the gate and paused, regarding him. He did not recognise me. He was very civilised. He said, "You wish, perhaps, to see me, sir?" His voice was as carefully trimmed and cultured as his precise flowerbeds and mathematically prim hedgerows.
"I do?" said I.
"May I then invite you to step inside the house?"
"No, thanks," I answered.
"Then in what may I have the honour to serve you?"
He reminded me of a play. He was so exquisitely courteous and so exquisitely dressed. No wonder Myrtle had not relished too keenly the notion of being wife to such a bandbox.
"My name is Joe Tolano," I observed.
He started, and gave me a quick, sharp look. "Ah!" he said; "I remember you now."
"Well," I observed.
"I beg your pardon, sir."
"I am waiting."
"Indeed, and for what?"
"Sir," I replied. "I do not wish to appear to threaten you. But you must be aware that you owe me an explanation."
He reddened to the eyes. "You refer, of course, to Miss Hofer?" he mumbled. But he had hardly said it when he threw back his head, and spoke out like a man and a gentleman. "Sir," he said. "I was hideously misled in that affair, and I have not hesitated to acknowledge it to my superiors. Therefore, why should I stumble to admit the fact to you? Permit me to inform you that full justice has been done to that lady whom we have in common the honour to know, and, as I gather from your letter, to respect and to appreciate at her true worth."
"Now?" I commented, cuttingly.
He winced, then set his teeth and bowed his head. "Now," he conceded. It cost him much to say it, so evidently much that I was touched.
"She is back in the service?" I asked.
"No," said he. "She refused to return, although we offered her a choice of schools, and—and—promotion. I—ah!—that is to say—ah!—it has been a source of keen regret to me—us all. We still hope, however, that she may be induced to reconsider her decision. I may say that I have just addressed to her an autograph letter from the head of the department on the subject. To be frank, sir; I have done all that is possible to atone, yet—yet——"
"She will not see you?" I hazarded.
"Sir," said he, in freezing tones. "I have the pleasure to wish you a good afternoon."
Then he drew his heels together with a funny little click, like a dancing-master, and bowed to me from his hips.
"She is staying with her people, I suppose?" I asked, unmoved by this demonstration.
He bowed to me once more, swung on his heel, and marched stiffly into his cottage, with all the rigid preciseness of gait possible to fancy in the movements of an animated poker.
At two o'clock next morning, in the black darkness of a thickly clouded world, on which fell a thin cold mist of soaking rain, I caught the train to Tambo.
I remembered Myrtle to have told me that her father's selection was situated about fifteen miles from that small, man-forsaken little town.
TIN-MINING was the staple industry of the place. Picture two long, straggling lines of cross streets, with here and there an iron-roofed humpy, an infrequent square patch of asphalt-paving, and an occasional public-house. Such was Tambo. Beyond the town itself, mining, after a desultory fashion, was carried on in the creeks and hollows, but it was not a poor man's field any longer, and most of the workers were Chinese. The countryside was dotted with the ruins of bark and slab huts, the deserted domiciles of a once populous and thriving community. There is something weirdly lonesome and pathetic about a worn-out mining-field. It contains so many monuments of broken hopes.
Nearly all the shops of Tambo were kept by Chinamen. I saw Chinese children playing in the streets. It was not an Australian town at all. I made straight for the livery stable and asked a Chinese groom for a saddle horse. He referred me to another Chinaman, the proprietor. I found this gentleman reclining on a dirty mattress placed in the mid-floor of a small room with one door, no window and a low roof, ceiled with sacking.
The place reeked with the fumes of opium, and was as dark as Erebus and as airless. The proprietor was, in fact, smoking an opium pipe, and he hated me for disturbing him. "Horse?" he had no horses. "Whaffor keepee horsee when tlain go evelywhere?" he demanded. Then, with a sneer, "Tlain! no likee tlain? no pushee, no shovee, allee samee, go like hellee. Whaffor?" It was his idea of a steam engine. He had probably never heard of Stephenson. I gathered that he accused the railways of interfering with his business. Certainly his stables were empty. I wandered out and tried the public-houses, one after another, but not a horse could I obtain. The stores were equally barren, though I must admit one man offered me the use of a decrepit old draught stallion at the rate of half a crown an hour. Finally I gave up the chase and started out on foot. For three or four miles the road was dusty and uninteresting, the prospect on all sides a desert of parched brown earth and rocky hillocks. But once over the ridge all that was changed. I entered upon an extensive forest tableland, level almost as a billiard-table, stretching to the farthest sky-line, and everything was green and beautiful. Soon I came to a vineyard and farm combined. The homestead was set square with the road. It was shaped like a skull. Two windows for eyes on either side of a black blank door for nose; and the mouth was the dark space between the verandah and the ground. For the ugly little humpy was perched on round white wooden piles that looked like teeth and grinned at wayfarers mockingly.
There was no garden and no sign of cultivation near the house. Where there should have been a garden plot was an immense rubbish heap, jewelled with empty jam tins and gin bottles. A fine Angora goat was nosing in the pile and extracting therefrom much questionable nourishment. Feeling thirsty, I opened the gate and rapped on the open door. No one answering, I walked through the hall into the kitchen. A young woman in a frowsy cotton gown, her hair tightly crimped about her head with wisps of rags, was seated in a rocking-chair reading the Family Herald.
She glanced up at me. "Dick's out," she announced. "Oh, yer want a drink? Certainly."
She got up, took a tin cup from a nail in the slab wall and dipped it into a kerosene tin by the fireplace that was filled with an inky black fluid.
It was tea. I thanked her, drained the cup and returned it to its place on the wall. The young woman was already buried in the Family Herald once more. A glance informed me that the house was filthy. But one can't have everything. Probably "Dick" was proud of his intellectual helpmeet, grime notwithstanding.
I said "Good-day, ma'am," and departed. She did not answer me. There is no place like the bush for true casualness. I had another instance of it presently. In the distance there was a cart loaded with wheat sacks coming towards me. Of course the cart pulled up as we met, and, of course, I stopped. Seated on one of the shafts—his back against the front board, was a middle-aged farmer, smoking a short clay pipe.
After eyeing me awhile he took the pipe from his mouth.
"Lost yer horse?" he asked.
I nodded—it was not worth while explaining.
He nodded. "I'm goin' to ther station."
He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Old woman's bruk her laig—(pause)—I 'ad some wheat to sell, anyway—(This in a tone of apology). So'm killin' two birds with the one stone."
I looked up and saw the face of a middle-aged woman spying at me from the top of the wheat sacks. I took off my hat. She showed a row of broken teeth.
"Goin' ter Hofer's?" she piped in a reedy falsetto.
"My son Jamie was workin' there a bit ago. If yer see him, yer needn't tell 'im abart me laig. He's a good fer nothin', an' he'd likely take it as an excuse ter light out."
"I won't mention it, then, ma'am."
"Air you Myrtle Hofer's bloke?"
"What yer goin' there fer—then?"
"Oh!" the lady's curiosity was exhausted. She disappeared. The farmer, however, gave me a word of advice. "If yer goin' to do biz with Hofer, you look out," he said. Then he closed one eye and sang out "Gee up!" to his horse.
A mile farther on I met a horseman. We stopped and stared at each other.
"It's blanky hot," he remarked.
"My oath," said I.
"Want rain bad," said he.
"Yes," I admitted.
"Good-day," he said, and cantered off.
Half an hour later I heard the sound of hoofs behind me. It was another equestrian: a Methodist parson.
He pulled up and dismounted. Then fell into step beside me. He was a bushman every inch of him. We eyed each other furtively, feeling friendly all over. He was quite young, evidently a religious enthusiast and as handsome a man as I had ever seen.
After five minutes or so he broke the silence by owning up to a difficulty. "Mate," he said. "You're older than me. But the duty is laid on me to counsel you. I'd be sorry to seem impertinent, however."
"You couldn't," I replied. "You're a man, mate."
His boyish face flushed warmly. "Ah! that's hearty," he cried. "Mate, have you ever thought how good God is to us? Now look at this; my work to-day. Three unfortunate souls have I wrestled with in prayer and all have found grace but one—a benighted Roman. And here you are—soil ready for the seed divine. Mate, I have a call to pray. Will you rest awhile?"
"Ay!" said I.
With that he kneeled in the middle of the dusty way and gave thanks to heaven and prayed for me. It was a prayer so simple, so honest and so beautiful, that I took off my hat to hear, and my whole heart went out to him.
Afterwards he took my arm and walked with me for nigh two miles, talking to me with shining eyes and pouring out a flood of burning words like one inspired for my enlightenment.
He was as narrow-minded and bigoted a fanatic as the whole world holds, I think, and yet his deep-souled earnestness was a force that could not help but work for moral good in any community his labours touched. And there was one part of his creed that was very lovely. It related to the poor. "The poor," he said, "are God's children, mate, in an especial sense. And the rich can only approach God through one door—by helping them. Faith, morality, continence, these are only selfish virtues, and without the grace of charity they lead to nothing but the fires of hell!"
Now I don't believe in hell, but I do believe in charity, so when he told me of the poor within his charge I gave him for their betterment some money. But money which he would not touch until I had made him an easy promise to be sober and to lead a moral life.
Nor did I feel the poorer for the blessing that he gave me when we parted. Sirs, this world has been painted by cynics as an awful place, but in my experience, it is tenanted by as many saints as sinners, always admitting their respective limitations.
About four in the afternoon I judged that I was near my destination; therefore, perceiving a young aboriginal letting some fat cows from a wayside paddock out upon the road through a slip-rail, I approached him with a question.
"Hofer's farm?" answered the young black. "You plurry foreigner," he grinned. "Gib it mine plug tobacco an' mine tell it you."
I took half a plug from my pocket and handed it over.
