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CHAPTER I.—MAKING UP HIS MIND.
CHAPTER II.—MRS. LANGDON AS FATE.
CHAPTER III.—POTTING ON THE CHAIN.
CHAPTER IV.—THE WAY OF MARRIAGE.
CHAPTER V.—A LITTLE INTERLUDE.
CHAPTER VI.—MRS. RUTHVEN STANDS ON HER RIGHTS.
CHAPTER VII.—COMMISSIONER THOMAS NICHOLSON SETTLES UP HIS AFFAIRS.
CHAPTER VIII.—COMMISSIONER JOCELYN RUTHVEN MAKES THE BEST OF IT.
CHAPTER IX.—MISS WINIFRED LANGDON.
CHAPTER X.—COMMISSIONER RUTHVEN BEGINS A NEW LIFE.
CHAPTER XI.—COMMISSIONER JOCELYN RUTHVEN SPENDS AN EVENING AT KAROUDA.
CHAPTER XII.—THE RIOT AT THE PACKHORSE.
CHAPTER XIII.—COMMISSIONER RUTHVEN PUTS DOWN THE RIOT WITH A HIGH HAND.
CHAPTER XIV.—MRS. LANGDON SIGNIFIES HER DISPLEASURE.
CHAPTER XV.—WINIFRED LANGDON SPENDS A PLEASANT AFTERNOON, AND COMMISSIONER RUTHVEN RECEIVES A THREATENING LETTER.
CHAPTER XVI.—THE GROWTH OF LOVE.
CHAPTER XVII.—WINIFRED LANGDON AWAKENS TO THE SITUATION.
CHAPTER XVIII.—COMMISSIONER RUTHVEN COMES TO THE SAME CONCLUSION.
CHAPTER XIX.—THEIR LAST EVENING
CHAPTER XX.—WINIFRED LANGDON GOES FOR A WALK.
CHAPTER XXI.—HARRY SELBY SEIZES HIS OPPORTUNITY.
CHAPTER XXII.—BITTER REFLECTIONS.
CHAPTER XXIII.—WINIFRED LANGDON'S DILEMMA.
CHAPTER XXIV.—HER VERY BEST.
CHAPTER XXV.—CAUGHT IN THE TOILS.
CHAPTER XXVI.—THE BITTERNESS OF DEATH.
CHAPTER XXVII.—HARRY SELBY'S DOMESTIC ARRANGEMENTS.
CHAPTER XXVIII.—THE SEARCH IN THE WHIPSTICK GULLY.
CHAPTER XXIX.—THE END.
'Pleasant the snaffle of courtship, improving the manners and carriage;
But the colt who is wise will abstain from the terrible thorn-bit of marriage.'
'WELL, I've warned you. If you like to make a fool of yourself——'
'You'll only repent it once, and that'll be always.'
Jocelyn Ruthven tapped his hand impatiently and irresolutely on the table. If only Mrs. Langdon would have left the room, it would have been so much easier to discuss matters. But no, she sat there sewing quietly, her fair face expressing little but a slight contempt, whether for his weakness or her husband's morality he could not say. Both probably. Emma Langdon had opinions of her own, very strong opinions; she was not swayed by her husband in the very least degree, that he knew quite well. There was a big heap of white work on her lap, and as he watched her needle drawn slowly through it, he knew instinctively that she was condemning him, and for Emma Langdon's approval he would have almost given his life. But she asked more than his life, and condemned him even then. He would only be righting a wrong, only doing his duty, and she would be the last woman in the world to praise him for that. If only he had known her before—if only he had, what a difference it would have made to his life! She judged him harshly, this good, pure woman, who had never known temptation; she righted wrongs with a cruel hand, but she would right them, and that was more than he or Ben Langdon, if left to themselves, would do. Ben was for letting the past take care of itself, while his wife—— Ah, she had a higher standard than either of them. But to do what she said was right.
He looked out of the long French window gloomily. It was July—mid-winter—and a dense white fog wrapped the hills that rose up all round them, shutting them in on every side. Through it he saw dimly the outlines of the tall gum-trees and the wattles, with just here and there a faint suspicion of golden-yellow breaking the gloom. It was mid-winter, but the spring was close at hand; another fortnight, and the wattles would be all in bloom, and the country would be singing to the returning spring—rejoicing—and how could he ever rejoice again if he did this thing and ruined his life, and how could he not do it when the woman he held highest in the world would never so much as look at him again if he did not?
He walked uneasily across the room, and leaned his hot forehead against the cold glass, and then he walked back again. What a peaceful, comfortable home this was! How cosy the room! How bright the firelight! The furniture was not much, of course. What could one expect in a squatter's home in the mountains? But it was so comfortable—a lady's room, a lady's home, so neat, so cosy, so dainty!—never, never, never could he hope for a home like this.
'Come, old man'—Ben Langdon's kindly hand was on his shoulder—'don't make an ass of yourself, and don't let the thing worry you. The old woman there'—his wife flashed a look of unutterable scorn at him out of her bright blue eyes, and he laughed, and repeated the opprobrious epithet—'she don't understand what she's saying. Bless you, it's the way with women. You'll know when you come to my own age. "You do this thing because it's right, and never mind the consequences." Bless you, it sounds very pretty, but when the consequences come along—well, the woman ain't by to see, as a rule; anyhow, she don't give you a helping hand.'
His wife looked at him coldly.
'All I have said, and all I intend to say, is, that if Mr. Ruthven doesn't marry that girl, he will be doing a very wicked thing, and I for one will never speak to him again.'
'A d——d little———'
'Mr. Langdon! She is a good enough girl—not a lady, certainly; but Mr. Ruthven should have thought of that before he—before he took away her character. Now, of course——'
'Oh, d——n it all, Emmie! What a storm about nothing at all! How can you pay any attention to her, Ruthven—a little prude that doesn't know what she is talking about?'
'I know this much, that when a man has—has compromised a woman as Mr. Ruthven has that unfortunate girl, he ought to marry her if she's a princess or if she's a beggar. This girl happens to be a beggar—more shame to him, then! And I thought so highly of him.'
She let her eyes wander to his face with a deeply reproachful look, and Ruthven shivered hopelessly before it. Emma Langdon was the one woman in the world he desired to stand well with. He could not exactly have defined his sentiments to himself. He did not love her, of course—was she not his friend's wife?—and she herself, he knew quite well, would have been the first to shrink back in horror at the bare mention of such a thing. No; he stood at a respectful distance, and raised her on a pedestal and worshipped at the shrine. And she allowed him to. She felt she was a misunderstood woman, a woman with high ideals and more refinement than was to be found among her very limited circle, and she was thrown away upon Ben Langdon. She was proud that she kept that secret to herself and never complained, but she liked Jocelyn Ruthven because she felt that he had guessed it and sympathized with her. She was not appreciated; her husband and his brother laughed and scoffed at her 'high-flown notions,' and took every opportunity of turning them into ridicule; while this other man, Jocelyn Ruthven, thought her a pearl among women, and her lightest wish had been his law. She liked to think it, too. Jocelyn Ruthven, the good-looking young Gold Commissioner at Deep Creek, was at her beck and call; she could turn him round her finger, and her approval was the thing he most desired on this earth. He had fallen a victim when first she met him—four months ago now—and she had been fondly imagining it could go on for ever. She was perfectly satisfied, she wanted no more.
And now this thing had happened. Ben thought very lightly of it, but she had long ago known that Ben's morals were none of the best; he might be good-hearted, but he was certainly rough and rude and lax in his ideas, and she knew—she knew the proper thing was for Jocelyn Ruthven to marry the girl. It was not a desirable match, certainly—the daughter of one of the diggers at Deep Creek—and there was more than a suspicion that Mat Phillips had been an old lag; while her mother—Emmie Langdon closed her eyes and sighed—her mother was certainly a very impossible person. She had come across the ranges sometimes when they were short-handed at Karouda to help at the wash-tub, and it would not be a nice thing to belong in any way to Mrs. Phillips. But, then, he should have thought of that before.
The girl had come across the ranges—followed Ruthven across—and told a pitiful story. And he—he hung down his head, and acknowledged he had not been as circumspect as he might have been.
'Lord Almighty!' said Langdon, when he heard it. 'What the devil did you have anything to do with her for? A man in your position ought to have nothing to do with women—anyhow, the women about the camp. It'll cost you a mint of money to square things.'
'There is only one thing to be done,' said his wife. 'Mr. Ruthven will have to marry her. It's the only honourable thing to do.'
'The devil he will! Now, don't go putting such notions in the girl's head, Emmie. All they want is a good round cheque. There is no question of marriage in the matter. It would ruin Ruthven to do such a thing, and that's a heavy price to pay for a week's folly. The girl don't expect it herself, and she wouldn't be happy in such a position.'
'She does expect it—what else should she expect? and as for being happy, Mr. Ruthven should have thought of that before.'
'The devil fly away with all women!' said her husband angrily; and, as far as Emma Langdon was concerned, that sealed Ruthven's fate.
If she had any influence over him whatever, he should marry that girl.
It was hard for him, she knew, but was it not just as hard for her? She had thought such a lot of him, and now she must give up her friend and be lonely and desolate as she had been before she met him. Of course things could never be the same again between them; but she was ready for the sacrifice, and so he must do his share. All her husband's scornful scoffing only made her the more determined.
She found an opportunity to speak to him alone, and pointed out to him where his duty lay. She was so sad about it all, so sad at the thought of losing him, that she wept many tears over it; she drove him to distraction, but she saw with an inward glow of triumph that she was gaining her point. And when at last she had brought him round, if not to see exactly with her eyes, at any rate to do her bidding, it was too provoking to have her husband trying to upset things. And Ben was so coarse, too; he did not care what he said.
'It is the only honourable thing to do,' she repeated sadly, looking at Ruthven's downcast face; and then she turned and slowly left the room.
She felt she was strong enough now. Her words would prevail, she knew, no matter what her husband might urge to the contrary.
Langdon laughed a little.
'The missus has high-flown notions,' he said. 'I fell in love with her for them, I reckon, way back four or five years ago; but they don't work in, those notions, somehow. Never mind what she says, old man; she'll come round in the end, and we'll square the others somehow. It's only a matter of money, I expect.'
'I'll have to marry her,' said Ruthven gloomily, stirring the fire with his foot.
He had wished Mrs. Langdon away, and now she was gone he only felt the more bound to do what she thought right.
'Don't be an ass! It's all very well for the wife to talk rot; women don't understand things. Think what your life will be if you do. An ignorant, uneducated girl like that, dragged up in a low Bush shanty, what sort of a companion would she be for you? Why, she wouldn't even be a decent housekeeper, and think of the awful old father and mother.'
'Lord Almighty! It would be a sin to marry her from all points of view. She'd be as miserable as a bandicoot, and so would you.'
'Nevertheless,' said Ruthven wearily, like a man who had done with the pleasures of this world, 'I'm going to marry her, and we'll have to make the best of it.'
Then Benjamin Langdon of Karouda, a respectable middle-aged gentleman, turned round and swore a volley of oaths that nearly lifted off the parlour roof, and he rose from his chair, and, taking his friend by the shoulders, shook him soundly.
'A fool and his folly, Ruthven! Oh Lord! oh Lord! women are the very devil! And whether the good ones or the bad ones are the worst beats me!'
'The moving finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your piety and wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.'
JOCELYN RUTHVEN did not say good-bye to Mrs. Langdon, not a little to her disappointment. A touching farewell full of bitter unspoken regrets, regrets that could only be expressed by tender hand-clasps and sad looks, would have been just to her mind, but Ruthven never even thought of such a thing. He would do her bidding, of course; she was quite right. He must marry the girl; but the dreariness of the outlook filled his mind to the exclusion of every other thought, and even the image of the woman he worshipped faded before this great trouble. He did not want to see anyone; he wanted to get away and get it all over as soon as possible.
'Get my horse round, will you, Langdon?' he said. 'I'd better be getting back to the camp.'
'Not to-night, old man, surely,' said the hospitable squatter. 'You stop with us to-night, at least.'
'I'd better go,' he said. 'I'm not good company, anyhow. What about the girl, Langdon? Can you send her back? To-morrow will do. I'll go and see her mother and settle things up.'
'Don't do anything in a hurry, man. If you must marry her, at least put the wedding off for a month or two. It'll give you time to look about you, and you might, you know—mind you, I don't say you will, but you just might find reason to change your mind.'
'I find a hundred thousand reasons for changing my mind,' said Ruthven bitterly; 'but the original reason for marrying her still remains, and the sooner it's done the better.'
'Oh, for God's sake, bring a little common-sense to bear on the matter, and don't pay any attention to what Emmie says! She's a good enough girl, is Emmie, but she ain't quite such superior clay as you and she seem to think. She's wrong-headed at times, and she's wrong-headed now, and why on earth you should go and ruin your life just to please her, I can't think. Why she should want it, either, I'm sure I don't know,' he went on reflectively; 'doesn't strike me as suiting her book at all. However—oh, hang it all, Ruthven! you'll be casting this up in her teeth some day. I wish to Heaven either you or the girl had stopped in the camp! It would have been all right if it hadn't come across my wife.'
'Your wife isn't the only one in the world who would say I ought to marry her,' said Ruthven. 'I ought, I suppose. I'm going to, any way. Say good-bye to your wife for me, and send the girl along. I'll just go and pack my valise.'
So it happened that the first intimation Emma Langdon had of Commissioner Ruthven's departure was the sight of his tall upright figure mounted on a chestnut horse cantering slowly across the home paddock. She thought it was her husband's doing, and she did not like it at all. Here was the principal actor in the little drama at which she was assisting going away without even a word, not a single arrangement made for meeting, not a word about how the marriage was going to be settled. She ought—she felt she really ought to have had the settling up of that. She didn't know that she exactly wanted the marriage to take place at Karouda, but—well, anyhow he would never have ridden away without a word or even a message of his own accord. It was all Ben's fault, of course, and it would be no good giving a message to him, because he wouldn't deliver it, or he would so mangle it in the delivering that the original meaning would be lost. Ben was so clumsy, and, besides, she was angry with him, and didn't want to speak to him much. But, then, she must know something about Ruthven's latest plans, and there was no one else to ask, so she smoothed her hair and went back into the sitting-room again.
Ben was seated stolidly in front of the fire, one foot on each hob, a six-months-old English paper in his hands. He looked over his shoulder as his wife entered, but made no room for her before the fire. He simply gave a discontented grunt, and shrugged his shoulders in what she said was the rudest manner.
She moved about the room quietly, sighed a little in a gentle, resigned way that made her husband grunt still more angrily, put the chairs straight and tidy, and then took up her seat a little behind him, so that the firelight reached her across his stalwart right leg.
It put him manifestly in the wrong, and he didn't like it. He turned his head and looked at her sitting there sewing like a martyr, and then pushed back his chair impatiently.
'Are you cold, Emmie?'
'It doesn't matter in the least,' she sighed gently.
'It does matter. Why the dickens can't you behave like an ordinary woman, and ask a fellow to give you a bit of the fire, instead of looking like an image and sighing like a furnace?'
'It doesn't matter. I always want you to be comfortable. And, besides, of course you knew you had all the fire.'
That was true enough, and it put him so much in the wrong when he was feeling in an intangible, unexplainable sort of a way that it was he who was the injured person, that he swore helplessly under his breath, and held the paper so tight that it split in two between his strong fingers.
He dashed it on the fire, looked at his wife sitting sewing meekly, the very incarnation of wifely obedience, and then burst out:
'Emma, why the devil do you meddle in things that don't concern you?'
She looked at him with wide-open astonished eyes as one who is unjustly accused, and said nothing. He would have liked nothing better than to take her by the shoulders and shake her soundly.
'Answer me. Don't sit there like a graven image.'
'I don't know what you mean.'
'Don't know what I mean! You've grown mighty dense all of a sudden. Look here, then. How dared you meddle between Ruthven and that girl—that Phillips hussy?'
'How dared you meddle, then, if it comes to that? it was no business of yours.'
'You had no right to mix yourself up in such a thing.'
'The girl came to me,' said Mrs. Langdon sweetly. 'Poor thing! I was bound to do something.'
'Then you ought to have come to me. What the devil do you mean, madam, by going to any other man but your husband?'
Mrs. Langdon shrugged her shoulders. There was no pleasing this man. He was determined to work off his temper upon somebody.
'See here, Emmie, I won't stand it! I won't, and that's flat! Here have you for the last three months been carrying on a sort of desperate sympathetic friendship—I'm blest if I know what you call the thing—with that young fool Ruthven. I won't stand it, Emmie, there now! Once for all, I won't stand it!'
His wife raised her eyes as one who would say, 'This man is perfectly incomprehensible,' but she said nothing.
'Do you hear me, Emmie? I say I won't stand it!'
And he brought his hand down heavily on the arm of his chair.
'I don't understand you,' she said coldly.
'Oh yes, you do. You understand well enough. I say I won't have this mild illicit sort of love-making that's been going on between you and Ruthven. Do you think I haven't eyes in my head? You pose as a misunderstood, unappreciated woman—superior clay, in fact—and Jocelyn Ruthven, the young fool, worships. I know I'm coarse and rude and wanting in refinement and don't value you properly; but, all the same, I'm not going to stand what I've stood for the last three months. I've been expecting you to come to your senses, or Ruthven to find out what an ass he was making of himself, but it seems he hasn't. And now—oh, he's brought his pigs to a pretty market. You think you've done a fine thing, making him marry that girl, don't you? It's all your confounded vanity; you like to show your power. But I tell you what: if he marries that girl, before the month is out he'll be cursing the day he ever met you. He has made an ass of himself over you, but that's more your fault than his. He's not a bad chap at bottom, is Ruthven, and he shan't make a fool of himself if I can help it. I'll get him out of this hole, anyhow, in spite of himself. Send that girl along to me at once, Emmie.'
His wife laid her work down in her lap, and looked him straight in the face.
'Don't you hear me? Send that girl along. I want to speak to her. I guess I can make a better bargain than Ruthven.'
'There's no question of bargain in the matter.'
'Oh, isn't there? We'll soon see about that. Get the girl.'
'She's gone,' said Mrs. Langdon, taking up her work again.
'Gone? How the devil can she be gone? Bat Henderson, confound him! fetched her up along with the stores, didn't he? She got wind Ruthven would be here for a week or so, and determined to make things pleasant for him. But Henderson ain't going back, so how can she be gone?'
'She is gone, though,' said his wife distinctly. 'Naturally, she didn't like being here with all the servants wondering what she came for, and I'm sure I didn't want her, so, of course, I told Bat Henderson to put a horse in the buck-board and take her back again.'
'The devil you did! You're mighty considerate all of a sudden. Are you quite sure, now, you didn't go to her and say she was to clear out there and then?'
If she had, as her husband firmly believed, Mrs. Langdon made no sign. She went on sewing quietly, and wondered if Jocelyn Ruthven even guessed what she was suffering on his account.
'Well, I won't be done. I'll have a try for Ruthven's future comfort yet. Here, hi, you, Johanna!' as a maid passed the door. 'You go and tell Day to saddle me Lady Jane.'
The woman looked at her mistress doubtfully.
'Please, sir, Bat Henderson have took Lady Jane along a that gurl on the buck-board. Missus told him to; there weren't no other horse to take.'
Ben Langdon waited till that maid had gone, and then he did take his wife by the shoulders and shake her soundly. He had been wanting to do it all the afternoon, and now he did it. He wasn't very gentle about it, either, and when he pushed her down somewhat roughly into a chair, she put up her hands to her face and began to cry. She felt her efforts to do right were costing her a good deal. She wondered if Jocelyn Ruthven appreciated them.
Her husband looked at her shamefacedly a moment. She looked very slight and fragile, sitting huddled up there with her handkerchief to her eyes; but she was aggravating, and if he had been a brute, she had made him so.
'Oh, d——n it all!' he swore between his teeth. 'Ruthven's brought it on himself. It's no business of mine. He'll have to see it through, I suppose, and a pretty kettle of fish it'll be, too.'
'I can grapple with certain ill, and bid it strike, and shrink not.'
MEANWHILE Jocelyn Ruthven was drearily riding back to his camp at Deep Creek through the mist and rain and gathering darkness. It was only a rough track; the bracken and fern and thick scrub came down to it on each side, and the tall gum-trees towered overhead, shutting out the light of the winter's evening. The clayey soil was wet and slippery, and the ruts and hoof-marks were all full of muddy water. It was all downhill, too, steep in some places, and the chestnut mare picked her way carefully. He did not hurry her. He pulled his cap over his eyes, and drew his horseman's cloak closer round him, pulling the collar up to his ears. It was wet and uncomfortable, certainly, but what matter? there was worse before him down in the camp at Deep Creek.
He had come up this track so often, too often, these last three months. There had always been such a warm welcome for him, and now he would never come this way again. He was going to start a new life altogether. He was going to pay his pound of flesh for his folly, and there was no escaping. Ben Langdon thought there was no need for such a price, but Ben Langdon knew nothing about it. Emmie Langdon, she understood better. She took a deep interest in him—no one took more, no one—and she would not have told him he should do this thing unless she had felt there was no escape. She knew his high ideal of womanhood; she understood the sort of woman he would have chosen for his wife, had he been free to choose. She knew how far, how very far, this girl fell short of it, and yet she said he should marry her.
Then for a moment he rebelled against her decree. Supposing he refused to marry the girl, what then? He could never go back to Karouda again. But he could never go back in any case. How could he, once he was married to Nellie Phillips? Suppose he chucked up the service and started a new life in—New Zealand, say. He sat upright with a sigh of intense relief. How thankful he would be! He would let the past take care of itself and start afresh.
And then he sighed, for he remembered Emmie Langdon's words, and he knew he could not do it. He could not risk her disapproval. To know that she would think meanly of him! He would do the right thing, and there would be an end of life for him.
It was darker now, quite dark, and between the tree-trunks he could see the gleaming lights of the camp. It began to rain smartly, and the lights danced and gleamed and ran into one another as the water got into his eyes. He brushed his hand across them, and drew up his horse's head as they emerged into the clearing round the camp. There were blackened stumps and heaps of yellow earth everywhere, but the darkness and the falling rain mercifully hid the ugliness and the lights; the bright golden lights might have been fairy lamps against the gloom of the opposite hillside. The creek was running a banker, and the muddy waters surged up about his horse's knees at the ford, where less than a week ago they had scarce covered her hoofs. But a great deal had happened in one week. He had ridden out of that camp a careless, lighthearted man; he was coming back—well, well, he was ten long years older now. Six-and-twenty—no, he was fifty at the very least.
The track passed the open door of a slab hut, and the ruddy firelight fell in dancing lines on the wet earth. This was Mat Phillips' hut. He could hear Mat himself inside howling a hoarse song, drunk as usual. And he shuddered; this was his prospective father-in-law; from this home he was taking his wife.
He pulled up the mare smartly and dismounted. He would get the thing over and done with, and he stepped inside the doorway with his reins over his arm.
It was a dirty, untidy, uncomfortable room, and the bright fire was its only redeeming feature. A rough table stood in the centre, and on it were the remains of a meal, tin pannikins, tin plates, and no dishes at all; they had evidently eaten out of the frying-pan, which, half full of congealing fat, lay on the floor beside the table. He had eaten out of a frying-pan himself often enough—tin pannikins, tin plates, horn-handled knives, and two-pronged forks were no novelty to him; but that his future wife should have been brought up in a hole like this—— There was a bunk against the wall opposite the door, some blankets that had once been white trailed out of it on to the earthen floor, and on top of them lay a very unwashed, hairy specimen of the digger, his dirty red shirt open at the neck, his feet, cased in long, clayey butcher-boots, sprawling against the wall, and his arms supporting a very shock head, while, with wide-open mouth and unsteady utterance, he was shouting at the top of his voice something that was evidently intended for the 'Death of Nelson.'
'For England,' went on the thick voice, 'ex—es—espex——'
'Hold your tongue,' said Ruthven, his habit of authority asserting itself.
'Ho'sh you! Wash want? Asturbin' of shentleman—ownsh home.'
A woman—a slatternly, untidy woman, her gray hair twisted into a hard little knot on top of her head, her stockingless feet in a pair of down-at-heel carpet slippers, and her sleeves rolled up to far past her elbows—rose up from her seat beside the fire, and spoke to her lord and master.
'Arrah, thin, it's howlin' blind dhrunk yez are. Can't yez be seein' 'tis the Commissioner himsel'? Wouldn't yez think, now, he'd be chryin' shame to himsel' to cross the stip av the door at all, at all.'
Ruthven made a motion with his hand, but Bridget Phillips was not going to be silenced so easily.
'Sure an' wasn't she the swatest, purtiest colleen, an' yez come along wid yer decavin' ways an'—— Oh, wurra! wurra!'
'England,' said the man in the bunk solemnly, struggling up into a sitting position and supporting himself against the wall. 'Whash England got do with it? Whash matter, Biddy? Arsh shentleman sit down. Arsh have drinksh;' and he made an unsteady grab at a pannikin on the floor beside him.
'It's dhrunk yez are, ye baste!' said his wife, and then she began to wail at the top of her voice. 'Oh, wurra, ohone! 'Tis the sorrer an' shame av it has druv him to the dhrink, he that was the kindest an' best man——'
The 'kindest and best' man looked at her with preternatural solemnity; then, getting up unsteadily, he staggered towards the wife of his bosom, made a grab at her arm, missed it, and lurched over heavily, falling down with his knees in the frying-pan and his head and arms sprawling among the dirty remnants of the feast on the table. The tins made a tremendous clatter as he fell among them, and the chestnut mare started back in affright, but the aggrieved father made no effort to get up again. He began to cry to himself in a maudlin way, and his wife pointed to him.
'Ah, it's lookin' at yez wurrk yez are, thin. 'Tis the sorrer an' shame has done it. His only child, an' him to be turnin' her out av the house.'
'Will you hold your tongue?' asked Ruthven desperately.
'An' fwhat sud I hold me tongue for, an' me only gurrl ruined for love av the likes av yez.'
'Nonsense! What do you want me to do?'
Could he marry a girl from a home like this? could he? Could he possibly, even to keep Emmie Langdon's good opinion?
'Fwhat do I want yez to be doin'? Sure, isn't there only wan thing a jintleman cud be doin'?'
This woman, too. They expected him to marry her, then.
'I'll see that Nellie's well looked after,' he said. 'I'll give her plenty of money, and she shall not want for anything.'
The woman rose up like a fury, caught him by the arm, and shook her clenched fist in his face.
'Is it gould,' she cried, 'that'll give back to me gurrl her good name that yez stole from her, ye thief av the wurrld! Not a penny piece 'll she so much as touch wid the toe av her shoe!'
And Langdon had been so sure that money would square it.
Then another thought came to him.
'This isn't anything new,' he said. 'Why, I haven't even seen your daughter for the last three months. Why didn't you come to me long ago?'
Another outburst from Mrs. Phillips, and he put up his hand and caught the angry fist that was being shaken in his face.
'Look here, Mrs. Phillips: hold your tongue and behave like a sensible woman, or I'll clear out of the colony altogether, and leave you to manage as best you can. Upon my soul I will! Now, tell me, why didn't Nellie tell me of this before?'
'Ohone! ohone!' Mrs. Phillips waxed mournful now. 'The poor colleen! Sure, wouldn't she be hidin' her shame as long as she cud?'
Nellie had not struck him as that sort of girl. She had not been particularly reticent or ashamed up at Karouda. Well, Emmie Langdon had seen what manner of girl she was, and yet she had insisted he ought to marry her.
He sighed heavily and tapped the toe of his boot impatiently with his hunting-crop.
'For God's sake, sit down, woman, and stop that howling!' for Mrs. Phillips had sunk to her knees and was rocking herself backwards and forwards in the abandonment of her grief. 'Now listen to what I have got to say. Do you think Nellie would be happy if I married her?'
'Happy is it? Sure, an' isn't it herself's ruined for love av yez?'
He waved his hand impatiently. It gave him no pleasure to be told that Nellie Phillips loved him. He would do the right thing by her if marrying her were the right thing to do, but he could not pretend to love her, and he wished with all his heart she did not love him. She didn't, either. She would marry him, of course, because he was the Commissioner; but love, he thought bitterly to himself, she did not understand what love meant.
Well, if he did marry her, he was not going to have this disreputable father and mother making life harder for him than it need be, and he thought he might as well make a few conditions beforehand.
'Nellie would have to learn a great deal,' he went on, 'before she would be fit to take her place as my wife. Can she read and write?'
'Sure, isn't it the grand scholard she is intirely?' said the woman in a subdued voice, for it suddenly struck her that what she had only vaguely dared to scheme for was almost an accomplished fact: this man was actually thinking about marrying her daughter.
The man with his head among the tins murmured, 'Great scholard, my gurrl,' and snuffled, and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
His wife flew at him, and shook him soundly till he fell over on the floor, and lay there on his back the very picture of maudlin resignation to the inevitable. A greasy tin plate had come down with him, and he clasped it to his breast with both his hands and gazed straight up at the roof, murmuring:
'I'm done for!—poor ole Mat's done for! Burysh 'im——'
'I'll bury yez, ye dhrunken scaramouch!' screamed his wife. 'Hould yer tongue while his honour's spakin'.'
Ruthven pointed to him.
'See, now, I couldn't have my wife associating with a thing like that. If Nellie marries me, she must clearly understand she can't come here any more.'
'Sure, 'twouldn't be fittin' for yer honour's lady,' said the woman humbly.
'I must have her cut off completely from all her past associates. Do you understand me, Mrs. Phillips?' He grew sterner as the inevitableness of the thing was forcing itself upon him. 'You must give her up to me entirely. She mustn't come here, and you mustn't even try and see her except when I give you permission. Do you hear?'
'Oh, wurra! yez wouldn't be partin' mother and child, an' she maybe wid a baby av her own at her brist.'
'Very well, then,' said Ruthven grimly. 'If that's what you want, you had better keep her here. Good-night;' and he drew back from the doorway.
'Ohone!' cried Mrs. Phillips, 'it's the cruel sorrer av a mither I'm sufferin' this night. Sure an' isn't it meself that knows that when Nellie has to be choosin' betwixt yer honour an' meself, 'tis the mither that bore her will go to the wall.'
'Very well,' said Ruthven with a sigh. 'Then you understand: you and she are not to see each other without my express permission. It's a harder thing to be a lady than perhaps Nellie knows. Tell her that. If she likes to draw back, I'll provide for her and her child well; but if she wants to marry me—well, I'll marry her. But then she must obey me in everything.'
''Tis herself that loves the ground yez treads on.'
'Tell her she'll have to learn to be a lady. I'll get someone to teach her.'
'Sure, the crathur has enough on her mind at presint,' said the mother suggestively.
'Well, well, by-and-by then. Now, mind you tell her, Mrs. Phillips, it won't be easy.'
'The crathur!' murmured Mrs. Phillips.
Ruthven stood silent a moment, gazing into the bright fire. There was no hope now, none whatever. He had taken the fatal plunge. A wind came sighing up the gully, and a burst of rain made his patient mare start, but he held the bridle a little tighter.
'Woa, then, good mare, we're nearly through. Now, Mrs. Phillips, this is Tuesday, isn't it? I'll come over next Monday with a parson and marry Nellie, and then I shall take her to Beechworth and leave her there till—till she's well again.'
'Sure, the gurrl does be wantin' boots an'——'
'Never mind. I'll see about that afterwards. You remember what I say.'
'The blissin' av the howly saints——'
'Remember you see nothing more of Nellie after next Monday. She belongs to me entirely.'
'The Blissed Virgin——'
'You'll see me at ten o'clock on Monday. See to it that Nellie's ready;' and Ruthven mounted his horse and rode away into the darkness.
'Oh, east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet,
Till earth and sky stand presently at God's great judgment-seat.'
'I CAN'T do it, I can't, and, what's more, I ain't agoin' to try.'
'Oh, dear, dear, Mrs. Ruthven, you really shouldn't say "ain't agoin' to." Whatever would Mr. Ruthven say?'
'I'm blest if I care what he says. I've had about enough of this;' and Nellie Ruthven threw down her pen, shut up her copybook, regardless of the fact that the very badly written copy would be all blots, and, pushing back her chair, threw up her hands above her head, and indulged in what she called 'a good old stretch.'
She had seemed a pretty girl once, when first Ruthven had met her out on the hillside in a ragged cotton dress with a sunburnt straw hat on the back of her dark untidy curls. Yes, she had been pretty with her dark eyes and bright red cheeks; her nose was certainly tip-tilted, but that lent piquancy to her expression, and if her mouth were large, the row of teeth she showed when she smiled was the best excuse for that. How was it that bright laughing face looked so very commonplace now? She had looked graceful in that ragged dirty gown, and behold, now that he had dressed his wife to the best of his ability, she only managed to look awkward and uncomfortable.
He had thought she would improve, but she had been here over three months, and, if anything, he thought she was worse than when she came. She was better dressed than Miss Parkin, he was sure of that; but, somehow, Miss Parkin looked to the manner born, and was at her ease and comfortable, and his wife could not acquire that ease. How was it?
The poor little baby had died when it was born, and he had brought her straight back to the camp at Deep Creek, had built a comfortable house for her, as houses went on the diggings in the fifties, and had engaged Miss Parkin to be her companion and teach her reading and writing, and, in fact, to make a lady of her. And he had to own to himself that Miss Parkin was making but a poor job of it.
Not that he had any fault to find with the teacher. She was a bright young girl, just the right sort, he told himself. Pretty in a fair, blue-eyed way, always laughing and happy; but she was a lady, there was no doubt of that, and the contrast between her and his wife seemed to grow more marked every day. Nellie was a daughter of the shanty, and a daughter of the shanty she would remain to her dying day. She seemed incapable of refinement; she jarred on him daily, and all day long he had an uncomfortable feeling that she jarred on her companion. Poor Nellie! he sighed when he thought of it all; it was such an unnatural, weary life for both of them. He wondered what Miss Parkin thought of it.
At the present moment Miss Parkin felt a little hopeless. It was so difficult to teach a grown-up woman to write, especially when she would not see that there was anything wrong. Nellie, who had had so little education in her life, would persist in regarding the scrawl she had at last accomplished as something wonderful, and the very best that could be desired, while her teacher felt it incumbent upon her to teach her the neat and flowing hand which was a source of pride to herself. And now she simply pushed back her copybook, and outraged all the rules of grammar, and behaved—well, as her small teacher had been carefully instructed no lady should behave.
It was January and a hot-wind day. The north wind, that howled and raged down the gully, shook the house in great gusts, and though all the windows and doors were shut, still the dust and heat would penetrate, and everything felt sticky and gritty to the touch. It certainly was not a day to toil over a copybook. But what could the teacher do? Her pupil was invariably getting off her lessons on some frivolous excuse or other, and she began to feel that she was in a measure cheating Mr. Ruthven. He expected his wife to learn something, and his wife was practically as ignorant as on the day, three months ago now, when she had first taken up her residence with the uncomfortable Ruthven household.
She looked at her pupil sorrowfully.
'Mrs. Ruthven,' she said gravely, 'don't you want to please your husband?'
'No, I don't.'
'But—but—all women should love their husbands and try to please them.'
'Oh, I dessay,' sullenly; 'but he don't ever try to please me. There ain't no fun in life at all. It's that dull.'
Both the girls were under twenty, two young girls clad alike in simple white dresses, with all the world before them. But one was happy, and the other, she who had attained the position she most desired, a position beyond her highest hopes, felt that it was all dust and ashes, and if she could have gone back she would have done so gladly.
'Dull!' echoed Miss Parkin in surprise; it never failed to surprise her, though Mrs. Ruthven made the same complaint twenty times a day. 'Dull! Why, what more could you want?'
'Oh, it's all very well for you. There's that young Nicholson hangin' about for you every night.'
But the colour deepened on the fair little face, and a faint smile brought out a very kissable little dimple on her rosy cheek.
'Oh, it's all very well to say "Mrs. Ruthven!" but I know what you're up to nights when I'm a-sittin' here an' he's askin' me, "How've you got on?" an' "How much spellin' have you done?" an' "Let's look at your copy." A fine copy he'll see to-night;' and she laughed scornfully.
'Oh, Mrs. Ruthven, you mustn't talk like that even to me. You have got such a good, kind husband. You wouldn't like him not to take an interest in you.'
'Bless you! that's not interest in me,' said Nellie, with a penetration that surprised her listener, 'not what you might call a real sort of an interest. He thinks it's proper to spend some time with his wife, an' so he comes along for an hour in the evenin'. Oh, I know. He's dreadful 'shamed of me. He don't even like that Nicholson comin' here, though, Lord knows, he comes to see you! An' he just asks me questions nights cos he can't think of nothin' else to say.'
'Oh, but, my dear, my dear'—Mary Parkin put a gentle hand on her pupil's shoulder—'it'll be all right if you only learn and improve. Then you'll be a companion to him. It will make such a difference.'
'It won't make no difference ever to me,' sighed poor Nellie. 'I'm mum when he comes along.'
'But, Nellie, you weren't always like that, you know.'
'Oh yes, always.'
'No, no, you never could have got married if——'
'Oh, when I met him out on the ranges nights, you mean. Oh, it was different then. I didn't care what I said. An' he used to laugh at me an' crack jokes, an' chuck me under the chin, an' say what pretty eyes I'd got. He was jolly. He ain't like that now. He won't ever be again. It was nice them nights on the hills, so nice an' warm with the moon a-shinin'. Oh dear, oh dear!'
And poor Nellie put her head down on the table and began to cry.
'Oh, don't do that—please don't do that!'
Mary Parkin felt it was such a hopeless case when her pupil talked in this strain.
'It's all very well to say "Don't do that,"' said Nellie Ruthven, raising her head defiantly. 'It's all his fault. Why'd he marry me? why did he—why did he?'
And she stamped her feet and flung out her arms over the table.
Her companion looked at her thoughtfully. She knew very well why he had married her. Nellie, in a burst of confidence, had told her that herself, but she felt that perhaps it was just as well not to remind her of that.
'He was fond of you,' she said lamely, and she knew quite well that she deceived not even herself, far less her listener.
'Fond of me!' she laughed bitterly. 'Get out! you know better than that. He couldn't bear the sight of me. That white-faced hussy up at Karouda, she made him do it. Oh, he thinks a sight of her! I wish she was dead, I do!'
'Oh, hush! hush! You mustn't say such things, you mustn't really. You don't know how dreadful it is. You know very well when first you came Mrs. Langdon came to see you, and was as nice as possible.'
'Oh, was she? Sittin' there lookin' at him reproachful like, sayin', "Look at the gal you've got, an' look at me."'
Miss Parkin burst out laughing.
'I was here all the while, and she never said anything of the sort.'
'Yes, she did, with her eyes. A nasty, sly cat I call her.'
At the bottom of her heart Mary Parkin was inclined to agree with Mrs. Ruthven; but it didn't suit her to say so, therefore she suddenly became diplomatic, and said thoughtfully:
'You are ever so much better-looking than her, you know. Fair people always look so poor beside dark ones. If you would only just try and learn a little, you would soon cut her out. Why, she must be quite old, six or seven and twenty at the very least,' said nineteen scornfully. 'Oh, if you would only take a little trouble, Mr. Ruthven would never think of her when you were by.'
But Mr. Ruthven's wife knew better. She shook her head decidedly.
'You know better 'n that. He hates the very sight of me. He wishes he was dead when he looks at me; an' me, I hate the very sight of his solemn face. I ain't agoin' to try no more;' and she snatched up her copybook and tore it into two pieces. 'There, see that! Mother said as I was a fool to bother, an' me a grown woman. I'll tell her to-night I've took her advice, an' if he don't like it——'
'But Mrs. Ruthven, Nellie—— You know that—that——'
'He won't have me seein' mother. Yes, I know. But I do see her—I've just got to see her some time. Who cares? He's away somewhere, an' as for you, you're a-carryin' on with that Nicholson.'
'Mrs. Ruthven, it is foolish, to say the least of it, to——'
'I'm going to bring her here this very night. It's my house as well as his, an' I'm goin' to bring mother to it. He can kick me out if he likes. It's dull enough, Lord knows! I'd a' run away long ago if I wasn't waitin' for——' She stopped abruptly, and then added sullenly, 'I ain't agoin' to do no more lessons. That's flat!'
And she rose to her feet and pushed away, as if for good and all, the lesson-books that lay strewn across the table.
'Oh, Nellie!' began poor little Miss Parkin in dismay, when she was interrupted by a brisk knocking at the door.
There was no hall; the front-door opened straight off the veranda into the sitting-room, and Mary Parkin looked doubtfully at the house's mistress.
'Open the door,' she said; and the little companion got up and admitted a tall fair man in a frogged coat and gold-laced cap, the undress uniform of a cavalry officer, and the dress worn by the Gold Commissioners of the Victorian Government.
'Waste not your hour, nor in the vain pursuit
Of this and that endeavour and dispute.'
COMMISSIONER NICHOLSON looked down tenderly at the blushing little woman who opened the door to him, then held out his hand to his hostess.
'Good-morning, Mrs. Ruthven, good-morning, Miss Parkin. I was passing, so I thought I might come in. I wanted to see your husband,' he added, turning to Nellie, and seating himself in a comfortable easy-chair. 'Do you think he's anywhere about?'
'I dunno where he is,' said Nellie sullenly.
She always seemed at her very worst before her husband, but she did not show to advantage before his friend.
'Oh, well, I expect he'll be round presently,' said Tom Nicholson cheerfully, wiping the dust out of his eyes with his pocket-handkerchief. 'Whew, it's an awful day! Take pity on me, Mrs. Ruthven, and let me stop in this nice cool room till he does. I want to see him about that gray horse of his. I may stop, mayn't I? I'm not interrupting, am I?'
'Oh, you ain't interrupting,' said Nellie with a giggle; 'I'm jack of books; I ain't agoin' to do no more lessons. You stop along with Mary as long as you like. I ain't a spoil-sport; you stop an' have lunch. I'm off to mother's. Two's company, you know.'
Poor Mary Parkin grew crimson to the tips of her ears.
'Mrs. Ruthven—Nellie!' she began imploringly. 'Don't go away, please. What will Mr. Ruthven think? And you know—indeed, I want——'
'Oh, dry up,' said Nellie, at the door that led to her own bedroom. 'I know well enough what you want, and what Mr. Nicholson wants. It ain't me. I'm off to mother's. It's a free country, an' I'll do as I like. You can tell Mr. Ruthven to put that in his pipe an' smoke it;' and she banged the door behind her, leaving poor little Mary Parkin standing the very image of dismayed propriety in the middle of the room.
Commissioner Nicholson smiled behind his fair beard, and, rising to his feet, came and stood beside her.
'Poor Ruthven!' he said softly. 'He has made a jolly mess of things. A sweet young person that must be to live with. I thought he didn't let her go down to her mother's.'
'He doesn't,' said Miss Parkin, on the verge of tears; 'I'm supposed to see that she doesn't—but—but——'
'But as she would make two of you, and nothing short of physical force will stop her, I don't see how you are to carry out that part of the contract. Never mind; come and sit down and talk to me. Were you giving her lessons? Give me some instead. I'll be a much more tractable pupil.'
'Of course,' said Mary Parkin, who was a very direct young person and scorned any pretence, 'I'd much rather talk to you—that goes without saying—but I'm supposed to teach her; and since the first week or two she has scarcely made a pretence of learning, and now she declares she won't try any more—won't even pretend to try. Whatever will become of them both? Poor Mr. Ruthven!'
'He doesn't care a snap of his fingers for her.'
'Of course he doesn't. I think it's a shame of him; at least, you couldn't expect him to, could you? but it makes it all the worse. It's quite painful to see him trying to take an interest in her. He can't talk to her. It seems as if he can't. I believe he hates the sight of her. She says he does, and I believe it's true. I don't know which it is hardest for. It is hard for her, you know. Oh dear! why ever did they get married?'
'That little cat of a Langdon woman!' said Nicholson with fervour.
'Oh,' said Mary Parkin demurely, 'do you say that? She told me Mrs. Langdon made him marry her, and she doesn't thank her for it now, either.'
'Mrs. Langdon may be a good enough woman in her way,' said Nicholson, 'but Ruthven was certainly very gone on her. I don't believe he knew it himself, though; thought her a sort of superior angel, don't you know, and would have done anything she thought right. I wonder what he thinks of her now.'
'He doesn't think much of her at all. He has just as much as he can manage on his hands. I wonder,' she added hesitatingly, 'if I ought to tell Mr. Ruthven about her going down to her mother's. She only just told me, and I always thought she was with Mr. Ruthven, and that it was best to leave them to themselves.'
And she blushed, because though, doubtless, she had begun by being thoughtful for the Ruthvens, most certainly since Commissioner Nicholson had got into the habit of strolling down that way every evening that he could get away, she had not remembered much else but her own pleasure, and she really did not know that shorter and shorter had grown the evenings that Ruthven had spent with his wife.
Nicholson noted the blush, and smiled a little satisfied smile to himself.
'It's not much good telling Ruthven, I'm afraid. I don't suppose he wants you to be a spy on his wife. Besides, if a man can't look after his own wife, it's not much good anyone else trying to help him. She meets her mother, does she? Where?'
'Out on the ranges behind the house, I suppose. She'd never dare go down to her mother's place.'
'On the ranges at night? I'm afraid—I'm afraid——'
'What are you afraid of?'
'Well, now I come to think of it, several times lately I have seen Fraser up on the ranges there with a woman. Now, who could it be but Mrs. Ruthven?'
'Oh!' sighed Mary Parkin. 'She surely wouldn't do such a dreadful thing! Who is Fraser?'
'Fraser is a blackguard, pure and simple. He's a man of some education, that's the worst of it, and he's drifted here to be a thorn in the side of the Commissioners. There isn't a bit of villainy done but Fraser's sure to be at the bottom of it. He's quite clever enough to use the others as his tools; and, yes—I shouldn't wonder—the Commissioner's wife—it would be just his little game. Good Lord!'
He pulled himself up suddenly, and thought to himself, 'I must speak to Ruthven; it's a nasty job, but I can't see a comrade come to such awful grief as that if I can help it.'
'Poor Mr. Ruthven!' said Mary Parkin; and the door opened and in he came, covering her with confusion.
Of course they were doing no harm, either of them, and it was not their fault that the mistress of the house had run away; but it was awkward to be caught pitying the master to his comrade and superior officer when you were supposed to be teaching his wife. He had heard Miss Parkin's remark, there was no doubt, and for just a second there was an uncomfortable pause.
Ruthven recovered himself first.
'Glad to see you, Nicholson,' he said. 'Are you going to stop to lunch?'
'Well, your wife asked me,' hesitated Nicholson.
'And it's nearly one o'clock,' said Mary Parkin; 'I must go and see about the salad;' and she made her escape, leaving the two men looking at one another rather foolishly.
'You mustn't be flirting with that little girl, old man,' said Ruthven, with a poor attempt at jocularity.
'I'm not flirting with her,' said the other man, rather savagely. 'I came to speak to you about that gray horse, and your wife said something about not spoiling sport, and incontinently fled. What could I do? What could either of us do? I—Miss Parkin——'
'Never mind, man—never mind. I didn't mean to say anything against Miss Parkin. She is a very good little girl, and does her best under exceedingly difficult circumstances. Do you think I don't know that?'
Nicholson saw his opening, and seized it.
'Yes, she is a good girl,' he said. 'And now she is troubled. You don't mind me telling you, old man; but it appears you don't want your wife to go down to old Phillips, or to have anything to do with her mother, and now Mary Parkin has discovered that she sees her mother every night. She doesn't know whether to tell you or not.'
'And so she tells you, eh? Pleasant for me.'
'Oh, it's no affair of mine or Mary Parkin's,' said Nicholson airily. 'We are not likely to talk about it. I just thought I'd mention it to you, because that blackguard Fraser is always hanging round Phillips' place. He's always there, the sergeant tells me. Sergeant O'Connor is great on the iniquity of Fraser, and I thought perhaps you wouldn't like your wife to—— But, there, it's no matter. Very likely she only goes to see her mother, and sees nothing of the people who go there.'
Ruthven took two turns up and down the room, and laughed a little bitterly.
'In a three-roomed shanty! With a woman like Mrs. Phillips! It's very likely, isn't it? She sees her mother in one room, and Phillips and Fraser and all the rest of them drink in the next room, with a canvas partition between them. She doesn't speak to them, does she, Nicholson?'
'She mayn't, you know, Ruthven,' said Nicholson lamely, heartily wishing he had let the thing alone. What business had he poking his nose into another man's family affairs? 'I've only heard of her out on the ranges. And her mother—— Hang it all! you've got to make allowance for filial affection.'
'Filial affection be d——d!' said Ruthven between his teeth.
'By all means,' said Nicholson politely; 'but you'll have to take it into consideration, nevertheless.'
'It's rather late in the day to be taking things into consideration, I'm afraid,' said Ruthven grimly; and he marched up and down the room, and finally came to a stop before the empty fireplace, which Mary Parkin had filled with fern and bracken.
He looked down at it thoughtfully, and somehow it brought back to his memory the day at Karouda when he had looked out of the window at the wintry landscape, and listened to Ben Langdon's well-meant attempt to save him from the life he was now condemned to.
He had said he would repent. Repent? He had repented in sackcloth and ashes before the first month was over, and yet it seemed there were greater depths still for him to sound. What had he married her for? For her good? Or his? For the whim of a woman? Exactly, just to please a woman. Just because she thought it right. Because she had said if he did not she would never speak to him again, and now—he neither saw nor did he want to see her. He muttered a curse beneath his breath, and whether he felt most bitter towards the woman he had married or towards the woman who had made his marriage he could hardly have told. His life was spoiled between them; at least—he was very honest—he had laid the foundations of his woe with his own hands when he so carelessly met Nellie Phillips on the ranges behind her mother's house.
'It's my own fault,' he said aloud, hardly conscious of Nicholson's presence as he followed out his line of reasoning. 'A man in my position ought to have known better than to have had anything to do with a daughter of Mat Phillips.'
'Anyhow, you oughtn't to have mended matters by marrying her,' said his listener, almost involuntarily. 'I don't suppose she is having a rosy time.'
'Poor child! poor child! Nicholson, who are you going to marry?'
'Mary Parkin, if she'll have me,' said Nicholson promptly.
'She's a good girl, and you'll be a happy man if you do. All the comfort in this house is due to her. I wonder what it would be like if my wife managed it.'
'In time perhaps——' began Nicholson, and then paused.
He did not think that in time Ruthven's wife would manage all right; he only wondered how long the menage could last as it was. It would collapse entirely, he thought, once Mary Parkin was gone.
'In time,' repeated Ruthven bitterly. 'Nicholson, what am I to do? What can I do? Things can't go on like this, and I am at my wits' end. Who can help us?'
And, as if in answer to his question, the door was pushed open and Nellie Ruthven, hot, flushed, and defiant, stood in the doorway.
'Here's mother,' she said. 'She's come to stop.'
'It is common for men to say that such and such things are perfectly right, very desirable—but, unfortunately, they are not practicable. Oh no. Those things which are not practicable are not desirable.'
MRS. RUTHVEN had snatched off her hat, and was swinging it defiantly by the strings as she walked into the room followed by her mother, whose Irish volubility was for the moment completely quenched by her new surroundings.
Behind them came Mary Parkin, consternation in every feature. Her eyes sought Nicholson's eagerly, and then wandered helplessly from Ruthven to his wife and mother-in-law, and back again to her lover. The silence began to be painful, when Mrs. Phillips broke it.
'Sure, 'tis an illigant room,' she said; and she turned herself slowly round so that she might take in all its glories thoroughly; 'an' where sud a woman be welcum but in the house av her own flesh an' blood?'
'Nellie,' said Ruthven sternly, 'take your mother into your own room. I want to speak to her.'
'Shan't,' said Nellie, seating herself in an easy-chair and defying her husband for the first time. 'Mother's agoin' to stop. It's my house as well as yours, ain't it? You brought Miss Parkin here without so much as sayin', "With your leave," an' I've brought mother, an' here she's agoin' to stop.'
'Sure, an' isn't it a cruel thing to be partin' the likes av us, an' me that fond av her, the darlint?' asked Mrs. Phillips of the company generally.
Nicholson looked at Ruthven's stormy face, and then at Mary Parkin's concerned one.
'Agnes,' she said, 'is just coming in to lay the table;' and Ruthven could have laughed aloud.
Here he had come to a point in his life there was no getting round or over, and this pretty little girl knew it as well as he did, and yet she seemed chiefly concerned lest the maid-servant, who in the ordinary course of events must lay the luncheon-table, should see anything out of the common.
Mrs. Phillips turned on her like lightning.
'Isn't it ashamed av yesself yez are,' she asked; 'you that's standhin' betwixt man an' wife?'
'It's takin' the place av the misthress av the house yez are, wid yer table-layin' an' yer flowers an' what not. Standhin' betwixt man an' wife yez are. Isn't it me darlint is misthress av this house?—the Howly Virgin have pity on her!'
'Your daughter,' said Ruthven between his teeth, 'is my wife, and she will do exactly as I tell her. She will do as I tell her!' he went on, raising his voice a little. 'Do you hear? You remember, Mrs. Phillips, the arrangement we made before I married her. If Nellie doesn't like to keep to that, she can leave my house for good and all, for I intend to be master here. No, Nicholson, you needn't go. It's no good considering my feelings now. Miss Parkin, put off luncheon for half an hour or so, will you, please? Mrs. Phillips is going home to lunch.'
Mrs. Ruthven stamped her feet defiantly on the ground in protest, and her mother raised a howl that most certainly must have penetrated to the kitchen regions, despite the fact that Mary Parkin had hastily departed and closed the door behind her.
'Oh, wurroo, wurroo!' she wailed. 'Did iver ye hear the likes av that? Me own darlint an' me not to have as much as a sup in her house?'
'We agreed to that, Mrs. Phillips, you remember.'
'Faith, Commissioner dhear'—and she crossed the room and laid a grubby hand on his arm—'sure, we all know that girls is for iver promisin' before they's married, an' it isn't the likes av yer honour's self as is goin' to be hard on poor Nellie. Sure, an' ye've a mother av yer own, maybe—the Saints protict her!—an' ye'll understand that Nellie's lonesome.'
'She should have thought of that before she married me, then,' said Commissioner Ruthven, with no sign of yielding. 'She can choose between us, but if she goes with you she can't come back here.'
'Man alive!' muttered Nicholson in his ear, 'think what you are saying. It'll never do to have your wife living apart from you in a low shanty like that. Think of the scandal in the camp.'
'You're right,' muttered Ruthven; and he turned to the old woman again. 'Now, Mrs. Phillips,' he said, 'clearly understand Nellie's future rests with you. I will not have you coming here, neither will Nellie go to your house. Do you understand? I won't have it. Nellie is my wife. She chose to be so herself; there was no compulsion; she understood the terms, and one of them was that she was to have nothing more to do with you except when I allowed her. Wasn't it so?'
'Sure, an' ye're very hard,' whined the woman; and Nellie clenched her hands and stamped her feet and looked at her husband with flashing eyes.
'Don't you mind him, mother,' she said. 'I didn't know what I was doin' then. I know now, an' I ain't agoin' his way no longer. I'm his wife, there ain't no undoin' that, an' I'll have my own way.'
It was throwing down the gauntlet. Nellie had never before openly defied him. She had fretted and cried, she had looked sad and unhappy, she had been dull and stupid, but she had always obeyed him to the best of his knowledge, and now he was face to face with a new difficulty. He could not have his wife going down to her mother's and associating with the scum and riff-raff of the camp, but how could he stop her? Suppose she defied him and left him, the scandal in the camp would be, as Nicholson pointed out, worse than ever; and yet how could he keep her at home if she decided to go? He might bribe her mother, but that would not answer long, for neither Nellie nor her mother, he felt instinctively, would have the least scruple about deceiving him. They would take his money and meet just the same. No, that would not do. He must think of something else.
'Take my advice,' murmured Nicholson in his ear; 'send her out of this. You'll never do any good with that old hag around. Send her to school—some decent, kindly, elderly woman in Melbourne who will take her in hand and teach her all she ought to know. She'll be all right away from her mother's influence.'
'Take off your bonnet, mother,' said Nellie aggressively. 'You're agoin' to stop along with me, an' those as don't like it can do the other thing. Never mind them two whisperin' there. I'm missus here;' but she trembled a little as she said it, for at bottom she was afraid of this grave husband of hers, and if it had not been for her mother's presence, she would never have dared defy him openly.
'Be reasonable, Mrs. Ruthven,' implored Nicholson. 'You mustn't go against your husband, you know.'
'Get out,' said Nellie. 'What do you want pokin' your nose in my affairs? I'll thank you to walk out of my house, Mr. Commissioner Nicholson; you can see Mary Parkin out on the ranges. I done my courtin' there;' and she laughed because she saw she had made her husband wince.
'Now, once for all, Mrs. Phillips,' said Ruthven, 'you leave this house. You will get no luncheon here. As for my wife, I know how to manage her. I'm going to Melbourne to-morrow, and I shall take her with me and leave her there till she learns how to behave herself.'
Commissioner Thomas Nicholson felt a cold shiver run down his back when he found his advice so promptly acted upon. If Mrs. Ruthven was whisked away in this unceremonious manner, it meant that Mary Parkin would have to go too. She couldn't stop here alone with Ruthven and the maid-servant. She would have to go back to Melbourne with Mrs. Ruthven and her husband. Of course, he might, as superior officer, make difficulties in the way of Ruthven's leave, but he wasn't quite prepared to do that. He read dismay on the faces of the two women, and almost sympathized when Mrs. Phillips threw up her hands with a loud, 'Ohone! ohone! the murtherin' villain! Would ye part the darlint from me that bore her?' And Nellie walked across the room, and shook her fist in her husband's face.
'I shan't go—there!'
'My dear Mrs. Ruthven,' said Nicholson, putting in a word for himself at the same time, 'it will be the best thing in the world for you. I dare say Ruthven will give you a week or so to think it over before he starts, and you'll understand then how good it will be for you. You will learn——'
'We'll start to-morrow,' said Ruthven, with no sign of yielding. 'Nellie won't learn from Miss Parkin. Then I shall just get somebody who can teach her.'
Mrs. Phillips sank into a chair, and rocked herself to and fro, moaning to herself, and every now and then relieving her overwrought feelings by giving vent to a sound between a shriek and a howl, which was very penetrating, and, Nicholson felt sure, must make itself heard half over the mining camp. As for Nellie, she stood perfectly still, with her hands clenched against her breast. Ruthven's last announcement seemed to have paralyzed her tongue.
He went up to her mother, and put his hand on her shoulder.
'Now, Mrs. Phillips, I've had enough of this. Are you going quietly, or shall I get the sergeant of police to pitch you out?'
'Yez wudn't put that dishgrace on yer wife.'
'Wouldn't I? You've disgraced her already, howling for the benefit of the camp. Everyone has heard within half a mile. Nellie can never come back here again. Now, out you go.'
The old woman looked at her daughter, whose lips seemed to move faintly, but no sound came from them. She gazed at her fixedly for a moment; then, seeing she made no sign, got up, and walked to the door, which Nicholson promptly opened for her, and she went out. He heard her muttering to herself all the way down the garden, and had not the slightest doubt that the camp would know every in and out of the Commissioner's quarrel with his wife long before another hour was over.
'Now,' said Ruthven, looking sternly at his wife, 'we will have lunch. Ring the bell, Nellie.'
But Nellie never moved.
Nicholson looked at his watch. He had had quite enough of Ruthven's unhappy family arrangements. Not even for the pleasure of seeing Mary Parkin could he stay to luncheon. He would have to trust to seeing her to-night.
'It's getting awfully late, old man,' he said. 'I'm afraid I can't stop. I'll see you again before you go. Good-bye, Mrs. Ruthven.'
But Nellie took no notice of his outstretched hand, and he left the house wondering to himself what on earth he should do about Mary Parkin. If he could persuade her to get married at once, would Ruthven let him that house as it stood?
'Let us have luncheon, Nellie,' said Ruthven, trying to speak as if nothing had happened.
'I ain't going to have lunch,' she said. 'You can ring the bell yourself;' and she turned to her own room, and banged the door behind her.
And then Ruthven called Mary Parkin in, and told her of the new arrangements he was making, and that she would have to be ready to leave by to-morrow's coach, and how he proposed to give her three months' salary instead of notice. And then he, too, forgot his lunch, and went outside to make arrangements about his approaching departure. And so it happened that no one in the household remembered the mid-day meal at all that day, for even Mary Parkin, with all her regard for keeping up appearances, felt that to sit down to a solitary meal with the thought that she might never, never see Commissioner Thomas Nicholson again was more than she could manage.
'It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.'
IT was a bright moonlight night as Commissioner Thomas Nicholson came from his own quarters on the Government Camp to Ruthven's house on the hillside. The wind had died down, and the still, warm air just faintly fanned his cheek, while the whole mining camp lay softened in the bright white light. He could hear the murmur of voices; he could see the bright fires outside the huts and tents; the yellow mounds of earth and the stumps of the burnt trees were there before him, but they had lost their unsightliness; the warm summer night softened all things, and even the voices of the diggers coming up from the shanty, where they were holding a bull dance, were softened into something almost musical. Such a perfect night, and was this to be the end of his pleasant evenings? Commissioner Nicholson had got to the stage where an evening without Mary Parkin seemed to him stale and unprofitable. There was no charm in a walk where she was not the goal. He could not even whistle to himself as he strode along the narrow pathway made by the wheelbarrows of the diggers, so perturbed was he. And then the white picket-fence round Ruthven's house came into view, and he saw the trees that had been left standing to redeem the place from utter ugliness. It was dark under those trees. Would Mary Parkin be there? True, every night that he had come up for the last six weeks he had found her there, but to-night it was just possible she might be getting ready for her departure to-morrow. The very thought made his blood run cold. He had fancied she cared for him, but he had no certain knowledge. It was very natural she should spend her evening with him when there was nothing else to do. Mrs. Ruthven was no companion for her, but that was no reason why he should take it for granted she would marry him off-hand. A pretty little girl like her, why, she might have suitors by the dozen did she but hold up her hand, and because he was the chief man on this tuppenny-ha'penny little gold-field, he needn't suppose that the outside world valued him quite so highly. He was an autocrat here, but he would be nothing at all down in Melbourne—he knew that well enough; and by the time he reached the wicket-gate, he had reduced himself to such a humble frame of mind, to such depths of hopelessness, that he walked as silently as possible through the dust, and opened the gate as if he were afraid the least sound would betray his feelings to the listening camp below. He shut it again just as softly, and, the dust still muffling his footsteps, walked softly under the trees with but very faint hopes of seeing the woman he had come to meet.
Should he go up to the house if she were not in her usual place? Or should he take it as a sign that she thought little of him, and go back? He stood still a moment. She was not looking out for him. No, how could he expect it? Ah, well, he ought to have known. What was that white thing against the trunk of the farthest blackwood? Surely it was a woman's dress? His heart beat so high he had to step more softly than ever to prevent its being heard, and then his ear caught the sound of a muffled sob.
He made one step forward, and the next minute a little white, trembling figure was in his arms.
'Miss Parkin—Mary—darling—what's the matter?'
Mary tried half-heartedly, because she thought she ought, to free herself from his arms; but there was something in the way she did it that told him she was happy there, and he only held her in a closer embrace.
'Don't, my little darling—don't you like to stay with me? Tell me what you are crying for.'
'I have to go away to-morrow,' whispered Mary, telling the truth in her surprise.
'No, no! we can't be parted. You won't leave me; you'll stay with me always;' and a bearded face came so close to Mary's she was perforce obliged to hide hers against his shoulder.
But it was a blissful moment for both of them. Oh, the warm moonlight night! the aromatic scent of the forest up above on the ranges! the delicate network that the moonbeams made as they cast the shadow of the leaves on to the girl's white dress! For all of us mortals there are, thank God! moments when our cup is full to the brim with bliss, when not the most exacting but has his fill of joy, and to these two such a supreme moment had come. So still, so quiet, so blissful, what more could they ask of Fate? And Mary nestled against her lover's breast, and he held her close, as if never again could he let her go. A belated cicada started to skirl in the tree above their heads, and Mary drew a long breath.
'Oh;' she sighed, 'I was afraid you weren't coming, and then I'd never have seen you again.'
'And I was afraid,' he whispered, 'you would be too busy to come out and see me.'
She laughed a little wondering laugh. How could a man be so blind?
'But you never whistled coming up the hill. I always know you by your whistle; and I listened and listened, and I thought you weren't coming.'
'I was too anxious to whistle. And you never guessed!'
They laughed a little happy laugh. It was all right now. Suddenly Mary Parkin started up with a qualm of regret for her selfishness.
'Oh dear! I was forgetting. How wicked I am! A dreadful thing has happened. It's all dreadful.'
'What is it?' asked Nicholson, with the calmness with which a man generally hears of another's woe. Mary was here, and belonged to him. What else could harm him?
'That unfortunate girl, Mrs. Ruthven—she's run away.'
'Gone down to see her mother, I suppose you mean. The best thing Ruthven can do is to leave her in Melbourne, and get her educated a bit.'
'No; I mean she's run away really. Mr. Ruthven doesn't seem to realize it. He thinks she'll come back to-morrow, but I know better. She's run away for good and all.'
'Poor Ruthven!' said Nicholson. 'Perhaps it's the best thing that can happen to him. But it is bad, all the same. How do you know she has run away?'
Mary Parkin freed her hands, and produced from her pocket a crumpled piece of paper, a sheet torn from a copybook. Nicholson by the bright moonlight could read the headline, 'Evil communications corrupt good manners.'
'There!' she said. 'Read that. It is light enough out of the shadow. No, please, you mustn't'—for he wanted still to keep his arm round her, though they had stepped out from under the tree—'somebody might see.'
It was a very brief communication, addressed to Mary, and written in a childish scrawl; but it set forth in no measured terms the writer's decision not to go to Melbourne, not to bother about learning any more; she was going to 'chuck' her husband, she said. He would be jolly glad to be rid of her, and she was off with someone who would take care of her, and who wasn't a cold fish neither. She, Mary Parkin, could tell Jos—yes, she actually called him Jos—it wasn't a bit of good looking for her. She'd gone away with someone who would know how to keep her.
'There!' sighed Mary, looking up into her lover's face; 'what do you think of that?'
'She's gone to her mother. She's afraid of going to school in town.'
'No, she hasn't. I went down to the Phillipses' as soon as I found that. I couldn't find Mr. Ruthven, so I didn't know what else to do.'
'Well, Mrs. Phillips was sitting on a stool with her apron over her head, rocking herself to and fro, howling "wurroo" at intervals. There wasn't anybody else there.'
'And what did she say?'
'I could hardly get anything out of her at first. She just abused everybody all round, me included—specially me and Mr. Ruthven,' sighed Mary. 'And then she began muttering something about Fraser being a murtherin' villain, and it would be as much as her life was worth to say a single word.'
'Whew!' whistled Nicholson. 'What did Ruthven say when you told him?'
'I haven't told him,' said Mary, blushing and faltering. 'I only said I'd been down to the Phillipses', and she wasn't there. He still believes she'll come back, and isn't bothering much.'
'You showed him the letter?'
'Yes, I showed him the letter.'
'Oh, well, really I don't know that things can be worse than they have been. You can't go to town to-morrow, that's one blessing.'
'But I can't stay here,' said Mary with a sob.
'By Jove, Mary, I never thought of that! We'd better get married right away. Have you got any relations to be shocked?'
'Nobody. Since Aunt Marion died I've been quite alone.'
'Poor lonely little girl, it's time you had somebody to take care of you! We'll go up to Beechworth and get married right away.'
And the cicada shrilled loudly and triumphantly, and the round white moon, high in the heavens, looked down kindly on the lovers, as she has looked on many and many a pair of lovers since those first two in the Garden long ages ago; and if a mo-poke croaked solemnly on the hill beyond, it was not as an omen of ill to the bride who was won, but in pity for the ruined lives and the wife that was lost.
'Perplexed no more with human or divine,
To-morrow's tangle to the winds resign.'
ONCE the pair of lovers had arranged their own affairs to their entire satisfaction, they began to bethink them of the master of the house and his troubles, and Nicholson went in search of him, and found him, to his dismay, seated on his veranda, dangerously close, thought Commissioner Nicholson, to the place where they had been standing. However, there was no help for it, and with a hasty glance back at the events of the past hour, and a heartfelt hope that he had not been very idiotic, he dragged up a chair and sat down beside his friend. Ruthven had his hands behind his head, and an empty pipe between his teeth, and he gave but a brief response to the other man's greeting.
'Did you know I was down there?' asked Nicholson anxiously, though a moment before he had not the least intention of mentioning his own affairs.
'Yes, I knew.'
'Oh!' said Nicholson, not best pleased.
'Lord, man, what does it matter?' asked Ruthven, waking up to the fact that he ought not to have owned up to that. 'You were talking to Mary Parkin, weren't you? It was no business of mine. I didn't notice what you were saying.'
'Oh, didn't you?' said Nicholson dubiously. Then he pulled himself together. 'Look here, old man: I'm going to marry Mary Parkin to-morrow.'
It was clear he was not paying the least attention to the conversation.
'Yes, I am,' said Nicholson testily. 'You don't want to go away, do you? because one of us must stop and look after the camp. Ruthven—I say, Jocelyn, you don't want to go away? In fact, you'll be wanting to stop here.'
'Yes,' said Ruthven dully, 'I suppose I'll have to stop.'
'Ruthven, I don't believe you understand. Mary Parkin showed you the letter your wife wrote her, didn't she?'
'Think?—think? Well, I think we've made a holy mess of it between us. It was more my fault than hers, I suppose. The greatest wrong I did her was to marry her, poor child! God knows I didn't mean to hurt her, but if I hadn't been a selfish beast, thinking only of myself, I might have seen more clearly for her. Poor child! poor child! We are as opposite as the poles, and she is miserable living with me, and I am—ah, well! I brought it on myself, I suppose;' and then he swore an oath between his teeth, and solemnly cursed a woman, and Nicholson guessed that it was not his wife he meant.
'But, Ruthven, pardon me,' hesitated his friend, 'what are you going to do?'
'Do? What can I do? If my wife prefers to live with her mother, there's no law to prevent her that I know of, even though the old hag does keep a sly grog-shop and assembles there the riff-raff of the camp.'
'But, Ruthven, old man, I don't believe for a moment your wife is at her mother's, or, if she is, her mother isn't the principal attraction.'
'No,' said Ruthven indifferently; 'she's a wild thing, and can't stand the restraints of civilization. That freedom has a charm for her.'
'Freedom,' sighed his comrade. 'Man alive! she's taken her freedom with a vengeance. As far as I can make out, she's gone off with that blackguard Fraser.'
Ruthven rose to his feet and dropped his pipe with a crash on the ground.
'Good God!' he said. 'Is that the end? What can I do? My God! what can I do?'
Exactly. What could he do?
There and then he rose up and went down to the Phillipses', but it was wrapped in virtuous darkness, though every other hut and tent around was lighted up, and full of men. He rapped until he produced a sleepy response, and Mrs. Phillips herself came out, very tearful, extraordinarily subdued, and entirely unintelligible.
No, she didn't know where her girl was, by the Howly Virgin an' the sowls av all the saints she didn't. She'd come along soon after she herself had returned, and had looked in for a minute and said she weren't going to no school in Melbourne, and then she'd gone off again, and Mrs. Phillips had no idea where she was—no, no more than the babe unborn. And with one hand she applied the ragged end of a dirty shawl to her eyes, while the other wildly waved a guttering tallow-candle in the air, and liberally bespattered the doorstep with grease. And that was all Ruthven could get out of her.
He went slowly back to his house, and by the end of the week was convinced—as the whole camp had been from the very first—that his wife had gone away with Fraser, and the guilty pair had fled to that ungetatable country vaguely described as 'over the ranges.'
Once again, on being interrogated, Mrs. Phillips admitted that some little time before Nellie and Fraser 'had been sort av kapin' company, but, av coorse, when his honour's self come along Nellie wouldn't be lookin' at the likes av Fraser at all, at all.' And Ruthven groaned aloud when he thought of all his folly had cost him. There had been no love even on her side, less liking, even, than there had been on his; she had simply been flattered, had come to him because he was the Commissioner; had married him only for that reason, and now she had shamed and disgraced him.
It was a nine days' wonder in the camp, the disappearance of the Commissioner's wife, just as her arrival had been. Then most people forgot all about it. As for Ruthven, he had got to face the world somehow, and he went down and took up his abode in Nicholson's quarters, and gave orders that his own house should be prepared for the newly-married couple. He had been utterly miserable there. He only hoped that they would be happier.
And, after all, once the first shock was over, he was surprised to find how little he himself minded. No one could ever have guessed the relief it was to him to sit down to table with young Buckland, the clerk, for a vis-a-vis, instead of that wife who could not open her mouth without irritating him. No one mentioned her now, and that, of course, was a relief in itself. They might think a great deal, but, at least, they said nothing, and it was better, far better, as far as his comfort was concerned, than having her always beside him, like an ever-open sore. Once he had lain awake at nights wondering what would be the end, dreading it unspeakably; and now this was the end, it had come, and it was an intense relief to know that nothing worse could happen to him now. Sometimes he took himself to task that he did not repent the wrong he had done her more bitterly; but in their brief wedded life she had filled him with such distaste and hatred of herself that he simply could not be sorry for her. Theoretically he was, practically he found himself saying over and over again that she deserved all she got, and that, on the whole, possibly she was not unhappy. He was ashamed of that episode in his life, bitterly ashamed of it; but now that it was all over, he was not unhappy.