The black laughed aloud. "Mine work it Boss Hofer. Mine go there now," he said, and putting up the slip-rails as he spoke, he loped off along a deeply-rutted track among the trees. The rascal considered he had been exceedingly smart, no doubt, to have made his tobacco so easily. His laughter trailed off into the distance—a continuous cackle until he disappeared.
I took the track more leisurely. After piercing the outer belt of timber, I was able to see the full extent of the selection: about 200 acres had been cleared; part was under corn and wheat, the remainder was stubble. The country seemed rather poor and was heart-breakingly full of stones; great mounds were piled up everywhere, representing years of toilful slavery. The sight of them inspired me with a deep respect for Farmer Hofer. He was evidently a man of wonderful industry and courage; and not without taste either. The track led me presently to the edge of a second clearing in the thicker scrub. Here the farm was traversed by a small stream, lined with cress and sedge that meandered tipsily across the plain into the heart of a wheat field. It took its source in a shallow spring located at the foot of a queerly-shaped earth tumulus whereon was perched a slab shanty, covered with a dense growth of native creepers. The house was completely surrounded with primly-planted flowerbeds enclosed by a low cactus hedge, now ablaze with crimson blossoms. At one side there was planted a small orchard in another cactus enclosure, also a kitchen garden; and on the other a corn field intruded with positive impertinence on the living fence, making a pretence of bolstering it aside.
Beyond, for contrast, were some sordid-looking barns and cow-sheds, whose only sign of poetry consisted in two big hayricks primly roofed with thatch.
The farm was as pretty a picture as one might easily conceive, but it did not for all that look prosperous. The wheat was thin and stunted and straggly; the corn had too much run to stalk; everything told of an unending struggle with Nature in an unusually grudging mood. In fact, the soil was poor, and it was a mistake to have ever put it to any but grazing purposes. Yet one could not but admire the indomitable persistence of the man who, once having put his hand to the plough, had kept on, refusing to look back or count the cost.
Pride of ownership was the secret of it all. The pride—which, as Adam Smith tells us, will make a garden grow out of a rock with the same hands that, applied as by a tenant to the tillage of landlord's garden, would permit that garden to degenerate into a wilderness. I could imagine the penniless Dutch peasant coming from his own overcrowded country to that spot, and his eager enthusiasm on being told that he could possess and keep for ever as his own so splendid an extent of land for the mere trouble of settling down and working it. Would he not, indeed! And Myrtle Hofer was not then born.
The front of the cottage was deserted, so I followed the track round to the back. A big-boned young man, with a heavy jowly face, was sawing wood in the middle of the yard. An older man with iron-grey hair, keen blue eyes, a long thin nose, and a long shaven upper-lip, with a gorilla fringe of snow-white beard round his chin, was staggering up from the direction of the cow-sheds under a big load of potatoes in a sack. The black fellow, who had tricked me for the tobacco, was following at his heels, dragging along the ground a sort of sled filled with firewood. Smoke was issuing from the kitchen, so I told myself that Myrtle was in there, cooking, perhaps, the evening meal. The young man glanced at me, stopped working for a single instant, then resumed sawing. The old man staggered up, passed me with a frown and entered the kitchen, panting loudly.
The black fellow grinned at me, spat out a mouthful of tobacco juice, and proceeded to remove his wood slowly and carefully from the sled to the wood pile.
Presently the old man came out, and seeing me still standing there at the corner of the skillion, where I had involuntarily halted, he crossed the yard and stood before me.
"Vat you want? Hein?" he uncompromisingly demanded.
"A meal and a bed," I answered quietly.
"You take me for a pub—vot?" he demanded angrily. "You get no meal or bed here. Karl!"
The young man stopped sawing, laid down his implement and lounged across. He was a perfect giant. His face was very menacing.
"You better go—vot?" said the old man to me. "Ve not vant trespassers here."
"Good evening, mate," I began, nodding to the approaching giant. "Your father tells me that you have no hospitality to spare for strangers. I am willing to pay, however."
At the word "pay" the giant stopped frowning and also moving. He stood stock still.
"Ve hav no bed," said Hofer senior in a softer tone.
"He can have mine—at a price," cried the younger eagerly. "Half a crown—is it a bargain, mate?"
"Undt von an' sixpence for der tea," cut in Hofer senior.
"Joe! oh, Joe!" cried suddenly the voice of Myrtle. I looked up, to see her standing in the kitchen doorway. She was as white as a lily, and she clutched at the lintel as though to save herself from falling.
It was impossible not to appropriate the compliment of her emotion; understand it, however, I could not, and as, happily for me, my particular form of vanity does not incline towards coxcombry, I did not try to guess. What I did was to run forward, both my hands outstretched. "Mate, it's good to see you again!" I cried.
Then, what was my amazement to see her shrink and shiver back from me. "Oh! go away—go quickly!" she muttered; there was a living horror in her eyes. I stopped confounded; but she was looking past my shoulder at her father and her brother—not at me. On a sudden impulse I swung round, to intercept a meaning glance between the pair.
The young man stayed where he was, clenching and unclenching his hands, a picture of irresolution and smouldering rage, his face overcast with gloom. But the father immediately came up to me, his lips wreathed in a fawning smile. "Ach!" he said, "but dot is different. It appears you are mein daughter's frendt. Dot is altogedder different."
"My name is Joe Tolano," I observed. For a second the smile vanished. He bit his lip and his keen eye flashed. But next instant his eyes were veiled again and the fawning smile returned.
"Ve have heardt of you," he said. "You are very welcome to Wein-vogel Farm. As mit der charges, ve not speak of him again. Come right inside, Meinheer Tolano, und make yourself gomfortable. Come right inside."
I glanced at Myrtle. She was breathing deeply. One hand was pressed to her heart, with the other she was plucking at the throat of her gown as though she found a difficulty in breathing. Her pallor, if possible, had deepened. She looked straight into my eyes. Her own were half closed, and nervously contracted. She was tuned up to some frightful effort.
"Joe," she said, simply forcing out the words, "for the sake of all you prize most, don't cross the threshold of this home."
"Myrtle," cried her father, in tones that vibrated with hardly controlled passion. "Get you into der kitchen und go on mit your work all at vonce. You hear me?"
Then the old man put a hand of iron on my shoulder. "Come inside," he repeated. "Ach! dose vomans!"
To my amazement Myrtle meekly obeyed her father. I hardly knew what to do. I was in a perfect fog of surprise and doubt. It was the easier to submit to the guiding hand of my host. He pressed me before him into a big, plainly-furnished living-room. He urged me across the floor and fairly pushed me into a chair. Then he stood in front of me and rubbed his hands. He seemed to be vastly pleased at something.
"Ach!" he said. "It does me goot to see you, Meinheer Tolano. Mooch haf I heardt of you."
"You are very kind, sir," I replied.
He smiled—not fawningly now, however. It was rather the smile of a tyrant, inscrutable, masterful, and mocking. "A queer character, this old fellow," thought I to myself.
He regarded me keenly and measuringly for several moments. Then he said with a laboured pretence at courteous interest.
"You look strong, mein friendt, und nod too old. Vot might your age be?"
"I am thirty-five, sir."
"So. Und a gentlemans—mein daughter tells me?"
"She is pleased to flatter my pretensions, Mr. Hofer."
"Nicht wahr," said he, then smiled again. "But you have prospegdts, hein?"
"I expect nothing by inheritance, if that is your meaning," I answered, marvelling at his catechism.
He frowned, then nodded his head. "But—you make some money at der mines?"
"Enough for a living."
He nodded again. "Goot. Enough! Enough is plendty dese hardt times, plendty. Ach! well, mein friendt, I leaf you eine minute to make ready for your sleeping room."
With that he shambled off through a door on my right, closing it carefully behind him. Very interestedly I glanced about me. So this was the home of Myrtle's upbringing; the house in which she had spent her babyhood, her girlhood, and the early years of her youth. The room in which I sat, though larger than the others, was, as I subsequently discovered, a fair sample of them all.
Therefore, I may be suffered to present it in due form. It was about sixteen feet long by twelve broad. The ceiling was made of plaster, painted thickly with Venetian red.
A huge open fireplace, also coloured red, occupied one whole end of the apartment. It was ornamented with two big stone ingles capable of cosily accommodating a dozen people on a winter's night. But now the great hollow, lacking a fire, looked chill and cheerless, and but for the warm colour would have been forbidding. The walls of the room were composed of smooth, planed iron bark slabs. They were plastered over with a thousand and one pictures of the Franco-Prussian War, evidently culled from cheap illustrated periodicals. There was one big uncurtained window opening out upon the garden, and giving a glimpse beyond the cactus hedge of picturesque scrub and wooded upland. The floor was made of hard stamped clay. For furniture the place contained one large dining table, covered with a faded velvety green cloth; a smaller table on which was placed a tall glass case, containing some atrociously arrayed native birds of gaudy plumage, very badly stuffed; a high-backed chiffonier set out with a number of green glasses and queer-shaped German mugs; and for the rest, half a dozen chairs and an old-fashioned couch stuffed with horse hair. I have but to add that the room and its contents were scrupulously clean and that the furniture was rigidly arranged in strict mathematical lines, parallel with the walls. It betokened to my fancy anything but female government; rather an iron-minded and somewhat narrow masculine domestic administration.
I was just beginning to wonder where Margaret, Myrtle's well-loved sister, might be, when Mr. Hofer suddenly returned. "You vill come mit me!" he commanded.
I arose at once, but I confess his airs of domination were beginning to pall. However, I contrived to say "Thanks!" and I followed him into a neat small bedroom. He poured some water into an iron basin and pointed to it.
"You vill vash your hands," he said. "Und then I vill thank you to stay mit your room undil der bell rings. Der dinner very soon be reddy."
"Certainly," I returned.