Sometimes he caught himself thinking that he was really more contented than he had been for many a long day. Before this trouble had come upon him, he had been infatuated with that Langdon woman—he called it infatuation now—and had been always planning to get away to Karouda, planning to take her some little present, counting the hours till he should see her again. What a young fool he had been! If it had not been for her, d—— her! And he bit savagely at his pipe for a moment, and then he fell to thinking how pleasant the evenings were now that he neither wanted to see one woman nor was troubled with the thought that he had to see another whether he would or not. It was very pleasant sitting outside the tent door these warm summer evenings. They were not marred by the thought that presently he would have to go inside, and hold the nightly conversation with his wife. All that was behind him. He was content. He despised himself for it sometimes, but that did not alter the fact. He was content. What his little world thought of him could make little difference to him. He had made himself miserable to please the world; he was not going to mind what the world thought for the future.
And when Nicholson and his wife came back to take up their residence in the unlucky house on the hillside, they hesitated long before they dared ask him to dinner.
'It might be painful,' said pitying little Mary Nicholson.
And so Nicholson met his comrade every day in their daily round of duties, and thought uncomfortably how he should ever screw up his courage to ask him to visit his old home, till Ruthven, all unconscious, solved the difficulty by inquiring when he might call on his wife.
'Is the little bride ready to receive visitors yet?' he asked. 'I suppose the house is very dainty and pretty? I know more about Mrs. Nicholson's powers in the housekeeping line than you do, I expect, old man.'
Nicholson was a little shocked. He did not see things with the same eyes as Ruthven, but he promptly asked him to dinner, an invitation that was accepted with alacrity.
And when he came, it was Nicholson and his wife who were uncomfortable; for his part, Ruthven was only too thankful that they had the places that had been his and his wife's. Those were the days of his humiliation; it was past and over now, and he could not be unhappy any longer.
And the first time he met Ben Langdon in the camp after his wife had run away, Ben looked at him askance, and would have passed on pretending he did not see him, but Ruthven would not have it. He held out his hand, which the other almost wrung off.
'I'm glad to see you looking so well, my boy.'
'Thank you,' said Ruthven.
He supposed he ought not to look well, but he could not help that.
'It isn't any use,' said Langdon hesitatingly, 'asking you to Karouda?'
Ruthven shook his head and smiled faintly. He had never gone to Karouda since that day when he had agreed to marry Nellie simply because he could never go there again unless he did.
Langdon looked a little disappointed.
'Well, maybe you are right,' he said, with a sigh. 'But I've missed you a good lot, and I hope when things blow over a bit you'll see your way to coming up again and having a smoke with me of an evening. The wife——' He stopped and hesitated. He wanted to say she was very much taken up with a new Bush parson, who was filling the place of platonic friend vacated by Ruthven. Ruthven had heard all about the Bush parson from Buckland, and knew well enough what Langdon had in his mind, but he only shook his hand again warmly, and said: 'I have never yet thanked you for all your kindness to me. If I had only taken your advice!—but, like a blasted young idiot——' He felt as if years and years had passed over his head since that winter day in the Karouda sitting-room that had decided his fate. 'Come along up to my quarters and have a nobbler, will you?'
'For her own person, It beggared all description.'
THE great log-fire in the open fireplace at Karouda crackled and hissed as the flames caught the damp wood, and every now and then there would be a small explosion and a scattering of glowing ashes, which Emma Langdon returned very carefully to their own element. It did not disturb Emma Langdon much; it was not that sort of thing that irritated her. Had she been a fire, she would never have spluttered in that fashion, but since the fire chose to do it, it did not disturb her much. She did not think the hearthrug was likely to suffer as long as she was pretty quick in picking up the coals. It did not disturb Ben Langdon, either, for he was sound asleep in his easy-chair, with his head thrown back and his legs stretched out to the warmth, and an old English paper slipping from between his fingers on to the floor in dangerous proximity to the fire.
His wife took it out of his nerveless fingers.
'Ben will certainly burn himself some day if he's not careful,' she said, putting the paper on the table among her white work.
The girl opposite her looked up. She was a very handsome girl, tall and dark, with bright brown eyes that could melt into infinite depths of tenderness, quantities of waving brown hair with a ruddy glow in it, a rich complexion, and a row of pearly white teeth when she smiled that would have given beauty to a far less good-looking face. She was Winifred Langdon, Ben Langdon's half-sister, who, on the death of the aunt who had brought her up, had come to live with her half-brother and his wife; and, judging by her face at the present moment, she did not like it. There was a look of discontent there that she hardly tried to disguise.
'How can Ben sit there and sleep?' she asked irritably. 'How can he? Isn't there something better to do with life than that?'
His wife looked at him a little contemptuously, and when Winny saw the look, she repented her speech.
'No,' she said, 'there isn't anything else for him to do. He can't read; he always goes to sleep on a wet day.'
'It is very wet,' said Winny apologetically.
It was dreary enough, certainly, this July day. The garden was only half reclaimed at best, but in the summertime it was ablaze with flowers that, spite of the scant care bestowed upon them, flourished in that genial climate, and turned the gully into a very Eden. But it was mid-winter now; the flowers and shrubs drooped, overburdened with moisture, the soil was soaked through and through, and the yellow grass lay flat and sodden in the pouring rain. No, it was not an inviting prospect, and the room with its dancing firelight made a cheerful contrast; but apparently Winny did not find it so. She moved restlessly in her chair, and made vicious dabs with her needle at the work between her fingers.
'Oh dear,' she sighed, 'how dull it is! Why wasn't I made a man? I'd have some real work to do then, and I'd do it, too, whether it rained or not.'
'How silly you are, Winifred! It is really not nice for women to wish to be men. What does it matter about the rain? No one wants to go out in the wet. It's such a good chance to finish Mr. Aubrey's surplice.'
If Winifred had been the man she wanted to be, it is very probable she would have sworn aloud. As it was, she stamped her foot, and made her brother move uneasily in his chair.
'That is just it. Why should my chief object in life be to make Mr. Aubrey surplices? This is the fourth since I've been here, I do believe.'
'Winny, it's only the second,'—reproachfully.
'Well, it's all the same. What does it matter to me whether it's the second or the twenty-second, so long as I have to stick here sewing at it?'
'But it is a privilege. We want to do something towards helping, and when we can do that we do it cheerfully—at least, I do.'
'I don't,' said Winny rebelliously. 'Help—I don't want to help, if you call making Mr. Aubrey's surplices helping. I call him a smug, unctuous little beast. What do you suppose he does with all the surplices you make him? Turns them into nightshirts. He can't wear them, you know.'
Emma Langdon went on sewing steadily. Winny was so peculiar, so ill-bred, it really wasn't worth while taking much notice of what she said. Her aunt had spoilt her.
'I don't believe there's such a thing as a decent man about these parts,' went on Winny. 'I've been here nearly six months and I haven't seen one.'
'For shame, Winny! A girl shouldn't talk like that. There are very nice young men on the stations round, and you see plenty of them. Harry Selby was here only last night.'
'Bullocky,' said Winny—'bullocky, every one of them,' said Winny flippantly. 'And Harry's as bad as the rest, though I have known him since I first went into pinafores. They haven't two ideas to rub together in their heads.'
'Then there is Mr. Aubrey, if you want——'
'Smug, and fat, and unctuous. Besides, my dear Emma, he knows which side his bread is buttered. He never so much as looks at me when you are by.'
Emma was really angry, and a tiny flush appeared on her fair cheek.
'You do carry on with him, you know, dreadfully,' said Winny, with faint signs of amusement in her tones.
'Winny,' said her sister-in-law again, 'you have no right to speak to me like that. It is—it is——'
'Flippant, I suppose. But you do carry on, you know, Emmie. Ben don't mind, so I suppose it's no business of mine. But I call it carrying on, the way you go on with Mr. Aubrey, and Bob says a year ago it was one of the Commissioners at Deep Creek.'
Bob was Winny's own brother, just a year older than herself, and he had been on Karouda ever since he was seventeen, almost as long as Emma herself, and she often said to herself that really her husband's young brother was a cruel thorn in her side. He persisted in taking such distorted views of her actions. If she were only just civil to a man, he would hint and make remarks in the rudest manner. If Ben were perfectly satisfied with her, as she was convinced he was, why should Bob go on in this uncomfortable fashion? She did wish he had something to do the other side of the Border. Now she merely shrugged her shoulders.
'If you listen to all Bob says, you'll hear some curious stories.'
'I do,' said Winny, content now she had succeeded in rousing her sister-in-law a little; 'he's great on your young men.'
'Your young men,' said Winny, biting the end of her cotton and threading her needle.
'Winifred, I'm surprised at you! You must know it's not the right thing to talk like that.'
'I don't know about talking,' said Winny; 'it's the doing that might be wrong.'
'Winifred Langdon, you have no right to hint like that about me.'
Mrs. Langdon had risen to her feet, and stood looking at her sister-in-law with angry eyes.
Winny laughed outright.
'Oh, Emmie, you do make an absurd fuss about things! Where's the harm in me laughing because you always have young men dangling round you? Oh, I know! I know! It's purely philanthropic and platonic, entirely for the good of the young men; but if they were all old women, or young women, for that matter, I don't believe you'd be making them surplices, for instance.'
'Women don't want surplices.'
'Oh, you know what I mean. What did you make for the Commissioner at Deep Creek? Knitted him socks, I suppose?'
It was just exactly what she had done, but Emmie was not going to acknowledge that. Besides, Commissioner Ruthven was one of her disappointments—almost she had said, one of her failures.
'I was very much disappointed in Mr. Ruthven,' she said thoughtfully.
'Well, from all Bob tells me, you ought to have been highly pleased. He says you married him to a girl, an awful girl, on Deep Creek.'
'Bob ought not to have talked to you about such a thing. Of course he married her. Any gentleman would. It was the only thing to be done, as I told him, and he saw it at once. But, of course, you don't understand these things.'
'Don't I? And he never came near you again. No wonder.'
'He ought to have married her,' said Emma doggedly.
'He did, anyhow. You made him, poor wretch! and it didn't mend matters at all, so I've heard tell. I don't know why I'm pitying him, though, for after all I'm inclined to think his looks are the best part of him. His record isn't very good. But you should just hear nurse on him. She thinks he's such a nice young man, and is awfully sorry for him. For my part, though, I don't know that I'm not sorriest for the girl. Just fancy, Emmie, she's younger than I am. And she's run away with some terrible bad lot—run away from her husband. But I don't wonder at that; he must be a bit of a prig, judging by the majority of your young men;' but Miss Winifred Langdon made that remark for her own benefit only, and under her breath.
'What did you say?' asked her sister-in-law sharply.
'Only that, having no young men to make clothes for, I think I'll go and see my old woman.'
'What old woman?'
'Karouda Mary, of course. She's sick, and I promised to take her some beef-tea. Nurse is making it now.'
Mrs. Langdon looked out of the window.
'You can't go to-day. You'll have to wait till to-morrow.'
'To-morrow? Oh, I can't wait so long. I don't believe to-morrow will ever come. This day has been the longest on record already.'
'You haven't been down to the camp for two days. You can surely wait a little longer.'
'That's just what I can't do. Oh, bother the rain! What do I care for getting wet? I'll put on a stout pair of boots and go down to the camp, rain or no rain. Emmie, shall I take Marjorie?'
'Indeed, Winny, you'll do no such thing,' said Marjorie's mother. What nonsense! On a wet day like this!'
'Well, Fred, then. Come, a little rain won't do Fred any harm, and nurse will be thankful to be rid of him.'
His mother reluctantly acknowledged that in all probability nurse would be very thankful to be rid of Master Fred, who, kept in perforce by the rain, had made himself as obnoxious as is possible for masculine humanity at the age of seven.
Winny rose, threw all her work into an untidy heap, which made her sister-in-law shiver, and then put her head in at the nursery door. All the rooms opened into the central sitting-room at Karouda.
'Hurry up, Fred, and get your boots on.'
Then she disappeared into her own room, reappearing a moment later, her skirts tucked up, showing a pair of stout boots, while her whole figure was enveloped in a big red circular cloak, the hood of which was drawn up over he head.
She looked down at her still sleeping brother.
'Would I sleep like that? Could I? No, of course I couldn't. How can folks take life so easily, specially when it seems all wrong?'
Then she stepped past him softly—if he could forget himself in sleep she would be the last to wake him—and went into the nursery.
There was Fred dancing about eagerly, and four-year-old Marjorie was whimpering because she was not allowed to go, too.
'Are you ready? Come now, that's right. Don't cry, Marjorie darling; auntie 'll take you another day. Put some bread in this basket, please, nurse, and I'll carry it under my cloak. Fred, you can carry the bottle of beef-tea, and don't drop it now, mind, or I'll have to drop you in the creek. Now I think we're ready.'
They opened the other nursery door, the one leading on to the side-veranda, and stepped outside. The rain was coming straight down in torrents; all the pathway was liquid mud, and each big raindrop as it fell made a little round hole which was obliterated by the fast following one. All the hills round were shut out from sight by the gray mist and rain.
The nurse made a feeble effort to detain them; it was rather feeble, because she was weary of Master Fred's society, but Winny waved her off impatiently.
'You don't mind a little rain, Freddy?' asked his aunt, and Fred signified that above all things he would like a walk in the rain.
Karouda, up among the hills of North-Eastern Victoria, had been lonely enough when first Ben Langdon had taken it up ten years ago; but ever since the 'breaking out' of the gold, civilization of a certain sort had been creeping up to its doors. Two years ago they had found gold at Deep Creek, not fifteen miles away, and now, only three miles from the homestead on Deadman's Creek, they had found it, and already men were making their way thither from the neighbouring fields on Deep Creek and the Indigo and Yackandandah. It was this same creek that ran at the bottom of the garden; but it took various twists and turns before it reached the spot where gold had been found, and though Winny was making in that direction, she did not follow its course. The blacks' camp lay halfway between the new rush and the homestead, and she went straight for it through the Bush.
The ground was soaked with rain; the few paths the garden boasted were running with water, and before they had climbed the post and rail fence that separated them from the unreclaimed Bush land, both Winny and her small companion found that their boots were soaking, and even their cloaks bid fair to be wet through before they reached their destination.
'Never mind, Fred,' said Winny; 'it's better than being cooped up in the nursery;' and Fred, knowing that, whatever disaster befell them, it would not be laid at his door, signified that he rather thought it was, and followed his aunt as she dashed the water out of her eyes and pushed her way through the sopping undergrowth and fern.
It was very luxuriant, that forest. The tall gum-trees stood close together, but their long, narrow leaves offered not the slightest protection from the penetrating rain; the undergrowth and fern was in many places waist-high; little Fred's head just appeared above it. Logs and fallen trees barred their way, and Winny, as she found herself getting steadily wetter and wetter, and looked at the drenched boy at her side, felt more than once that she should have taken nurses advice, and stopped at home. But to return now, without having accomplished her object, would only have been to court their laughter; and she held steadily on till, after a scramble which lasted over three-quarters of an hour, she emerged on the little flat on the banks of the creek, where the blackfellows had pitched their camp.
Such a dismal place it looked in the pouring rain. There were a dozen or so of wretched mia-mias made of sheets of bark and gum boughs, open to the east, with a fire—a very small fire—in the opening, and over these fires crouched the inhabitants, huddled up in opossum rugs and greasy blankets. Numerous lean, savage-looking mongrel dogs snapped and snarled over a heap of bones, and anything more desolate and dreary than the aspect of the whole camp Winny thought she had never seen. It was filthily dirty, too; and, as they picked their way through garbage of all descriptions, she reflected that if the rain only cleansed this camp, it would have done a good work.
The blackfellows lazily looked at her as she advanced, and one old man, wrapped in a red blanket, with a wisp of dirty calico round his head, stood up and asked:
'What you come for, missie? Come see Mary?'
'Well, Billy,' said Winny. 'Poor old man! you look cold. How is Mary? I've got something for her here.'
'Baal you gib it that fellow, gib it this fellow;' and he made a snatch at the bottle in Freddy's hand.
'Nonsense, Billy!' said Winny, taking the bottle from the boy, and hiding it under her cloak. 'That isn't for you. You're not sick. That's for your lubra. Where is Mary?'
Billy sullenly pointed towards the nearest mia-mia, and Winny stepped forward and peered in. It was vilely dirty and evil-smelling; the accumulated filth of weeks seemed to be on the damp floor, but besides a bundle of spears and a heap of bark there appeared to be nothing else in the place.
'She isn't here, Billy. What have you done with her?'
'Baal you make a light, that fellow. That fellow sit down along a mia-mia. That fellow tumble down,' remarked Billy, as if the matter did not interest him in the slightest degree.
'Why, she's dead, Freddy!' cried Winny. 'How awful! He means she's dead.'
'Yes,' said Freddy, with the unconcern of childhood, 'I 'spect so; I 'spect that's her tied up in the bark. They tied up old Blind Sam like that, I know.'
Billy stood by grinning and showing his white teeth.
'That fellow tumble down. Gib it this fellow,' he whined again; and then, stepping forward, he put his dirty lean black fingers on her arm, and drew back her cloak.
'Billy!' cried Winny indignantly, 'stop this moment!'
But he took no notice, and in another moment had taken the bottle of beef-tea from her hand, and was calmly tilting the contents down his own throat. For a moment Winny was speechless with indignation. That one of these poor outcasts, one of a race that was wholly subject to the white man, that was dependent for its very livelihood on the goodwill of her brother, should dare to treat her thus!
'Billy!' she cried, 'Billy! Put that bottle down this moment!'
But Billy took no notice.
'Budgery that,' he said, and drained the bottle to its dregs, flung it away, smacked his lips approvingly, and then, grown bold, with a grin of triumph, stepped forward and made a snatch at the basket she carried.
Freddy interposed his small form.
'Let my auntie alone, will you, you black beast!' he said boldly; but the blackfellow swept him aside with one touch of his hand, and possessed himself of the coveted treasure.
Winny stood trembling and silent. In one moment there flashed across her all that she had done. Here she stood alone and unprotected in the midst of the blackfellows' camp. The short winter's day was rapidly drawing to a close; the nearest white man was at least a mile and a half away; most of the blacks sat stolidly over their little fires and took no notice of her, though one or two looked up curiously, while on Billy's face she saw a leer of savage triumph that seemed to tell her plainly she was in his power. What would he do next? What might he not do? She looked wildly round, and then with a great effort suppressed all signs of fear.
'Billy,' she said, 'you are behaving very badly. I shan't ever bring you anything again. It's time I went home now. Come, Fred;' and she put her hand down and caught her little nephew's, deriving some courage and comfort from the firm grasp of the warm little hand. 'Good-bye, Harry,' she said; 'good-bye, Tom; good-bye, Susan. You see Billy is a bad man;' and she turned towards the forest again. But, to her horror, Billy appeared at her side.
'You quamby here,' he said.
'Nonsense, Billy! I must go home.'
'This fellow pull away along a station,' he said, meaning he would go with her.
Winifred absolutely shivered. Here in the camp it was bad enough; but at least the other blacks, half civilized as they were, and standing in awe of the superior race, afforded her some sort of protection; but alone in the Bush with Billy, with that evil leer on his face—no, she dared not risk it.
'Billy,' she said, summoning all her courage to her aid, and speaking as boldly as she could, 'you'll do no such thing. Go back this moment, sir.'
But the blackfellow took no notice. He merely gathered his blanket closer round his shoulders, and remarked again doggedly:
'This fellow pull away along a station.'
'Come on, Auntie Win,' whispered Fred—'come on. I'm getting so wet, and so are you. What does it matter if he does come, too? He won't come far; blacks don't like the rain.'
Winny dared not explain her terrors to the child. Where was the use of frightening him? Yet alone in the Bush, with that black figure sneaking after her, she knew she dared not venture.
'I'm sorry, dear,' she said, half to him and half to the blackfellow, 'but I can't go till Billy is good.'
'Gammon!' said the boy impatiently. 'It's getting quite dark. I want my tea.'
It was indeed getting dark. In the forest, with the mist and the rain, the darkness seemed to have already come, and Winny's terrors were rapidly getting the better of her.
Through her brain flew all the terrible stories she had heard of the early days—stories of the bloodthirsty, cold-blooded cruelty of the blacks. Not ten years ago had they not burnt the home station at Gnarkeet, and foully murdered Thomas Ingram's wife and child, and that not thirty miles from here?
These were part of the same tribe, she knew. Good heavens! Billy himself might have taken part in the outrage. They had been tame enough for years, people said, but every now and then one heard of a terrible crime. They had not spared poor Nellie Ingram and her baby. What might they not do now they had a helpless woman and child at their mercy, entirely at their mercy? And Billy looked evil enough for anything.
'Auntie Win, Auntie Win, you must come home!' urged Fred, who, poor boy! was tired and wanted his tea. 'Why don't you come? Never mind Billy.'
'It's no good, Fred,' she said; 'I can't come.'
'But why? What'll you do, then?'
'I don't know. Wait a bit. Perhaps someone will come and look for us.'
'And, my! you'll just catch it if they do,' remarked Fred; but Winny felt she cared little for that. If only one of her brothers would come to look for her, he might scold her just as much as he pleased if only she and the boy were safe. But how long could she count on the blackfellows' forbearance? How long before their fears would be aroused at home? She could hardly think; her brain was in a whirl; she was not capable of forming any plan of escape. All she knew was that she hardly dared move a muscle lest the evil-looking savage opposite should see her weakness and take advantage of it. The gray mist that hemmed them in on every side grew colder and colder, and seemed to creep in closer around them. The high hills, the forest, even the creek, now at its winter level, rushing along within a few hundred feet of them, were all swallowed up in the mist and rain. And she would have to wait at least two hours. Could she wait two hours? How was she to hold out? Darker and darker it grew, and Freddy, holding tight on to her hand, seemed to divine and share her fears, and began to sob quietly to himself that he was cold and wanted to go home. She drew him under her own damp cloak, and did her best to comfort him.
'Don't cry, dear—don't cry. Someone's sure to come for us soon.'
Hark! what was that?
The blacks in the camp made little noise; they were too utterly cold and miserable to exchange ideas with each other, if a blackfellow ever has any ideas to exchange, which seems doubtful, and only occasionally the whimper of a child or the whine of a dog, deprived by some stronger cur of his bone, broke the stillness. But what was this? Winifred looked at the sullen black figure opposite, and saw that he, too, had heard it, and was made uneasy by it. Could it be——
'Oh, Auntie Win,' said Fred, raising his head, 'it's horses coming along!'
'And it's coming here!' she cried—'it's coming here! Oh, Fred!' and she caught her breath to keep back a sob.
'Yes, it's coming here,' he repeated; and Winny saw the blackfellow she had learned to fear slink off and crouch down over one of the fires among his fellows.
Now indeed they were safe. Nearer came the hoof-beats—nearer, nearer; not galloping, but just a steady trot—quite close now. She could hear the jingling of spurs and accoutrements, that told her these were no Bushmen who were coming so opportunely to her aid.
'Help!' she cried with all her strength—'help! help! help!' and her voice rang out clear on the cold winter's air.
'Hallo!' came back an answer, in tones of the greatest surprise. 'What the devil is the meaning of this?' and out of the mist rode two horsemen, wrapped up in thick, dark cloaks.
Winny raised her eyes, and saw the foremost one close beside her. A flame from one of the fires leaped up and showed her his face, the bright gold band round his uniform cap, and the water trickling off his fair beard.
'Oh, Mr. Ruthven, Mr. Ruthven!' she sobbed, stretching out her hands and grasping his horse's mane; 'help us! help us!—please help us!'
'We are no other than a moving row
Of magic Shadow-shapes that come and go
Round with this Sun-illumined Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show;
'Impotent Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.'
JOCELYN RUTHVEN was very thankful when it pleased the powers that ruled over his destiny to give him a separate command. Deep Creek held unhappy memories for him, and he was glad of the chance to get away and start life afresh. Of course, going to a place little over fifteen miles away would alter nothing, but at least the surroundings would not be a perpetual reminder to him of those unhappy passages in his life. Yes, he was very thankful, and he said good-bye to Nicholson, and made all his preparations to take over his first independent command with a light heart.
If he could have ordered things entirely to his own satisfaction, he would certainly have preferred that the week he moved should not have been one of uninterrupted rain. The creek had been pretty enough, though it was known as 'Deadman's'—pretty with ferns and creepers and a tangle of picturesque scrub. The bright, clear water rippled over the stones and rocks, and the whole place was in the spring-time a little sylvan paradise.
But the diggers had soon changed all that; they spared nothing in their eager search for gold, and in a fortnight the place was almost unrecognisable. It looked dreary enough in all conscience this July day. The rain was coming down in torrents. All the Bush had been cleared along the banks for about half a mile, and gaunt and blackened stumps of trees stood up amidst a waste of yellow clay, sticky and slippery after the week's rain. The diggers had assembled now to the number of a thousand, and had all pegged out their claims as the law demanded. Their dwellings, such ramshackle places as could be run up in haste—for the inclemency of the weather absolutely demanded some sort of shelter—were scattered here and there without the faintest attempt at order. Each man wanted to be as close as possible to his own claim, and it was a case of first come, first served. The banks of the creek were lined with cradles, and the whole place looked so desolate and uninviting that Commissioner Ruthven might be forgiven if he did turn to his clerk and remark that, of all the God-forsaken holes he'd seen, and he'd seen a good many, Deadman's Creek took the cake; and Charlie Anderson, a slip of a lad of one-and-twenty, looking much younger than his years, heartily agreed with him.
On the other side of the creek from the diggers' camp the land rose in a gentle slope, and here Ruthven decided to pitch the police camp, and the troopers set to work at once. It took some time, however, to get the camp in order. There were the four tents belonging to the Commissioner and his clerk to be pitched, the gold tent, the men's tents, the stables; and all this promised to take up the greater part of the day, if, indeed, they could get it done before nightfall at all. Finished, of course, it could not be, and Commissioner Ruthven knew he must put up with some discomfort, for this night, at least.
Still, as the day wore on, spite of rain and other drawbacks, the work approached completion. Ruthven was just beginning to look forward with interest to his dinner, and was trying to derive warmth and comfort from his pipe as he watched the stables go up, when the sergeant came over and spoke to him.
'If you please, sir,' he said, saluting, 'there's a man beyond there in the shanty says there is one of the gins dead in the blacks' camp, and it's her husband has killed her.'
'Oh,' said Ruthven somewhat indifferently—one old blackwoman more or less in the world did not make much difference to him—'oh, has he? Where is the blackfellows' camp?'
'Just up the creek, sir. It's not above a mile and a half through the scrub. Will you hold an inquest?'
Ruthven thought a moment.
'Oh, confound it!' he muttered. 'Such beastly weather, too! Well, someone must go down and inquire into it, I suppose. You are certain about the murder, Sells?'
'Oh yes, sir. She was sick, and the old man got tired of her, and just gave her a tap on the head with his waddy. Bless you, sir!' said the sergeant, with a grave smile, 'they're accustomed to it. The old women always go out that way, poor devils!'
'Well, well,' said Ruthven, 'I suppose they'll have to do without their little pleasures as civilization advances. Send Thomson over to inquire about it—or wait a moment, sergeant; I think I'll go myself. Have my horse saddled, and send Wynne over here. He knows the way, doesn't he?'
Ten minutes later Ruthven and his orderly, closely wrapped up in their horseman's cloaks, were cantering slowly through the Bush towards the blackfellows' camp, where their presence, if they had only known it, was most urgently needed. They rode as fast as they could through the forest, for there was no inducement to linger, and just as Ruthven was beginning to fancy his man must have missed his way in the rain and gathering darkness, a piercing cry for help broke on his ears.
'By Jove, Wynne!' he said, 'that was a woman's voice.'
It came again, 'Help! help! help!' as if she feared, as indeed she did, that they would pass by.
'Women,' volunteered Wynne thoughtfully, 'is always in a muss of some sort.'
'Hallo!' shouted Ruthven in answer, 'what the devil is the meaning of this?' and they rode on to the little flat where the children of the soil had their camp.
It was all but dark, for the small fires gave but little light; still, his eyes had grown accustomed to the gloom, and the Commissioner dimly saw the figure of a tall woman, cloaked and hooded, standing a little apart from the rest, with a small boy close beside her.
He rode up to her, and asked again, more gently:
'What is it? What is the matter?'
Winny caught his horse's mane.
'Oh,' she sobbed, 'Mr. Ruthven, Mr. Ruthven, help us! Help us!—please help us!'
At the sound of her voice Ruthven sprang from his horse.
'By Jove!' he thought, 'what have we here? Who the dickens is she? A lady, evidently, by her voice. Who can she be?'
Then he added aloud:
'Yes, yes; I'll take care of you. Don't cry, there's a good girl—don't cry. Tell me, what's the matter?'
But that was just what Winny did not feel equal to doing. Her terror and anxiety had so shaken her nerves, that now that help had come she felt quite unable to thank her rescuer. Whenever she tried to speak, a sob choked her utterance, and Ruthven, seeing it was so, turned to the boy at her side.
'Come, young shaver,' and he put his hand under his chin, and turned his face up for his inspection. 'Why, bless my soul! aren't you Freddy Langdon?'
'Yes,' said Fred, delighted at finding an old friend, 'yes; and this is Auntie Win.'
'And what's the matter with Auntie Win?'
'I dunno,' said Fred. 'She's frightened cos old Billy wouldn't let us go home alone, an' wanted to come too. Don't cry, Auntie Win,' he remonstrated; 'don't be a crybaby. Mr. Ruthven 'll take care of us now—won't you?'
'Yes, of course, my boy.'
'Will you take us home?' asked Fred anxiously. 'It's past tea-time, I know, an' I'm so hungry.'
'And wet too,' said the Commissioner. 'Come, Miss Langdon, you must be wet through;' and he put his hand on her arm and gently turned her round, so that the dim light of the nearest fire—from which the blacks had disappeared as if by magic—fell full on her face.
Such a handsome girl, oh, such a handsome girl! that firelight revealed to him. Her red lips were trembling like a frightened child's, the colour rushed to her cheeks under his scrutiny, her soft, dark eyes were full of tears, a drop or two trembled on her eyelashes, and the bright red hood, albeit it was wringing wet, formed a fitting frame to her rich, dark beauty. It was no wonder that the young Commissioner drew a long breath, and told himself that the majority of fellows of his acquaintance would give a good deal to stand in his shoes. It didn't matter to him, of course, he had put away all such vanities; but, still, his heart did beat just a little faster when he reflected that this was the most bewitching face he had ever seen, and he had just rescued her from insult, if not from worse.
He paused before speaking, and Winifred, seeing he was silent, raised her eyes and looked straight at him. She saw a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a fair complexion, somewhat browned by the Australian sun, a long, fair beard, and a pair of kindly blue eyes. Winny thought those blue eyes that were looking at her with admiration, and yet with almost pitying kindness, the nicest she had ever seen.
'How kind you are!' she said involuntarily. 'How can I ever thank you?'
'Well, really,' he said, smiling, 'I have to find out yet what I have done to be thanked for.'
'It was Billy,' she said, flushing at the remembrance, 'it was Billy. I don't know what made him behave so. He—I mean, I brought his wife some soup, and he——'
'Yes,' said Ruthven sympathizingly, though Wynne, who was looking on, felt that the explanation was not very coherent, but Trooper Wynne was a cynic—'yes, I'll break every bone in the black scoundrel's body;' and Winny was much comforted thereby.
'We have to go home,' she said; 'and it's getting dark.'
'It's quite dark,' corrected Fred, 'and I'm hungry.'
'Poor little chap! It was cruel of me to bring you.'
'It was madness of you to come at all,' said Ruthven, 'if you'll forgive my saying so. Tell me, you are Langdon's sister, aren't you?'
'Yes,' said Winny, smiling.
'Ah, I have heard of you.'
'And I have heard of you.'
'No good, I'm afraid,' said Ruthven bitterly. 'Come, you must let me see you home.'
'Would you?' she said eagerly. 'Oh, it would be so kind if you would. But, indeed no, we shall be all right now; and I don't like to take you so far out of your way. I don't like to trouble you.'
'It will be no trouble,' said Ruthven shortly. 'I shouldn't be able to sleep to-night unless I saw you safe. And whatever could I say to your brothers? Now, do you think you could ride Fanny here? Poor child! you are trembling all over.'
'I—I am so silly,' she said. 'Yes, I could ride the horse. But you—what will you do?'
'I shall walk beside you,' he said. 'I can't quite trust you alone on a man's saddle. Here, Wynne, take the boy up in front of you.'
'Yes, sir,' said Wynne; 'but what about the old woman?'
'Hang the old woman!' said Ruthven; 'I forgot all about her. She'll keep till morning, and then I shall have another score to settle with the old man. Now, Miss Langdon, I'll send on Fred with Wynne to tell them you are all right, and are coming along as quickly as possible.'
'And I hear once more, as the swans fly over,
Their far-off clamour from overhead.
They are flying west, by their instinct guided;
And for man likewise is his fate decided,
And griefs apportioned and joys divided,
By a mighty power with a purpose dread.'
SOMEHOW, Ruthven did not enjoy that walk to Karouda. Winifred was very good-looking, and very grateful, and altogether charming, and he walked along beside her with his hand on the pommel of the saddle. His horseman's cloak was wet and heavy, and he was not equipped for walking, but that did not trouble him. A year ago the situation would have had its charms; now it only served to remind him that he had made a horrid mess of his life. He did not want to be reminded of the step he had taken, the marriage he had made a year ago, and for the last six months he had managed to forget it fairly comfortably. Why should it suddenly be brought home to him with such bitterness simply because he was escorting Ben Langdon's sister home to Karouda, wherein he had not set foot since that fatal day when he had agreed to marry his wife, to her undoing and his own?
That was the reason, of course. He did not like going back to Karouda; he did not want to meet again Emmie Langdon. She reminded him too forcibly of that he would gladly forget; besides, it was her fault he had anything to forget. He never would have married if it had not been for Emmie Langdon—never, never! What a young ass he had been! what an awful young ass! and how he hated that woman! If only—if only things had been different, how he could have enjoyed this walk! and he muttered a bitter curse below his breath that made Winny stop her cheerful chatter, and ask him if anything was the matter.
'I beg your pardon, I'm sure. Nothing—nothing; I hit my foot against a stone, that's all.'
'It's such a shame of me to be riding your horse,' she said contritely.
'Not at all—not at all. You must have a poor opinion of me if you think I'll be knocked up walking a mile and a half.'
'Well, really,' laughed Winny, 'most squatters would be, I'm sure. You never saw such fellows as my brothers are for riding. They won't walk a step. And Emmie's just as bad. You know Emmie, don't you?'
Yes, he knew Emmie; he would like to have sworn aloud when he thought how well he knew her. And then he fell to wondering how much of his story this girl knew. It was not a pretty story, hardly suited for girlish ears. Had anyone told it to her? And he paid so little attention to Winny's well-meant attempts at conversation that the girl decided that he must hate walking more than he would allow, and was truly thankful when they arrived at the slip-panels that did duty for a gate at Karouda.
'Now you'll be all right, won't you, Miss Langdon? It's not a hundred yards to the house.'
'What! aren't you coming in?' asked Winny, in astonishment.
'I—well—yes; I ought to be getting back,' said Ruthven lamely; and Winny knew as well as if he had told her that he did not want to meet her sister-in-law.
'What nonsense!' she thought; 'he'll just have to come in. He's nice, much nicer than the majority of young men about here; and what do I care whether he married a barmaid, and whether he lives with his wife or not. I'm sure it was her fault, horrid thing! and I'm not at all sure that Emmie wasn't the worst of the lot, making him marry her. I expect that is what he is thinking now. How he must hate Emmie!'
Then she turned to him, and, as prettily as she could, began asking him to come in, persuading him, almost. It would hurt her deeply, she said, if he passed their door. She would feel she had imposed upon him greatly, and, indeed, if he wanted her to feel quite comfortable, he must come in and let her brothers thank him.
Ruthven still hesitated, though he walked slowly toward the house; but then matters were settled for him, for out into the darkness came Ben Langdon.
'Hallo, Ruthven, what's this I hear? Winny been getting herself into an awful scrape, and you have come to the rescue like a gallant knight. What! not coming in! Oh, I say, but you must. Come, man'—dropping his voice so that Winny might not hear, but Ben's whispers were of the penetrating order—'come, man, let bygones be bygones. No one's going to remind you of the past here.'
'You are a good fellow!' muttered Ruthven lamely; and Winny smiled a little to herself.
'Mr. Ruthven would like to shake Ben, and no wonder,' she thought; then she said aloud:
'Oh, of course Mr. Ruthven is coming in. He seems to think it will upset Emmie, but I know her better than that.'