He went out and closed the door. A few seconds later I heard his voice speaking very angrily in German, in the yard I think, also Karl's voice replying even more heatedly in the same tongue. I had never more keenly regretted my early wasted opportunities to acquire the German language. It was silly of me, no doubt, but I had conceived an extraordinary feeling of suspicion and distrust for Myrtle's father and brother. I had an instinctive notion that they did not mean well towards me, and that they were in some way coercing and being cruel to Myrtle. Nevertheless as I made my toilet arrangements, I smiled in my most superior manner, for I thought to myself—"All the better—she will the more intimately appreciate the golden message of release I bring her from this tyrant rule; and she will be the more grateful to the messenger, and think of him more kindly, too."
Afterwards I sat down on the bed, the room had no chair, and gave myself up to pleasant fancies. I rehearsed the fashion of my announcement to Myrtle. Of course, we should be alone. I would not tell my partner of her wonderful new fortune before those cold and grasping kinsmen of hers. She should inform them or not, just as she pleased, and I pictured her surprise, her initial disbelief, the fading of her doubts, and her ensuing delight; then the rapture of her quick questions and my slow deliberate replies. Oh! I should keep her on tenter-hooks of course as long as possible, and only tell her the extent of our windfall by degrees.
At first I should just admit—say a thousand pounds—then gradually allow her to extract further admissions. Indeed it would be a pretty game that I should have with her. I totally forgot the old Arabian Nights tale of the glass merchant and his visions of the future, I'm afraid.
I was recalled to realities by the ringing of the bell. Springing up, I passed into the dining-room—the table was all laid, but only for three. Myrtle and her father were already seated. Mr. Hofer, of course, had the head of the table. I approached in some dubiety.
"Ach!" said the old man. "Sit down here, mein friendt."
"But your son?"
"Ach! mein son, he haf gone away on a leedle message. He will haf his tea elsevere."
I nodded and sat down opposite to Myrtle. Her pallor had departed, but she was still pale and she resolutely avoided my eyes. Mr. Hofer began to carve the cold joint before him. It was a round of corned beef. Beside it was a pumpkin pie. There stood a huge old-fashioned bowl abrim with tea beside each of our plates. The cloth was snowy white. The knives were of dull-edged iron with black buck-horn handles. The forks and spoons were of very ancient brassy nickel. "You vill take some peef," said Mr. Hofer.
"Thank you, sir."
"Und some of der pumkpin pie?"
He flung down a piled-up plate before me. "Vere your handts?" he asked irascibly.
I muttered an apology. I had been looking at Myrtle.
While the old man served himself and her, I addressed the girl.
"Your sister Margaret is away from home, I assume," I said.
She flushed scarlet and glanced quickly at her father.
The old man stopped carving. He gave her a positively murderous scowl and glared at me. "Maybe—you vos in dot plot?" he thundered.
"What plot?" I demanded quietly.
He calmed down at once. "Her plot," he growled. "Myrtle did bring hither her cursed money und did vant mein Margaret to go away mit her instead of to marry mein vellow goundree man—Anderson—beyond."
"Indeed, sir!" I questioned gravely.
He took up his knife again. "Ach! so," he said. "But mein Margaret she vos a goot girl. She did tell me. She did lofe her husband like—like as vos right und proper. She vos marriet alreadty—more than a week ago."
For the first time Myrtle spoke. "It is quite true, Joe. Margaret had not trusted me, she loves her husband. She loves him so well indeed, that when I would have tempted him—with money—to give her up, she went to our father and gave him the confidence she had denied to me."
"Ah!" I said.
The old man uttered a hideous little chuckle.
Myrtle looked at him. She was pallid again now. White to the very lips. "My father has peculiar views of the parental authority and obligation," she said in a low cutting voice. "When he found that I had dared to counter his method of arranging my sister's fate he was moved to exploit them somewhat forcibly at my expense. He——"
"Myrtle," thundered the old man.
The girl smiled in his face. "Joe," she said. "He beat me so severely that I lay writhing in pain for near a fortnight on my bed. Actually the wedding had to be postponed a day or two."
"Mein Gott!" roared the old man. "Say another vord, girl, und I beat you again!"
Myrtle shrugged her shoulders and shot a burning glance at me.
"Before a stranger, father?" she asked coolly.
"A stranger, ach!" Mr. Hofer gave me a look of deadly fury. "Ve not strangers. No, I think—not strangers!"
Then the dreadful old man laughed loud and long.
"I think I soon show you ve not strangers," he added, when he grew composed. "You vait till der passon comes."
Not comprehending, I put him down as next door to, if not quite, a lunatic—I should have preferred to strangle him, but I endeavoured to placate him while administering a warning. "You were evidently trained in a hard school!" I observed. "We Australians regard it as a crime for any man to lay a hand upon a woman. I should say that no Australian worth his salt would permit a woman under any circumstances to be treated harshly even by her father if he could prevent it."
"May be—he not able to prevent it," growled Mr. Hofer.
"In that case he would be crippled—or dead," I said significantly.
Mr. Hofer favoured me with one of his inscrutable smiles. "Let us get on mit our tea," he said.
I bowed; and as Myrtle obediently took up her knife and fork, I followed suit. Really I was very hungry. No one spoke again for many minutes, but I noticed that the girl did not eat. She gave all her food to Rover, who had followed me into the room against orders to remain outside, the naughty dog!
Finally the old man pushed back his chair and stood up. He crossed over to the ingle, took a huge long-stemmed pipe from a niche and struck a match on his boot. The pipe was already charged. He puffed out a big cloud of smoke, and returning to his chair, sat down.
"Clear avay der things," he ordered, speaking to Myrtle as if to a dog.
For a moment I thought the girl might rebel, but his stern regard daunted her. She obeyed. "You not vash up now. You come right back," was his next order, delivered just as she was about to depart with the tea-things on a tray.
Once more she obeyed him.
"Sit down over there, mit him," commanded Mr. Hofer.
For a third time the girl complied, taking a chair next to my own.
"So," said the old tyrant. Then slowly, and with portentous deliberation, he put his right hand into the breast pocket of his smock-like coat and brought it out armed with a heavy Colt's revolver.
"Now ve talk," he said.
"So he is really mad, then." That was my thought. I turned my head and looked at Myrtle. She was staring at her father like a bird fascinated by a snake.
I glanced back again at the old man and met his eyes. But after a moment I resigned my first conclusion. Mr. Hofer's eyes contained nothing of the lunatic. They were calm and purposeful; the eyes of a man implacably set on a certain course of action; the eyes of a fanatic perhaps, but not of a person mentally deranged or imbecile. I admitted, too, a considerable magnetic force in their regard; they wielded that peculiar sort of influence which is always generated by a conviction of right operating in conjunction with a consciousness of strength and a sense of duty. They conveyed to me a disconcerting impression that I was considered of small account as a man and only of importance as a victim; an offender to be judged and punished.
I had immediate occasion to admire my own acumen. The old man said to me: "Mine vrendt, you are a purty scoundrel, you. Hein!"
In deference to his pistol which was pointed with no improbable intention at my breast I bowed my head, and asked as politely as I could for information.
"All men are more or less rascals, Mr. Hofer. Has some sin of mine affected you? If so, it was not premeditatedly, I do assure you."
"You know," he said shortly, and puffed with sudden violence at his pipe. "Und I know, too," he added.
"I beg your pardon," I replied, "I do not know."
"It matters not," he said after a pause. "Ve set him right. Mein son Karl, he haf gone for de passon. He bring him back mit him soon und den ve marry you to Myrtle."
"What?" I shouted and stood up.
Mr. Hofer raised the hammer of his pistol.
"Sit down," he said quietly.
I read death in his eyes along the sights and sank back in my chair appalled.
Mr. Hofer laughed shortly and uncocked his pistol. It was evident that he despised me.
"Sir," I began. But he held up his hand. "Ach! shut up," he said. "You von damned hypocrite. You do justice to mein daughter dis very night or I kill you. Dot is all. Meanwhile I not vant to haf to talk mit you; I joost vatch you till der passon comes. You talk mit Myrtle, if you must speak—nod to me."
I turned to Myrtle. She was pale but perfectly possessed. She even smiled.
"I cannot help it, Joe," she said. "When I saw you this afternoon I warned you to go—but you would not. Why did you come? I should have thought that my letter——"
"Your letter?" I gasped. "I got no letter from you."
Her eyes opened wide. "No letter—but I sent—my father sent Black Jimmy with it to the gorge."
"I never saw him."
"Then why are you here?"
"I came to see you."
Mr. Hofer interposed a word. "Liar!" he said.
I looked across to him and bowed. "Thank you for your opinion, sir."
"Hush, Joe," said Myrtle. "So you did not get my letter?"
"No, what did it contain?"
"A lie. That I was at the point of death. They forced me to write it, but I added words that should have been plain to you." Here she looked across at her father. "I may be candid now, dad, eh? since the letter has gone astray, and nevertheless you have your way."
The old man smiled at her. "You are both liars," he said. "Ach! you are vell matched. I be glad to-morrow to see de last of you."
Myrtle shrugged her shoulders. "And I, with any other price to pay for liberty, to go."
"Marriage?" I questioned sharply.
"Then your father believes——"
Our eyes met, and she crimsoned from brow-to chin. "That you are my lover," she said slowly, "and I your mistress. He sent money with Black Jimmy to pay your fare. It was a trap to trick you here so that matters might be put to rights according to his views. My brother has ridden into Tambo to fetch a minister, the Rev. Mr. Bell, who knows everything and sympathises with us all; even with you. Such a kind man, Joe. He intends to help in the great work of making me an honest woman."
"Myrtle, what has made your father believe this ill of us?"
"Rumour, and his personal experience of human frailty. Also the fact that I was your companion in the gorge. Black Jimmy tracked me there."
"Ah! so we were spied upon."
"But insufficiently. It is curious, Joe, but the fact that Black Jimmy considers me your lubra is the hardest thing of all to bear." She smiled. "To be despised and pitied and helped back to the straight path by a canting psalm-singing Lutheran aboriginal. Can you conceive a deeper degradation? He is one of Mr. Bell's latest converts. He used to be a Roman Catholic. Still there's a strain of humour in the situation that wrings laughter from my lips at times in spite of me. Ha, ha, ha! Joe, how shocked you look!" she added as her laughter ceased.
"I am shocked, girl. More, I am numbed; I can't think, I am horrified. I seem to be groping in a fog. What does it all mean?"
"It means that we are either predestinated mates, that we must marry, or that one of us must die. My father is implacable. If we defy him murder will be done."
"Nod murder," cut in the old man of a sudden. "Der jury vould not hang me. Be sure of dot. Dere vas der case of Mike Williamson at Temora. He did not swing for killing der skunk vot did ruin his daughter Juliet. So."
"But he was sentenced to five years' penal servitude!" said Myrtle.
"Ach!" said the old man. "I nodt vant to do no killing. I nodt vant to go mit der gaol. Hein. Neider do I go. Not much. Sapperment. Vere der need? You beeble vill behafe sensible. Nicht wahr? You not eider of you vant to die no more dan I vant to go mit der prison."
"But if we do not behave sensibly?"
"So mooch der wors for der von dat does so!"
Myrtle gave me a bitter little smile; shrugging her shoulders as she turned. "He is not jesting," she murmured. "He is thoroughly determined to make you marry me."
"There must be a way out, Myrtle."
"There is; but I am not prepared to die. Are you?"
"No," I answered honestly, "I am not."
"Then there is nothing more to say."
"But, Myrtle," I muttered, lowering my voice, "surely the parson will not lend himself to this project. It's monstrous. He would be committing a crime."
The old man heard me. His perceptions seemed to be abnormally acute.
"Ach!" he said. "Der fool I am to forget. Mein vrendt, ven der passon coom you vill tell him you are glad to do der girl joostice, you understand?"
"I hear you, Mr. Hofer. And the penalty?"
"I shoot you vere you stand. Dot is plain enough for you, mein vrendt?"
"Quite," I replied.
Then a long silence fell upon us. The old man smoked stolidly the time away, his keen eyes always watching my slightest movements. Myrtle sat with bent head gazing at her fingers which she laced and unlaced ceaselessly upon her lap. I watched her as closely as her father watched me, wondering at and trying to read her mind. Yet her face told me nothing. It was as set and impassive as a beautiful stone mask, and but for the nervous twisting of her hands I might almost have thought her unconscious or asleep.
Perhaps twenty minutes thus went by—or it might have been half an hour. At length the old man's pipe went out. He stood up and threw it into the fireplace, then with a grunt resumed his chair.
Myrtle spoke suddenly. "Joe," she said. "You'll be wondering why I have remained here all these weeks. By day they watched me always, one of them, by night they locked me in my room. The window of my room is barred up with iron. Once, in spite of all their precautions, I escaped, but I did not go very far."
"Far enough!" growled the old man. "Ten miles if it vos a yard."
"Karl dragged me home, my hands tied to his stirrups," said Myrtle. "Sometimes he made his horse trot."
"I nod tell Karl to do dot," observed Mr. Hofer. "I did belt him ven I knew. All der same it serve you right."
"Myrtle," I muttered, "short of dying I would do anything to avert this marriage. You believe that, don't you?"
"Certainly," she replied. "And I can say the same myself. I am very sorry for you, Joe."
"It's not me——" I began.
"I am thinking of the second she," she interrupted frowning.
"And I, too. But what can I do for her?"
"Nothing, Joe, nothing at all."
"I can try," I said. She looked at me apprehensively. "Joe," she whispered. "For God's sake do nothing rash. He would shoot you down like a dog. He is not joking. It is his religion that is driving him on. It is mixed up with the queerest notions of honour and family pride—almost incredibly queer since he is nothing but a peasant. But for all that it's an old, old stock, and its idol is respectability."
"He is fond of money," I said. "You have told me so yourself."
"Stop dot vispering," snarled the old man on a sudden. "It's no use you plodding dere together. Nodt von bit."
"Sir," I said. "It struck me as I strolled through your farm this afternoon, that you'd do better to extend your acreage and grow sheep instead of wheat. Now I have a proposal to make you. Your daughter and I do not wish to marry, for the truth is—whether you believe it or not—we are nothing but good friends and business partners. We have never been anything else, and we do not wish to be irremediably yoked. I came here this afternoon with one object, to settle up accounts with her. The fact is, after she left me at the gorge yonder, where it appears your black servant saw us, I made a rich discovery of gold. Half of this belongs to her. I have a cheque-book in my pocket. I am prepared to give her £40,000 at once in quittance of her claim on me; and I am ready to give you any further sum in reason you may name in compensation for the temporary discredit I was the innocent means of having brought upon her name and yours at Nandlelong. I may say that that discredit is now entirely removed. I saw Mr. McClellan, the School Inspector, only yesterday at Wakool and he assured me that his department is only too anxious to effect your daughter's honourable reinstation in the service. Surely you must be aware of this?"
The old man eyed me like a sphinx. "Mein vrendt," he said. "You may be a poor man, but you are a clefer von."
"You do not believe me?"
"I can show you my bank-book." Here I made a movement to extract it from my pocket. But in a flash his pistol was cocked and presented to my forehead.
"Button oop your coad, tight," he said. "You haf a leedle pistol dere—hein? Ve see about him. I vos nodt born yesterday. Coom on—button oop your coad."
There was nothing left but to obey; though I protested and begged him to search my pockets for himself—and first, if he pleased, or feared my resistance, to bind my hands behind my back. But he did nothing but chuckle and call me contemptuous names, glorying the while at his own astuteness. I gave over the vain effort to convince him at last in sheer disgust and weariness.
Then Myrtle said, to crown all: "It was a fine effort, Joe. But you are not used to lying, and father is not a simple person—as you see."
She actually seemed to experience a sort of sneaking pride in her father's incredulity. It made me rather bitter, in the circumstances. "You think I was lying," I cried angrily.
"Desperately," she answered smiling; adding in a lower tone: "And as I am aware of your principles, the wasted sacrifice of them speaks volumes for the odious nature of the plight in which you find yourself. Believe me, I grieve for you."
"And yourself?" I asked, gazing into her eyes.
"I find it equally hateful!" she returned. "If I were not—a coward—I would—but there, I am."
"That means to say you consider me a coward?" I demanded.
"Myrtle," I said sadly. "It has come to this between us."
"Yes, Joe; but one consolation is that neither is to blame."
The concentrated bitterness of her tone cut me to the heart. "Can you really wish me to die to save you?" I muttered.
"No more than you would have me die to save you. But do not let us bandy further words. The thing cannot be helped. Let us therefore be philosophers. Let us say, as is the truth, marriage is better than the grave. Let us trust each other as far as we may. There is always the Divorce Court to look forward to. I am sure that neither of us would wish to keep an unwilling mate."
"God forbid," I cried.
"You pair of dam fools!" sneered Mr. Hofer. "Ach! boot I shall be glad to be vell ridt of you."
For the next two hours not one of us uttered a word. I had not the heart to so much as glance at Myrtle again. I stared always at the floor.
But the old man grew thirsty at last. He ordered Myrtle to get him a glass of milk from the chiffonier. She asked me if I would have one. I looked up at her then and saw that she had been crying. Her cheeks were still wet and glistening from the tears. There were dark blue rings around her eyes. I shook my head. There came a lump in my throat that would not let me speak. Presently she sat down again. At that moment I think I would have died for the privilege of kissing the tears from her eyes—if my caresses had been otherwise than hateful to her. As it was, I dared to reach out and take one of her hands in mine.
"Don't fret, dear," I muttered chokingly. "It means at most a three years' nominal partnership. I'll not intrude on you, you ought to know that, and the first moment possible you shall be free again. Can't you trust me?"
She withdrew her hand. "What's the use of pretending," she demanded passionately. "We've been friends—good friends. But now you hate me, and you know it. And I hate you."
"I do not hate you, Myrtle."
"Oh! of course. You are one of those detestably magnanimous creatures who'd forgive their worst enemies for anything. You'd patronise Fate if you could. It's your pose."
"I am not conscious of posing, Myrtle."
"No, that is the worst of it, you are sincere. It puts me so utterly in the wrong that I ought to kneel down and kiss your feet for pardon. But don't expect it."
"It's the thought of you——"
"If you dare to pity me," she cried. "I'll forget to be a coward for the satisfaction of getting even with you in your intolerable magnanimity."
"Dear, you are overwrought."
"Name me so again," she said, shaking with passion, "and I'll——"
"Myrtle!" thundered her father suddenly. "Hold your bad tongue or I make you. It does seem to me as der young man vos not as bad as you vos. I vill say dis for him—he vos behafe like he vos fond of you. As mit you—you vos like von mad thing. I begins to feel ein leedle sorry for der man."
Myrtle answered with a wild peal of laughter. After it had subsided she fell to rocking herself to and fro in her chair. But finally she broke out into a fit of dry sobbing and leaned forward, her head bowed upon her knees like a veritable statue of grief. Soon all was still again; and the hours passed one by one. I occupied my mind with a number of hopes which never came to anything. I hoped, for instance, that the lamp might go out or that our alert old gaoler might doze at his post. But it was in vain. Mr. Hofer seemed made of iron. He never faltered in his steadfast watch; he never moved except to shift his position when time had made it uncomfortable; and his revolver was always in evidence, poised and ready for instant use. When I pretended, as I sometimes did, to sleep, he invariably cocked his pistol—fearing a sudden leap perhaps, the cunning one. Myrtle did really sleep at length, I think. At any rate when the long-expected noise of horses' hoofs sounded without the cottage, she did not move, and her deep measured breathing did not alter. Yet I may have been mistaken, for when Karl Hofer forced the door ajar she was the first to arise and confront him.
"So," she said, "you are returned—and the kind parson?" It would be impossible to reproduce in words the scorn of her tones. But her brother disregarded her completely.