'So does Ruthven,' said Langdon, with a chuckle; and Winny fell to wondering if all men were as tactless as her eldest brother.
Mrs. Langdon was not upset, not in the least; but she was freezingly polite. It was worse than the most desperate bustle. What is to be done with a woman who transgresses no law of hospitality, is courteous outwardly, and yet who succeeds in making the unlucky guest feel that she is a martyr of the first water for sitting at meat with him at all?
'We waited dinner for you,' she said, as they entered; 'Ben wouldn't begin without you. Get off your wet things, Winny, and come in as soon as you can. Fred, go to the nursery; your tea is over long ago. Nurse will give you some bread-and-milk.'
'Freddy can come and have some dinner with us to-night for a treat,' said his father doubtfully.
His mother shrugged her shoulders.
'You spoil him,' she said.
But the boy ran away triumphant; and then she turned to Ruthven, who was waiting awkwardly, wishing with all his heart that he had strength of mind enough to turn back and go on to the camp.
'You are a little wet, I think,' she said. The water was running off his cloak in little streams. 'Ben or Bob will lend you a change of clothes;' and she looked straight over his shoulder at the wall behind him.
'It's only my cloak,' he said uncomfortably; and Langdon seized him by the shoulder, ran him into his own room, and bustled round, getting him dry things, as if he would make up, if possible, by every means in his power, for his wife's coldness.
In after-years Winny and Ruthven were wont to laugh over that dinner as the most dismal entertainment they had ever taken part in, but at the time they found it anything but pleasant.
Ben Langdon was the soul of hospitality, and was unfeignedly glad to have Ruthven once more in his house, and Winny and her brother Bob backed him ably; but it was all to no purpose. One woman can do a great deal when she has determined to be disagreeable; and Mrs. Langdon had decided that Ruthven had offended irretrievably, and must on no account be forgiven. Partly, as he knew well enough, though the others did not, this was his own fault. He had grown bitter against this woman; he had somehow, unjust as it was—he acknowledged that to himself—come to blame her for all his misfortunes. At any rate, one thing was certain: if he had not set her on a pedestal in his own mind, made her master of his destiny, he would never have married Nelly Phillips, and brought woe upon both their heads. It was his own fault, of course, he had to acknowledge that to himself—entirely his own fault; he was a free agent, but just because he had been a free agent, and had chosen to bind himself, to deliver himself over, bound hand and foot, to the tender mercies of Emmie Langdon, he hated her. What had he seen to admire so much in her? She was clean and fair and well-bred-looking; but what else was there in her that had made him mad for her good opinion? It was a cold, hard face, he thought—a face without pity in it. And how came it that he had never seen that before? Possibly, it was only by force of contrast he saw it now, and he let his eyes wander involuntarily to Winny's glowing face.
Mrs. Langdon saw his look, and perhaps she understood what was passing in his mind; at any rate, she took means to bring him to his bearings.
'And how is your wife, Mr. Ruthven?' she said sweetly. 'I haven't heard anything of her lately.'
'Nor have I,' said Ruthven; and the hot blood came in a slow and painful flush to his forehead.
Bob, who was sitting at his sister-in-law's left, administered a good kick under the table. She turned upon him a wondering, innocent look.
'What are you doing that for, Bob? Don't you know you are kicking me?'
Bob growled something in reply, and for a moment there was an awkward pause, and Winny cudgelled her brains vainly for some safe remark that would not look too much like a forced change of conversation; but, as usual in such cases, the desired remark would not come; and she felt devoutly thankful when Fred, sitting up by his father's side, turned to Ruthven, and said:
'Why don't you ever come here now, Mr. Ruthven?'
'I'm too busy, my lad,' said Ruthven.
'Busy!' laughed Bob good-naturedly; 'you Government men don't know what it is to be busy. The troopers do your work for you, and you sit on high and direct them.'
'Not entirely,' said Ruthven, smiling. 'I've had a pretty hard day of it to-day, for instance.'
'At what? Oh, are you the new Commissioner they've sent to Deadman's?'
'Yes, I've got an independent command at last, thank goodness! I've been long enough about it.'
'You're in luck,' he said. 'If I've a place to run on my own account by the time I'm your age, or ten year older than you, I'll think myself lucky. Here I am, three-and-twenty, and in leading-strings still.'
'Now, lad, now, lad,' said Ben kindly, 'I'm sure you haven't a bad billet, and your future is all right.'
'Oh you're a good sort,' said Bob, laughing. 'I was only drawing you. My word, Ruthven! it's quite a big rush already on the creek there. And a month ago there wasn't a solitary creature there.'
'It's just three weeks since Hannan made that big find—a four-hundred-ounce nugget, nearly all pure gold! There was bound to be a rush.'
'And are you lord of all you survey?' asked Langdon.
'Yes,' said Ruthven. 'They've given me the Packhorse Creek as well, over on the other side of the range, you know; but my headquarters will be at Deadman's.'
'Umph! the Packhorse isn't much of a place.'
'No,' said Ruthven, 'it's a poor man's diggings, and is mostly in the hands of the Chinese. Unluckily, one or two of them have struck it rich lately, and I'm afraid there's bound to be trouble.'
'There very often is trouble when the police come interfering,' said Mrs. Langdon. 'I have often noticed a place is peaceful enough till a Commissioner comes with the troopers and starts a police camp; then we know we may expect to hear of all sorts of horrors.'
'Emmie!' said Winny in remonstrance, and her husband said something vaguely about that just showing the necessity for the police, and that it was a sign they never came before they were wanted; but Ruthven knew well enough that his hostess only desired to make things uncomfortable for him. He felt like congratulating her; she was succeeding very well indeed. Nothing—no, not Winny's fair face, which, of course, he had no right to think about, should ever induce him to enter Karouda doors again.
'Well, one thing you'll find very handy,' he said, 'and that is the post-office they've started. It will be much better than sending to Deep Creek for your letters and papers. That'll compensate you, Mrs. Langdon, for having a diggers' camp at your doors, which, I must confess, has its drawbacks.'
'I never said I objected to the diggers,' said Emmie with a little resigned sigh, for which Winny could have gladly shaken her.
'No, by Jove!' laughed Bob; 'we'll start a butchering business and sell 'em their meat.'
'Robert, how can you!' said his sister-in-law, as she rose from the table.
'True as Gospel, Emmie, that's what Ben and I are going to do. Do you think we are going to throw away such a chance of making our pile?'
Karouda only possessed one sitting-room, so, as it was cold and wet outside, there was nowhere else for the inmates to go after dinner. His mother took Freddy, protesting vehemently, away to bed, and the rest, relieved by her absence, stood round the fire.
'Now, if only Em would let us smoke,' said Ben Langdon disconsolately.
Bob laughed. 'Poor old Ben! You are a holy warning. Now, the future Mrs. Robert Langdon——'
'Will be perfection. We all know that. Bachelors' wives!' laughed Winny.
Ruthven stood with his back to the fire and looked round the room thoughtfully. Was it really a fact that a year ago he had thought Ben Langdon a brute for wanting to smoke in his wife's presence? Could he have upheld the doctrine that the cold veranda or the wet garden was quite a good enough place for the man who was such a Goth as to wish to smoke at all when he could have the company of a divine woman if he went without? He used to be content to spend an evening without smoking when he came over to Karouda in those days. A pipe in the privacy of his own room, after everyone had gone to bed, with his head up the chimney or out of the window, was the most he allowed himself. Would he do that now, he wondered? He sympathized with Ben Langdon. After all, any woman who was fond of her husband would put her own prejudices aside for the pleasure of pleasing him, and would let him smoke in his own dining-room. But he remembered that was not what he had thought a year ago. He was wiser in many ways than he had been a year ago, and he sighed heavily.
'Do you smoke, Mr. Ruthven?' asked Winny.
'Smoke—of course he does,' said Bob, 'like a chimney, though there was a time when in deference to Mrs. Langdon's prejudices he pretended he didn't. Oh, you needn't blush, Ruthven; you know that's a true bill.'
'Then, I propose,' said Winny, taking no notice of Bob's uncomfortable remarks, 'that you all adjourn to Bob's den. There's sure to be a glorious fire there, and you can smoke and talk to your hearts' content. You may even'—and she looked slyly at Bob—'perfect that little scheme of yours for the opening of the butchering business, and no one will say anything.'
It was a very noble proposition of Winny's, for she knew she could not very well go down to Bob's den with them, and she had no desire to spend the evening alone with her sister-in-law. However, they were sure to drift there sooner or later.
'That's exactly what I was thinking myself,' said Bob. 'It has only one drawback.'
'What's that?' asked Winny.
'The confounded lamp won't burn. You're so jolly lazy, Win, I don't believe you ever trim it. Now, if Emmie undertakes to do a thing, she does it.'
'Get her to trim your lamp, then,' said Winny; but Bob shook his head.
'Bring the kerosene down now and do it, there's a good girl.'
'Come along then; I suppose you have a candle of some sort?'
Bob's den, as he called his own particular sanctum, consisted of a small two-roomed hut, at some considerable distance from the main building, only to be reached by an excursion through the pouring rain.
As they stood for a moment on the veranda, Winny remarked a little mournfully:
'We'll get so wet, Bob. Oh dear! why is your room so far off?'
'The distance, my child, has its advantages at times,' said Bob; 'and as for getting wet, the atmosphere inside has been so damping that you might wring me out, as it is. I'd rather sit on a rail in the rain for the rest of the night than stand it any longer.'
'Bob!' protested his brother.
'All right, old man,' said Bob serenely. 'But you know you didn't ought to have married such a superior sort of a woman, or else you ought not to have had such a commonplace family.'
'It's my family that will have to mend their ways,' said Langdon, smiling; but he meant what he said.
Winny ran round the veranda to the kitchen—she did not want to run the risk of meeting her sister-in-law—and presently returned with a tin of kerosene and some rags for trimming the lamp, and then, gathering up her skirts in one hand, she daintily made her way down the garden-path, now running with water, while the other three followed her.
It did not take long to put the lamp right; then she washed her hands—Bob's bedroom was next his 'den'—and came and stood warming her feet before the fire for a last word before starting again for the house.
Ruthven pushed a chair up for her.
'Thank you,' she smiled; 'but I ought to be going back to the house.'
'Of course you ought,' grumbled Bob; 'but, then, you never do do what you ought. What business have you sitting with us while we smoke? Sit down, for goodness' sake, if you are going to stay. I like to be comfortable, and a woman just preparing to move gives me the fidgets.'
Then Winny sat down and smiled across at Ruthven. She knew very well there would be a day of reckoning for her later on, but she thought she might as well enjoy herself as long as she could.
'It's cosy here,' she said, 'isn't it? though Bob is frightfully untidy, and does keep his boots on his bookshelves.'
'Winny, you're not to be critical. Those Wellingtons have got to be dried, and that's the best place for them. If you want a properly-set-out room, you know——' And standing up behind his brother, he pointed his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the house.
Winny shook her head at him. They were apt, she felt, to treat Ben too much as altogether apart from his wife, as a person to be sympathized with on account of her, and Ruthven, watching them, could not help smiling to himself. And this was the woman he had thought little short of an angel. Winny's dark eyes were shining in the firelight, and he watched her, and thought what a charming girl she was, so unaffected, so natural, so free from all the little tricks, it seemed, most women indulged in, and, above all, she was unselfish. How she considered her brothers' comfort! What a wife she would make! What a sweet face that would be to have opposite you all the days of your life—so merry, so thoughtful, so kind! Then he shook himself, and asked Bob for a light. What business had he allowing his thoughts to wander to such matters? Nicholson had always laughed at him for being susceptible, and it had not mattered in those days if he had admired every pretty face he came across; but things were changed now. He had no right to think about this girl, even though she was not likely to give him a second thought, and he would not.
They made a very pleasant little party gathered round the log-fire, the men in easy-chairs and the girl on a low seat in the corner, leaning up against the rough wooden mantelpiece. The oil-lamp on a table in a far corner gave but small light, but the fire glowed ruddy and bright, beautifying the rough furniture of the little room, and lending to it an air of cosiness and comfort which was hardly its due; but when Bob took his pipe out of his mouth, and stretched his feet to the fire, saying with a sigh, 'Now, this is what I call comfort,' an assenting sigh went round the little circle.
The evening passed quickly. Sometimes they talked, sometimes they were silent, but all grew friendly before a couple of hours had passed, as if they had known each other for years. Only Langdon thought occasionally how coldly angry his wife would be should she find out that his sister had spent the evening with them; but he did not think about it much, and as for the young lady herself, once she had made up her mind to stop, she never gave the matter a second thought; she never worried her head over possible consequences.
About half-past nine there came a loud rapping at the door.
'Come in,' called Langdon—'come in. What the dickens do you want?'
The door opened slowly, and a little wizened old man with a sack wrapped round him entered. He dropped the sack at the door, and came forward rubbing his hands. 'Old hand' was written all over him—in his bowed head, in his prison gait, in his fawning, obsequious manner. He paused a moment, then crossed the room and stood in the full blaze of the firelight, still deferentially rubbing his hands.
'If you please, sir,' he said, 'it's sorry I am to trouble you on such a night, but the imported bull, he's main bad.'
'What the devil!' cried Langdon, springing to his feet. 'Why on earth didn't you come before? He's worth a pot of money, that bull. I can't afford to lose him. Come on, Bob—come on! Here's your coat. Where is he, Hall? In the cow bail? Come, Bob!'
And the two men snatched down the cloaks that were hanging against the wall, and made for the door.
'You'll excuse me, Ruthven,' said Langdon, pausing on the threshold; 'I must go. There's tobacco in the jar on the mantelpiece and brandy in the decanter. See you help yourself;' and he banged the door behind him, quite forgetting Hall's presence.
The old man stood for a moment rubbing his hands in the firelight; then he turned respectfully to Ruthven. It did not strike Winny at first that he did not see her in the gloom. Now he had his back towards her.
'You're the new Commissioner, sir?' he said.
'Yes,' said Ruthven.
'Commissioner Jocelyn Ruthven?'
'You married Mat Phillips' girl?'
Commissioner Ruthven sprang to his feet. What right had an old lag to cross-question him in this way?
'You—you——' he stammered below his breath, remembering Winny sitting silent in her corner. He could not swear at the man as he wanted to.
'She runned away with Fraser, an' was up in the ranges above here a long while,' went on Hall, still very respectfully.
It was the matter, not the manner of his speech, that angered the Commissioner.
'Hall,' he said angrily between his teeth, 'you'd better go. This is no business of yours.'
'I had something to tell ye. I thought maybe ye'd like to hear.'
'I don't want to hear anything. Go—go!'
It was bad enough to think that his miserable story was the property of this man. It was unbearable to discuss it with him before Winny. He was thankful to her that she did not betray her presence.
'Ay, but listen, sir. It's something as is well worth the knowing, an' ye'd be glad to know it. I was thinking, sir, ye'd maybe give me something for the information. 'Tis cheap at a hundred pund.'
Ruthven's passion overmastered him, and he took the old man by the shoulders and shook him well.
'I want to know nothing—nothing. Do you hear?' And he dragged him towards the door.
The old man made no resistance.
'Ye'll repent all the days of yer life, an' I'll let ye,' he said angrily; and then, as they reached the door, he made one more effort: 'Will ye give me twenty pund for it?' he asked, and then added with a chuckle, 'It's worth more 'n that.'
'Man, I'll have no more of this!' and Ruthven opened the door and thrust the old man outside into the pouring rain. A wild gust of wind tore round the room, and made the pictures on the walls clatter. Then he carefully shut the door, and returned to his place, to find Winny facing him, tall and graceful in the firelight.
'I—I beg your pardon, Miss Langdon,' he said.
'There is nothing to beg my pardon for,' she said. 'I don't know whether I ought not to beg yours. What right had I to sit there and listen? I ought to have come out into the light, perhaps.'
'No, no; you were right. It was kind of you—very kind; it was the kindest thing you could do.'
He stood staring gloomily at the glowing coals, and Winny took her brother's chair, right in front of the fire.
There was dead silence between them for a space, and at last the girl said shyly:
'Mr. Ruthven, don't you think you ought to have found out what old Hall had to tell you?'
'No,' he said thoughtfully, still looking into the fire—'no, I think not. These old hands are all alike. It was just a plan to extort money. He knew the wretched story, and thought if he could get a little money out of me, he might just as well. Oh, well——'
'But—but—why don't you make a few inquiries? There might be something, you know.'
'No, no! what could there be?' burst out Ruthven passionately. 'Good God, Miss Langdon! do you know what you are saying? Do you know what it feels like to know your wife has run away with one old lag, while another brings you information he'll sell for a five-pound note?' and he marched furiously up and down the room.
'I am so sorry—so sorry,' murmured Winny faintly.
'And you needn't be sorry for me, either,' he said fiercely. 'It is entirely my own fault. I brought it on myself. Do you understand? With my eyes open I married that woman, and no one could have tried harder than your brother did to stop me. He warned me, and I would not be warned.'
Winny looked at him kindly. She did not know what to say now. It was sad—it was very sad indeed.
'And, Miss Langdon,' went on Ruthven, 'I ought to tell you something. I don't deserve your pity. I—I am much happier since my wife went away. This last six months I have not worried much; I have been very happy on the whole, so long as no one reminded me of the unhappy past. There! now I know you will despise me;' and, indeed, he felt he had crushed any regard she might have for him altogether.
But she rose and looked at him with shining kindly eyes.
'I understand,' she said; 'indeed, I think I understand. And now it is ten o'clock, and we really must be going back to the house—at least, I must.'
'Oh, judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.'
AT the Packhorse the majesty of the law was, as a rule represented by two troopers, who lived in their little camp alone, as near as possible in the centre of the field, and right opposite to the Eldorado Hotel, the principal grog-shanty on the creek. The gully was very narrow—so narrow that in many places the high hills that rose on either side seemed to spring from the very banks of the creek itself, and there was but little room for a large mining camp. Still, gold had been discovered in paying quantities, and though there was no regular camp, there were diggings all along for at least twenty miles, and altogether about a thousand men, European and Chinese, were scattered along the creek. The gully lay within Commissioner Ruthven's district, and once a fortnight he had to come over the ranges and administer justice to the inhabitants.
Gold had first been discovered by the Chinese, and these industrious aliens held some of the best claims, and the white men resenting this, disputes between them were endless. Altogether, Commissioner Ruthven, when he heard that the Packhorse was attached to his command at Deadman's, was not best pleased, and growled not a little at the trouble he saw in prospect.
And the trouble began sooner than he anticipated. While he was spending a pleasant evening in Bob Langdon's snug little den, in company with Bob's attractive sister, the diggers at the Packhorse were also holding high holiday and thoroughly enjoying themselves.
It was the fourth of July, the glorious fourth, and as there was a fair sprinkling of Americans on the field, they had decided to celebrate it by that nondescript sort of festivity known as a 'banquet.' The large room of the Eldorado, the room where, as a rule, bull dances were held, had been cleared out, boards on trestles did duty as tables, and they fairly groaned beneath the abundance of provisions. Abundance there was certainly, but no variety. It was beef and mutton, mutton and beef, alternating with tinned delicacies, such as salmon and lobster, while fruit and vegetables were conspicuous by their absence. The courses were two—meat and pudding, plum-pudding and jam-roll, known to the banqueters as 'dog-in-the-blanket.' The choice of liquors was equally limited, and he who did not choose to drink Battle-axe brandy, or what in those days did duty for that famous brand, had to content himself with water not as clear and sparkling as it might have been.
About the middle of the meal, half a dozen gold-topped bottles made their appearance, and were eagerly bought up at a guinea a bottle, the buyers firmly believing on the word of the veracious landlord that the wine was the product of the best vineyards in the South of France, though future years convinced them that that valuable and expensive champagne came from no farther away than the gooseberry gardens of Tasmania. After all, though, the champagne, gooseberry or not, added to the merriment of the feast, and therefore fulfilled its mission in this world, wherever it came from.
Outside the rain came down in torrents, steady pouring rain, and the creek was running a banker; but inside, in the Eldorado, the atmosphere grew hot as the evening advanced. There were between forty and fifty men present at the banquet, and though many were not in the slightest degree connected with the country whose independence they had gathered together to celebrate, all were respectable men in the prime of their manhood, and all alike, though their original ranks in life were widely different, were clad in the ordinary rough garb of the digger. The room was lighted by tallow candles and oil-lamps, and the steaming joints, the roaring fire, not to speak of the guests all crowded together, soon raised the temperature to such a height that they were glad to throw open the windows and let in a rush of the chilly night air.
As soon as the business of eating had been concluded, he who had been elected chairman arose, and, amidst a solemn silence, read the Declaration of Independence. Cheer after cheer rent the air as the reading came to an end, and was taken up by the diggers in the bar, and by others outside in the rain, who were deriving a sort of secondary enjoyment by looking through the windows on their more fortunate comrades feasting within.
In all honour and good faith the Americans celebrated their national feast; but the reading of the Declaration of Independence struck a chord they neither intended nor desired.
Outside, listening in the rain, was James Fraser, wastrel, convict, and ne'er-do-weel, who had transferred his unwelcome presence from Deep Creek to the Packhorse, and was now a digger, and an unsuccessful digger at that, on the Packhorse. He cheered with the rest, and then, entering the bar, stood up on an up-turned barrel and improved the occasion. Providence, among other gifts, had provided James Fraser with a glib and ready tongue, and taking for his text the American Independence, he soon had round him a crowd of diggers, listening open-mouthed while he discoursed on the pluck of that people who, in days gone by, had so boldly fought for liberty, and then, with a rapidity and aptness that earned him thunders of applause, likened the condition of that oppressed British colony to that of the diggers at present assembled on the Packhorse.
'Who,' he cried with a burst of eloquence that carried his hearers with him, 'so down-trodden as they? Who so crushed and ground down under the iron heel of the law? The traps? What were they for,' he asked—'what were they for, brothers? Was it not merely to collect the license fee of a tyrannical Government, that infamous license fee which took hope, and strength, and life out of honest men? Toil, toil, toil—never-ending toil—and out of it barely enough to keep body and soul together. Gold there was in plenty, they knew—plenty; but the greater part went to buoy up the Government, to pay the traps to harry them, to enable the officials to live in idleness and luxury, to enable a hostile and alien race to establish themselves on the gold-fields and take the bread out of honest men's mouths. 'Yes, my brothers, I come to the most important point at last; I say it advisedly and deliberately, the infamous manner in which a degraded and debased heathen people have been encouraged and assisted to settle in our midst. It is true, is it not, brothers?'
Groans and howls from the listening crowd, growing larger and larger every moment.
The orator felt he had scored a point, and paused to refresh himself with a deep draught of brandy-and-water, handed up by an enthusiastic admirer.
'What about the Commissioner's wife?' asked some carping individual from the edge of the crowd; and the crowd laughed as at a good joke.
'Is not this a case in point, gentlemen?' asked the orator, drawing his cuff across his mouth as he handed back the empty glass. 'You see, brothers, she could not live with an official, a trap, a man who made it his business, his object in life, to grind the honest digger to the ground. She could not live with him, I say, brothers, and therefore she came to one who could give her rest and peace.'
'In a bark humpy, out on the ranges, this weather,' said the same dissenting voice out of the darkness, 'she'll get the rest and peace with a vengeance, likely, if it goes on.'
There was a slight tendency to laugh among the diggers, but James Fraser turned on them an injured and reproachful countenance.
'I ask you, brothers, is it fair to taunt a man with his private sorrows—to make capital out of them, I may say?'
And the majority of the crowd shouted as one man:
'No, no; turn him out! A scab! A trap! Go on, old boy; we're with you!'
Thus adjured, Fraser did go on:
'Look at the Packhorse—look at it!'
Each man endeavoured to look as if he saw before his mind's eye the winding creek, with its claims, and the diggers' dwellings nestling among the scrub.
'Look at the Packhorse. There were a thousand men on it at the very least, and out of those thousand nearly a third—nay, more, over four hundred—were Chinese. Leprous heathen barbarians held some of the best claims. He might say the best claims. Look at Ah Moy and Sum Kin.'
Deep groans from the crowd.
'Had they not taken two hundred ounces last week out of the claim that he himself had been forced to abandon only the week before?'
More groans and expressions of sympathy.
'It was a shame—a crying shame—a shame'—his language was forcible, and hardly fitted for ears polite—'and the sooner it was put a stop to the better. It should be put a stop to at once. Let them make a firm stand. Let them show these haughty minions of a tyrannous Government'—then represented by two slim young troopers at that moment preparing to turn in for the night over in their camp on the opposite hillside—'that they would not be oppressed. They, too, could hoist the flag of freedom—they, too, could march beneath its banner, and their cry should be: "Down with the Chinese! down with the Chinese! To h—— with the Chinks!"'
'To h—— with the blasted Chinks!' yelled the crowd, now inflamed with brandy and a sense of grievous wrong, and they tossed up their glasses and pannikins, and swayed backwards and forwards in intense excitement. A tall man sprang up beside James Fraser with the evident intention of aiding and abetting him, but his voice was drowned in roars of applause and shouts of, 'Out with the blasted Chinks!'
The feasters in the next room endeavoured to make their way in to see the fun, and the reader of the Declaration of Independence—the innocent instigator of the whole thing—tried to make his voice heard, but he was howled down with shouts of applause. He was perfectly sober, which some of the feasters certainly were not, and tried his best to correct the unfortunate impression he had made, and to throw his weight on the side of law and order, but the roughs would not see it.
They chose to consider him on their side, and, whenever he opened his lips, drowned his words in yells of, 'Good for you, Hicks! Hicks for ever! Down with the Chinks!' and struggling and kicking with all his might, the unfortunate and unwilling Hicks was hoisted up by brawny arms and chaired round the room, till he managed at last to escape from his tormentors, and fled up the hill to the police camp, where he informed the 'haughty minions of a tyrannous Government' that there was going to be an almighty row, and that he guessed the Celestial would have the worst of it.
There was going to be an almighty row with a vengeance.
Momentarily the crowd increased, absorbing into itself, as crowds will, all the accumulated iniquity of the field. And there was plenty there without focussing it. Escaped convicts, ticket-of-leave men, and old hands from the gaols of Tasmania and Sydney, the sweepings and scum of England, Ireland, and Scotland, past-masters in iniquity, men who would stick at nothing and cared for nothing, assembled at the Eldorado that night, ripe for mischief, or worse, and listened and drank brandy, while stump orator after stump orator arose, and in much the same words as James Fraser denounced the Government, and urged the necessity of putting down the Chinese.
Many there were, of course, even in that rough crowd, who never would have dreamed of proceeding to extremities; but they were all now maddened with drink, they were hardly masters of themselves; they would follow blindly any leader, and the leader was there. A tall, broad-shouldered man, with 'convict' and 'thief' written in large letters on his evil countenance, forced his way to the counter, and, climbing thereon, stood up before them all, and asked sullenly, with various foul oaths:
'Wot's the good o' gassin' here? Less do somethin'. Less pull out that ---- skunk Ah Moy!'
He spoke for the majority, and, as he made his way to the door, the crowd followed him almost as one man.
'Down with the d——d yellow-skinned, pig-tailed robbers!' it shouted; and it increased every moment, till nearly four hundred men, ripe for violence and rapine, were assembled.
With yells and shouts, they made their way to the tumble-down hut where Ah Moy and his successful cousin, Sum Kin, sheltered from the winter weather.
Repeated shouts and knocks produced no effect on the Celestials, who knew too much to face the mob if they could by any means avoid it, and lay shivering, hoping against hope that the rioters would pass on. It was a vain hope. James Fraser bore them a personal grudge, because their industry had succeeded where his indolence had failed; and Ben the Cadger, the man who had spoken last, was only too anxious to smoke out 'the ——— bandicoots.' It was only a frail little hut, built of sheets of bark and kerosene tins; they might have pulled it down easily enough, but the Cadger's proposition met with great favour.
'It's a d——d cold night!' cried one; 'we'll make a fire. We need it, and the Chinks are cold. We'll warm 'em;' and the crowd roared as at a good joke.
It did not take long to kindle a fire to windward, and, spite of the rain, the flames soon ran up the side of the hut to the low bark roof, and threw a ruddy glow on the circle of cruel faces that stood around.
There was a sound of movement inside the hut, the first that they had heard, and James Fraser laughed softly.
'That's fetching them,' he said.
The ridge-pole caught; the flames leaped up towards the lowering sky; the burning bark threw out showers of sparks, and the rain sissed and fizzled as it fell on the glowing embers. Still the door remained obstinately closed, and some of the crowd began to feel they were losing half the fun. It was too bad of the Chinamen to elect to die without making a sign. The fire was so hot now they were obliged to move a little off. Only one bold spirit rushed at the fast-closed door, and kicked it hard.
'Come out, you d——d varmints!' he shouted.
Then he retreated, and the door slowly opened; and there was a roar of triumph from the crowd as the two unfortunate aliens stood in the doorway, set in a frame of leaping flames.
They held up beseeching hands before them, and bowed their heads meekly as they advanced, as if beseeching the pity and mercy of their assailants. But scant mercy was to be expected from such men. The very voices of the victims were drowned in the roar of delight that went up to the dark sky, and every man in that crowd made a rush for the Chinamen. Whether any there were imbued with a desire to help the helpless is doubtful. Certainly they did not effect their object; and in one moment the flames from the burning hut shone on a heaving mass of men, all struggling to get nearer those two poor, harmless Chinamen. They made no fight at all. They stood there meekly—it was hopeless to think of escaping—and only raised an arm occasionally when they could get it loose to ward off some blow that threatened to be heavier than another. They were tossed from one man to another, beaten with fists, kicked with heavy hob-nailed boots, trampled on, and finally, as the flames from the burnt-out hut died down to a sullen glow, dragged along by their pigtails, and tossed into the scrub, and left there to get through the bitter winter night if they could, while their assailants passed on to the next Chinaman's hut.
Right down the gully went the lawless mob, and at every Chinaman's hut the scene repeated itself; and the Chinamen, getting wind of their coming, abandoned their goods and chattels, and fled out into the night for their lives, hiding in the ranges with no shelter from the wind and the rain. Some few, about half a dozen or so, were caught, beaten and ill-treated, and literally done to death. Possibly most in the crowd would have stopped short at murder; but no one hesitated, or raised a dissenting voice, when it was a matter of giving a hated Chinaman a thrashing that just left the faintest flicker of life in the recipient.
The troopers were absolutely helpless. What could they do? What could even the respectable portion of the community, willing as they were, do to stem the riot? They might just as well have tried to dam up the flooded creek itself.
'Devil take it!' said Hicks; 'they'll murder every one before morning. Where's the nearest police camp, Jenkins?' he asked of one of the young troopers who was perplexedly scratching his head.
'The Commissioner over at Deadman's has got charge,' said Jenkins, 'and they were to pitch camp to-day.'
'And how far is it?'
'About ten or twelve miles across the ranges.'
'You'd better saddle up and go and tell the Commissioner.'
'Can't leave the camp, sir.'
'Lord! What good are you before four hundred raging devils bent on bloodshed? Ride like the wind, or there won't be a Chinaman left before morning—not,' added Hicks conscientiously, 'that I think they'd be much loss myself. Still, I'd prefer to get rid of them some quieter fashion.'
Thus exhorted, Jenkins saddled his horse, and made his way across to the new camp at Deadman's Creek, which place he found wrapped in slumber. Young Anderson, Ruthven's clerk, was roused out, and expressed his entire ignorance of Commissioner Ruthven's whereabouts. He had gone to the blacks' camp, and had not returned. A consultation was held, and the general opinion being that he must have gone on to Karouda, a trooper was despatched there post-haste, arriving somewhere about three o'clock in the morning.
The whole place was still and quiet, and the man, dismounting, wandered about, trying to find either a front or a back door, or at least a door through which visitors might expect to be admitted. At last he found himself on the veranda in front of Winny's bedroom, and rapped with his sword on the glass of the French window. The rapping awakened the girl, and she started up in a fright.
'Who's there?' she asked, in some trepidation; and many stories of midnight marauders flashed through her mind.
'It's me, ma'am—Trooper Simson,' a man's voice answered civilly. 'This is Karouda, isn't it?'
'Yes,' said Winny, jumping up, lighting a candle, and hastily slipping into her dressing-gown. 'What is it?'
'It's the Commissioner, ma'am. Is he here? We want him. There's a riot over at the Packhorse.'
Then Winny opened the door.
'The Commissioner's room is just a little further on,' she said. 'Must he go to-night?'
'Oh yes, miss, I think so.'
'Here you are. Knock at the door, and ask the Commissioner to come to the dining-room when he's dressed.'
'Justice like lightning ever should appear,
To few men's ruin, but to all men's fear.'
WINNY left the trooper knocking at the Commissioner's door, and made her way into the dining-room, where she relighted the lamp and drew together the dying embers of the fire.
Then she turned her attention to the table, and, going to the sideboard, produced the remnants of last night's supper, biscuits and butter and cheese and ale, Winifred Langdon being firmly convinced that at all times and all seasons men were the better for their creature comforts being attended to.
Just as she had set them out, Ruthven made his appearance, fully equipped for the journey, and thought his hostess looked more beautiful than ever in a bright pink dressing-gown, with her long, dark hair falling down about her shoulders.
'Must you go?' she asked, as he came towards her.
'I must. It seems they are murdering the Chinamen wholesale down at the Packhorse. But, Miss Langdon, I'm so sorry you have been disturbed. I have sent Simson to waken my orderly and see about the horses. Do go to bed again. Please don't bother about me.'
'Now,' said Winny, with a little smile, 'you must just let me wait on you, first, because it is my bounden duty to be hospitable; and, secondly, because I must show my gratitude for all you did for me last night;' and she drew up a chair and made him seat himself at the table.
It was three o'clock in the morning, cold, wet, and raw, and Ruthven wanted neither a late supper nor an early breakfast, but he took bread and cheese and ale simply because he saw it pleased the girl who had provided them, and it pleased him to be waited on by her. He ate slowly and watched her, and wondered if he should ever spend an evening with her again. The chances were against it, he thought—much against it—and the thought gave him a queer little pang. She was so good to look upon: those soft, dark eyes that looked so frankly into his, that bright face, were irresistible. Yes, he should like to meet this woman again, to have her for a friend, if friendship were possible between man and woman; but it was not likely he would have the chance to cultivate such a friendship. He had only entered her home by chance; he had been made to feel by one person, at least, and that person his hostess, that he was extremely unwelcome, and he felt he could not come there again. Well—he looked again at Winny as she held out the bottle to him—perhaps it was as well. She was charming—the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Perhaps the less he saw of her the better, considering all things.
'Do have some more ale,' said Winny hospitably. 'Remember you have a long ride before you.'
'No, no more, thank you.'
He pushed back his chair and rose from the table.
'Miss Langdon, I must go now, really,' and the 'really' was more to impress upon himself the necessity of starting at once than because she had pressed him to stay. 'Will you explain, and say good-bye to the others for me?'
'But we shall see you again. I hope we shall see you again. Won't you tell us how you put down the riot? And—and—oh, isn't there any danger?'
Jocelyn Ruthven was only mortal, and to say good-bye to a good-looking girl who takes an interest in one, and shows it, is at any time not a thing to be lightly undertaken, and at three o'clock in the morning it is doubly dangerous.
'I wish,' he said earnestly—'I do wish I could come here again; but how can I? I used to come often enough once—a deal too often,' he added bitterly—'but I can't come any more. You know Mrs. Langdon was not—not——'
'She was abominably rude,' said Winny, flushing at the remembrance.
'I brought it on myself, I suppose,' said Ruthven, with that self-condemnation that comes so easy when we know the person addressed will not agree with us.
'I don't think anything can excuse Emmie's conduct,' said Winny hotly. 'But Ben and Bob and I will always be pleased to see you, and we are very grateful. You know that, don't you?'
Ruthven bowed gravely, and the arrival of the horses outside told him his time was up.
'Good-bye—good-bye,' he said, opening the door, and letting in the raw night air.
'The men,' said Winny—'call them in for some ale.'
So Troopers Wynne and Simson were called in, and when they saw the cosy room and the pretty hostess, privately winked at one another, and thought it no wonder their superior officer should prefer Karouda home station to the police camp at Deadman's Creek. They saluted, and drank the ale she poured out for them; then the Commissioner said good-bye once again, all three mounted, and Winny watched them as they rode out into the dreary night.
They reached the camp, and Ruthven despatched messengers for help to Beechworth and Yackandandah, and was well on his way to the Packhorse with twenty armed troopers at his back long before the late winter's dawn broke.
Long before they reached the police camp at the Packhorse he found that the story Jenkins had told was true enough. Here and there, crouching down among the wet scrub, sometimes huddled in twos and threes over miserable fires, which they dared not make larger for fear of being discovered, he found the homeless aliens, too terror-stricken in many cases even to creep out and claim the protection of the troopers as they passed. Everywhere he saw their blackened, ruined homes, and once, right across his path, just as the sun was rising, he came across a Chinaman stone dead. His head was crushed in, his face was covered with blood, which even the rain had not washed away, and his scanty clothing was half torn off; but the fear was gone from his face, and he smiled in death as peacefully as if his bones would lie with his father's in far-away China, and his son would worship at the ancestral tablet.
Ruthven called to the troopers to move the body aside, and as they did so, they spied, crouched among the wet ferns and bracken, another Chinaman, whom they hauled out with little ceremony. He was half dead with cold; his clothes were merely ribbons of dirty, draggled blue cotton rags; his face was one mass of bruises; a cruel blow had closed one eye completely; and, worst indignity of all, his pigtail had been cut off.
He was very frightened, and raised beseeching hands when the troopers laid hold of him.
'Come, man,' said the Commissioner sharply, 'look up. We're not going to hurt you. What's your name?'
'Ah Moy,' said the Chinaman.
'And who's that there? Any fellow you know?'
'He mly cousin.'
'Who is he?'
'Him name Sum Kin.'
'And who killed him?'
'Englishy man,' said Ah Moy calmly. 'Clistlian man.'
'Oh, confound your Christians! Do you know who it was?'
'Him James Flaser—plenty mlore Englishy man.'
'Did you see them?'
'Him burn up hut; say, "Come out, you thlieving heathen man," and then beat;' and Ah Moy sat himself down on the ground, and rested his face on his hands. 'Me welly sick; me die soon.'
'Nonsense, man! you're all right. Here, take a sup of brandy. Sergeant, dismount one of the men, and put this beggar up, and we'll take him into the camp along with us.'
It was broad daylight before he reached the camp, a dull, dreary winter's day, but without rain. The creek was flooded, and the whole place looked desolate. The mob that had done such damage the night before had practically dispersed now that the troopers had made their appearance, and little knots of men hung about the shanties, discussing the riot of the night before and the probable outcome of it. Ruthven and his troopers rode straight down the gully, and everywhere came on traces of the cruel wrong that had been done. There were at least four hundred Chinese on the field, and for nearly fifteen miles he found every one of their huts and claims burnt and dismantled, the owners themselves, some dead, some dying, and the rest hidden away in the ranges, too fearful even to disclose themselves to those who had come to their rescue.
But the Commissioner was not to be beaten. He had come to right the wrong, and right it he would. It was useless to attempt to do anything against the majority of the mob; they had only blindly followed their leaders, James Fraser, Ben the Cadger, and two other choice spirits, one of whom went by the sinister appellation of Norfolk Island Bill, and those leaders had promptly departed at the advent of the representatives of law and order, and were supposed to be hidden away somewhere in the ranges, among the steep inaccessible gullies that lay between the Packhorse and Karouda. Ruthven, though he hardly expected to catch them, had warrants out for them, and then gave himself up to helping the Chinamen. The troopers scoured the surrounding hills and gullies, and brought them in whether they would or not, though once they found it was for their good they came willingly enough, and soon nearly four hundred were assembled on the little plateau on which was the police camp at the Packhorse.
Then, having fed and succoured them, Commissioner Ruthven proceeded to redistribute the claims. For though eighteen hours had not elapsed since the breaking out of the riot, all the claims that were worth anything seemed in some mysterious manner to have become the property of white diggers.
Now, it was a well-known fact that the Packhorse had been discovered by Chinamen, and that Chinamen held the best claims on it, wherefore the Commissioner, whenever this mysterious transfer could not be clearly explained, promptly ejected the white claimant, and put a Chinaman in his place, dealing out summary justice in a high-handed fashion, which brought down hearty curses on his head from one section of the community, though it earned for him the undying gratitude of the Chinamen.
The Americans came and explained to him how, all unwittingly, they had set alight the first spark, and Hicks, who was somewhat of an authority in the place, made himself useful by his knowledge of the claims and of their owners.
'It is a fact,' he said, half reluctantly, 'that the best holes belong to the Chinamen. I don't like 'em, I admit, but that's fact.'
And accordingly, in the redistribution of the claims, the lion's share fell to the Chinese.
It was evening before Ruthven had finished his task, and by then nearly one hundred troopers were on the field, men having come in from Yackandandah, Deep Creek, and Beechworth, to aid in keeping order, and Ruthven felt he might fairly go back to his own camp, leaving things under the charge of Nicholson, who had ridden over to help his friend.
'I'm tired, old man,' he said. 'I think I'll go back, if you don't mind. I've been at it since three o'clock this morning, and my camp is not half finished yet.'
'And how do you like it?' asked Nicholson, filling his glass—they were partaking of a little refreshment at the Eldorado—'rather damp at present, I should think, but it's close to Karouda. Are you going back to your old ways of spending half your spare time there?'
Ruthven laughed a little grimly.
'I wouldn't be made welcome,' he said.
'Oh, I don't know. It isn't half a bad place to go to when you've nothing to keep you at home; Langdon's a good chap, and so is Bob; and Mary thinks Winny Langdon a particularly nice girl. There's only Mrs. Langdon left, and you know you used to be quite shook there yourself, old man.'
'Was I? Well, I've got over it, then, or she has. Icy didn't describe the greeting I got last time I ventured to Karouda;' and he did not think it necessary to say that that event had taken place the night before.
'I always told you she was a cat. As long as you worshipped at the shrine it was all right, but, you see, after you married you abandoned her for a space, and she's taken up with the parson. Never mind; show a proper repentance; ask her advice respecting the laying out of your camp, or anything else she knows nothing about; pay all deference, and she'll come round. Karouda's a nice place to go to when you get tired of your own company.'
'I'll be hanged if I hold out a little finger to her. I can do without Karouda.'
'Can you? I'd have the blue-devils about three times a week if I was in your place, and would be wanting somebody to cheer me up and take me out of myself. It's all right, of course, now; Polly sees to that, bless her! and I don't want anybody else; but if I were in your place——'
'If you were in my place,' said Ruthven slowly, 'you would curse the day you—— Hallo, Hicks! what the dickens is the matter with you?'
Hicks advanced into the room, twisting his soft felt hat round and round.
'I heard, Commissioner,' he said, addressing Ruthven, 'that you were going over to Deadman's to-night with nearly all your troopers? Is that so?'
'Yes,' said Ruthven; 'I'm going in half an hour. What of that?'
'Well, I'd like to go with you. The Packhorse is going to be too hot to hold me, I guess. You've scared away the ringleaders, but they're not caught yet, and they're not going to be, you can bet your boots; and I'm thinking that, while there are plenty of holes handy, I wouldn't give a day's purchase for my life. Lord! put me away some dark night, and who'd be the wiser?'
'But why should they do that?'
'Why? Bless my soul, sir, you are green! I guess you don't know what a nest of hornets you've raised about your ears. I shouldn't advise you to go riding about alone for many a long day to come. It isn't healthy. Lonely gullies are mighty handy, and I calculate to make myself scarce while I've got a whole skin.'
'What have I done? Put down a trumpery little riot, and not even caught the ringleaders, and what you can have to do with it, Mr. Hicks, I really fail to see.'
'I—well, I sent off the trooper for you, sir, and I helped you put the Chinamen back in their claims. It may be all right, as you say, but I guess I'll not risk it. I've made a little pile, and I'd like to be over the hills and far away before morning—that is, if you've plenty of troopers.'
'I've a dozen; said Ruthven, rising. 'Well, Mr. Hicks, you are heartily welcome to my protection, which I trust you don't need. Good-bye, Nicholson; come over to my camp when you can find time.'
'Good-bye, old chap. I'll come when I can get away; but you will be over at Deep Creek before that, and Polly 'll be awfully glad to see you.'
'Some fretful tempers wince at every touch,
You always do too little or too much;
You speak with life, in hopes to entertain—
Your elevated voice goes through the brain;
You fall at once into a lower key—
That's worse! the drone-pipe of a humblebee.
* * * * *
Thus always teasing others, always teased,
His only pleasure is, to be displeased.'
THE breakfast-table at Karouda on the morning of July 5 was surrounded by a set of the solemnest faces that could have been found anywhere in the colony of Victoria. All the family were present, from Ben down to baby Marjorie, but even she seemed to feel that something was wrong, and gravely dipped her spoon in her bread-and-milk, and ate her breakfast in silence.
What the exact calamity was it would have been difficult to say, only Mrs. Langdon was an injured person, and was making her family feel she had been treated badly. It was impossible to be cheerful when she sat at the head of the table pouring out tea like a martyr, and eating her breakfast as if under protest. Emma Langdon had a way of making her whole family responsible for her ill-humour that was quietly irritating, and yet from which there was no escaping. And this time they were guiltily conscious that for once, perhaps, she had a grievance against them, for had she not been all yesterday evening alone, while they had spent a pleasant evening, in spite of the sickness of the imported bull? Now, the question was, how long this doleful state of affairs was going to last. She did not mention the Commissioner, and Winny was wondering whether she should speak of his departure or not, when Bob came to her relief.
'I wonder where Ruthven is? Overslept himself, I suppose. These Government officials take the cake. They know how to have easy times, you bet.'
'It isn't laziness this time,' said Winny, proceeding to explain matters.
Then Mrs. Langdon opened her lips, and spoke for about the first time that morning, and the whole family immediately fell to wishing she had held her tongue.
'Gone, is he?' she said. 'For my part, I can't see any reason why he should have come. Men of that description are not invited to the house with my consent.'
Winny felt that 'men of that description' intensely cutting, more especially when she remembered how she had spent a whole evening in the dangerous guest's company, and enjoyed herself thoroughly. Nay, more: she had seen him off that very morning, and had even indulged in a lingering hope that she might meet him again.
'Oh, come, Em!' remonstrated her husband; 'you used to like Ruthven well enough once upon a time.'
'The way he used to dangle and sun himself in your divine presence,' added Bob, 'was enough to make any sane man long to kick him.'
'Benjamin,' said his wife solemnly, 'when have you ever known me countenance a profligate?'
Langdon shook his head. He knew it was all up with him when his wife called him by his full name, and he mentally resolved that for to-day, at least, his work should lie at the extreme corner of his run; but Bob, not being married to the injured lady, laughed a little.
'Well, upon my word, Em,' said he, 'you are rough upon the poor beggar! He was fool enough to marry a girl because you told him to, and this is the way you treat him in consequence.'
'It is not the marrying I object to,' said Mrs. Langdon. 'It's the way he treated her. His conduct has been disgraceful, both before and after his marriage.'
'He's paid a pretty heavy penalty for what most folks would consider a slight offence. That girl—Lord Almighty, Em! all the camp knew what she was. Ruthven ought to have known it, too. The idea of marrying her!'
Bob paused. He really could not understand any man being so infatuated with his sister-in-law as to do so mad a thing at her bidding.
'Robert,' she said, 'I am surprised at your discussing such a subject—before your sister, too.'
Winny grew crimson, upset the sugar, and began helplessly trying to put it back into the basin with a knife.
'I am surprised,' went on Mrs. Langdon, who began to feel a little better now that she had succeeded in making her husband thoroughly uncomfortable—'I am surprised at both of you allowing a young girl like Winifred to associate with such a man.'
'I can take care of myself, thank you, Emmie,' said that young lady sharply.
'Considering how you spent the greater part of yesterday evening, I hardly think you can,' went on Emmie calmly. 'It is enough to ruin the reputation of any girl.'
Winny grew hot all over, and looked down angrily at her plate. She did not for a moment believe there was anything but angry spite in her sister-in-law's words, but, nevertheless, they made her feel uncomfortable.
'Oh, gammon and spinach, Em!' said Bob, coming to her relief. 'Winny has done nothing she need be ashamed of. She came to my den along with Ruthven and Ben and me. We'd have stopped up here if we'd only been allowed to smoke. We couldn't go into Ben's office, because——'
'And you and Benjamin went away to attend to the bull,' said Mrs. Langdon, cutting him short. 'I know that, you see. Where was Winny then, let me ask? Would not any properly conducted young woman have returned to the house under the circumstances? But no, she stayed down there with that—with a man like Jocelyn Ruthven.'
'Oh d——your properly conducted young women!' said Bob, losing his temper.
Winny looked at him gratefully. It was wrong of him to swear before his sister-in-law, of course; but she felt much relieved that he had done it. As for Mrs. Langdon, she rose majestically from her seat and turned to her husband.
'And you allow me to be insulted in this way, and before my children, too? Come, Fred, come, Marjorie;' and with a child in each hand she swept out of the room.
'Really, Bob,' said Langdon undecidedly, 'you shouldn't swear before Em. You know how particular she is. I do wish you would try to live in peace with her.' Then, without waiting for a reply to his remonstrance, he went on: 'Somebody must go for the mail to-day.'
'No good,' said Bob, helping himself to more marmalade; 'all the letters are coming to Deadman's now. And the mail won't be in till to-morrow. I'll send over, or perhaps go myself.'
His brother made no reply, but, drawing on his riding-boots, which had been warming in the fender, followed his wife out of the room.
Bob threw himself back in his chair, and drew a long sigh of relief.
'Give us another cup of tea, Win,' he asked, 'there's a good old girl! I want to have the pleasure of drinking it without a glassy eye upon me, fixing me with its stony stare.'
'Oh, hush, Bob!' said Winny, walking round to the head of the table, and pouring out the tea for him; 'you really mustn't talk like that. It was very good of you to take my part, but we mustn't make her angry. Think of poor old Ben. He's such a good old thing.'
'Yes, he is,' said Bob contritely. 'I'll make it up to him outside.'
'You can't,' said Winny. 'It's unpleasant enough for us, it must be ten times worse for him, and no one can make it up to a man if his wife isn't good to him.'
'Mind you stick to that,' grinned Bob, lolling back in his chair luxuriously, and munching a slice of toast and marmalade.
'I wonder,' went on Winny thoughtfully, 'if I was wrong to stop down there talking to Mr. Ruthven? We didn't stop very long after you were gone.'
'Rot!' said Bob. 'She's jealous. Ruthven behaved like a lunatic because he was that shook on her; then, when he'd been and gone and done it for good and all, he saw what an almighty fool he had been making of himself, and hated her for her part in the business, so, of course, she can't stand him.'
'If you think that's all that's the matter,' said Winny doubtfully.
'That's all; I'll take my davy on it! If Ruthven had only come along and said how sorry he was to have been without seeing her so long; how deeply he regretted that anything should have come between them and nipped their friendship in the bud; asked her what he should do about his wife, and what sort of fence he had better put round his new camp, why, bless your soul! he'd have been "that poor, dear, unfortunate young man," and butter wouldn't have melted in her mouth; but, as it is——'
He threw up his hands in mock dismay.
'Bob, Bob,' laughed his sister, 'you must have been there yourself!'
Bob shrugged his shoulders.
'Never you mind about that. Perhaps I have. Keep up your pecker, old girl, and you and I will go down to Ruthven's camp and have dinner with him next time we go for the letters.'
Then he, too, left the room, and Winny went away to the dairy, there to make up the butter into dainty little pats, with a light heart.
'Pleasant as a calm shower of spring, when the sun looks on the field and the light cloud flies over the hills.'
BUT it was a long time before Bob fulfilled his promise to take Winny down to Deadman's for the letters. There were so many things to be done about the station; he was generally in a hurry, and had no time to wait for her; and, lastly, it never occurred to him what a treat it would be to his sister to go down to the police camp and meet somebody outside the dull routine of her life. He was never dull. All he wanted was Em to be in a fairly good temper when he came in to his meals, the work to go smoothly on the station, and a spree in Beechworth or Melbourne every twelve months or so, and he was perfectly contented with his lot in life. That Winny should want anything more never occurred to him. Every Sunday he read up the bundle of Arguses that had come during the week, and occasionally he looked through a six-months-old English paper, 'just to see what stock were fetching in the old country,' and he was quite content if he never saw a book from one year's end to another. The binding didn't make much difference to him, and he hardly ever thought it worth while to look inside, therefore he did not understand Winny's longings for something more in her life.
He felt a little anxious about her when he saw her poring over a book, a little afraid lest she should spoil her chances in life by turning blue-stocking, and a blue-stocking, he knew, was a thing abhorred of the average young man. She was a dear, good girl, and very good-looking. Even he, her brother, looking at her with critical eyes, could see that, and, like the average young man, he was willing to concede more freedom to a good-looking young woman than to a plain one. Now, if she would only marry Harry Selby, of Byaduk, he felt he would be quite content. Selby of Byaduk was his great chum. They had been mates at school together, although Selby was a good deal the elder; and they were chums still, and Selby thought no end of Winny; her wish was his law. He made a perfect fool of himself over her, thought her brother. Why, had he not actually caught him reading poetry—Shakespeare—one day? and when he, Bob, had laughed at him, had he not owned up, like the man he was, that he was doing it to try and please his, Bob's, sister?
'There must be something in it, you know,' said the young man, dolefully scratching his head; 'she's so fond of it. Goes down into the gullies and reads it by herself.'
'Oh, that's only to get out of Em's way when she's in a wax,' said Bob, reaching out for his friend's tobacco-pouch, and filling his pipe.
'Well, but she wouldn't take this chap along with her unless she liked him,' said the love-lorn young man; 'and I'm blest if I can make head or tail of it. I don't seem to get any forrarder. Blest if I know what they're driving at!'
Bob reached over and got the book by the corner, held it up for one moment and inspected it critically as if it were some curious animal, then tossed it away into the corner of the bare little sitting-room, where Selby's boots and rusty spurs were already reposing.
'There, Squimy, old man, don't you bother about it. Tisn't in your line at all; and that's not the way to get a girl. I'll fetch her down to see you in the drafting yards. If she isn't clean gone then—— Just you take her down into the gullies and make the pace hot. That's the way to do it.'
Squimy picked up the book and dusted it carefully.
'It's hers,' he said. 'I promised to take care of it, and it's all scratched with my spur. Whatever will she say?'
'Oh, I'll make that all right,' said Bob easily. 'But, hang it all, Squimy, what a blessed old fuss you are making! Take it easily, and you'll get her. Why, there isn't a man in the countryside to compare with you. There isn't a fellow this side of the Border can sit a buckjumper like you.'
'She won't marry me for that,' said Squimy with conviction.
'Lord, bless my soul!' said Bob, 'what the dickens can she want?'
And he really meant what he said. Here was Harry Selby—a tall, good-looking young fellow, with miles of run, and a good big slice of purchased land, a comfortable house, plenty of money as money went in those days, and he worshipped the ground that Winny trod on. What more could a girl want? Of course she would marry his old chum—it would be the very best thing in the world for her; but she would hold off a bit first. That was only natural. To Bob's thinking, every right-minded young woman insisted on being run after a little before she gave in. Winny was only insisting on her rights. That was his reading of her character. And as for caring whether her husband read books—why, what possible difference could it make to her? thought Robert Langdon. She might object if he couldn't break in a horse or throw a bullock; but as for reading, that was a very different matter.
So he settled it, much to his own satisfaction, that in the end Winny would marry Selby of Byaduk, and therefore gave very little thought to his promise to take her down to Deadman's to interview the Commissioner there.
Winny thought about it, though. Things went wrong at home. Emmie was a hard taskmistress, and before the week was out she was longing ardently to meet the pleasant, grave-faced young Commissioner again. He was so different from the men around. It was hardly for himself that she wanted to see him; only because he could tell her of the outside world—of England, of India, of other people than they who lived up in the hills here; and, above all, had he not promised to lend her books?—for all of which reasons she very much desired to meet Commissioner Ruthven again, and this morning she decided, with an inward sigh, that Bob had quite forgotten his promise.
The weather was perfect—a glorious, sunshiny winter morning, so warm that the fire seemed a farce; and Winny, as she stood tapping the window idly, admiring the view, felt that inexpressible sense of longing which perhaps we all feel more or less on a beautiful day. Beautiful winter days are not uncommon in the north-eastern district of Victoria, and Italy herself could surely not have a more perfect climate. Winny never looked out of that window without admiring the steep hills still clad in virgin forest, their ridges broken here and there by gaps, through which she could see range upon range of other blue hills till they faded away in the bluer distance. Close at hand was the wild garden, green and fresh after the recent rain; the air was heavy with the scent of yellow narcissus, and hyacinth, purple and white, and golden wattle-blossom, and down at the bottom of the slope the flooded creek made a pleasant murmur of sound. Overhead in the blue sky was never a cloud, and she ardently wished, as she drank in its freshness, that something worthy of the day would happen.
'Oh, Emmie,' she said to her sister-in-law, who was busy filling the flower-vases, 'how can you be so industrious? Isn't this a day to be idle? Wouldn't you like—wouldn't you like——'
'What would you like, Winny? I'm sure there's no pleasing you. If you were a little more industrious, perhaps you wouldn't find anything to complain of.'
'I don't think I'm idle,' said Winny. 'Look at all the butter I made this morning while you were sound asleep. But what is the end of it all? I don't feel a bit happier, though I have been working since daylight. I only think, if all life is going to be like this, it isn't worth living. I'm turning into a vegetable.'
'Oh, you shouldn't be so discontented. Why don't you go for a ride?'
'If there were anywhere to ride to——' began Winny discontentedly, when Bob put his head in at the door.
'I say, Win, old girl,' he said, 'would you care to ride down to Deadman's for the letters with me? It's a jolly morning, and your own mare is in the yard.'
Winny's ill-humour vanished there and then.
'Oh yes, Bob,' she said gratefully. 'What time shall I be ready?'
'Eleven, and mind you're not late, now;' and Bob disappeared.
She was not late. When the cuckoo-clock chimed the hour she was ready, equipped in her dark-blue riding-habit, standing on the veranda, impatiently waiting for her brother. And Winny hated being kept waiting. Most women take it as a matter of course. In a woman's life there is so much waiting to be done that, as a rule, she barely notices the hours and minutes as they slip away; but Winny had not come to that yet. She never kept anyone else waiting, and objected to being kept herself. She had to put up with it, though. Being a woman, that went without saying; but when Bob appeared, nearly twenty minutes after his time, there was a frown on his sister's face that he hastened to smooth away.
'Indeed, old girl, I'm awfully sorry. Ben kept me. Don't be snappy on such a lovely morning.'
Indeed, it was a shame to spoil so lovely a morning; and Winny, once on horseback, felt her ill-humour vanishing. Bob was in the wildest spirits. Ben, quite contrary to his expectations, had given him permission to go down to Melbourne for a fortnight, and Bob Langdon was perfectly happy.
The road to Deadman's was only a Bush track; but the golden wattle was all in bloom, and the sunshine was heavy with its fragrance.
'Oh dear,' sighed Winny, 'how lovely it is! What a pity we didn't start earlier. And Emmie's going to have dinner at half-past twelve to-day.'
'For that confounded little parson, I suppose,' said Bob. 'Never mind, Win, we won't bother about dinner.'
'Oh, but, Bob,' remonstrated Winny, 'it may sound commonplace, but I really can't do without my dinner. I should be ravenous before seven o'clock, and you know how wild Emmie gets if you come in and want anything between meals.'
'Bless you, my child! I thought young ladies never thought about their eating. I'm sure Emmie has led me to believe that many a time.'
'I'm not Emmie,' said Winny, with a smile.
'No, you're not. You are a much more substantial young person. Never mind, you shan't starve; I've got a little scheme of my own on.'
'A little scheme of my own.'
They were fording the creek now, which was running so high Winny had to gather up her long habit out of the reach of the water.
'What is it?' she asked.
'What would you say to luncheon with the Commissioner?'
'Oh, Bob, dare we? Would it be right? Did he ask us?'
'One question at a time, my dear. Yes, we dare. Why not? Where's the harm? And did he ask us? Yes, he did ask us.'
'Yesterday afternoon I met him crossing the ridge from the Packhorse, and we rode a bit of the way together. I said I was coming for the letters, and he asked me to luncheon.'
'But that's not me?'
'Oh yes, it is,' said her brother carelessly. 'I said you might be coming along, and he asked you, too. I thought you'd like it. Go back by yourself if you don't. But I think you'll find a little "divarsion" pleasant.'
Winny thought so, too. She was pretty sure to be welcome, whether she had been asked or not. Women were scarce in those days, and a good-looking girl like Winifred Langdon would have been blind indeed if she had not had some idea of her own value.
The post-office at Deadman's was a slab store, where were dispensed all the necessaries and luxuries of the camp. One tiny corner of the interior was given up to her Majesty's mails, and the outside was already, according to the custom of the time, plastered over with notices of all descriptions.
She was amusing herself spelling them over, when a voice she knew made her start.
'Miss Langdon,' said the Commissioner, holding out his hand, 'I am pleased to see you. Your brother told me you might come over to-day, but I scarcely dared hope you would.'
'And I only this moment knew there was a chance of meeting you.'
'Well, I call that unkind,' said Ruthven, idly playing with her horse's mane, 'considering I asked you to luncheon.'
'No, you didn't,' laughed Winny; 'you asked Bob, and when he said I would be with him, you asked me too. You can't expect me to be much flattered by an invitation like that. You were almost obliged to give it. I was considering whether I hadn't better——'
'Not go back, Miss Langdon, please. Indeed, I would have sent you the most formal of invitations if only I had been sure it would fetch you. As it was, I relied on Bob's persuasions.'
'Hallo, Ruthven!' said that young gentleman, coming out of the store and proceeding to stuff the letters into his valise. 'What are you taking my name in vain for? I fetched Win, you see.'
'Come along to my quarters,' suggested Ruthven; and they turned their horses' heads down along the creek.
At his tent door Ruthven helped Winny off her horse.
'Only a tent, Miss Langdon,' he said.
But the tent was very cosy and comfortable. A bright fire burned in the wide slab fireplace, and the table was laid for luncheon—daintily laid, too, and decorated with ferns gathered by Ruthven himself in the gullies.
'I made preparations for you, you see,' he said, smiling. 'I hope you admire the ferns. I went out this morning and gathered them just on the chance of your coming.'
Winny looked up smiling and pleased, and then he showed her his camp. The gold tent, the stables, the men's quarters—all were new to the girl, and had an interest for her; and the troopers, as they touched their caps to the Commissioner, nodded at one another when they looked at the handsome young lady he was taking round with him.
''Tis a pity, sure,' said Sergeant Flynn, scratching his head thoughtfully, 'that the Commissioner is a married man.'
'They do say,' said Trooper Wynne, 'that his wife's dead—died up in the ranges more than a month ago.'
'Sure, 'tis a blissin',' said the Irish sergeant.
'Bless your heart, 'tisn't likely to be true. That kind don't die. She'll live to plague him.'
'Well, 'tis a pity—'tis a pity,' said the sergeant again.
Winny, luckily, was unconscious of the remarks the camp was making about her, and after luncheon Ruthven installed his guest in an armchair over the fire, and Bob and young Anderson having strolled out, they had the tent to themselves.
The view down the gully was beautiful, the day was glorious, and the soft wind stirring was just enough to make the fire acceptable. The various noises of the camp reached their ears, softened and toned by the distance, and formed a pleasant accompaniment to their conversation; and Winny, as she leaned back lazily in her armchair, was conscious—pleasantly conscious—that the man sitting opposite was ranking her attractions very highly in his own mind. He was married, of course, but that did not matter. It was a pity for him, but for her it gave a freedom she would not otherwise have felt. No one would accuse her of flirting with him, at any rate, and she might just sit here and talk to him on every subject under the sun till Bob should come for her.
And he was such an entertaining companion. He had read so much, and seen so much, it was like coming into a new world, thought the country girl, to sit and talk to him. It was a pity the afternoon would come to an end so soon. She glanced at the clock. Half-past three. Bob ought to be here. What a pleasant afternoon she had spent! And she wondered a little whether pleasant things ever repeat themselves.
Ruthven saw her glance, and misunderstood it.
'Don't look at the clock,' he said reproachfully. 'You surely are not tired of me yet?'
'No indeed,' said Winny truthfully. 'Indeed, I don't know when I have had a pleasanter time; but, you see—well, I must go home.'
He rose up and stood with his arm on the mantelshelf.
'You needn't go yet,' he said. 'Surely you needn't be in such a hurry. It isn't every day that—that——'
'But I must,' she said, laughing and blushing a little. 'I suppose you think I have nothing to do, but I assure you I have all the milk to skim before dark. Do go and call Bob now.'
Still Ruthven lingered.
'You'll come again,' he had begun, when a shadow fell across the doorway, and there appeared in the little sitting-room Commissioner Nicholson from Deep Creek.
'Hallo, Ruthven!' cried the newcomer, and then stopped short as he caught sight of a woman's figure.
'Hallo, Nicholson!' said Ruthven. 'Where did you spring from?'
'Just thought I'd look you up, old chap, and see how you were getting along in your new quarters. How do you do, Miss Langdon? I didn't know you at first. Ruthven's pretty snug here, isn't he?'
'I think he is,' said Winny—'very comfortable indeed. I have had a very good time. You Commissioners do know how to make yourselves comfortable.'
'That's what my wife used to say. Now I think she wants to go nearer Melbourne.'
'You're libelling her,' said Winny. 'All the world knows she would be content anywhere so long as her husband was by. That's why I have such a high respect for you, Mr. Nicholson;' and she made him a laughing little mock curtsey. 'There must be something good about you when your wife thinks such a tremendous lot of you.'
'It isn't visible to the naked eye, evidently,' said Nicholson, laughing. 'Thank you, Miss Langdon. Do you always pay such compliments? because if you do, Ruthven must have had a very nice afternoon.'
'I didn't mean things that way,' laughed Winny; 'still, I hope Mr. Ruthven has had a nice afternoon. I know I have. Why, I have actually never looked at my letters, and as the mail is our one excitement at Karouda, he ought to take that as a great compliment.'
'Oh, talking of letters, Ruthven,' said Nicholson, putting his hand in his breast-pocket and drawing out a grimy blue envelope addressed to Ruthven, 'here's something for you. As I was coming across the ranges, I overtook an evil-looking customer, who stopped me and asked me if I knew you. Then he calmly requested me to deliver to you this objectionable epistle. Here, take it;' and he flung it on the table.
Ruthven picked it up and opened it.
'Excuse me, Miss Langdon,' he said. 'I'd like to know what is inside this. It can't be a dun, that's one good thing.'
Then he began to laugh.
'Well, upon my word, Nicholson,' he said, 'you're a nice young man. Here you are, messenger for outlaws and rioters.'
'What!' asked the Commissioner from Deep Creek sharply, 'is it a threatening letter? I thought he was an evil-looking customer.'
'Now just listen to this:
'"Commissioner Ruthven is warned to mind his own business, or it will be the worse for him. Honest and well-intentioned diggers won't stand being thrust aside for a parcel of ——— Chinamen, and the sooner this thing is mended, and the wrong put right, the safer will the Commissioner feel himself. If we don't get our rights soon, there is a good stout tree in the Whipstick Gully, and some dark night, in all probability, the Commissioner may find he has made too close an acquaintance with it; for if we can't get our rights, we can and we will be revenged.
'"ONE WHO KNOWS.
'"P.S.—The Commissioner had just better see to it That he lets up Them warants as is out agin innercent Men, or it'll be the wors for him."'
'By Jingo!' said Nicholson, 'string me up as an aider and abettor. Who the dickens is "One Who Knows"?'
'Well, I strongly suspect, from the style, it's Mr. James Fraser. There's no one else in the gang equal to such a flight of the imagination. The P.S. is in a different hand. Evidently they thought the meaning wasn't plain enough.'
'But what does he mean?' asked Winny anxiously.
These two men were laughing and joking over what seemed to her a very serious matter.
'Either that they'll string him up to that tree by the neck after the approved fashion, or else, perhaps, tie him there and leave him to die, like they did that unlucky storekeeper down Reedy Creek way,' said Nicholson, rather enjoying the look of horror he saw deepening on her face.
'Nonsense, Nicholson!' said Ruthven, laughing. 'Don't believe a word he says, Miss Langdon. He's drawing on his imagination.'
'But that's what they say most certainly,' said Winny, picking up the letter, and studying it carefully.
'It's only threats,' said Nicholson, 'and like their cheek to threaten the Commissioner. Just a piece of bravado on their part, for they can't hope to get any good from it. Why, they daren't show their faces in the camp round here for fear of being arrested.'
'How do they live, then?' asked Winny, doubling the note up in her restless fingers.
'Oh, there are plenty will help them on the Packhorse, and I dare say plenty more in this camp, and in time they'll get away across the Murray, where they're not known, and I'll live happy ever after.'
'They might come back after you have forgotten.'
'Not they. The only thing that reminds me of the riot now is the gratitude of the Chinamen. They come across the ranges at dead of night just to lay offerings at my tent door. Look at that ginger, now. I don't believe anybody else this side of Melbourne has got any.'
'Oriental slavishness and desire to ingratiate themselves with the superior power, that's all,' said Nicholson. 'It's not out of love for you, don't you believe it. But, come now, you might as well be hospitable, and offer a fellow some after he's ridden all these miles just to call on you, to say nothing of acting as letter-carrier.'
'But that's Miss Langdon's now, and I've eaten up all the rest.'
'Have some, Mr. Nicholson?' said Winny, smiling.
'You'll have to leave it behind you, then,' said Bob, coming in. 'I had no idea it was so late. Come along, Win. Aren't you ready? Don't be all night. Here are the horses. Look alive, now.'
Ruthven helped the girl into her saddle.
'You have given me such a pleasant afternoon,' he said simply. 'Thank you so much for coming.'
'And I'm sure,' she said frankly, 'you have given me a pleasant afternoon. I have enjoyed myself so much.'
'Then you will come again?'
'Of course I will if I can, but that depends on Bob.'
'Bob,' said Ruthven, 'your sister has promised to come again if you'll bring her.'
'Has she?' said Bob, struggling with a buckle.
'Yes. Will you come next mail-day?'
'Lord, no!' said Bob. 'I haven't any time to waste. We've to muster down at Parrot Creek that day, and if they want a mail, Emmie or Winny will have to come for it by themselves. We'll want every man and boy on the place.'
'Well, you'll come soon?'
'Yes,' said Bob carelessly. 'I say, Ruthven,' he added, 'don't you go lending Winny too many books. I'll never have a sock fit to wear or a button on my shirts if you do.'
'Bob!' said Winny reproachfully. 'Good-bye, Mr. Ruthven; we've had such a nice time. Good-bye, Mr. Nicholson. Do bring your wife to Karouda soon;' and they rode down across the ford.
Nicholson and Ruthven walked back to the tent, and the latter threw himself down in his easy-chair with a discontented sigh.
'I say, old man,' said Nicholson, stirring the fire with his foot, 'that's an uncommonly good-looking young woman. I never noticed her so much before.'
'She's a real good girl, I think,' said Ruthven, looking away down the gully, 'and the story-books say that's much better.'
'Ruthven,' said the other man thoughtfully, 'don't you think you are playing a dangerous game?'
'What? Who? I? Lord, old chap! because I have made an unfortunate marriage, mayn't I speak to a pretty girl?'
'I didn't mean that exactly. But—well, it's dangerous, you know.'
'For me? I've been in love so often, I've worn the sentiment to rags. I think I'll risk it.'
'What about her?'
'I don't think coming to luncheon here occasionally will harm her much. Man, she's the belle of the district.'
Nicholson filled his pipe thoughtfully.
'You're not bad-looking, old man, and——'
Ruthven rose to his feet, and kicked the fire into a blaze.
'Don't talk nonsense, man! No harm is likely to come to her in the ordinary course of events, and I'm not a blackguard.'
'It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion, and all made of wishes;
All adoration, duty, and observance;
All humbleness, patience, and impatience;
All purity, all trial.'
HOW gradually, how imperceptibly, a habit grows upon us! One day, half by accident, perhaps, we do a certain thing we have never thought of doing before. We do it again, and before a month is out, behold, it is a habit of our lives. So it was with Winifred Langdon and Jocelyn Ruthven. She had liked him, and been interested in him from the first; but her sister-in-law having to all intents and purposes shut her door upon him, she had perforce acquiesced, and probably would have thought no more about him but for that chance invitation to luncheon, and the cosy little chat over the fire that came afterwards.
Next mail-day, Bob being over at Parrot Creek, she had taken Fred for the mails, and Ruthven had met them at the post-office, almost it seemed by accident, and had ridden part of the way home with them. Winny and Ruthven on this occasion had found so much to say before they parted, that more than once little Fred had remonstrated with his aunt, and reminded her that his dinner was waiting for him. And the week after that Ben himself had been her companion, and they had both spent the greater part of the afternoon in the Commissioner's tent, chatting on every subject under the sun. Ben was a different man when he was with Jocelyn Ruthven, a man with broader views, with wider interests, a man who cared for things outside the boundary line of his own run, and Winny revelled in the change. They spent such a pleasant afternoon together, those three, that Winny sighed when Ben said for the tenth time they really must go, and Ruthven echoed that sigh.
'Why, it's five o'clock!' said Langdon. 'Ruthven, what do you mean by tempting us to stop in this manner? Come, Win, whatever will Emmie say? And I promised her I wouldn't be late. Come along, Winny.'