"Is all ready, father?" he demanded. "He is outside. He insists that there must be no show of force."
The old man thought for a moment, frowning heavily. Then his brow cleared. "I know!" he said. "You tell him I am nodt veil; dot I see him afterwards. Meanwhile, I stand here——" He crossed over to the fireplace and standing in the chimney he drew across the opening a coloured muslin screen, whose existence I had not before suspected. He was thus hidden from a casual glance, but he could see and hear perfectly, and his revolver covered me, as surely as ever, from behind the muslin.
"You say von vord to refuse, und I kill you like I vould a dingo," he said menacingly.
Young Hofer observed these dispositions with a cool nod of satisfaction. "I guess that is 'O.K.'," he commented. Then he turned to his sister. "None of your sniffling," he snarled. "And if you insult Mr. Bell again like you did the other day, look out for me, that's all."
"You cur!" said the girl. "Thank God! my time is coming. You won't be able to ill-treat me much longer. This marriage you are forcing on me means that, at any rate."
He pointed at me, his lip drawn back from his teeth in a wolf-like grin. "You must get your husband to avenge you," he said, then swung on his heel and strode out into the dark, laughing loudly. He looked big and strong enough to eat half a dozen comparative whipper-snappers like me, and naturally enough the contemplation of my proportions called up all the brutal arrogance in his nature. I could not help but sigh. There are few things I more admire than form and strength, and my share in these God-like gifts is only niggardly.
Presently he returned, accompanied by a wiry-looking, grey-haired clergyman, who had Highlander writ large on every line of his dour, sour visage.
He favoured me with a curt, contemptuous nod, and then he bowed to Myrtle—but as if on the extremest sufferance of his courtesy. Evidently he disapproved of her to the last degree.
"I have been brought here at much pairsonal inconvenience to do the Lord's work," he solemnly announced. "It is my humble province to join in lawful and godly wedlock a man and a woman who have dared in the wicked pride of their hearts to disobey one of God's holy commandments—and as far as may be to repair——"
But, with a curling lip, young Hofer struck in on his discourse. "Excuse me, Mr. Bell—you're forgetting that the girl's a Papist," he said sharply. "There's no good to be got from slating her. I thought we were agreed on that. She's willing now to do her duty and the fellow (he turned to me) that wronged her is prepared to make her his wife. It only remains to perform the service—and for heaven's sake, sir, cut it short."
The clergyman frowned. "Young man," he retorted. "To pluck a brand from the burning——"
But Hofer clapped a hand to the pastor's mouth and whispered something in his ear. For a moment the old minister looked furious and seemed on the point of raising a most angry protest. But once more young Hofer whispered in his ear, and this time it had the effect of not only charming away his resentment but inspiring a most energetically business-like disposition. "Aweel, laddie, you maun hae yer way," he said, and stepping up to the table he laid thereon his black silk overcoat and hat, and producing a stole from his pocket he drew it across his shoulders. He then took some papers from his pocket and a book and an inkpen; and sat down.
"Your name is Joseph Tolano, I am given to understand?" he said to me.
"It is," I replied.
He began to fill in the details of the certificate from the answers that I returned to his queries. Then he addressed Myrtle on a similar mission. She replied in crisp, cool tones that were utterly destitute of emotion; and she signed her name beneath mine with no symptom of hesitation.
With that the minister stood up and bade us kneel before him. We obeyed and in a few seconds we were solemnly pronounced man and wife. Mr. Bell then handed Myrtle a duplicate certificate. "It is your lines," he said dourly. "Take care of it for the sake of your speerit's welfare and yer mortal reputation since it has made of you by God's grace an honest woman."
There came at that instant a rending sound, and Mr. Hofer, senior, tearing aside the muslin, stepped into the room. "Sapperment!" he growled, "dot vos over." He strode to the table and flung on the cover a roll of notes. His pistol had vanished.
"Dere vos your money, Myrtle," he cried. "Take it! Take it! I nodt keep it, mooch as I vant it. It is yours."
"But—father!" cried Karl. "The fee."
"Ach! true, the fee," said the old man. "Dot certainly moost coom out of it. Dot vos five pounds."
"I promised Mr. Bell an extra two pounds, father."
"Den your promise moost be kept."
Mr. Hofer took seven notes from the roll and handed them to the minister, who made no bones about accepting them.
The old man then turned to his daughter. "Count oop your money, girl, und see if it vos right."
Myrtle took the roll and placed it in her bosom. The old man laughed. "You fool," he said. "You should have counted it. Vell, den, now I am done mit you. You can get you gone. You und your husband."
The girl looked shyly at me. "There is no use saying a word to any one of them, Joe. They have all acted quite honestly according to their lights. For my part I forgive them cheerfully now since I am free."
"Free!" I cried.
"Yes, free." She took off the old signet ring which I had put upon her finger as she spoke, and handed it to me. "Be assured of your freedom, too—by this," she said.
I received it in silence.
"You were so anxious to clear oud a bit ago," observed old Hofer with ponderous sarcasm. "Moost I put der dogs on you?"
"My friend," said the minister reprovingly. "It is not yet daylight. It is not seemly that you should——after all—" he added with a burst of generous feeling, "mon—she is your lassie."
"I get to bed," said the old man, and off he went.
"Father!" said Myrtle. "You will never see me again."
"Und a good job, too," he replied without turning.
"Good-bye, Karl," said Myrtle to her brother.
"Good riddance," snarled the giant.
The clergyman offered the girl his hand and commenced a speech to her, but she passed him with her head held queenly-wise in air, and the darkness in a second had devoured her. In a maze of thought I followed my wife—my wife—how wonderful it seemed, out into the world. Her footsteps sounded faintly in the distance on the track. I turned the corner of the house and saw her flitting dimly like a ghost before me down the path. In a little while I was minded to overtake her. But even when I did so neither of us had a word to say. Soon we came to the slip-rails and passed from her father's holding to the public highway. In silence we took the road to Tambo, and plodded on and on. An hour later the gloom began to lighten, the sky to break. It was then I discovered that my wife had no covering for her head save the thick masses of her lovely golden hair.
I spoke for the first time. "Myrtle, you have no hat."
"They burnt the only two I possessed, and all my clothes save these I wear—weeks ago," she said. "They thought to clip my wings more surely. They were so anxious, you see, Joe, to make me an honest woman."
"Oh! don't," I said. "It hurts."
She put her hand upon my arm. "I forgot," she said softly, almost tenderly. "You have given me your name. While I wear it, Joe, I promise you I'll never say a thing like that again. I'll keep it sacred for you even from the rust of thought until you take it back. I will, I will indeed."
I did not answer. I could not trust myself lest I should betray all that was in my heart. Thus, no doubt, she thought me hard and unresponsive; and presently she took her hand away again. And silently looking straight before us, we plodded on and on.
WE breakfasted at the farm where I had been given a cup of tea the day before. The young woman's hair was still done up in curl papers, but she wore a fresh blouse, and she had given over reading the Family Herald. Indeed she was very busy, for she had to feed the young farmer, her husband (a dull ox-eyed person who did nothing but stare at Myrtle, much to his wife's annoyance) and four farm hands. We all sat down at table together. The farmer and the farm hands ate six eggs apiece, several huge rashers of bacon, and three or four big slices of bread. They drank tea by the quart. Not one of them addressed a syllable to Myrtle or to me; but they occasionally whispered to each other. The curl-papered young woman, however, was more loquacious. As she broke the shell of her first egg she spoke, at me, with a giggling laugh.
"Never thought ter see yer come back with a missus when I see yer yesterday. Quite a Ro-mance."
"Indeed," I said.
"An' she ain't got a 'at," she went on. "Ole man Hofer kicked her out, I 'spect?"
"Well, not exactly 'kicked'," I replied.
The farmer's wife took up a second egg and rapped the top against the edge of the table.
"Bell married yer, didn't he?"
"Yes," said I.
"Can't see the reason meself," said the lady in puzzled tones.
Myrtle's cheeks crimsoned. "I wish you would kindly mind your own business, Susannah!" she said tartly.
The young woman nodded. "I'm able ter," she replied. "All the same I think you're a lucky girl, I do. That's what. It's a wonder yer bloke didn't clear to Kingdom Come. Jerry would have—if I'd been fool enough ter——"
"Oh! I say, Susannah!" cut in Jerry. "Have a bit er common."
"You shut up!" retorted Susannah. "Men's all alike when it comes to takin' a woman down. I wus only reading a story yestidday the very moment Myrtle's bloke hopped in. Lor! it wus strite from the shoulder I can tell yer—a reglar eye-opener."
"Tin-opener," said Jerry, and everyone laughed. It was an excellent bucolic joke.
Susannah began to attack a third egg. "Yer hain't eatin' much, Myrtle, and that's a fac'," she remarked. "Try another egg, do! Don't be frightened of 'em. They're fresh as daisies—an' you jist bein' married too."
"No, thank you," said Myrtle.
"Well," said Susannah, "eggs is amorous, as the sayin' goes, but perhaps you've got enough on stock already. Wot yer goin' to do, Myrtle? Settle down in these parts?"
"My. Talk about luck!" Susannah's eyes threatened to leave her head. "Jerry's promised me a trip there," she jerked out presently. "But Lord only knows when that'll be. My word, I do think you're lucky. You must a' killed a Chinaman!"
I glanced at Jerry. He was almost purple with shame and confusion. The farm hands were all giggling.
Myrtle stood up. "I wonder could you let me have a linen sun-bonnet or something else for my head, Susannah? I'd pay for it."
"Er course," replied Susannah. "You can have the blue with the white dots. It'll suit yer hair. I thought of it ther minit I see yer." She stood up too. "Lor!" she cried. "Yer do looked washed-out, Myrtle. Yer not goin' to be ill, are yer?" They went out of the room together. The farm hands immediately arose and bolted through the back door. Jerry gave me a furtive look of intense curiosity, then made as if to follow them. But I caught his arm. "I'll pay for the breakfast," I said.
"You're a blanky liar," he replied, shook off my hand and fled. But a second later he reappeared, just sticking his nose round the corner of the lintel. "Yer can stay a month if yer want ter," he said, and disappeared.
Presently Myrtle came out wearing an immense pale blue muslin hood. It made her look perfectly adorable. Susannah was behind her. "I call it real mean of yous to clear out so soon," she said to me. "You might stop over dinner, anyway."
"We must catch the midday train," I explained.
"Susannah will take nothing for the hood, Joe," said Myrtle. "I wish you'd try to persuade her. It was part of her trousseau."
"Shut up!" cried Susannah. "'Sif I can't make yer a weddin' present. It's real silk muslin and real lace, too, round ther edges; Vallenceans!" she added with tremendous pride. "So I ain't ashamed er givin' it to yer. But say, afore yer go—how about ther gontz. It was real silly er yous wantin' ter pay me fer the hood. Why me and Jerry owns this 'ere farm. Speak out strite if yer wants anythin'. Now's yer chance. I can let yer have a quid or two if yer wants it. Might come in handy yer know in a bit, even if yer don't want it fer present needs."
"Susannah," said Myrtle, her lips all atremble, "I always knew you were a dear kind girl. That's why I can't bear you to think badly of me."
I left them together then and took to the road again with Rover. We had a long talk together. Half an hour later Myrtle caught us up. She had evidently been weeping. "I could not make her believe," she said. She was quite heart-broken.
We went straight to the railway station. I bought two first-class tickets to Sydney, and then we sat down in the waiting-room. We had more than an hour to kill before the arrival of the train. I spent it in making plans. I resolved not to speak any further just then to Myrtle of the fortune in my possession. It was absurd I suppose, but her assumption that I had lied on the matter to her father on the previous night had deeply wounded and offended me. I determined, therefore, to force her confidence with the eloquence of deeds. I built all sorts of castles in Spain, and became oblivious of my surroundings. Myrtle awoke me by touching my arm. I found that the whole female population of the township had us under observation. Faces peeped at us everywhere. Myrtle was furious. "Oh! the shame of it," she muttered.
I arose and stalked to the door. There was a shuffle and a rush. A number of children scuttled off like rabbits. The women stood their ground, but turned their backs to me. I swung round and stalked to the other door. It was the same there. When I turned again the first door was once more dark with faces.
Myrtle sprang to her feet and swept out to the platform. I placed her hand beneath my arm and we began to walk up and down. Happily in a very few minutes the train rattled up to the station. I gave Rover to the guard, whom he followed meekly at command, and we got into an empty compartment. Next moment we were off. But before the train could draw out there came a rush of shouting figures along the platform, and we were deluged with rice thrown at us through the open windows.
"And father imagined that nobody knew of the stigma he had put upon me!" said Myrtle in a tragic voice. "God help me! the whole district believes with him."
"Weigh their opinion against the truth and what is the value of it?" I returned. "Come, mate, be sensible! Besides you need never visit this part of the world again. From this day——"
"My wedding day," she commented mordantly.
I bit my lip. "From this day," I went on doggedly, "you commence an entirely new life, and it will be your own fault if it is not a reasonably happy one. You are young, a future full of promise is before you. You have enough money for all immediate requirements, and the time will soon flit by till you are free in the fullest sense of the expression."
"And you, too," she said with a sharply indrawn breath. There was a look in her eyes that daunted and almost frightened me. I dared not so much as guess at its meaning.
"You needn't bother your head about me," I stammered. "Believe me, I am not worrying."
"Your nature is a patient one, a hatefully patient one. To wait is your philosophy."
"Also to act, Myrtle. Come, come, why not let us still be friends?"
"To what end?"
"To any end you please. You did not always find my companionship a burden."
"But then we were——" she paused.
"Not married, you would say," I murmured. "But am I all to blame for that? I would have saved you the indignity had I been able."
"I know. You need not harp on that string."
"That is right. Reproach me."
"You are a little unjust, don't you think?"
"Probably. So are you. Besides, you are not honest. I am an incubus; and you keep pretending you don't mind. I'd prefer you not to sugar things over with hypocrisy. I make no secret of hating you. Why can't you be honest, too?"
"Very well, then," I answered wearily. "Since you wish it, I'll say I hate you. It's a lie, but you have lost, it seems, the faculty of distinguishing—and I want us to agree on something."
"I don't want to agree with you on anything," she retorted fiercely. "Why did you take tickets to Sydney?"
"I thought you might prefer to proceed there immediately as a first step, and a necessary one, to going still further from the New England."
"To Melbourne, perhaps—or Adelaide."
"I hate big towns."
"Have you ever been to Victoria?" I asked.
"No; what are you thinking of?"
"A plan just came into my head. Listen! I know a place about fifty miles from Melbourne. It is called Macedon. It is perched on the top of a lofty mountain, a mountain more than three thousand feet high. A friend of mine has a house there—a quaint little villa set in a lovely Italian garden with a high wall around it and a lake in the enclosure. It commands a magnificent view of hill and dale and plain—with Melbourne on the sky line in the remotest distance. It is not exactly 'bush,' but it is right in the wilds—and 'country' beyond question. Now my friend seldom if ever uses this place. What if he were to place it at your disposal?"
"Joe!" she exclaimed. "How lovely it would be—but would he really?"
"Truly," I responded. "But listen still. The house is exquisitely furnished and it has a splendid library, a piano, and an organ. So much for indoors. Without, there are the gardens, the orchard, the strawberry beds; the dairying to look after—they make their own butter——"
"Who?" she flashed.
"The caretakers. Then there are horses in the stables. You could go for long rides over the hills through the bush. Indeed, Myrtle, I think you could quite easily be happy there for ever. At any rate you could stay for a month or two while you matured your plans for the future. It is certain that you need a good long rest. You look quite worn-out—dear."
"Dear!" said Myrtle.
"Pray forgive me, the word slipped out. I'll try not to offend again."
She shrugged her shoulders. "But to live there would be a costly thing. I must be careful of my money. I must make it last until I get some work to do."
"You would not need to spend a shilling. You would be the owner's guest."
"Oh! but that is impossible. How could I? A perfect stranger."
"You forget that he and I are not strangers—and also that you are—in name—my wife."
"Is he a very old friend, Joe?"
"My oldest. Well, what do you say?"
She looked out of the windows for some moments at the fleeting landscape, evidently, however, too deep in thought to really note a single object that we passed.
Finally she spoke on a vastly different topic. "You will divorce me for desertion, I suppose," she said.
"Would it not be better for you to divorce me?" I enquired.
She ignored the question. "What do you intend to do?" she demanded.
I smiled. She could not see me. "I thought of trying my hand, for a change, at some commercial occupation," I replied. "There is money to be made in landed investments in the city, I believe. My knowledge of the country would be useful to me there, advising an investor on the value of estates and so on."
"Enough to live upon?"
Her brows puckered. "I don't think I'll go all the way to Sydney, Joe. I never liked the place, and I should be horribly lonely there. I would not know a soul."
"What about Macedon?"
"It would be pleasant there for a time, perhaps. But it would complicate matters. There is the divorce to think about. The sooner we part the better."
"Very well," I answered coolly. "You are your own mistress and must please yourself. There only remains to discuss who is to be the deserter."
"Surely the man——" she began, opening her eyes very wide.
I bowed. "I think you are right, Myrtle. You can then bring the divorce against me."
"No, no, you must do that. I could not. It would be too horrible."
"Oh! you needn't fear, I shan't defend it."
"But, Myrtle, it should, for your sake, be the other way about, so that you might be in the position of the divorcer rather than the divorced. It's a fine distinction in our case, no doubt, but it might conceivably affect your future—in marrying again, I mean."
"I have no intention of marrying again."
"Not now—but some day you are bound to fulfil your destiny, my girl, some day you will meet a man whose love you will reciprocate."
"And if I do? Don't you suppose I would tell him everything?"
"Naturally; but there is opinion to consider—not his, nor yours, not mine, but other people's; the world's. For his sake you should take all possible care that it should be placated handsomely by obviating now all possible objections afterwards. A divorced woman has a certain solid ground to stand on when the legal separation arose from her complaint. And that should be your position."
Her lip curled in a sneer, but she made no reply.
"I would give something to know your thoughts," I murmured presently.
She turned and looked out of the window. "I was thinking what a considerate chivalrous husband you will one day make your second she," she said.
"I'm afraid I shall never have a chance, mate."
She turned to me in a flash. "Why?"
"She cares for me as little as you do."
"Ah!" her slender nostrils dilated. "But I thought she loved you?"
"That is a mistake I never committed, Myrtle?"
"Are you sure?"
"Quite. Besides, she is a married woman."
"Joe!" she cried. "You are not telling me the truth!"
"Indeed, but I am."
"Then it is impossible for you to marry her?"
"Even if you became rich?"
"Oh!" she cried. "Oh!" and she muttered something under her breath.
"Reverting to the divorce," I observed. "I am decidedly of opinion that I should be the deserter."
"And I the divorcer?" she asked.
She nodded. "Very well, then. And now for the desertion. When and where shall it take place?"
"I am entirely in your hands, mate. At the next station—if you choose."
"But surely it is for you to say?"
"For your sake it should be the first moment possible. At the next station, then."
She bit her lip. "You are in rather a hurry, it appears to me."
"Not at all. I should prefer to wait until we arrived at Sydney, for there are matters of business which sooner or later I must discuss with you. But at the same time I have to admit that in your interests the sooner I formally desert you the better, for the sooner you will be able to obtain your divorce!"
"My divorce!" she exclaimed indignantly. "I like that; you are just as anxious to be free as I am."
"Are you not?"
"Myrtle, you are bent on quarrelling with me. Is there any real need? Surely matters are bad enough between us without that."