'And the book, Miss Langdon. Here it is.'
'Bob will think you are completely ruining Winny,' laughed Langdon.
'It is so much more interesting to read a book that someone else takes an interest in and talks about, isn't it?' said Winny, taking the volume from his hand.
Langdon looked at his young sister sharply, but her smiling, happy face reassured him, and he told himself he was an old fool for thinking there should be any danger in Ruthven lending her books and discussing them afterwards. He did not want to get as suspicious as an old woman, with nothing else to do but to spy out scandal.
As they rode home, too, Winny spoke out her thoughts candidly.
'Didn't we have a nice afternoon, Ben? I wonder how it is we can't talk about things like that at home. It would be much nicer, wouldn't it?'
Langdon smiled and sighed.
There could be no danger in an outspoken interest like that. And why could they not have such pleasant chats as that at home? It was his wife's fault, of course. Everything must go her way, everything must bow to her will, and certainly no one must venture to disagree with her if there was to be any peace in the family. He acquiesced now; things had got beyond him; but sometimes he regretted, both for his own and his sister's sake, that his wife was not a more kindly dispositioned woman.
Kindly?—well, at bottom she meant well enough, he told himself loyally, but she was very narrow, and she liked her own way. She liked a little admiration, too, of course; but—well, well, that was only saying she was a woman, and the admiration was harmless enough; he need not be jealous, though sometimes it harmed the admirer. Look at poor Ruthven! And then he sighed again, because this sort of life was so very far short of the bliss he had pictured to himself in his courting days. He had not expected life to be all roses—he had not been such a fool as that; but how different the world would have been had there been the confidence between him and his wife he had fondly hoped for! Would she be spending the afternoon with the parson, thinking about the welfare of her immortal soul, had they two been the lovers and friends they should have been?
'D—— the parson, and d—— her immortal soul!' muttered poor Ben Langdon to himself; 'if only the women would look after the things of this world, and let the next wait its turn, what much better wives they would make. For God's sake, Winny!' he said aloud, 'don't you ever go fooling round looking for a way to heaven.'
Winny turned a smiling face upon him. Certainly, he thought, she had no cares as yet.
'I'm sure, Ben,' she said, half apologetically, 'I never think very far ahead, except that I think I'd like to see the world some day; that's all. I never think about a future life; I wonder if I'm very wicked. There's such a lot to do in this life.'
'So there is, my girl—so there is. Depend on it, if the Lord had intended us to think so much about the next life, He'd have plumped us right there. Whatever is, is best, and we've got to be cheerful about it. Depend on it, everything is best taken cheerfully.'
'I dare say it is,' said Winny; 'but sometimes people just can't take things cheerfully. Now, poor Mr. Ruthven, for instance, isn't it a shame he should be married to that woman? He can't be happy—how can he? He must be always thinking how different the world might have been.'
'No, he isn't. He's taking things as they come, and trying to forget all about her. That is the only way to do when troubles are too big to be borne. A man can't go on mourning over a mistake all the days of his life.'
'No, I suppose not,' said Winny thoughtfully. 'Still, I'm very sorry for him. It must be such a cruel hard thing to be tied to a woman who doesn't suit you, and she is worse than that.'
'Good Lord! yes. However any sane man came to marry her——' And Ben Langdon nodded his head as if it passed his comprehension. 'It all came of being too blessed anxious to do the right thing.'
'It all came, so I have heard,' said Winny, 'of not thinking soon enough about the right thing.'
'Perhaps you are right—maybe you are; but Ruthven was always a good fellow, and it's a pity.'
'I wonder if there would be any possibility of bringing them together again—of improving her, I mean.'
'Don't you believe it, Winny; just let them alone to work it out as best they may. It isn't any business of yours or mine.'
'No, of course not. But, oh dear! think of all the marriages I've seen, and they are none of them hardly what I think a marriage ought to be.'
'See your own is all right, Winny; that's all you can do.'
'Really, Ben, I don't believe I shall get married. I want a deal more than anybody I know can give me. Then comes the question, What is to become of me if I don't marry?'
'You are welcome to anything I can give you, little sister.'
'Ben dear, thank you. You are good to me. But I'm afraid anything you can give me won't satisfy me, either.'
'I'm afraid it won't. What about Selby of Byaduk? Bob says you are sure to marry him in the end.'
'I'm not, then. I haven't the least intention of doing any such thing. Only when I have been in a very bad temper I have said I would.'
'Anything to get out of it. Poor little girl!'
'Now, Ben, you know, dear, everybody is liable to get out of temper about nothing at all, aren't they? No reflections intended, Ben—really.'
She spoke so earnestly, he bent over and patted her hand. Well he knew in his heart that, if his sister and his wife sometimes fell out, it was hardly his sister's fault.
And she liked going down to Deadman's, and talking to the Commissioner. Well, she should go, just as often as she pleased. He was convinced there was no harm likely to come of it; they both so thoroughly understood the ground they were standing on, and Winny had but few pleasures in her life. She should go down to the camp till she was tired of the amusement, and—well, marry Harry Selby of Byaduk, which he thought it would come to in the end. But she should be free to do as she pleased.
And so she got into the habit of going down for the letters as regularly as if she had been the boy told off for that duty. Sometimes she took Fred on his pony; sometimes Bob accompanied her, sometimes Ben, never Emmie. She did not like the Commissioner, and would not go near the camp.
And quite as regularly Ruthven met them, and, if they would not come to his quarters, rode part of the way home with them. It had become a habit, and to all parties seemed the most natural thing in the world.
Winny, if anyone had accused her of riding for the mail so regularly merely to meet the Commissioner, would have indignantly denied the accusation. She always went for the letters; it was an understood thing. Seeing Ruthven certainly did make the expedition more pleasant; but she would have gone in any case, whether he was there or not. She had always gone since the post-office had been at Deadman's. And yet once or twice when the Commissioner had been absent at the Packhorse, she had owned, only to herself, though, that if he were not there she might just as well send the boy.
And Ruthven—well, he frankly owned he looked forward to Fridays just for the mere pleasure of meeting and chatting with Winifred Langdon. He never missed her if by any possibility he could help himself, and whenever he got the chance he persuaded her brothers to bring her to luncheon.
And so their friendship progressed apace. Winny never thought of Ruthven save as a man who had made an unfortunate marriage, and for whom she was intensely sorry, and he always thought of her as the most charmingly sympathetic woman he had ever met. He was not in any danger of falling in love, as he had done so many times before. Though he admired her so much, he scarcely ever paid her a compliment; she was so different from the other women who had come into his life. She was more like a chum, a dear friend, with an added charm that a man could never have. Flirtation was far from the thoughts of both; they had never been alone for weeks after that first luncheon, and by that time they were thoroughly accustomed to each other, and had fallen into that easy, chatty, pleasant friendship that sometimes exists between a man and a woman, and which brings them, did they but know it, nearer and closer to one another in the end than the most passionate love-making ever dreamed of.
A close friendship it grew, closer and closer as the winter passed away and summer came on apace. The days grew long, and Bob and Winny fell into the habit of going over to dinner with the Commissioner on mail-days, and riding back either in the dusk of the evening or by the light of the moon. Many an hour Winny and Ruthven spent together, while Bob and young Anderson were 'knocking about the township,' as they called it, and very close indeed grew their friendship. She made him her confidant, and half her troubles had vanished by the time they had been poured into his sympathetic ear; and he, in his turn, laid bare his heart to her. All his early life, all his hopes and fears, all his worries and troubles, all his successes, he brought to her, as if she had indeed been his sister; and life for each, though they hardly owned it to themselves, was far brighter and happier for this friendship. One topic alone was never mentioned between them, and that was his unhappy marriage. They both took it into account, both remembered it; but they tacitly ignored it, and, after that first outburst at Karouda, Ruthven never referred to it again.
It was long now since Winny had grumbled to her brother, and impotently kicked against the pricks. Her sister-in-law noticed that she was always bright and contented, and did not seem to be consumed by vain longing after impossible joys; but she did not put it down to the right cause. How should she, when she had never set eyes on Ruthven since that last unlucky visit to Karouda? She knew, of course, that her husband and his sister and brother were on friendly terms with the Commissioner, that they always saw him when they went for the mails; but that was all she did know, and she never thought of connecting him, at least at first, with Winny's altered demeanour in any way.
And so it came to pass no one ever gave a second thought to the danger that might lie in a friendship between a good-looking young man and an attractive young woman.
In his heart of hearts Jocelyn Ruthven placed Winifred Langdon far before any woman he had ever known, but he was hardly conscious of it. Every other woman he had known had expected little compliments or a little flirtation; not one had ever been content to sit and talk about outside things as this girl did. Each had insisted on the fact that she was a woman and he a man, and he had followed the lead gladly enough. He had liked to have a woman talking to him, lowering her eyes and blushing when he looked at her, calling attention, in delicate little ways, to her beauties and to his charms. It pleased one side of his nature, and he had responded readily enough; he had responded once too often, he thought drearily. But this girl was quite different. She looked him full in the face without a thought of herself, of her own appearance, of the impression she was making on him. She was very much interested in anything that concerned him, no one could have been kinder or more thoughtful; but she seemed happiest discussing books and places and abstract things. Her eyes sparkled as he told her about England and America and India; and he thought, a little ruefully, they would have sparkled just the same had another man told the stories.
And then he pulled himself together, and asked himself what right had he to expect her to take a more personal interest in him. He was very glad indeed that she did not. And she would marry Harry Selby. Bob had declared that would be the end of it. He supposed he was glad, very glad—only Selby was not half good enough for her; he was too bucolic. But, then, most people married wrong. He supposed poor Winifred Langdon would be no exception to the rule, and the thought cost him more pain than he liked to own to. And until he had decided not to worry about the future, but to enjoy the present as long as he might, and let the future take care of itself, young Anderson took to wondering what was making his chief so bad-tempered. He knew very well this could not go on for ever; but he saw no reason why it should not go on for some time yet, and was fairly well satisfied.
And Winny on her side was content. She knew that she came first with Ruthven, saw that her wishes were law in his eyes. He was a polished man, a travelled man, an entertaining man; and she came first with him, was most emphatically his friend, and she asked no more.
And the winter—the bright short winter of the northern districts of Victoria—passed away; and the long, hot summer came again, and Christmas was close at hand.
'The sacred lowe o' weel-placed love,
Luxuriantly indulge it,
But never tempt th' illicit rove,
Though naething should divulge it.
I waive the quantum o' the sin,
The hazard o' concealing;
But, oh! it hardens a' within,
And petrifies the feeling!'
IT was close on Christmas, and a fierce hot-wind day. Some of the distant hills were on fire, and the thick gray smoke hung over the landscape. It was a day on which the slightest exertion seemed out of place, and yet the work of the household had to go on, in spite of it all. Winny was in the dairy, where the rows of brown earthenware milk-pans standing on the cleanly-scrubbed boards and the bright and shining milk-buckets made the place look a good deal cooler than it really was. She was mournfully surveying the cream which would not come to butter, when Bob opened the door and came in.
'Phew!' he said, 'isn't it a screamer? I'm off to Parrot Creek. If the fire comes down that way, nothing can save the stock-yards there, and then there'll be a pretty to-do.'
'And when will you be back?' asked Winny, slowly moving up and down the long handle of the churn.
'That all depends. I've come to you for some tucker. I mightn't be back till dinner-time. I'll bring old Squimy home with me—that is, if I can get back. Ben's growling as if the whole place was in a glow.'
Winny left the churn, and, taking up a home-made loaf, began cutting off thin slices and spreading them with butter.
'Bob,' she said, 'what about to-night? We promised to have dinner with the Commissioner.'
'Oh, by Jingo! so we did,' said Bob, breaking off a crust, and dipping it into a crock of fresh cream. 'Well, I don't know; I don't see how we are to do it. We'll have to let it slide. He won't mind; we go so often.'
'You might be back in time?'
'Oh, I might, of course; but, then, I promised old Selby I'd bring him over to dinner to-night if I was over in his direction.'
'But, Bob'—Winny hesitated a moment, and blushed—'but, Bob, Harry's always here. He's getting a perfect nuisance.'
'He hasn't been to dinner for ages.'
'Well, he's here every other time you can think of, and'—with an impatient little movement of her shoulders—'I don't want him to dinner.'
'Why not? Oh, come, Win! when's this farce coming to an end? You know he's awfully gone on you. When are you going to settle things?'
She was very intent on the bread-and-butter now, and Bob looked at her thoughtfully.
'Come, Win, it's all nonsense you playing innocence. You know as well as I do poor Squimy's a raving lunatic about you, and I'm beginning to think it's time things were settled up.'
Winny raised her eyes to her brother's face. At that moment the thought of good, kindly, bucolic Harry Selby was absolutely distasteful to her, and she felt she must clearly make her brother understand, once for all, that any question of marriage between her and his old schoolmate was entirely out of the question.
'There is nothing between me and Harry Selby, and there never will be,' she said coldly, getting a plate and piling her slices of bread-and-butter upon it.
'Of course, I know that. But you've only got to hold up your little finger to get him.'
'Then I shan't hold up my little finger.'
'Win,'—Bob was honestly concerned, and he showed it in his voice—'Win, do you mean to tell me you don't intend to have Harry Selby after all these months of courting?'
'I don't know what you mean by "all these months of courting." There's been no courting that I know of or could help, but I certainly don't intend to have Harry Selby.'
There was something defiant in Winny's tone, and Bob looked at her helplessly.
'But, Win, you've got to marry somebody; you can't sit under Emmie's wing all the days of your life. I'm going to get married myself in a year or so, and what'll you do then?'
'I'm sure I don't know,' said Winny, for, indeed, Bob was her helper and stand-by, and Karouda would have been a lonely place for her but for him. 'I'll be lonely, I suppose, but I shouldn't mend matters by marrying Harry Selby.'
'He's such a rattling good fellow.'
'Oh, as if I didn't know that!'—pettishly. 'Bob, no one knows his good qualities better than I do. Do you think I haven't thought about it? Of course I have; I couldn't help myself. I should die of dreariness in a week if I married him. I should hate him, and hate myself. I should run away and leave him to it.'
'What's the good of saying "Winny"? I should, and there is an end of it.'
'Winny, I've set my heart on you marrying old Squimy. He's such a good fellow, and he'll just break his heart if you don't.'
Winny laughed a little scornfully.
'Men don't break their hearts nowadays. Anyhow, he'd be more likely to break his if I married him than if I didn't. Come, Bob,' she added, changing her tone, 'be a good boy, and help me. Don't go encouraging Harry Selby to come over here; and if he asks your advice, just tell him it's no good.'
'He wouldn't believe me,' said Bob; 'he'd try, all the same. Besides, I always thought you'd come round. A woman can't give in all in a minute. It isn't decent.'
'Oh, can't she? I don't know about that. If she cared, I don't see any reason for beating about the bush.'
'Maidenly modesty——' began Bob; but his sister cut him short.
'There wouldn't be any maidenly modesty in pretending you didn't care for a man when you did. That would just be foolishness. I never shall care for Harry in that way. He's a good fellow, and I would like very well to be friends; but in that way—no, never. For the last year I've been trying to show him that; and if you and he have been thinking it is what you call maidenly modesty on my part, then you had better explain to him at once you have been very much mistaken.'
Poor Bob! she read him like a book. If she had been present when he and his chum talked her over, she could not more thoroughly have gauged the case.
'Well, I'm blest if I know how to take you!' he burst out angrily.
'That is a very old complaint about a woman,' she said serenely, because she was beginning to think she would gain her point.
'Well, now, look here: how civil you always are to Commissioner Ruthven! You don't mind how often you see him.'
'That is different,' she said, turning away her face. 'I only see him once a week. I see Harry Selby oftener than that.'
'But you're always civil to the Commissioner.'
'So I should be to Harry if he wouldn't always want to make love to me.'
'But you and Ruthven are so awfully thick. You talk to him by the hour.'
'Of course we are great friends; we always have been. Bob dear, what sort of sandwiches will you have—beef or ham?'
'Beef,' said Bob; 'it won't make me so thirsty.' Then he broke off another crust, and added thoughtfully: 'I never thought of it before, but you two are thick. What's the meaning of it, Win?'
'Just that we take an interest in the same books and the same things, and consequently find plenty to say to each other, and are great friends. That's all. Nothing more, Bob; what should there be?'
'H'm!' said Bob; 'and isn't a great friendship between a man and a woman a very dangerous thing, my dear?'
'Is it? Not in this case, I assure you. Now, Bob, don't be nasty. It is a great pleasure to me to see a glimpse of the outside world once a week, and what harm there can be in a chat with Mr. Ruthven I'm sure I don't know. Don't go saying those sort of things, or I shan't be able to go there again.'
'And I'm not sure,' said Bob, scooping up another mouthful of cream, 'that that wouldn't be the best thing that could happen.'
'Oh, for pity's sake, don't go making mountains out of mole-hills! You're worse than Emmie. Carry that plate for me, there's a good boy. The beef is in the kitchen. Now, make haste and shut the door, for we mustn't let any flies in here.'
The sandwiches were soon made and done up in a dainty little parcel, for Winny had been brought up in the fixed belief that a man's creature comforts should come before anything else with the women of his family, and it is not at all a bad faith for the man.
'Have you filled your flask?' she asked, as he patted her shoulder a little ruefully, for he felt she had got the better of him, and he was wondering what on earth he should say to Harry Selby.
'Yes, I have everything, thanks. And, Win, you're quite certain I'm not to bring Selby home to dinner?'
'No, Bob, indeed—indeed no.'
'We might as well go down to the camp, then,' said Bob, with a sigh. 'We'd get a good dinner, any way, and it's much better than dining with Emmie, looking as if the whole of the run were on fire, and it was our fault.'
'Oh, Bob, she's fairly amiable to-day. We might manage.'
'We might. I'd rather not risk it, though. I'll tell you what, Win: If I'm back in time we'll go down to dinner with Ruthven; and if I'm not—well, we'll go to-morrow night, or you can send the boy for the letters, whichever you like best. That is, if you're sure I'm not to bring Squimy.'
'Quite—quite sure;' and the tears came into Winny's eyes.
Like most men, he hated a woman's tears, and yet melted at the sight of them.
'Don't cry, there's a good old girl,' he said with rough kindness as he turned away. 'I'm sorry, but you've a right to do as you please, I suppose. Well, it's a fixture for to-night, and we'll go down to the camp if I get back in time;' and he was off, and Winny returned to her hopeless churning.
It was monotonous work, and she had plenty of time to think—too much, in fact, for Bob's words ran persistently in her ears: 'You and Ruthven are awfully thick. What's the meaning of it?' and, 'A great friendship between a man and a woman is a very dangerous thing.'
What was the meaning of it all? Was it a dangerous thing? She considered the matter carefully. She was the belle of the district, and had plenty of experience, for, sparsely populated as it was, there were enough men to pay her attention, even to fall in love with her, and several of them had done it. Now she passed them all in review before her as she slowly moved the handle of the churn up and down, and compared their attitude towards her with that of Jocelyn Ruthven.
Some of them had made passionate love to her—she laughed a little to herself—and Jocelyn Ruthven had never done that; but none, not one of them, held towards her his attitude of gentle deference; with not one was she on such terms of comradeship. Why, nothing ever happened to her but she thought at once it would be something to tell Mr. Ruthven. She never read a book but she pondered over the passages she would discuss with him. Life had been a different thing for her since the day he had come to her rescue in the blacks' camp. How could she possibly do without meeting him? Life would be a blank if there were not those Friday evenings to look forward to. She smiled a little contented smile, and then, as a sudden thought flashed across her mind, dropped the handle of the churn, and sat down on the one wooden chair that the dairy contained. For it had come to her, with a shock of pain that made her feel sick and faint with horror, what the meaning of all this was.
He was dear to her—dear to her—dear to her! She loved him—loved him—loved him! That was what it all meant.
'What does it all mean, Win?'
This is what it meant. The walls cried it aloud to her. It was borne on the howling gusts of the fierce north wind that swept round the little building; they shrieked it aloud, and cried it was a shame—a shame—a shame—a wicked, shameful thing!
Then she rose to her feet and took up the handle of the churn again, and in a few moments more the butter came, white, soft, oily, uninviting-looking stuff; everything was against it this morning. Ordinarily Winny would have been glad of the excuse on such a hot day to put it in a bucket of cold water, and leave it to harden; but this morning Bob's careless words had roused a storm in her breast, and she felt she must work it off somehow. So, spite of the burning wind, she put on her sun-bonnet, went out into the yard, and pumped up bucketful after bucketful of water from the well.
Hall, the old convict servant, left behind in the absence of the other men to look after the household, saw her, crossed the yard, and offered his services.
'It's mighty hard work for the likes of you, miss,' he said, picking up a brimming bucket.
Winny was in the midst of a desperate mental struggle, the most desperate she had ever entered upon, and it seemed to her strangely hard to have to talk common-places just as usual. But hundreds of years have passed since the sun stood still in Ajalon, and she was just learning—what we all have to learn sooner or later—that the world must go on in spite of our own private joys, and griefs, and sorrows, and that it is best it should so go on, best that we should wear a brave face to the world, and let no man enter into our hidden chamber.
'Oh, it's not hard, Hall,' she said, thinking how strange her own voice sounded. 'I shouldn't mind a bit if it weren't for this awful wind.'
''Tis brisk, ain't it?' he said; 'but it'll have fallen before night.'
She thought, good resolutions notwithstanding, what a nice ride she would have to the camp, but she only said:
'If only it stops before the fire reaches our land.'
'Ou ay, I dessay it'll do that,' said the old man, setting down his brimming buckets on the hard mud floor of the little slab dairy. 'Was you hearin' miss,' he added, 'that them coves as went through the Chinks at the Packhorse last winter was back in the ranges?'
'What?' asked Winny, rolling her butter over and over in the cold water to get the buttermilk out of it, 'Back in the ranges? How do you mean?'
'Well, you see, Commissioner Ruthven an' his traps they made it so mighty hot for 'em they cleared acrost the Border, but I reckon they done somethink on the Sydney side, for they're back agin.'
'Oh, Hall,' she asked, pausing in her work, 'how do you know?'
And then she saw the uselessness of her question, for she knew well enough that amongst old convicts a sort of freemasonry existed, and that to ask how one man knew the movements of another was simply waste of breath. That he did know was very certain, and she decided to tell the Commissioner that very night.
Instead of answering her question, old Hall put his finger to the side of his nose.
'I heerd on it,' he said; 'I heerd, an' I guess they'll take it out of the traps now. Was you wantin' more water, miss?'
'No,' said Winny; 'no, thank you. You can go now.' And she was once more alone with her unsatisfactory thoughts.
And the outlaws were back and threatening the Commissioner, were they? Well, perhaps, after all, he had not much to fear from them, but, at any rate, she would warn him to-night. And then, all the buttermilk being washed away, she carefully salted the butter and began weighing it out into pounds.
'What is the meaning of it, Win?' And this—this was the meaning of it, and she had never seen it till this moment.
Winny rubbed the salt energetically into the butter—there was no fear but that it would be well mixed to-day—and tried to think it all out.
She was not accustomed to mince matters with herself, and early in life had decided that, to herself at least, she might as well call a spade a spade. But this was such a different matter, so bitter, she could hardly bring herself to look it fairly in the face. Was all this friendship, this deep interest, but another name for love? And love—alas, alas!—love between them was only a shame. It was characteristic of her that she never for a moment doubted that she made the sunshine of his life. How could she, looking back on the last five months, remembering what those evenings spent in his society had been to her, doubt for one moment that they had been equally dear to him?
Oh, the pity of it! the pity of it! And she could have flung herself down on the floor and cried aloud in her pain and misery. And it was not only she who must suffer, but he, too. Oh, the shame of it! the bitterness of it! What should she do? What could she do?
'A great friendship between a man and a woman is a very dangerous thing,' Bob had said, with a flash of inspiration rare with him. A dangerous thing. Well, the mischief was done now, and there was only one thing more for her to do. Only one thing a good woman could do. She must just keep away from the camp; for his sake and for her own sake she must keep away. And she drew a long sigh, for the future stretched out drearily before her, and there were no pleasant breaks in it, no companion and friend to loiter along the wayside with—all was stern hard duty; the clouds had gathered, and the sky was dark and forbidding, with no promise of sunshine.
She must keep away from the camp; for his sake and her own she must do that. But how? She was in the habit of going to the camp; her family expected her to go. How was she to get out of it? The summer was upon them, and she might plead the heat; but no, she felt that excuse would not go down, especially with Bob, who liked a ride, and who knew that she liked a ride in the dusk of the evening. But some excuse must be found; she must feign illness if nothing else offered. Was it really true those visits made up the sunshine of her life? Was it really true? And, bitter as it was, she had to acknowledge to herself that it was so. She had tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and found it unspeakably sweet; and now, how was she of her own free will, with her own hand, to shut herself out from these delights? They seemed so harmless, so simple; but Bob, with his careless words, had shown her his own heart, and she was not the woman to hesitate any longer. She had been a fool—they had both been fools—and the thought of his foolishness sent a warm glow to her heart and a bright blush to her face; but now the day of reckoning had come, and she must pay up while yet she could. Since they could not meet on the old footing, why, they must not meet at all. It would be hard, very hard, but it must be done, and she would do it.
She must go to-night, she supposed; there was no help for it, and her heart beat high at the thought of seeing Ruthven again, but after that she would not go so regularly. She would break off the habit gradually. And as she finished off the last pat of butter, she decided that after to-night she would not see him again for at least a fortnight, though how she was to live through that fortnight she did not know. And she sighed heavily as she thought of the dreary prospect before her. A whole fortnight, why——
Then the door opened, and Emmie came in.
'Why, whatever have you been doing all this while? I came to see if you were dead. Is the butter made?'
'Yes, but it's not very nice, I'm afraid; the day is too hot. Have some buttermilk, Emmie; I saved it for you.'
'Thanks, I will,' said Emmie, taking down a teacup from the shelf, 'It's fairly cool, I declare.'
'I put it in a jar of water on purpose,' said Winny wearily.
'My gracious, Winny, how washed-out you look!' said her sister-in-law, seating herself on the only chair. 'I declare you're losing all your looks. You'll have to get married soon. I can see little crow's-feet round your eyes. That's where age always shows first.'
'At twenty-two!' said Winny. 'Surely I oughtn't to have crow's-feet at twenty-two?'
'I don't know about what you ought to have; I'm only saying what you have.'
'Oh, well, it doesn't much matter,' said Winny, who felt it incumbent on her to be cheerful, lest anyone should see how heart-sick she felt. 'Just look at the butter I've made. It was enough to wear anyone out on such a hot day. I don't believe anyone else could have got it at all.'
Which remark her sister-in-law repeated scornfully to her husband when he came in, and declared, 'It was just like Winny to be so conceited. She thought no one could do anything but herself.'
'Sick in the world's regard, wretched and low.'
'FAITH, now, young man, don't be wastin' my time, but just go in an' till the Commissioner his own mother-in-law has stipped acrost from Deep Creek, an' is waitin' to see him.'
The smart young trooper standing alongside the flagpole looked dubiously on the ragged, untidy woman who stood before him.
'I'm thinking,' he said, scratching his head doubtfully, 'he won't be just pleased if I tell him that.'
'Ah! be aisy now. Isn't it yer smilin' face will win him to see a poor ould woman that's tramphed these many miles acrost the ranges just for a few words wid his honour, an' he me own girl's husband, too.'
'You see, Mrs. Phillips, your girl didn't approve of the place, and she cleared out and left him to it—leastways, so I've heard—but maybe,' he added politely, 'the camp gossip has taken away her character.'
'True for ye,' remarked Mrs. Phillips in a non-committal manner. 'Sure, 'tis a broth av a boy like you, as is high up in the force now, an' lookin' for promotion—sure, ye'll take me to the Commissioner, dear'—and she laid a wheedling hand on his arm—'an' I'll put in a good wurrd for yez meself.'
The curly-headed young trooper laughed in scorn.
'I daren't do it, Mrs. Phillips; he'd run me out of the force for sure. You get someone else to take you to him. Come, now, there's Sergeant Sells coming across. He'd be glad of your good word.'
Mrs. Phillips looked doubtfully at the stern, middle-aged sergeant, and back at the smiling face of the young trooper.
'I'll be goin' to him mesilf. Why wouldn't I, his own wife's mother?'
'Oh, I'm sure I don't know why you wouldn't,' said the trooper politely. 'He'll be very pleased to see you, no doubt. Do you happen to know which is his tent? Probably he'll ask you to dinner.'
'You blatherin' young——' began Mrs. Phillips angrily, when Sergeant Sells cut short the conversation.
'You go down to the stables, Simson. Now, mistress, what do you want?'
He knew well enough who she was; all the camp probably knew that.
'I was thinkin' if I might see the Commissioner——' she began.
'He won't be pleased to see you.'
'Sure, an' me his own wife's mother!' murmured Mrs. Phillips, as if she expected to be received with open arms.
'Nonsense, woman! You know very well he doesn't want to see you. You'd better give me any message you've got.'
'Sure, I've no message, but hersilf is that bad, an', sure, she's his lawful wedded wife and'——'
'Just you stand by the flag-post here. Now, if you budge a step I'll run you out of the camp, mother-in-law or no mother-in-law, and you won't see the Commissioner this day.'
Then Sergeant Sells strode across to the Commissioner's tent, and announced:
'If you please, sir, there's a woman, Mrs. Phillips, from Deep Creek, wants to see you.'
'I won't see her, sergeant. Tell her to go back again.'
Ruthven put down his pipe and looked away across the gully. He would not re-open this page in his life again if he could possibly help it.
'I beg your pardon, sir,' said the sergeant gravely, 'but she's just in the mood to raise Cain, and if you don't she'll do it.'
'Oh, our pleasant vices!' muttered Ruthven to himself. 'Show her in, sergeant.'
'What do you want?' he asked without raising his eyes, as she stood before him.
'Sure, Commissioner dharling——'
'Now, Mrs. Phillips,' said Ruthven, bringing down his clenched fist on the table before him, 'understand me: I'll have none of that. Just tell me exactly what you want—you haven't come here for nothing—and you'd better understand at once that the more you talk, and the longer you're here, the less you'll get.'
Mrs. Phillips paused a moment.
'It was hersilf sint me,' she said humbly.
'Sure, ye wouldn't be begrudgin' her a little, ye that's rollin' in riches, an' her that bad.'
'I have begrudged her nothing,' said Ruthven, with a sigh, 'but she left me of her own accord. You surely can't expect me to keep her since she has preferred another man,' he added grimly.
'Och, the crathur!' said her mother; 'she's but young. Sure, she'll know betther by-an'-by, Commissioner dear.'
'Mrs. Phillips, what do you want?'
'Sure, the poor crathur was that bad whin I lift——'
'Sergeant—Sergeant Sells!' called Ruthven, rising to his feet.
But Mrs. Phillips flung herself across his path, and barred his way to the tent door.
'Sure, Commissioner dear——'
'Sit down!' he said angrily. 'Now, look here: if you don't tell me exactly what you have come for without further nonsense, out you go. The sergeant is waiting outside. Now, what is it?'
Mrs. Phillips put a dirty pocket-handkerchief to her eyes, and began to sob noisily. She kept her eye on the Commissioner, however, and when she saw a tendency on his part to move towards the door again, she laid down her pocket-handkerchief, and with a gulp said:
'It was thim blaggyards in the ranges. They'll murther ye for sure. 'Tis hersilf gets no sleep for thinkin' av it.'
'It's very kind of her,' he said very grimly, 'to lose her night's rest on my account. I'm extremely obliged to her. Pray go back again and tell her not to allow herself to be disturbed.'
'Sure, Commissioner dear, 'tis in earnest I am. By the Howly Mother an' Child, 'tis the truth I'm tellin' yez.'
'Oh, certainly—certainly; I never doubted it. How much did she value the information at, I wonder?'
'Ye wouldn't be begrudgin' the crathur a mite. Thim Packhorse chaps—thim as is up in the ranges—sure, 'tis worth somethin' to be put on yer gyard, to say nothin' av an old woman like me——'
'Cut it short, Mrs. Phillips. I can take care of myself very comfortably without your help. Now come to the point. How much do you want?'
'Sure, Commissioner dear, ye'll spare her somethin' dacint. She's that bad—the cowld's got on her chist. The winther in thim ranges is thryin'. If it was jist a little—jist enough to git her a little comfort now and agin—sure, Commissioner dharlin', it's hersilf would bliss——'
'How much do you want?'
'Faith, maybe 'twouldn't be becomin' the likes av yer honour to giv' her liss than tin pound.'
'Nonsense! I'll give you a pound.'
Mrs. Phillips began to sob and choke again, but Ruthven showed no signs of yielding.
'Ohone, ohone!' she cried, rocking herself backwards and forwards. 'Sure, it's mesilf never thought ye'd give her liss than a five-poun' note. 'Tis worth that, sure.'
Ruthven put his hand in his pocket and drew out three sovereigns and a couple of half-crowns.
'There, Mrs. Phillips—there you are. That is all you will get, and if you don't take it quickly, the sergeant will run you out of the camp.'
'Ohone, ohone!' she still moaned, looking at the money out of the corner of her eye, ''tis starvation, it is.'
'Very well, then; it's no use to you, and I shan't give any more;' and Ruthven stretched out his hand towards the money lying on the table.
But the old Irishwoman was too quick for him. Seeing his intention, with one quick swoop she swept it into her apron, clapped the apron to her face, and began wailing and rocking herself backwards and forwards again.
'Ye'll be murthered—ye'll be murthered intirely!' she cried.
'Sergeant—Sergeant Sells!' called Ruthven, driven to desperation, 'take this woman away. And if she makes any noise, bring me back that money she has in her apron. She has only got it on condition she keeps quiet.'
'Ah, would ye, would ye—me that thried to serve yez?' cried the old woman, dropping her apron; but when she saw that he really would, she became subdued all at once, and walked quietly out of the tent, followed by the sergeant.
Ruthven sighed to himself. At any rate, that was over for some time to come. Of course, he did not trouble himself about the warning; that was only a pretence for extorting money. The girl had no claim on him now—she had run away from him of her own free will; still, he could not have her want necessaries, could not hear she was starving about the camp. Not that she was likely to starve; her mother was quite well enough off to keep her in such comfort as she could appreciate.
The whole thing was distasteful to him, shameful, sordid; and he sighed as he walked backwards and forwards, turning it over in his own mind. With his own hand had he forged these bonds. The old proverb was true enough: he had made his bed—made it reluctantly, it is true—but still deliberately, for love of a woman, and now he must lie on it. He muttered a curse between his teeth, and wished heartily he had strength of mind to shake the dust of the goldfields off his feet and start life afresh in some other country, somewhere where he should lose his identity and his story be unknown. Why did he not do it this very day? What was there to stop him? He asked himself the question more than once. When first his wife left him he could not go—it would have been confessing to the camp that it was his fault; but now, now, why did he not go? He had vindicated himself in the eyes of his friends; he might just as well go out into the world again, a weary, lonely man. Yes, that was it. Once he had been glad enough to be free at any price, the only feeling in his mind was that of relief; but now, now, he wanted something more—something that, alas! alas! he should never get.
He took one more turn up and down his room, then sat down and tried to banish such thoughts from his mind; but it would not do. Something in the very air seemed to remind him that this was the day the Karouda people came for their mails, this was his red-letter day, this was the day he looked forward to all the week. For what?
He looked away down the gully, where the fierce hot wind was tearing leaves and branches from the trees, and raising whirlwinds of dust from the mounds of earth the diggers had thrown up—for what—for what? Just because for two hours he might sit and look into sweet Winifred Langdon's dark eyes, might listen to her voice, might cheat himself for two hours with that happy comradeship which could never now in all his life be his.
Was he in love with Winifred Langdon, he wondered? He had been in love so often before—so very often; he had never been able to sit for half an hour with a presentable woman without paying her compliments, without trying in some way to impress on her his admiration for her charms. He had done it so often—so often; he knew himself so well.
But he had never behaved like that to Winifred Langdon. They had been friends—friends and comrades in the best acceptation of the words, and only lately, only very lately, had it begun to dawn on him what it meant. Perhaps never till this moment had he fully understood, and yet somehow he felt as if he had known all along—from the first moment he had met her that stormy winter's night in the blacks' camp he had known how it would be, had known that he should set her apart in his mind from all other women, a better, braver, nobler woman, a crown for any man's life.
And then, when he could stand it no longer, he rose up and called young Anderson, and together they rode against the blinding hot wind right through the camp, listening to disputes and complaints, taking, thought that young gentleman, a most unnecessary amount of trouble. In his opinion the Commissioner must be a little touched to do on such a day what could quite easily be put off till after the cooling rain which must come. Personally, he, young Anderson, thought a hot-wind day ought to be spent stretched on a long cane chair in his tent, in the airiest of garments, with plenty of good long drinks at hand. He and the Commissioner differed, and the Commissioner was master. Ruthven caught sight of his sulky, ill-used face once, and laughed as he divined the cause, and then thought to himself that it was too bad of him to expose the poor lad to discomfort just because he had a restless fit on him.