At that instant the train whistled. We were approaching a station. Myrtle turned a little pale, I thought; but she stared resolutely out of the window. Presently the train drew up at a platform.
"Five minutes here for refreshments," shouted the guard.
I stood up, opened the door and stepped out of the car.
"You are going from me now?" said Myrtle.
I slammed the door and our eyes met through the window. "'He gives twice who gives quickly,'" I quoted. "Best now, Myrtle."
I had not been mistaken; she was really pale. She looked most dreadfully sad and weary; yet her eyes had never been more luminous.
"Where are you going?" she whispered.
"To Sydney still, of course; but to-morrow, and in another train. And you?"
"If you leave me," she said half in under-breath, "I'll throw myself into the first river we come to. Am I old—ugly—hideous? Oh! it is unbearable. My God! how I hate you."
I opened the door again and returned to my seat. Plainly she was utterly unstrung, on the verge of real illness, perhaps. She crossed to the opposite window and stared out of it, tapping her foot upon the floor. Presently the train started. I leaned back against the cushions and gazed at her, full of wonder and pity. In a little while she turned her head. Our eyes met and she smiled.
"What must you think of me?" she cried.
"That you are overwrought, my poor girl. It's manifest. I wish you would lie down and try to sleep."
"Not yet. I am so frightfully uncertain what to do. I could not rest until I have made up my mind. I wish you would advise me."
"I could not give you disinterested counsel, Myrtle."
"No, of course not. You can think of nothing but the divorce. But will a day or two matter so very much?"
"Nothing to me."
"As ever, hypocritically magnanimous. Oh! was there ever such a man?"
"That is right," she said contemptuously. "Sigh."
"I cannot please you, try how I will."
She shrugged her shoulders; then she tore off her bonnet and began to arrange her hair before the mirrored panel at the back of the car.
"I look positively a hag," she announced next instant. "Don't I?"
I tore my eyes away and looked determinedly out of the window.
"Answer me!" she said.
I was silent.
"A hag," she repeated. "I am just yellow."
I pretended not to hear.
"Yes, yellow as a guinea, Joe."
I paid no heed.
"Joe!" she cried commandingly.
I was forced, despite my will, to turn. Her glorious hair was down. It fell over her shoulders all around her in a tumbled golden shower.
"It's my wedding day," she said; then she burst out laughing and sobbing ungovernedly. It had come then at length. The last atom of her strength was gone. But it was not hysteria. It was a sheer nervous and physical breakdown. I picked her up in my arms and laid her at full length on the seat. Then I kneeled beside her and pillowed her head in my arms while she cried herself to sleep.
At the next station I got out and engaged the compartment against all fear of interruption; and I bought a cushion for her head and a rug to spread over her feet. She slept all that night like a tired child. She did not wake indeed until we had reached our destination—the metropolis. Then she seemed curiously altered and strangely dazed. She did not appear able to understand where she was, or to comprehend in the least her situation. She was utterly dependent and timid and fearful. She obeyed me unhesitatingly in everything I suggested for her to do. She bound up her hair, and put on her bonnet without a word. Then she followed me from the station; clinging in a sort of terror to my arm. I led her to a cab and giving the driver the direction of a quiet old family hotel I stepped in beside her. Rover followed like any human being and lay on the mat at Myrtle's feet. I was deeply concerned. I made sure that Myrtle was going to be very ill; I half feared she was delirious already. But this fear proved a fallacy. When we arrived at the hotel she was more herself. She would not quit my arm, however, and I was obliged to lead her upstairs to the rooms that I engaged for her. I ordered the servant to bring her some breakfast immediately. At that for the first time she pulled herself together. She let go my arm and looked about her, like a little child awaking from a sleep. We were of course in the drawing-room. As the door closed on the departing maid, she shook her head and her brows puckered together.
"Wherever are we, Joe?" she asked.
"At Sydney, Myrtle; at Petty's Hotel. These are your apartments. This is your sitting-room; yonder is your bedroom."
She was evidently deeply puzzled. "But, Joe, Petty's is a big hotel, and so expensive. How can we afford——" then she stopped abruptly, her whole face crimson. "I mean—I have to be careful—I haven't much money," she faltered painfully.
I looked into her eyes. "Until—the—desertion, I am responsible," I said quietly. "No, Myrtle, I forbid you to protest. There can be no shame in your accepting this from me—and much else, too, besides. You are not well. You must rest and restore yourself. When you are quite recovered we can square accounts, if you insist. It will then be found that I am still your debtor from our partnership. In good truth, I did find some gold after you left the gorge. A half share of that belongs to you."
"But I dissolved the partnership."
"It takes two to make a bargain and also two to end a bargain," I replied. "Now, do oblige me, Myrtle, and for once submit to my wishes. You might pay me the compliment to believe that I would not wilfully place you in a false position."
She sat down. "Really," she said. "I do not feel altogether well. I must have slept a long while, and yet I still feel dreadfully tired. I'll do whatever you tell me, Joe."
"Thank you, Myrtle. I am sincerely grateful. Well, first of all I want you to eat your breakfast when the servant brings it, also drink a glass of wine that I shall have sent up to you. Then, my dear girl, go straight to bed and try to rest. Later on I'll have a doctor visit you."
She bent her head. "Very well, Joe."
"Meanwhile I must go and attend to some business."
"But you'll return?"
"I'll not be far from your side for one moment that I can help, until I know that you are quite yourself again."
Her lip quivered and her eyes filled with tears. "You are a good fellow, Joe," she whispered.
"A good fellow." The phrase was wonderfully illuminant of her mental attitude to me. If I had ever hoped for something more intimate and less detached what a douche it would have poured upon my aspirations. But even as it was it set my teeth on edge.
I watched her for a minute; then Rover, perhaps because he saw that she was unhappy, crept up and put his paws upon her knee and licked her hand. She put her arm round his neck and bowed her face upon the dear old doggie's head. I stole out softly, leaving them together.
I WAITED outside her door until the maid appeared with the breakfast on a tray. A keen glance at the girl prepossessed me in her favour. She was a plain-featured but kindly-looking creature, and neither frivolous nor over-serious.
I stopped her with a sign and asked her name "Jane," she said.
"Well, Jane, I want you to look specially after Mrs. Tolano to-day. I am going now to see the manager about it, and if you agree I shall get him to relieve you of other duties for the present. You'll not lose by the arrangement. Here, for instance, is a five-pound note. What do you say?"
Jane was too surprised to speak for several seconds, but at length she blurted out an enthusiastic acceptance of the proposition. She would not leave Mrs. Tolano's side she said, not for a blessed second.
"Ah!" I protested smiling. "But you must, Jane. You see, Mrs. Tolano and I came to Sydney on such short notice that we brought no luggage with us, not even a handbag. I shall soon remedy the lack, but in the meanwhile my wife must go immediately to bed, as she is ill, and worn out from the journey. Now, if you could supply her with the necessary apparel I am sure she would be most grateful."
"This blessed instant," cried Jane, and thrusting the tray into my hands she fled down the passage.
I put the tray on a table. I could not face Myrtle again just then, and went downstairs to see the manager. I found him a very civil fellow indeed. He immediately agreed to place Jane's services at Myrtle's disposal; and when I had explained the wardrobe difficulty he introduced me to his wife. This lady suspected an elopement, but that only made her the more willing to assist me. She promised to devote the whole morning to shopping for Myrtle's benefit and she engaged before evening to procure a complete trousseau for the bride. Of course she wanted to pre-discuss the matter with Myrtle, but this I obviated by saying that I wished the outfit to come as a pleasant surprise to Mrs. Tolano and as an incentive to her recovery. It is astonishing to a bachelor how costly women's clothes can be. The manager's wife asked me did I wish the best of everything. Naturally I said, "Of course, the best." Then she demanded £150. I was hard put to it not to whistle.
Afterwards I procured the manager to send for one of the leading physicians in the city to come and examine and prescribe for Myrtle. Then I went to the head office of the bank and arranged for the transference of my account from the Wakool office. I spent the rest of the morning attending to my own sartorial needs, and I returned to the hotel for lunch, no longer, in outward guise at least, as a bushman.
Jane answered my soft tap on Myrtle's sitting-room door. She said that the doctor had called, and that he had given the patient a sleeping draught. "He said there's nothing really wrong with her but nerves," added Jane. "Her brain is excited and she wants a big long rest. She's sleeping now just like a baby, and that there dog of yours is lying at the door and he won't let a soul go near it."
I am ashamed to confess it, but the fact is I was mean enough to be disappointed. Of course I did not want Myrtle to be really ill, but her recovery meant the reassertion of her independence and our separation, and I had entertained a sneaking hope that these evils might be postponed for a few days perhaps.
After lunch I became the victim of a singularly base resolve. I did not even try to counter it. As soon as it came to me I cravenly succumbed. I said to myself "Joe Tolano, she's a woman, and you're a man. That means you are both subject to the ordinary laws of human nature. Now she is not in love with any other man—she is lonely and none too well, despite the doctor's pronouncement. Here, then, is your chance afforded you by Providence to persuade her to look on you with tolerance and gratitude—may be with some affection. Are you going to let it pass?"
I answered the question by hailing a cab and driving to the leading jeweller's establishment in the city. There, for a matter of £500, I purchased a small but handsome sapphire and diamond necklace, three chaste little stone brooches, four plain gold bangles, and two extremely beautiful diamond rings.
I ordered these to be enclosed in a morocco leather jewel case, together with a card which I inscribed—"Mrs. Joe Tolano; a wedding present from a friend," and to be sent forthwith to the hotel.
Time threatened afterwards to hang upon my hands. But luckily I thought of my brother and went to call on him.
As usual, he was overwhelmed with affairs. His legal practice was as big and as strenuous as ever. I had to wait a full hour for an interview. When at length I was admitted to his presence it was to find him still busy, and hard at work dictating to a stenographer. He offered me his hand, but kept on dictating without a pause. This is what he said: "With regard to Jimmycumbalin station I regret to inform you that Mr. Strangway considers the price asked (£38,000) excessive, even though it be as well stocked as you describe. He will not spring more than £30,000——"
At that point I impulsively interrupted. "George," I cried. "Is Jimmycumbalin really in the market?" I ought to explain that the station named was well known to me. It was not a large one, but it was nevertheless one of the best watered and most composite properties in the Riverina. Moreover, it contained as large a proportion of first-rate agricultural as of grazing land.
My brother looked up with an expression of acute annoyance. "It is, Joe," he replied. "But permit me to continue. I shall be at your service in a minute."
But in one second I had come to a decision. I had entered George's room at a psychological moment and I was sufficient of a fatalist to let the circumstance weigh heavily with me. I remembered having ridden across Jimmycumbalin five years earlier and to have thought while my eyes roved over the great natural riches and beauties of the estate that a man of my disposition might search the world in vain for greater happiness than could be found in the ownership and energetic exploitation of such a charming station.
"One minute, George," I replied. "It's business. I know Jimmycumbalin, and I know it is worth more than Mr. Strangway—whoever he may be—has offered. You are at liberty, if you please, to tell your client that I will give him £35,000 cash down on the nail for it, provided only that the stock is adequate and will stand inspection."
"You!" cried George, his mouth agape.
George mastered his amazement and turned to his stenographer. "Kindly add," he directed, "that I have another cash buyer for £35,000 subject to an appraisement of the stock. You may go, Charles." Charles departed.
George surveyed me from head to heel. "What have you done?" he demanded. "Written a sensational novel, robbed a bank, or married an heiress?"
"I have made a haul, mining," I answered, wincing slightly. "How is Elizabeth?"
"Bess is very well, I thank you. Let me see, it is five years since you and I last foregathered. Since then the Tolanos have multiplied. Bess has presented me with two more olive-branches. Had you heard?"
"No. Are my congratulations too late?"
"By no means, Joe. You will come out to see us, of course. Where are you staying?"
"You are still a bachelor. That goes without saying."
"I was married yesterday morning."
"What!" he fairly shouted. "You married."
"Nothing, old chap. But, my word! Bess will be glad. So am I, more pleased than I can say. Say, Joe, what is she like? Eh! but this is just astounding. Joe a Benedict! Who is she, Joe? Pretty? Dark or fair? When can we see her? Bess will call at once. So shall I—busy as I am—this minute if you'll let me."
I set my teeth. "She is not well, George, at the moment, so I must perforce ask you not to bother just yet. I'll let you know later."
Our eyes met. "Hang it, man!" said George, "you are not happy. What is it? It's her fault. I'll swear."
"No," I answered. "It's neither hers nor mine. She's a woman in ten million, as beautiful of face and form and as sweet a soul as Bess—I could give no woman higher praise."
"By God! you could not," he responded heartily and springing up he put his arm about my shoulder. "Dear old boy," his voice fairly broke. "You must tell me everything."
I did. When it was over he began to pace the room. Twice his clerks entered with importunate messages. He drove them out with imprecations. I had never known the man more deeply moved.
Finally he swung round, stopped before me, and seizing my hand wrung it hard.
"Joe," he said. "You've got an ill row to hoe, a regular cross-patch. But I'll give you no advice unless you pass your word to take it blindly. This much I'll for my part engage. If it comes off as I hope—I'll not say expect—you'll be as fortunate a man as I—if not, I promise to break the bonds now binding you within six months from date—three years be hanged. There's no necessity to wait so long."
"Six months," I cried. "But how?"
"There's such a thing as a divorce on a disobeyed decree for restitution of conjugal rights."
"Ah! I see; and your advice."
"First your promise."
"You have it."
He led me to the door, opened it and pressed me out, patting me vigorously on the back.
"Tell her you love her, man," he muttered. "Tell her at once! This very night."
I strolled into the Botanic Gardens and spent there many hours planning a method to redeem my word. But I could not discover one that would not shame me in her eyes while under my protection. I dined in town at a restaurant, and about nine o'clock I walked to the hotel, feeling most acutely that my stupid promise had tied me a predestined martyr to the stake of Myrtle's scorn.
Climbing the stairs I tapped softly at the door of her sitting-room, expecting of course that Jane would attend the summons.
But Myrtle's voice bade me enter. She was alone, reclining on the couch, attired in an exquisitely pretty dressing-robe of soft white silk and creamy laces. She had not disdained the clothes that I had offered her, then, it appeared. But what of the jewellery? The box lay open on the table, disclosing its gleaming treasures. Myrtle herself, with averted face, was gazing at the card.
I felt suffocated. My heart was beating like a hammer on my ribs. My hands shook. I crossed the room and held myself steady with the back of a chair. Then I ate her with my eyes. Her hair was coiled in loose fluffy masses round her head and low down upon her neck. Her face was pale, and very still. She was so unearthly beautiful that she terrified me. Had my life been in the scale for a single word, I doubt if I could have uttered it just then.
After a long and all too painful interval, she spoke, reading the card aloud:
"Mrs. Joe Tolano, a wedding present from a friend." Then she raised her lids and looked at me.
"From you, Joe?" she said. "I have no other friend who would do this—although I am puzzled to guess at how you could. First, there is the money—there is a fortune in that case. And second and last, and more than all, I cannot comprehend how you could have the heart to mock me so?"
"It was true—what I told your father," I muttered huskily. "After you left I found a rich reef in the gorge. Your share of it is forty thousand pounds. That explains the money. For the rest, I meant no mockery. Surely a man may offer a wedding present to his wife——"
"Yes," she answered, "to his wife." Her eyes were ablaze with scorn. "But I am not your wife, and I despise you for the offering. My first impulse was to throw it out into the street."
"And your second thought?"
"To tell you what is in my mind in returning it to you."
"And that, Myrtle."
"That it was sufficiently detestable of you to provide me with clothes. They are all, save those I wear, in the next room. These I shall pay you for, the others shall remain in my room when I leave the hotel to-morrow morning. The memory of real kindnesses in the past between us alone prevented me from refusing to allow the trunks admission. It would have been to fasten on you a public insult——"
"It would not have mattered," I contrived to say. "But go on, Myrtle."
She answered with a question. "Why did you do it?"
I shook my head. I was incapable of speech.
"Did you think to yourself?" she asked in low, chill cutting tones, "that since after all we are really married, you and I, that we might as well make the best of it?"
"No," she went on remorselessly. "Nor that it was just possible for you to put up with me, and to buy my acquiescence to a state of licensed—what shall I call it?—prostitution? You know, Joe, that loveless marriages mean nothing else?"
Truly my punishment was bitter, even more bitter, maybe, than I really merited by my offence.
"Be honest with me, if you can," she said. "You will never have another chance, Joe, for, as God hears me, once you quit this room we shall never meet again if I can help it."
The chair broke with a little crash in my hands. I looked down at the piece I held and tried to think coherently.
"It's useless trying to explain," I said at last. "You are perhaps partially right; but only partially. I did not mean to buy you; though maybe I did hope to soften your hate of me. But let it pass. It does not matter now. I spent some time this afternoon with my brother. He is a lawyer. He tells me that we can be freed in six months. It only needs for me to bring a suit against you under the marriage law for restitution of conjugal rights. This will prove to the world that you have never been my wife except in name—an advantage to you of inestimable value later on, and then we can procure a divorce decree almost forthwith."
"Oh!" she said.
I threw down the broken piece of chair I had been fumbling with and went to the table. It was set with ink and pens. I took out my cheque-book and began to write.
"Joe," said Myrtle. "What are you doing?"
"I am writing you a cheque for your share of the gold."
"I will not take it."
"You must; it is yours."
"I shall destroy it—you cannot coerce me."
"If you destroy it, I'll be merely put to the trouble of purchasing land in your name. When that is done only yourself will be able to use it or deal with it."
"I won't touch it."
"Your second husband, it is to be hoped, will not be so foolish as to permit possessions absolutely your own to be wasted on a stupid point of pride." I completed the cheque and stood up. "I should prefer, however, that you accept this cheque and give me, at your convenience, a quittance of my trust."
"Come, Myrtle, be sensible. This means to you competence, comfort, and moderate wealth indeed. And it is your property in every sense of the term; just as certainly yours as my equal share is mine, and that both your share and mine are the direct fruits and outcome of your extraordinary geological deductions. It is mere nonsense to imagine yourself in the smallest degree beholden to me in receiving it."
"I will not take it," she answered stubbornly. "You worked for it. I'll have nothing that is owed in any sense to you. Besides, I dissolved our partnership before I left the gorge. It is useless your protesting. I'll die, but I'll have my way. And understand too, I'll pay for what I have had in this hotel. I'll leave the money for that and for my clothes upon my dressing-table."
I placed the cheque upon the table. "In that case you'll be acting with extravagant generosity to the servants and the management. I have paid already for everything, including the clothes."
"Or you?" she queried acidly. "I deny your right to act for me in anything. Remember that."
I bowed. "I don't contest it, Myrtle. There only remains to say good-bye."
"You will kindly take your jewels with you," she commanded.
I closed the box and took it up. In the act I remembered my promise to my brother. I stepped over to the couch. "Before I go—one last few words," I said.
"It is to tell you something you already know, perhaps—that I love you, Myrtle."
Her lips parted in a contemptuous smile. Her eyes grew steely. "What! a third she?" she enquired.
"You are the second, Myrtle. There never was another. But indeed I thought you would have guessed. Sometimes you nearly did. Sometimes I thought you knew."
Very slowly she arose, always facing me. "You told me in the train that she was married," she declared.
"Is she not?" I asked.
"You said she did not care for you."
"She hates me, Myrtle."
"Oh! Joe—you fool—you lie!" she cried; and threw herself sobbing wildly on my breast.
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