'It's a beastly day, Anderson,' he said, as they rode along together, and the wind, like a blast from an oven, played on their faces, and blew the grit and sand into their eyes and nostrils.
'But we feel it less when we're at work.'
Anderson didn't assent to this proposition quite readily, so he asked again: 'Don't you think so?' Good Lord! what had this boy to vex him, all the world at his feet? and here he was sulky simply because he had to come out on a hot-wind day. What would he not give to change places with Charlie Anderson.
'If it had to be done,' said that young gentleman boldly, 'but——'
'You think it would keep till cooler weather?'
'You can't lie thinking all the blessed afternoon,' said Ruthven testily.
'Oh, can't you, sir?' said Anderson. 'I can when there's a tearing hot wind outside. There isn't even a bird to be seen; they're—they're not——'
'Not such fools, I suppose you mean, Anderson?'
'Yes, sir.' A faint smile came into the lad's face. 'Well, anyhow, thank goodness, there's this evening to look forward to, and Miss Winifred Langdon.'
'Ah! So you look forward to seeing her?'
'Yes, sir. So do you, don't you? The jolliest girl in the district. Dinner's always jolly when she and Bob are there. Don't you look forward to seeing her? I never have an innings when you are by. Couldn't expect it, I suppose.'
And if they took to coupling his name and Winifred Langdon's in the camp gossip, even as this boy was doing with his careless words, why, then, of course, he would have to go. There could be no question about it. It had come at last, and his happy days were numbered.
He turned to Anderson, and his voice sounded heavy and tired.
'We'll go back now,' he said. 'I think we've done enough for a day like this.'
Anderson heaved a boyish sigh of relief.
'Well just be able to dig the grit out of our eyes before they come,' he said.
'Perhaps they won't come on such a day.'
'Oh, won't they? They like to get away from Mrs. Langdon. And Miss Langdon likes coming over and chatting with you. You always were a lady-killer, you know, sir,' said Anderson with mistimed jocularity; and Ruthven turned his face away, and thought bitterly that his happy days were indeed numbered.
'Grief is but guessed while thou art standing by;
But I too soon shall know what absence is;
Why? 'tis to be no more—another name for death;
'Tis the sun parting from the frozen north!
And I, methinks, stand on some icy cliff,
To watch the last low circles that he makes,
Till he sink down from heaven.'
THE wind, as old Hall had prophesied, fell towards evening; and Bob and his brother, returning home, reported all danger of the fire spreading at an end. It was late when they returned—too late to dream of going to dinner with the Commissioner.
'Now, if you had only let me bring Squimy over,' Bob said with a sigh, as brother and sister stood on the veranda together.
'Don't, Bob—don't,' pleaded Winny wearily; 'can't you understand? Suppose somebody wanted you to marry Marian Dillon. She is a good sort of a girl, awfully kind, a good housekeeper, and she'll have all Tatura.'
'God bless my soul! with a figure like a hay-stack, a laugh like a hyena, and hair like—like——'
'There now, Bob, that's all a matter of opinion. Her hair is just like red gold when you get it in the sunshine. Mrs. Nicholson was just saying so yesterday, and, Bob, she is so good-natured and so rich.'
'Stow that, Win! Do you think I'm an ass, or such a contemptible beast as to marry a girl for her money?'
'No, I don't, but that's what you think me.'
'You? Why, I wasn't talking about you. Oh, Squimy? But that's quite different. A woman's different from a man. She has got to marry somebody before she gets too old. A woman fades soon, and——'
'Bob!' Winny stamped her foot on the ground. 'How dare you speak to me like that! How dare you! I won't marry unless I want to. I'll fade if I like, and be a toothless, haggard old crone if I like. There now!'
'Which you won't like at all,' said Bob. He stared at her in astonishment, then burst out laughing. 'Well, that was a pretty little outburst. So she shall be a crone if she likes—a nasty, toothless old hag. Meanwhile, suppose we ride down to the camp. You can chat away to the Commissioner nineteen to the dozen.'
'You see, nobody wants me to marry him.'
'Would you say "no" if we did, I wonder?' he asked, looking at her thoughtfully. 'You are greater chums with him than with anybody I know.'
'Bob, don't!' She flushed to the roots of her hair. 'For two mortal hours last night you were down the gully with Mrs. Nicholson, and neither her husband nor I thought any wrong, though Emmie was as black as thunder.'
'That was because Nicholson talked to Ben instead of to her ladyship. Oh, I know her little ways. And as for anything wrong—— Good Lord, Win——'
'Oh, come along down to the camp; and when you feel like wondering why I like talking to the Commissioner, think how much you like talking to Mrs. Nicholson. You don't want to marry her.'
'I don't know,' said Bob doubtfully. 'Upon my word, if it weren't that Nicholson is a jolly good fellow and all that, I'd——'
'Oh, Bob, you are getting into dangerous waters, and I'm not sure that you are not talking nonsense. Get the horses now, like a good boy, or we'll be too late.'
And this must be her last visit for at least a fortnight. As she rode through the still, hot night, Winny kept saying it over and over again to herself—her last visit for a whole fortnight. Bob must not talk again like he had done to-day; it shamed her. She liked talking to the Commissioner better than to any other man; he, her brother, who, like all brothers, saw scarce anything where his sister was concerned, saw that; and her face flushed hot as she thought how true it was, and she was glad that the darkness hid it. That settled it. This must be her last visit for a fortnight. A whole fortnight! What a dreary, weary time it seemed to look forward to! But at least she would make the most of this, her last visit.
At his tent door stood the Commissioner, looking out for them.
'Oh, here you are at last!' he cried heartily. 'Where have you been? I waited dinner half an hour for you.'
In her new-born shyness Winny, who usually took the lead, let her brother answer for her.
'It was that confounded hot wind,' he said. 'The hills out back were all on fire, and Ben got in a stew lest it should spread. If the wind hadn't fallen you wouldn't have seen me now.'
'I'm glad it's all right,' said Ruthven, as he helped Winny off her horse, and handed it over to the care of a trooper. 'Come inside, Miss Langdon.'
Inside the light from the colza-oil lamp fell full upon her face, and Ruthven, as he handed her a chair, looked at her wonderingly.
'Why, how white you look! Are you ill?'
There was concern, even tenderness, in his voice, as he gently pushed her into the chair, and Winny blushed painfully under his eyes.
'I—I—really no. There's nothing the matter with me, only it's been rather hot.'
'And her feminine soul has been worried to death over butter that wouldn't come, to say nothing of the loss of our dinner,' put in Bob, busily engaged in lighting a cigar; and the conversation drifted into safer channels.
This was to be her last evening with the Commissioner for a long time—the very last, in fact, on the old footing; the next time she saw him she would have to begin putting him a little farther away from her. This was her last evening, and she had intended to enjoy it so much. But, alas! alas! self-consciousness had taken hold of her, and with it all hope of thorough enjoyment had passed away. She watched herself; she analyzed her own feelings with a keenness born of her morning's self-searching. Yes, she was in love with him, she decided sorrowfully, very much in love with him. Why else did she like him to look at her, to talk to her, to take the chair beside her? Why else did she feel so vexed when Bob once, all unconsciously, appropriated that chair? Why else feel such a thrill of pleasure when his hand inadvertently—she was sure it was inadvertently—touched hers?
And equally certain was she that he cared for her. Yes, he did—he did. She heard it in his voice when he addressed her; she saw it in his eyes when he looked at her; she felt it in every nerve in her own body. He cared, and she knew it; and she was glad and sad and wildly happy and utterly miserable all at the same time. And only one thing was she certain of: this must be the last of these regular visits. She must not come next week; she doubted if she ought to come at the end of a fortnight. Ought she not to stay away for a year at least—for ever, perhaps? But, then, what would Bob say?
And so it came that they were more silent than usual; both of them found it so difficult to talk about ordinary everyday matters, and they left the conversation to Bob and Charlie Anderson. By-and-by these two departed to look at some wonderful revolver that had come into young Anderson's possession, and Ruthven and Winny were left alone. Outside the crescent moon hung in the soft dark heavens, and the moonlight turned the rough mining camp into a glorified fairyland, while the various sounds that came to their ears on the faint breeze were softened and made musical the night.
Winny looked out of the tent door; she had looked out so often, had been so thoughtlessly happy, and now she could never feel so free from care again, and she sighed so heavily that Ruthven turned towards her.
'Why, Miss Langdon,' he said, 'what a heavy sigh! That reproaches me with not doing my duty and looking after you properly.'
'Did I sigh?' she said. 'I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to. And—oh dear! I nearly forgot. I specially meant to tell you about your rioters.'
'What rioters? I don't understand.'
'You know, the men who did all the damage at the Packhorse last winter. They took to the ranges, didn't they?'
'Yes, the beggars, and I never could lay my hands on them; yet I kept a bright look-out, too. But what do you know about them?'
'Not much, certainly. Only old Hall told me they'd been over the border, but now they have come back and are hiding in the ranges again, and he said he guessed they'd take it out of the traps now.'
'Will they?' said Ruthven grimly. 'I wonder, now, if that's true. You are the second person who has warned me to-day.'
'Am I?' said Winny anxiously. 'It's true, I'm sure. Do be careful. I've always heard these old hands have a wonderful way of knowing each other's movements. I don't know how they do it, but they do. You must be careful, Mr. Ruthven, when you go over the ranges. You don't know what they might do to you.'
'Not much danger to me, I think. They're awful cowards at bottom.'
'Still, do be careful.'
'Thank you,' he said, 'for taking such an interest in me. I'm a lonely enough beggar, God knows.'
Now, when a man begins to talk about his loneliness to a good-looking young woman, and that young woman takes a deep interest in him, it is decidedly skating on thin ice; Winny knew it, but she could not resist asking:
'Are you lonely?'
'And this always seems such a nice place to me. I always enjoy coming here.'
'Thank you—thank you very much. I am not lonely when you are here.'
'Shall I say thank you, too?' smiled Winny. 'Perhaps I ought. Mr. Ruthven, don't be vexed with what I'm going to say, but do you, could you—I mean, do you ever think things could come right between your wife and you again?'
'There, I know I ought not to have said it, but somehow it all seems so sad. If things could only be put right.'
'They never can be put right, because they were always wrong from the very beginning. It's a bad business, Miss Langdon, a business I am heartily ashamed of; but, do believe me, honestly I did try to make her happy when I had married her, though I did not care for her as I ought to have done.'
'You must have cared a little. How else could you marry her?'
'I did not care a straw for her,' he said; and the blood crept up to his temples.
Never in his life had he felt so ashamed as at this moment, with this girl looking at him with her honest eyes.
'I married her because I thought I ought to, and I did my best to do my duty by her.'
'It was dreadful for her just to have you do your duty—dreadful! Mr. Ruthven, I don't wonder she ran away with somebody else.'
Ruthven looked at her for a moment. It had never occurred to him that she would take that view of the case. He might pity poor Nellie, but that Winifred Langdon would do it had never occurred to him. He hardly knew if he liked it.
'It is a miserable story,' he said lamely.
'And—and—can't anything be done?'
'I don't see what I can do for her. In time I suppose I shall get a divorce for myself, when I can afford it; but we are so far away, and I would have to get a special Act of Parliament. Divorce is only for rich people.'
It was in the early fifties, and divorce was an almost unheard-of thing in Winny's world. There was something horrifying to her in the bare mention of such a thing, and he saw that horror written on her face. A divorce! It would put him apart from his fellow-men in her opinion.
'It's a long and tedious job,' he added; 'and I don't know that I'd be any better off when I got it. Do you?'
He looked at her keenly.
'No, no, no,' she said. 'It's dreadful, dreadful!'
'I will just have to put up with loneliness all my life.'
'I suppose so,' assented Winny.
The tears were very near the surface, and it was almost a relief to her when Bob came in and announced that the horses were waiting.
'Ruthven, are you coming, too?' he asked. 'I see they have your mare saddled.'
'Yes,' said Ruthven; 'it's cool enough to enjoy a ride now, and I'll see you safe home. Have a nobbler, Bob, before you go?'
Bob thought he would, so they stood round the table while he drank, Ruthven carelessly drawing Winny's whip backwards and forwards through his fingers.
'You will be over again next week,' he said to Winny.
'No,' she said; 'thank you very much, but I'm afraid I can't promise to come. It's so close to Christmas, and there's a good deal to do.'
Her heart beat a little, but on the whole it was not nearly so hard to say as she had fancied it would be; that talk about his wife had paved the way. She would be much happier, she thought to herself, when she had forgotten all about this folly, and the sooner she began to forget, the better.
'Not coming!' Ruthven repeated blankly—'not coming! Why, you haven't missed for months. I have learned to expect you. I don't know what I shall do if you don't come.'
Winny looked at him thoughtfully. She was glad he would miss her, she would not have been a woman else; but he would have to miss her, there was nothing else for it.
'The week after, then?' he asked eagerly. 'Surely you will come the week after?'
'How can I promise?' she said lightly. 'The weather is getting so hot now I shan't be able to come as often as I have done, but you have been very good to me and given me very pleasant times.'
'And now we really must go,' said Bob, putting down his glass. 'Come on, Win. Help her up, Ruthven.'
It was a quiet little party that rode through the forest, for both Winny and Ruthven were wrapped in their own thoughts, and Bob was busy with his cigar. Winny, indeed, did make some efforts at conversation, but, meeting with monosyllabic replies, gave up the attempt, and spent the time in unprofitable speculations as to when she should ride again with Jocelyn Ruthven by her side. When they were close to the slip panels, Ruthven stopped his horse.
'It's about time for me to turn back,' he said.
It seemed to Winny horribly inhospitable to dismiss him on the very threshold of their home. They had done it so often, she had got used to it; but to-night, somehow, it struck her forcibly. It was a shame they could not ask him in as they would have asked almost any man in the colony. What had he done that he was to be shut out like this? Nothing, of course; it was just Emmie's foolishness and bad temper. And was not she herself just as bad? Had he not done everything in his power to show her how welcome she was to the camp? Had he ever, by word or deed, given her cause for these virtuous resolutions that she had been so busy making all day? And she answered herself at once: Never—never—never once. And yet, just because her brother had chaffed her, and no one knew better than she did, as a rule, how little meaning there was in a brother's chaff, she was treating him thus coolly, giving him but poor return for all his kindness. Did he care? Did she herself care? Or was it only that her self-consciousness had magnified these things?
It was such a still, warm night, still and quiet after the fierce wind that had been blowing all day. Low in the western sky hung the moon, a crescent of bright silver against the dark velvety background, and faintly from the distance came the trickle of running water. Such a lovely night, how could anything be wrong? how could anyone be sad on such a night as this? For a moment Winny watched the moonlight turning to silver the long pointed gum leaves, watched Bob ride forward and dismount to take down the slip-rails, and then she turned towards Ruthven, holding out her hand and saying, with a warmth born of the glorious night and the fresh turn given to her thoughts:
'Must you go? I am so sorry. I always feel so inhospitable when we leave you here.'
'Don't do that, Miss Langdon. Indeed, you are always kindness itself to me. They are my red-letter days, the days you come to my camp.'
Winny's heart began to beat dangerously fast.
'Are they?' he repeated. 'Why, surely you must know that? You don't need me to tell you.'
Her dark eyes softened and melted in the moonlight, and the devil tempted him.
'And you cannot tell me when you are coming again? Or are you getting tired of me? I've been puzzling over it ever since we left the camp.'
He asked it so earnestly that Winny felt sorry for him, still more sorry for herself.
'Have you?' she said lamely. What could she say? 'I'm sorry for that, because——'
'Have I offended you?'
'No, no! of course not. Please don't even think that. You have always been nice to me; you must know that.'
'Well, then, why on earth——'
But she was not disposed to be catechized. It had cost her something to make the resolution, and now that he questioned her she felt more than ever that she ought to keep it. But give her reasons for it—no, why should she? He should have divined them, and since he did not, like a true woman, she took refuge in temper, and interrupted him crossly:
'I wish you wouldn't bother me, Mr. Ruthven. I've told you I can't come, and that ought to be enough for you.'
'Surely you don't mean you'll never come again?' cried Ruthven, aghast at such a prospect, and oblivious of all his virtuous resolutions of the afternoon; and Winny, repenting her bad temper, softened again.
After all, they were friends. He was lonely, and what harm would it do anyone if she was nice to him? They would not meet again for a fortnight.
'Of course I'll come,' she said. 'Why, I like coming. You are so good to us. Bob and I call our visits to Deadman's our one dissipation. But, oh dear, how late it is! and I had so much I wanted to say to you to-night, but somehow it all seems to have gone out of my head.'
'Say it now.'
Ruthven slipped from his horse and came and stood beside her, looking up into her face. The moonlight fell full on her. Such a beautiful face—oh, such a beautiful face! and the bottomless pit lay between them. Her ungloved hand was resting on the pommel of her saddle, and he put out his own and touched it gently. He saw her blush in the moonlight, but she did not withdraw it, though she took herself to task afterwards for not doing so.
'Tell me now.'
'I can't,' she said. 'It's getting late, and you want to go home. But promise me one thing;' and she bent over him till he felt her warm breath on his cheek. 'Now, promise me to be careful and keep out of the way of those men.'
Ruthven would have prolonged the conversation indefinitely if he could.
'Those Packhorse rioters, you know,'
'Yes, I know. But there is no danger.'
'There might be,' she said softly; 'and I'd like to know you were careful.'
'God bless you!' he said, just under his breath; but she heard, and it sent the colour flying to her cheeks again.
'And now I must wish you a merry Christmas, mustn't I? because I'm not likely to see you again before Christmas.'
'I say!' shouted Bob from the slip-panel, 'are you two going to stop there all night?'
Winny started, but he caught her hand.
'I must go,' she said.
'And I'm not to see you next Friday?'
'I can't—indeed I can't!'
Her voice was troubled, and, looking up in her face, he saw the trouble there also.
'The week after, then?'
'My God!' he cried, 'I believe you are right, but it is taking all the sunshine out of my life. God help me!'
'Hush, hush! you mustn't talk like that.'
'Forgive me, I have come to a hard place and—and——'
'Winny! Winny!' shouted Bob, 'are you ever coming?'
Ruthven put his face down to her hand and covered it with passionate kisses.
'Good-bye, then, and God bless you. You don't guess what you have been to me, do you?' Then he drew a long breath. 'Come back to the camp again,' he said simply. 'Do come when you can. I promise you I won't forget myself again.'
She looked down at him, and he saw in the moonlight that her eyes were shining with tears.
'Good-bye,' she said, and lightly touched his cheek with her hand.
Then she rode off slowly to join Bob, whose patience had entirely given out, and who was making the forest re-echo with his shouts.
But Ruthven paused a moment before remounting.
So that was the end—the very end. Would she ever come and see him again? Never—never! He thought of the winter afternoons spent in desultory chat over the fire, the warm summer nights when they had sat at the tent door and watched the moon rise or the stars come out one by one, and listened to the hum of sound from the diggers' camp below, hushed and softened by the distance. Such little things, such commonplace, everyday incidents, but these things had bound them together; her presence had hallowed the veriest trifle. And now it was all over.
And as he thought of the beautiful dark face that had bent over him, he felt wild with longing, and spurred his horse into a gallop. The hoof-beats on the hard ground seemed to keep time to his thoughts. 'She is beyond you—beyond you—beyond you,' they seemed to be saying, till Ruthven, dismounting at his tent door, had worked himself up into a very fever of misery.
Young Anderson was sitting there reading an old English magazine, puffing at a pipe to protect himself from the insect life swarming round the lamp.
'Hallo, sir!' he said, raising his head as Ruthven entered. 'Seen the young lady home? How are you going to tide over the time till next Friday? I suppose she'll be back then?'
'Don't suppose any such thing, then,' said Ruthven sharply, feeling that Winny was quite right in deciding not to come so often to the camp.
How dared this young cub chaff him about her! And he would have liked nothing better just at that moment than to have laid violent hands on his mild young clerk, and worked off some of his superabundant energy in thrashing him.
'Not coming next Friday! Whew! that's a new departure,' said Anderson.
He might have added something more, but he caught the Commissioner's eye, and, seeing danger, promptly retired to his bed tent, deciding in his own mind that his superior officer was in a deuce of a temper about something or other, and he had better be left alone for a bit till he should get over it.
'Heart, be still!
In the darkness of thy woe,
Bow thou silently and low;
Comes to thee whate'er God will—
Be thou still!'
'OH, I'm very sorry for him—very sorry indeed.'
'It was his own fault, though.'
'Well, yes, I suppose it was. But Tom always says "poor beggar!" when he talks about Mr. Ruthven, and no one knows better than I do how hard he tried to do his duty.'
'Mary,'—Winny leaned back in the easy-chair with her hands behind her head, and stared up at Mrs. Nicholson's drawing-room ceiling—'wouldn't you hate a husband who tried to do his duty by you?'
'I expect I'd hate him still more if he didn't try.'
'Perhaps you would; but you know what I mean. Fancy marrying a man without a spark of love from him, and then having him disapproving of you, and yet always doing the right thing, and being virtuously correct in every way! Oh, how you would get to hate him!'
Mary Nicholson laughed.
'I understand what you mean, but you mustn't judge Mrs. Ruthven as you would you or me. I was here, you know, so I saw it all, and she was just an impossible woman for any man to get on with. She came out of that little low shanty, and she was—she was just what you might expect of the little low shanty.'
'How could he?' said Winny, with an inward shudder. 'It makes me feel he deserves all he got for ever having anything to do with her.'
The other woman smiled philosophically.
'Men will do these sort of things, you know, dear. There wasn't anybody else round, and she was very pretty when he was content to take her as she was out on the ranges; then he got to making love to her just to pass the time'—Winny beat her foot on the ground to show her disapproval—'and—well, the fact of the matter was, he was too honourable. It didn't do either him or her any good marrying her, and if it hadn't been for your sister-in-law——'
'Oh, I know,' said Winny, in rather disgusted tones. 'The young man was obliged to have a divinity of some sort, and he took whoever came handy—first this girl out of the gutter, and then, when he tired of her, my immaculate sister-in-law, who settled him up completely, just to show her power. Don't such things make you hate men?'
Mary Nicholson rather guessed how things were with Winny, and was sorry for her. She was young; she would get over it; but, oh, what a pity it was! What an ideal couple she and Ruthven would have made!
'I think you are a little hard on Mr. Ruthven, dear,' she said. 'I have lived in the same house with him, and I know what a good fellow he is; and as I fell badly in love with somebody else, my testimony is worth something. He is very good and kind, and his only fault, if it is a fault, is that he is a little susceptible to the charms of womenkind.'
'I hate that kind of man. Whatever would his affection be worth?'
'A good deal, I think. After all, it only means that he wants a little of the companionship and softness in his life that a woman can give. That's not a bad thing in a husband. He won't go straying after false gods if he likes a woman's society, and your society above all other things.'
The girl shook her head.
'I don't know,' she said. 'It doesn't seem exactly what I'd like in a man.'
'Oh, you'd like a man who never looked at a woman till he saw you, and then incontinently fell down and worshipped, and remained worshipping all his life.'
A faint smile crept round Winny's mouth, and Mrs. Nicholson went on:
'There! I knew it: but, my dear, such men are only in ladies' novels; they don't come into real life at all. You've got to take mankind in a general kind of way, and the man who likes women and their little ways best is bound to make the best husband. Why, it comes easiest to him, and we always do the thing we like doing best. Now, don't misunderstand me. I don't mean a fickle flirt who wants to make a girl care for him, and then, when he's succeeded, passes on and says, "Next, please." I don't mean that sort of a man at all.'
'Isn't that rather what Mr. Ruthven is?'
'Now, Winny'—reproachfully—'how can you say such a thing! He is just a type of the man I am describing. He has just got a vein of softness in him somewhere that makes him like to be with a woman, and makes him like her ways; but he isn't a flirt, not a bit of it; he'd have been a happier man now if he had been. It is the fault of a place like this, where women are so scarce that it magnifies their importance. If Commissioner Ruthven could have worked off his feminine leanings in a few dances and picnics and entertainments of that sort, where he would have had plenty of women's society, he never would have got into a scrape with poor Nellie Phillips. But he was dull and lonely, and he got to dawdling round her.'
'More shame to him—a girl like that!'
'Oh yes, I'm not defending him. He didn't ought to have done it. Then, naturally, a little of her went a long way, and——'
'He took to dangling round my sister-in-law. If I could forgive him the one thing, I couldn't forgive him the other.'
'Now, Winny, that is just what you ought to understand.'
'But to fall in love with Emmie! No, of course I know he oughtn't to have fallen in love with a married woman, but I wasn't thinking of that. It's just Emmie. How could any man!'
'Well, your brother Ben——'
'Oh, I know—I know. But, Mary, whatever did he see in her—so cold and calm and aggravatingly good and virtuous and selfish——'
'How fond you must be of your sister-in-law!'
'Upon my word, Mary, I'd like to shake her up thoroughly sometimes. No one ever made me feel so real downright bad as she does. I want to go out and shriek out to the world what a real downright bad lot I am, and how I rejoice in it, after she has been talking to me for a little time.'
'Yes, she has that effect on one,' said Mary Nicholson thoughtfully. 'I must say she is a bit smug. But if she didn't strike you that way, I expect she would strike you as very good and gentle, always putting a very high standard before herself and others.'
'Chiefly others,' groaned Winny.
'Oh, come now! when did you ever know her do anything wrong?'
'Never; that's the aggravating part of it. If she does a thing I should call abominably selfish in anybody else, she always manages to impress on you the fact that it is very self-sacrificing on her part.'
'And Mr. Ruthven fell in love with her goodness. Her sweet, calm ways—her ideals—her beauty. Oh yes, Winny, you needn't sniff; she is very good-looking. Everything was such a change from the woman he had been carrying on with. He felt it restful at first to be in her society, and then he imagined himself in love with her. It was all imagination, though. It had no real foundation. There! that's the way I account for after-events.'
'That's the one thing I can't forgive him,' said Winny viciously. 'If he'd only married the girl of his own accord—— But to do it to please Emmie—so that she should think well of him—I can't forgive him that.'
'I strongly suspect it's the one thing he can't forgive himself. That's the worst of being virtuous. You don't know what you let yourself in for. If you are real downright bad, at least you're bad to please yourself, and get some satisfaction out of it; but if you are good to please somebody else, there is no knowing where it may end.'
'I don't call it particularly virtuous to fall in love with a married woman.'
'Fall in love! bless you, my child, he didn't fall in love.'
'I thought you said he did.'
'No, I didn't. I said it was all imagination.'
Winny shrugged her shoulders.
'It comes to the same thing in the end.'
'Well, I don't know. He fell in love with the goodness of a sweet, pure woman, in his opinion. He wanted feminine sympathy, as I said before.'
'I know you did. You are a great hand at splitting-hairs, Mary, and you certainly do stand up for Mr. Ruthven. A great deal more than he deserves, I'm inclined to think. However, I'm glad the poor man has a champion. I like him myself, you know, except for that fatal blot. Do you think it is getting cooler outside?' and Winny crossed the room and lifted the blind a little way.
'The wind has gone down,' said Mary Nicholson, 'and I think it is a little cooler. I'd go for a walk, only it is just baby's bath time.'
'Let nurse bath him for once, and come for a walk with me.'
'Bad girl! Suppose his poor little back got hurt, I should never forgive myself.'
'Then, I suppose I shall have to go by myself. What an awful worry a baby is! I hope to goodness it repays you.'
'Oh yes, it repays me;' and Mary Nicholson smiled a far-away smile that Winny hardly understood.
'Very well, then, I shall go by myself.'
But it was not as cool as she had hoped. There was not much wind, it is true, but the air was hot and burning; and though the sun was now low, he seemed to have concentrated himself for a last effort, and his long level rays were scorching. Winny wished she had not come, but she would not go back, she thought, till she had filled her mind with some other thing than Mr. Ruthven's shortcomings. She must find something else to talk about, she told herself. She was ashamed to think how much thought she gave to the Commissioner at Deadman's. She walked down through the little ramshackle mining camp—down through the rough-and-ready shelters the diggers had raised for themselves. They might just as well be in the blazing sunshine as in those stuffy little houses; the weather-boards could not keep out the heat, and yet possibly they did keep out the fresh air. Oh well, many lives were worse than hers, she thought, as she watched the few women busy over the evening meal.
In the public-house a concertina was being played wildly, and there came out a confused sound of singing; and a little farther on she passed Mat Phillips' house, and Mrs. Phillips was sitting on the doorstep, her wild gray hair sticking out from under her dirty sun-bonnet, and her arms wrapped up in her blue-check apron. Her dingy brown skirt was very short for her, so that Winny had a full view of her feet encased in a man's down-at-heel slippers and dirty white stockings sadly in need of mending. She knew well enough who she was, and her thoughts involuntarily flew back to that neat tent with the daintily spread table fifteen miles away on Deadman's Creek. How could he—oh, how could he? And, then, what must he have suffered if the daughter in any way resembled the mother? Well, he had paid a heavy penalty. What a pity—what a grievous pity—the paying of that penalty did not leave him free!
Her heart softened towards him, and she went on hurriedly, turning towards the hills that divided Deep Creek from Karouda, and hastening into a gully so that she was shut off completely from the camp. It was a little cooler here, she thought, just a little; at least, there was no dust, and the scrub and bushes gave off a pleasant axiomatic odour as she crushed through them. Another year, and this pretty fern gully would be gone, but at least she would make the most of it. There was a creek at the bottom, but it was not running now; the hot January sun had been too much for it; but a little further up it had widened out into a water-hole, a still quiet pool with rocky banks, and there was water there yet.
She threw herself down among the fern, and lay back looking up at the bright blue sky through the fern-fronds, listening to the drop, drop of the small rill that ran into the still water-hole, and the soft twitter of birds in the bush, hymning with thankfulness that the hot day was over. All hot days came to an end at last—there was an end to all weariness; but would there ever come an end to this pain at her heart, which she was ashamed to acknowledge even to herself?
She would be happy—she would, she would. In all this grand world it was a shame if she could not find peace. She would go back to Mary Nicholson, and think no more of this thing, which was a pain and a shame to her. She had forgotten already, and in proof thereof one or two tears trickled through her closed eyelids, and she wiped them away hastily with her hand.
She ought to be ashamed of herself, a woman of her age crying because—simply because she felt she ought not to go down to Deadman's and spend one evening a week with a certain man as she had been accustomed to do. Six months ago she had done without it; she had never even thought of such a thing. Why could she not be content and happy now? Why did there seem nothing to look forward to in this world, simply because she must not go down to Deadman's? She asked herself the question again as she had asked it all the long, sleepless, hot night. But there was no answer, and she fell to counting the fern-fronds on the tree-fern over her head, just to put the question away from her. Her thoughts—those wilful thoughts—kept straying, but she brought them back resolutely. Then a puff of soft wind touched her cheek; it was really going to change at last, and to change without rain. More was the pity; but if it were only cooler it would be something. She went on resolutely counting. When she reached a thousand she would go back to dinner with Mary Nicholson, she thought; but before she had reached a hundred she was sound asleep.
How long she lay she did not know; but it could not have been very long, for the sun was still sending his rays under the fern-fronds, when she wakened with a start, with the feeling that someone was looking at her.
She looked round hurriedly without seeing anyone, and then a voice close behind her said discontentedly:
'It's well to be you.'
She sat up promptly, and there, leaning against a tree-fern, was an untidy young woman in a soiled print dress, with a dirty sun-bonnet tip-tilted over her nose. In her arms she held a bundle wrapped in a red shawl, from which came a pitiful little whine, and she swayed to and fro gently, as if to hush it.
'Oh, it's well to be you,' she said again aggressively.
'I'm sure,'—Winny rose to her feet—'I hope it is well to be me, but I don't know why you should be aggrieved at that. Who are you?'
The girl laughed shortly.
'Sometimes I'm blest if I could tell you that myself.'
'Is that your baby?'
'Yes, he's mine.'
'Poor little thing! He must be ill to cry like that.'
Winny stepped forward.
'Let me look at him.'
The girl threw back the shawl and showed her the blotched and puckered face of a baby not two months old.
'Oh dear! surely there's something wrong. What is it makes a baby look like that? There's something the matter with him. He is so red; I wonder if it could be scarlet fever?'
They both stood looking at the poor little mite, and the woman's defiant air softened.
'It's hard on the little uns,' she said with a sigh, 'out on the ranges.'
'You don't live out on the ranges?'
'Just that,' she said. 'But I thought if I come down to the camp, the doctor'd maybe give me something for baby.'
'Of course,' said Winny; 'you'd better stop in the camp till baby's well again, I should say. Your husband will let you, won't he?'
'Oh, I guess I can stop if I want to,' said the girl, looking at her curiously.
'I would if I were you, then. Poor little mite! let me look at him. How light he feels! I do believe the doctor will say he has got far too many clothes on—too warmly wrapped up, you know, on such a hot day as this. Poor little hot hands! And you really might have had him a little cleaner, you know. It wouldn't be much trouble, and the poor child would be so much more comfortable.'
'An' how does the likes of you know whether it would be trouble or not? Did you ever try livin' in a bark humpy on the ranges with a man as is that pernickety that——'
'No,' said Winny, laughing and opening the baby's shawl a little wider, 'I can't say I ever did. But, anyhow, out there on the ranges baby can't have got scarlet fever or measles, or anything catching of that sort, can he? You don't see anybody, I expect.'
'Well, whiles and again we do,' said the woman dubiously.
Winny held the untidy bundle in the hollow of her arm and crooned over it gently; then, stooping, she dipped her handkerchief in the water at her feet and wiped the hot little face.
Its mother watched her wonderingly.
'I wouldn't have thought you would have touched him,' she said at last.
'I'm sorry for you. It's dreadful, you know, to have a sick baby out on the ranges. And I don't know what to do for you. You must really see the doctor. I suppose your husband will let you stop in the camp.'
'You seem mighty sure I have a husband.'
'Why, of course.'
The blood mounted to Winny's face as she looked down at the child in her arms.
'Oh, bless you, that don't go for anything. But I've a husband, sure enough. Look at the gold ring, and—— Who's that?'
'And what is Hope? The puffing gale of morn
That robs each floweret of its gem—and dies;
A cobweb, hiding disappointment's thorn,
Which stings more keenly through the thin disguise.'
THERE was a crashing through the undergrowth, and the strange girl caught at her child as if she would have hidden herself and it away from sight; but before she had time to run, the ferns parted, and the burly form of Harry Selby appeared.
'Winny,' he blurted out, 'whatever are you doing here?'
Now, if there was one thing Winny objected to it was Harry Selby assuming airs of authority over her; so she said nothing, only wiped the baby's face a little more carefully than she would have done otherwise. She had been about to return it to its mother, but one glimpse of his face, disapproval written in every line, decided her to keep it in her own arms. She sat down with her back against a tree-fern, and began smoothing down its untidy clothes.
Selby said nothing for a moment. He knew Winny in these moods. Then he stepped a little closer, and whistled softly to himself.
'For goodness gracious' sake,' said Winny in an undertone, 'don't whistle like that! It irritates me. Why can't you say straight out what surprises you?'
'You nursing a kid with the measles.'
'Oh, has it got the measles? Poor little thing! I knew there was something wrong. Fancy you knowing anything about babies! Then its mother will have to bring it into the camp at once. Now, Harry, how do you know anything about measles? It isn't a thing a young man would know.'
'Oh, it's measles right enough,' said Selby airily. 'Carter—my man, you know—his children have got it, and he got me to have a look at 'em. And, my word! won't Mrs. Nicholson be pleased to have you back again along with her baby!'
'Oh dear!' sighed Winny, 'I'll have to go straight home, and Emmie will put me in quarantine for a fortnight.'
She rose to her feet, still holding the baby very gently, and called to its mother.
'You must take him into the camp, you know, if it's the measles.'
The girl had drawn her bonnet right down, so as to cover her face, and as she took the baby, she held it up so as to hide her still more.
'Send him away,' she whispered, hitching an elbow towards Selby.
'Nonsense!' said Winny; 'he has just as good a right to be here as you or I.'
'I want to tell you something.'
'You must tell me with Mr. Selby there, then.'
The girl shook her head.
'Oh, well, another time. You'd better take baby down to the camp. Have you got anybody to stay with?'
'Then you'll be all right if you've got your mother to go to.'
'Must I go to camp? Is baby real bad?'
'I think he's bad,' said Winny sympathetically. 'He's so little, and you'd much better not risk anything, specially when you've got your mother to go to.'
'He'll half kill me,' said the girl, looking round her.
'Who? Your husband? Oh no; he wouldn't be such a brute. Baby is really ill, you know, and he could manage for himself for a little. Leave baby with your mother, and go back to him.'
The girl looked at her thoughtfully, and Selby stepped forward.
'You take my advice and cut the gang. Go to your mother, and don't you go back.'
'Lord! what do you know about it?'
'Not much, except that you've brought your pigs to a pretty market. I know well enough who you are, and if you're here, we all know who's in the background; and I'm not going to hold my tongue about it, Nellie Phillips, so you needn't think it. I don't know your present name, but the old one'll do, I dare say.'
'The poor little baby, Harry.'
'Well, no harm's going to happen to the baby or its mother. But I'm going to tell the police I saw this woman here, and they will draw their own conclusions as to who are her companions.'
'If you set the traps on us——' said Nellie, firing up fiercely.
'Go down to your mother quick,' said Winny; 'never mind who you are with out on the ranges. The baby can't be allowed to die, and he will die if you don't do something. Let the men take care of themselves.'
'It's little you know—it's little you know,' wailed the girl. 'I ain't much gone on Jim, God knows; but to set the traps on him, that's another thing.'
'Who is Jim?' asked Winny curiously.
And as she asked the question enlightenment came. Who could this woman Harry Selby called Nellie Phillips be but Jocelyn Ruthven's wife? Who could this Jim she talked about be but Fraser, the man they wanted for the Packhorse riot? And the blood rushed to her face, and Harry Selby, looking at her crimson cheeks, wondered a little, but guessed that at least he need not enlighten her.
'Come, come,' he said, laying his hand kindly enough on the girl's shoulder; 'you go along to your mother, and get the poor little beggar properly attended to. You ain't got nothing to do with the gang, you know, any way, and it's only rumour mixed you up with Fraser. For all I know, you mayn't ever have set eyes on the man; but, all the same, I shall tell the Commissioner I have seen you, and he'd better be on the look-out for mischief in the ranges. Now go along, there's a good girl.'
'The Commissioner!' she said, looking at him. 'Do you mean my——'
'No, I don't,' said Selby curtly. 'I mean Commissioner Nicholson. He can tell the other. Now go along, like a good girl. It ain't any business of yours or mine if Commissioner Nicholson draws conclusions.'
'It mayn't be any business of yours,' said the girl doubtfully, putting the end of the baby's shawl in her mouth, 'but I guess Jim'll consider it's mine.'
'Oh, he will, will he? Then you'll just settle that between yourselves. Now, Winny, how long do you propose to stop here? Seems to me Mrs. Nicholson was quite right when she sent me along to look after you.'
'Oh, Harry! But don't you see what a terrible position you are putting this poor woman in? What can she do?'
'Oh, it's not so bad,' said Harry airily. 'I guess she's had about enough of Fraser in the course of the last year, if he is the Jim she is referring to. You go along now, and take the kid down to your mother's. Jim's managed for himself before, and he'll do it again.'
'It seems sort of mean to put the traps on him.'
'Lord bless you! they ain't likely to catch him. He's too wide awake for that. Winny'—he turned to her angrily—'this is no place for you. I ought not to let you stay here. Come home at once.'
But Winny objected to Harry's authoritative tone.
'Really, Harry,' she said, 'I'm the best judge of what I may or may not do.'
Then she turned and spoke gently to the girl. Her brain was in a whirl, but at least the poor girl was a mother anxious about her child, and that was the only aspect of the case she need look at.
'Do take him down to your mother at once,' she said; 'he may die if you don't. That's all you can think of at present.'
'And children like him are better dead, ain't they?'
She lifted her face defiantly.
'No, no, no! For God's sake don't talk like that! Your own little baby! Do what you can for him, the poor little helpless thing!'
The tears came into Nellie's eyes and trickled down her sunburnt cheek.
'I'm fond of him,' she sobbed; 'I'm that fond of him! You wouldn't ha' thought it, but I am;' and she began to cry piteously, rocking herself backwards and forwards. 'Jim said he was an encumbrance, an' I couldn't bring him up in the ranges; but I'm that fond of him.'
There were tears of sympathy in Winny's eyes now.
'Of course you are fond of him—of course you are, your own little baby. If you weren't, who would be? Don't cry—oh, don't cry like that! There really isn't much the matter, I think, only he will want looking after.'
'But Jim—but Jim—— If I set the traps on him all along of baby, he'll say he knew how it 'ud be, an' he'll half kill me, an' what'll he do to baby?'
'Get out!' said Selby with rough good-nature. 'The baby's yours, ain't it? body and soul. You cut away down to your mother's with it. That's the best thing you can do.'
'I haven't anything to do with Jim. I thought you didn't care a brass farthing about him.'
'That doesn't say I'd set the traps on him.'
Selby shrugged his shoulders.
'You mind your baby, and the sooner you're at the camp, the better. Come along, Winny; do, for goodness' sake, let's get out of this! It isn't a pleasant reflection, I can tell you, that those Packhorse men are so close handy. Somehow, it doesn't seem to me that these lonely gullies are very healthy places.'
'Oh, you're all right,' said Nellie swiftly. 'They always say Squimy Selby's a good enough sort.'
'My own nickname, too,' groaned Selby. 'Lord, how flattered I ought to be at such familial friendship!'
'Well, they don't think so high of everyone, I can tell you,' said Nellie simply.
'I told you so. I knew the gullies weren't a very safe place. Come along, Winny.'
'If I can do anything for you or the baby——' hesitated Winny.
'Oh, come along, Win! Do, please. She's all right. Old Mat Phillips is a very well-to-do man, and Mrs. Phillips ain't going to let her daughter want. She's not that sort.'
The sun had set now, and the darkness was coming on them quickly.
Winny picked her way daintily among the fern and brushwood, and Harry Selby followed in silence. At first they were within hearing of the girl, and then something else tied their tongues; but at length the twinkling lights of the camp came into sight, and it dawned on Harry Selby that he was letting an opportunity he had long waited for slip through his fingers. He never caught Winny alone, much as he might desire it, and now here they were, out on the ranges, no one within sight or hearing, and the darkness falling; could ardent lover desire a better opportunity?
'Win,' he said. The frank good-fellowship had gone from his voice, and there was a change in it that warned her to be on her guard. 'Wait a moment, Win.'
'I can't,' she said, without stopping. 'I must get back to dinner. What would Mary Nicholson say?'
'Dinner won't be till half-past eight. She told me so herself. Nicholson won't be back till then. She got word while I was there.'
'Oh,'—there was no sign of lingering about Winny—'then I'll get back and keep Mary company.'
'It'll be dreadfully hot in the house.'
'It isn't necessary to stay in the house. Make haste, Harry, and we'll take her for a walk. She'll like that, and she's such a nice little woman, isn't she?'
No answer from Harry.
'Harry, she is a nice woman.'
'I didn't come here to talk about Mrs. Nicholson.'
'We may as well talk about her as about anything else. I always like talking about the people who interest me. You might allow me that little weakness.'
'Talk to me like that. Winny, for pity's sake stop a minute and listen to me. I don't often ask you to do anything for me, do I?'
'Why should I do anything for you?'
'Oh, no reason at all—no reason at all; I know that well enough; but—how many years have we known each other?'
'Twelve at least,' said Winny, softening visibly and slackening her pace. 'I was a little girl in pinnies, and you were a big boy and very good to me—very good indeed. I'm always grateful for the good times you gave me, Harry.'
'Then, sit down on this rock for five minutes.'
Winny hesitated a moment. She had just said she was grateful to him. She was firmly convinced he intended to ask her to marry him, and she was just as decided as ever to say 'No.' Was it kind to give him that pain? had she not much better go on? Well, no; he only asked her to sit there for a few minutes. She would do it, and if she had to refuse him, she would do it as gently as possible. There was no one she had a higher opinion of than Harry Selby, but she did not want to marry him.
She turned towards him in the gathering gloom.
'Here—just here. Give me your hand. There, isn't that a nice little seat? Just big enough for two, and the hill makes a rest for your back, and that stone below a nice footstool. Are you quite comfortable?'
'Quite, thank you.'
It was not quite true, for she was mentally much perturbed, but there was no necessity to tell him that.
He sat down beside her, and she felt his hand touch lightly the skirt of her dress, but she said nothing—only stared at the gloom of the opposite hillside, and wondered when he was going to begin. He was such a good fellow, Harry—such a good fellow; should she do as he wished? He would make the kindest of husbands. No breath of scandal had ever touched his name. She had never heard of him dangling after a married woman. He was kind and thoughtful, and—and she would be tired of him in a week. Time was when, as a girl of sixteen, she had thought Harry the personification of manly beauty; if he had thought of asking her to marry him then, her answer would have been very different, but, thank God, he had not. And now—now that she understood, should she bind herself? No, a thousand times no—and she pressed her foot down firmly on her rocky footstool—nothing should persuade her to marry Harry Selby out of pity.
But presently her decision began to seem a little premature, for as he sat still beside her he never uttered a word. It was so dark now she could only see the outline of his face and hear his breathing. Presently the stars came out, bright golden points of light in the dark, soft sky, and she could see the moon round and red and fiery through the trees. The wind had fallen, and just the softest breath stirred the leaves beside her, and in a shrub beyond some birds were twittering to themselves in a sleepy manner.
At first the silence relieved her, but by-and-by it began to grow painful, and she broke it.
'What a lovely night!'
Still no answer.
'Just listen to those little birds! How sleepily cross they sound! I believe they keep pushing each other out of bed. There must be a good many in that bush.'
'They're funny little jokers,' said Selby, much to her relief. 'I say, Win.'
'I want to speak to you.'
'That's why I'm sitting here, isn't it? What is it?'
'You won't be angry with me?'
'How can I tell till I know what you are going to say? But I don't think I'm likely to be angry with you.'
He picked a leaf off the shrub beside him, and crushed it between his fingers. It was some sort of eucalyptus, and the aromatic scent came strongly to her nostrils.
'You might, you know. I'm a rough sort of chap, and I ain't up much in the ways of women, but I'd please you if I could, Win.'
'I'm sure you would,' she said gratefully. 'I tell you you have always been good to me.'
'You think I might please a woman?'
'Why, Harry, of course! Please her! You might do a great deal more than please her.'
'Could I?' His voice was anxious and humble. 'We've been friends for a great many years now, Win, and you'll tell me the truth, won't you?'
'Of course I will,' said Winny cheerfully.
She began to feel a little shamefaced. Had she been counting him a lover of her own when, after all, he only wanted to consult her about another woman? Well, she was a fool, but at bottom she was glad.
'You will? You'll tell me whether a woman might love me?'
'Love you, Harry? A woman might love you very much indeed. Goodness me! Of course, a fine, good-looking fellow like you! She would love you, and be very proud of you, I'm sure; so if it's your looks you are doubtful about, don't hesitate any longer on that score.'
'I don't think it's exactly my looks,' said Harry rather sheepishly. 'I'm quite satisfied with my looks 'cept when I think of her; then you can't think how rough and coarse I feel.'
'Oh, Harry, don't be so silly!' Winny laughed outright. 'If she loves you, she'll just think you the finest-looking, handsomest man in the world, and I know she'd be always saying to herself that it wasn't only your good looks, though they were beyond question, but that there was something so honest and good and kind in your face no one could help loving you. There'—and she broke off laughing—'don't be conceited! Ask her, and she'll tell you so herself, I haven't the slightest doubt; then you can praise me for a wise woman.'
'Is that the way a woman feels when she's in love with a chap?'
'Yes, just like that.'
'How do you know?'
'I—I—I'm sure I don't know. You know what a man feels like when he—when he's in love.'
'But, then, I'm in love, you see.'
'Ah, yes, of course, to be sure.'
'You must be in love, too, Winny.'
'I? Oh no! Goodness gracious me! who should I be in love with?'
'Well, it might be with me, you know, but I'm afraid it ain't.'
'Couldn't you credit me with a little imagination?'
'My oath, Win!' he said energetically. 'Imagination's got nothing to do with it. I don't believe a woman knows all that unless she's been through the mill. There's some lucky beggar you're fond of, and I'll take my colonial oath it isn't me.'
He tossed away the crumpled-up leaf, and, rising to his feet, stretched his hands over his head.
'Winny, by any chance, is it me?'
Dead silence for fully a minute.
'Winny,' said Selby imploringly.
'Is it me?'
He dropped down on his seat again, and put his hand on her knee.
'Is what you? I don't understand.'
'Yes, you do. Winny, I love you with all my heart. I have loved you so long now I forget when first it began, and you must have known it long ago. Do you love me?'
'No,' said Winny, scarcely above her breath.
'I knew it,' he said bitterly; 'I believe I've known it all along. Is there somebody else? In time, perhaps——'
'No, Harry,' said Winny decisively, 'I won't change in time. I like you so much that I know I can't change, I would if I could. I really believe I'd be glad to love you, but I can't, and you—you wouldn't care about a wife who married you without a spark of love, would you, now?'
'If I would be content——'
'Then I wouldn't.'
'Then that settles it.' He rose to his feet, and held out his hand to help her up. 'Winny, I'm a rough sort of a chap, but I love you. You don't know how much I love you, or what I would do for you. That other chap, now——'
'Oh, Harry, there is no one else.'
He pondered that last statement a moment, and they started for the camp.
'I wonder why women always tell lies about their love affairs,' he said at length. 'I'll take my oath there's some other chap.'
'For pity's sake don't talk nonsense!'
'It's Gospel truth, I'll take my oath. What's wrong, Win? Can't you tell an old friend? On my honour, I'll help you all I can, though I would like you for myself.'
'Oh, don't, Harry! Harry, don't!'
'I don't know anyone you're very thick with, except, perhaps, the Commissioner at Deadman's, and he married that little devil Nellie Phillips before ever he came across you. It's bad for the Commissioner, you know, seeing so much of you, but that's his look-out.'
Winny felt a lump rise in her throat. Would they never reach the camp? And she quickened her steps a little.
'I can't think of anyone else. All the chaps would jump at you, I know, if you only raised your finger, but you don't, and——'
'Harry, will you hold your tongue? What right have you to go on speculating about me like this? I have told you there is no one, and that ought to be enough for you.'
'It might be,' said Harry obstinately, 'only you see I don't believe you.'
'Very well, then, don't believe me, only keep your opinion to yourself.'
They walked on in silence till they reached the gate of Commissioner Nicholson's house. Then Selby stretched out his hand, and for a moment held it closed against her.
'Winny, I want to say something to you. I'm—I'm—blast the thing! I can't put it into words. I meant to say I'm awfully fond of you. I'd do anything for you, and I mean what I say. And if ever I can do anything for you—I mean—I—I——'
He was getting hopelessly confused, and there was a suspicious break in his voice, but Winny understood.
'Oh, Hairy, you are a good fellow! Indeed, if I wanted any help, there's no one I would rather come to than you. Indeed, indeed you may believe me; but—I'm all right; I'm quite happy. I don't want you to do anything for me. There is nothing you can do for me except be my dear old friend again, and forget all about me.'
He laughed a lugubrious laugh, and took his hand off the gate.
'Good-night,' he said.
'Aren't you coming in?'
'But Mrs. Nicholson will be expecting you.'
'Tell her I met a man I wanted to see about some sheep.'
'On the ranges, in the dark?'
'No, hang it! Well, I'm not coming in, and you can tell her anything you please;' and he opened the gate and swung it to behind her, and she heard him marching sturdily up the hill again.
'Waste not your hour, nor in the vain pursuit
Of This and That endeavour and dispute;
Better be jocund with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter Fruit.'
HARRY SELBY walked steadily up the hillside, saying to himself that he would just walk back to where he had met Winifred Langdon, and then make straight for the camp, get his horse, and go home again. As for not thinking any more of her, that was just a girl's idea. As if he could forget her! What rot! But, anyhow, he wouldn't bother more than he could help. He would set to work among the cattle at once. He had been somewhat lazy lately; he had spent all his time watching for opportunities to push his suit with Winny. But now that that was hopeless, he would give them all a rousing time; he would make up for the days he had lost, and there wasn't a man on his run but should earn his tucker in the next three months. Then he made his way back to the water-hole where he had found Winny, and sat himself down where he had seen her sitting with the baby in her lap.
The moon was up above the forest now, fiery and smoky through the haze, and he rested his chin on his hands and watched her. It meant heat and Bush fires and destruction generally. Harry Selby felt just in the mood for working at a Bush fire, and he said to himself that he didn't care if the whole country was in a glow. Even if it ruined him, he felt just then it really didn't matter very much, since Winny had refused to share his riches.
There must be somebody else—of course there was somebody else; and he felt just then he would rather like to get his hand on him, and have a right-down good old tussle to show which was the better man. Not that it would make any difference to Winny. She would stick to her man even if he did down him, and would hate the victor for putting him to shame. So that wouldn't be any good. Who could he be?
The moon rose higher, silvering as she rose out of the smoke and haze; and Selby watched her, and thought as perhaps he had never thought in his life before. Who—could—this—man—be? He didn't believe for one moment Winny's denial. He knew there was somebody, and he ran over in his mind all the likely men of his acquaintance, only to dismiss them one by one. Then it occurred to him that this was uncomfortable, unprofitable work; and he drew out his pipe, filled and lighted it, and felt more at peace with the world, as he watched the smoke-wreaths curl up in the moonlight. Of course it wasn't any good speculating about Winny. He would just smoke out this pipe, and then go down to camp and tell how he had seen that little devil, Nellie Ruthven, in the ranges. If she was there Fraser was there; you might bet your bottom dollar on that. Not that she appeared to care much for him; still, he supposed she'd stick to him.
It was wonderful the way women did stick to men, for no earthly reason whatever, too, just because they got accustomed to them, apparently. She hadn't stuck to Ruthven, though; but then, oh Lord! Ruthven and Nellie Phillips! Was anything more incongruous? Why, Nellie would have suited him better. Would Winny have suited Ruthven?
But he did not like that view of the case at all, and he rose to his feet and swore a good round oath or two by way of relieving his feelings. Winny and Ruthven—and she was always down at his camp! He pondered the matter for a moment or two, and then, being a cheerful young man, and loath to take gloomy views of life, he decided that he was a fool to bother about that for a moment. He was doing Winny a grave wrong by coupling her name with Ruthven's. It was natural enough that Ruthven should like to have her coming down to his camp, but that she should have anything more than a passing interest in him was out of the question. Likely she was sorry for him. Girls were like that. She very likely never thought of love or marriage at all. She was just accustomed to have him, Harry Selby, dangling round her, waiting to do her bidding. Perhaps she would miss him if he went away; probably she would. He had heard that was the way to manage women, and he would just try. Why, in three months' time she would be as glad to see him back as—as—— Why, of course, what a fool he had been! He had been going about his wooing all the wrong way! She had never realized what it was to be without him.
He wouldn't go down to Karouda for at least three months—or perhaps two. No; he would be firm for three months, and then how glad she would be to welcome him back again! She had just got accustomed to him, and she didn't realize how much she did like him; and, having arrived at this satisfactory conclusion, he threw his hat into the air with a whoop, and caught it as it fell again.
'Well, upon my word——'
Selby started and looked round. He knew well enough who it was. There stood Nellie Ruthven close beside him.
'Confound you!' he said roughly. 'What do you mean by watching a fellow like that?'
'What do you mean by making a fool of yourself coming along here just to think about that gal?'
'No, I won't hold my tongue, if that's what you're going to say. I have as good a right to speak as you have to sit here. You're a gaby to go thinkin' about that gal.'
'Oh yes, be rude now, when I'm a-doin' all I can for you. That's the way a man always treats a woman. I ain't very old, but I've learned that.'
'Have you?' said Selby, pausing. He had meditated instant flight. There was no fun in bandying words with this woman. 'It's a bitter lesson. I'm sorry it's come your way.'
'I've seen a sight in my life,' said Nellie thoughtfully.
'Yes, I reckon you have; but that's your own fault.'
'Things have been agin me. I say, did you set the traps on Jim?'
Selby thought for a moment.
'Well, no,' he said, 'I didn't. I forgot all about you. But,' he added conscientiously, 'I'm going to the minute I get down into the camp. You take my advice, Nellie, and clear out and leave the gang. They'll come to a bad end sooner or later.'
'Oh, well,' said Nellie, sitting down, 'if you ain't told I needn't hurry. There'll be heaps of time, and you ain't a bad sort, so I'll give you some good advice.'
Selby burst our laughing.
'I'm sure I'm infinitely obliged.'
The girl thought a moment, then she said abruptly:
'Look here; you're mighty set on Miss Winifred Langdon. She's a good sort of gal——'
'We'll leave Miss Winifred Langdon out of the question,' said Selby coldly, rising to his feet.
'There, there! sit down. How touchy you are! I ain't a-goin' to mention her name. But you ain't a bad sort, you know; and you are mighty gone on a gal, a nice sort of gal who—— You ain't gettin' waxy, are you?'
Selby looked down at the dark face that the moonlight softened so wonderfully, and laughed a little.
'No, I'm not cross; but you've brought your pigs to a pretty market. Why should you give me good advice?'
'I dunno, I'm sure; but I ain't got much else to do at present, and it won't do you no harm to listen. Besides, you ain't a bad sort.'
'And you go on thinkin' an' thinkin' about a gal as doesn't give a thought to you, not a darned tu'penny cuss in the way you want.'
'How do you know that?'
'Bless my soul! all the countryside knows that.'
Selby winced; then he turned a smiling face towards her.
'And what do you recommend?'
'Cut it; don't have nothing more to do with her. It sorter hurts at first, you know, but, after all, it's best in the end.'
'And what then?'
'After a while take up with somebody else. Bless you! it's all the same thing in the end.'
'You speak as if you'd been there.'
'So I have. Lord! the men I've known! But I've only been real set on one of them, and he never gave a bloomin' thought to me. There!'
'And who was the cove you honoured with your preference? Ruthven, I suppose?'
'Lord, no! Folks think it was a good thing to marry the Commissioner and be a lady, but, bless you! he made things too hard. I'd have got along right enough if it hadn't been for that. I felt that cramped up like, and then there was that Mary Parkin sittin' opposite me doin' everything quite right without any bother at all. It just made me mad. I used to feel fit to tear round and smash up the furniture. I had to run away, I just had to; if it hadn't been one man it 'ud have been another, an' Jim Fraser come along, an' I went. I had a row with Jocelyn, and I cleared. Lord! I tell you one man's as good as another; so's one woman.'
There is some unworthy sprite that makes us take an interest in our neighbours' affairs, and Selby found himself becoming quite interested in this girl. Her marriage with Ruthven, and her flight, had been the talk of the district round, and now he was being taken behind the scenes, as it were, by one of the principals in the affair, and, though he was anything but a meddler in other men's business, he could not but stop and listen.
'And so the Commissioner wasn't the man?'
'No.' She pulled up some blades of grass that grew by the water's edge, and twisted them through her fingers thoughtfully. 'No, I never thought of the Commissioner that way. Guess I was mighty s'prised when he said he'd marry me. Mother worked that, you know. I'd half a mind not to take him.'
'Well, I don't wish to be rude,' said Selby, smiling, 'but I reckon he'd have planked down a good round sum if you'd confided those sentiments to him at the time.'
'Yes,' said the girl thoughtfully, 'I thought of that, too; but there was another chap I wanted to make wild.'
'Oh! And you did?'
'Bless you! he never turned a hair, as far as I know. That's why I say one man's as good as another. I'd have got on right enough with the Commissioner if he'd let me alone. He was a deal kinder than Jim Fraser, any way;' and she pulled up another piece of grass and began tying it round the fern frond that drooped over her head.
'How old are you?' asked Selby, curiously regarding her. She looked such a girl sitting there in the moonlight.
'And there was Ruthven, and that other chap, and Jim Fraser——'
'And old Hall,' said the girl carelessly. 'I uster sort of think I was married to Hall—you know Hall at Karouda?—but I was young and foolish then, or I'd never have taken up with such an old chap. And mother, she said it was all right, there wasn't no marriage to speak of, so I didn't bother.'
'My colonial!' said Selby, 'you were mighty casual.'
'Lord! what does it matter?'
'It doesn't seem so to you, certainly. Nellie, tell me how many men you have married.'
'I ain't married only Commissioner Ruthven,' said Nellie sullenly.
'It didn't make much difference to you whether you were married or not. You didn't feel bound by——'
'Oh, go along with you! 'twasn't my fault. I'd have been all right if things had been different. I was a slip of a girl when Hall come along and wanted to marry me just for a drunken spree. The parson, he was a bit on, too, and I thought it was a lark; then someone, they said we was hitched up sure enough; but, bless you! I never seen anything of Hall. I reckon he repented when he got sober, an' so did I. Mother, she said it warn't worth mentioning an' I never bothered my head about it, specially when I got married to the Commissioner.'
'And then there was the other chap?'
'I never had naught to do with the other chap, I tell you. He wouldn't have any truck with me. An' I tell you one man's as good as another, and so's one woman.'
'And Jim Fraser?'
'Well, I had to go along with someone,' said Nellie in desperation, 'an' Jim Fraser, he was handy.'
Selby looked at her thoughtfully.
'Well, you are a nice one!' he said; 'but it'll be good news for the Commissioner.'
'Because, if what you say is true, you're no more married to him than I am.'
'You won't tell him that, though?'
'Won't I? Why?'
'Because he'll go right away an' marry your gal.'
Selby started and sat up straight, and in a flash, it seemed to him, he saw everything, and he knew what she said was true. But he said nothing, only stared straight before him into the moonlight, and the girl knew her shaft had gone home.
'Don't take on,' she said; 'I tell you one woman's as good as another, and you wouldn't ever have had a chance there. It's high tone an' learnin', and all them things I hated, she likes; but she can't get him while I'm alive.'
'Hold your tongue!' said Selby angrily.
'Now you're waxy 'cos you want the gal an' she wants someone else! Lord! as if it mattered. It's only when the baby comes you feel a difference.'
'Are you fond of the baby?'
'Yes,' said Nellie. 'It's sort of—sort of—— Oh, I dunno; but I just stuck to Jim Fraser 'cos of that baby, an' I'm a-goin' to stick to him.'
'All right,' said Selby; 'but it isn't fair, you know, to let Ruthven think you're his wife when you know you're not.'
'I ain't so sure of that, an' it's best to let things alone.'
'But if you were married before——'
'He was a drunken sweep of a parson, an' I tell you it was only a lark.'
'Lark or no lark, I expect you were married, and Ruthven would be thankful to know that.'
'He'd marry Miss Langdon,' said Nellie pointedly.
'It doesn't matter who he marries; he ought to know he's free.'
'Don't you be such a gummick as to tell him. I like you, you know; you're not a bad sort, an' if you let things alone, maybe she'll marry you in the end; and if you don't, why, she'll marry——'
Selby rose to his feet.
'I'm going down to the camp,' he said. 'I've been here too long already.'
'Oh no, you ain't,' said Nellie, getting up and shaking out her skirts. 'It's gettin' late, but I reckon Jim an' the others 'll have shifted camp comfortably by now. The traps won't have no show.'
'What?' and Selby swore an oath that was hardly fit for ears polite.
'You was a gummick if you thought I was clackin' away here to you without tellin' Jim you was goin' to put the traps on him. I left baby at mother's, and I cut back to warn Jim, and see what you were up to.'
'I done that for baby's sake,' said Nellie, giving her skirts another twist and shake.
'They might have had me easily,' groaned Selby.
'They didn't know you'd be so close,' said Nellie politely. 'But if I was you, I wouldn't put myself in their way for some time to come. Well, I'm off. Now, don't you be believin' all the lies I've been tellin'. You sit tight an' marry Miss Winifred Langdon. So long.'
And she patted him on the shoulder, parted the fern, and made her way down the gully in the direction of the camp.
'It is as hard to come, as for a camel
To thread the postern of a needle's eye.'
WHEN Winifred Langdon broke it to her friend through the dining-room window, with a good ten feet of fresh air between them, that she had been nursing a baby with the measles, it is needless to say she had to go home at once.
'I'm sorry, dear—I'm so sorry,' said little Mrs. Nicholson almost tearfully; 'but really I couldn't, you know—I couldn't really while baby is so young. If he had been a little older——'
'I think it would have been just the same,' said Winny, 'and I think you are quite right. It's no good running any risks. I was foolish to go nursing that baby, poor little thing! Don't mind about it, Mary dear. You tell Grant to saddle my horse, and I'll go straight home, and you can send my things after me.'
'Oh, but perhaps I'm making a foolish fuss,' sighed Mary Nicholson.
Privately Winny thought she was, but she only said aloud:
'It's better to be safe than sorry. I should never forgive myself if anything happened to baby through me. Good-bye, dear. I suppose I may come over in a fortnight if I've been well fumigated.'
'Oh, long before that,' cried Mary, in a burst of hospitality that made Winny laugh. 'And, Winny, you can't go by yourself all that way in the dark. I'll send a trooper with you.'
'Everyone will think I've been run in,' said Winny, 'for consorting with rogues and vagabonds.'
'I wish to goodness you had not had anything to do with them,' said little Mrs. Nicholson vehemently. 'Oh dear! whatever Tom will say I'm sure I don't know.'
'He'll say I'm an awful nuisance for taking away his man, but, really, it will be so dark before I get home, and I might be frightened.'
'And Emmie will be cross, I know.'
'I don't care a scrap about that,' said Winny, not quite truthfully. 'I'll come back in a fortnight and tell you all about it.'
She was certainly not received with open arms at home.
Emmie was not cross. She was a gentle, kind, thoughtful, resigned saint, who wondered extremely that their aunt could be so thoughtless as to bring infection to her little nephew and niece; but she had done so, and she, their mother, would, of course, have to bear the consequences. She harped on the subject so continuously all the evening that, after she had gone to her room that night, Winny, sitting brushing her hair, looking out at the bright moonlight, thought very seriously of sending a note to Squimy Selby, telling him that she wanted him very much, that if he would marry her at once, and risk taking the measles, she would have him gladly.
And then she laughed. It was ludicrous, she thought. She wanted to marry a man just because she had nursed a baby with the measles and her sister-in-law wanted to put her in quarantine; so she only got as far as writing the letter and tearing it up again, and Squimy Selby never knew how near he had been to the attainment of his desires.
Next morning Emmie was still injured.
'I've been thinking,' she said at breakfast, 'that you ought to go away. I don't know how we're to afford it, I'm sure, but, still, with the children to be considered——'
'Children, fiddlesticks!' growled Ben. 'Let her alone, Emmie. She hasn't got the plague.'
Mrs. Langdon sighed audibly.
'It doesn't matter, Benjamin, what you call it. The fact remains she's carrying infection about with her, and Mary Nicholson wouldn't have her in her house.'
'Mary Nicholson is a little donkey. She's like a hen with one chick. When she's got a dozen of them she won't be so mighty particular.'
'I only want to do my duty as a mother. I'm sure, Benjamin, no one can accuse me of making a fuss. If the children get the measles, I am prepared to nurse them; but it seems to me only fair to both them and Winifred to take proper precautions.'
'Oh, of course it is,' groaned Langdon resignedly.
'Winifred, I think you'll allow you had better not go near the children to-day.'
'Very well,' said Winny.
'And take off the clothes you wore, and wash them all well yourself. I'm sure I don't know what to do about a tub; we are so short, and Ruth wanted to wash, but, still——'
'Hang it all, Emmie!' growled Langdon, 'I've had enough of this.'
'I'll tell you what, Win,' said Bob, a bright idea striking him: 'I'll take you over to stop at the camp with Ruthven. Anderson's going away for a week, and he'll be only too pleased to have us. I told him I might come for a bit.'
'I can't go,' said Winny hastily; 'I couldn't think of going.'
'Of course, it's nothing to me,' sighed Mrs. Langdon. 'I wouldn't speak for myself; it's the children I think of. But you have gone there so often, you might just as well go now there is real necessity.'
'There isn't real necessity,' said Winny angrily. 'I'll keep out of the children's way, Emmie, but I'm not going there.'
'It seems to me it is just contrariness on your part, seeing how often you have gone there. But, of course, I couldn't expect you to consider the children like their mother.'
'Oh, for God's sake, Winny,' groaned Bob, 'don't amuse yourself nursing pauper kids for the future.'
'It wasn't pauper one bit,' said Winny, half laughing, half crying. 'I'm inclined to think it was considerably better off than I am. It had some belongings, anyhow, that wanted it.'
'How you can sit there and insinuate such things, Winifred, when your brother Benjamin has been a father to you, I'm sure I don't know. One would have thought you would have had a home of your own before this. At twenty-one——'
'I was fool enough to marry you, Em,' put in her husband; 'but that's no reason why my sister should be hustled out of the house.'
'If you wish to be rude, Benjamin——' began his wife; and she put her handkerchief to her eyes and shed gentle tears.
'You'll have a right royal time at the camp, Win,' put in Bob persuasively. 'It's all right. I'll be there to do the proprieties. Ben 'll give me leave.'
'I can't go—I can't.'
'Then, what the dickens will you do?'
'I wash my hands of it,' said Mrs. Langdon, lifting a tear-stained face from her handkerchief, and moving gently out of the room with a resigned air that made Winny wild.
She looked at her brothers desperately.
'I'm afraid it will be very unpleasant for you here,' said Ben with a sigh; 'but it will be only for a week or so. Emmie gets anxious about the children.'
Bob passed his cup across to Winny for some more tea.
'Oh, a week won't see the end of it. Every time the little beggars get a cold in their noses for the next six months, Win 'll hear about it. Now, Win, there are only two places you can go to where there are no distracted mothers to be considered. One's Ruthven's camp—and you like going there, I know—and the other's Byaduk. Squimy 'll be just delighted to have you; but you won't go there.'
'Yes, I will,' said Winny unexpectedly, 'if you can be ready this afternoon.'
'Whoop hurroo!' cried Bob, throwing his plate up in the air and deftly catching it again. 'Did you hear that, Ben? The next thing 'll be the wedding-bells, and Emmie 'll take all the credit of the match.'
'Oh, hush, Bob, hush!'
'Don't marry anyone you don't want to with all your heart, my girl,' said Ben kindly, laying his hand on her shoulder. 'Mind, you're very welcome to everything I can give you.'
Winny looked up and smiled—a smile that was very near to tears—and her brother rose up and left the room.
'Unluckily,' remarked Bob, 'good old Ben can't call his soul his own. He's delivered over, bound hand and foot, to Emmie. You take my advice, Win, and marry Squimy, and do as you darn please for the rest of your life.'
She would have to do it—there was nothing else for it; but before she could make any answer the door opened, and in came Mrs. Langdon. If she had been angry before, she was ten times angrier now; that was very evident.
'Winifred Langdon,' she said solemnly, 'you are a wicked girl!'
'Well, I know we're all miserable sinners, and Win extry bad 'cause she's been playing with the measles; but I don't see anything to call for such particular ructions,' said Bob flippantly.
'How a sister of Benjamin's could hold any communication with such a woman—a woman who has broken every law of——'
'Has she got the measles?' asked Bob tragically; 'because if she has——'
'Robert! is there anything you hold sacred?'
'Well, not much,' said Bob; 'you do all that for the family so well, there ain't any need for me to worry.'
'Then perhaps you will have the goodness to warn that woman off the premises. I cannot be expected to speak to her, and as for Winny, I shall not allow such a thing while I am mistress of this house.'
'Oh, you won't, won't you?'
The door behind her was pushed open, and she shrank back, as far back as she possibly could, and Nellie Ruthven, in her most defiant mood, stood before them. Her hands were on her hips, her apron had passed the stage when it might have been described as dirty, her limp sun-bonnet was pushed back off her face, and she stood there with a smile that defied them to put her out. It was Nellie Ruthven in her worst and most objectionable mood.
'Glory Hallelujah!' muttered Bob under his breath, 'it's measles herself. Now for it.'
Mrs. Langdon drew her skirts close round her, and edged herself quickly to the other end of the room.
'I won't do you any harm. I ain't got the plague,' said Nellie; 'there's worse 'n me in the world.'
'I told you before we could have nothing to do with you,' said Mrs. Langdon. 'Go away! Bob, make her go away.'
'And I told you I couldn't go till I had a word with Miss Langdon. She was good to my baby, an' I'll help her all I can.'
'You can't help her. She doesn't want any help.'
'But them she likes may.'
'You can't help any of us. We don't want any help. Go away!'
'Go away yourself, if you don't like me,' said Nellie rudely. 'I didn't ask to see you; I didn't want to see you. I just wanted to speak to Miss Winifred Langdon because she'd been good to my kid. It's about the Commissioner over at Deadman's, an' I tell you there's things I can't go blurting out all over the country.'
'Robert, will you put her out? How dare she speak like that! The man's her husband, and she dares to come into my dining-room to speak to your sister—your sister, mind you—about him.'
'It's jumping to conclusions to think there's anything wrong in that,' said Bob judicially. 'Come, Nellie, tell us what's the matter. There's no good riling the missus.'
'I came to tell her,' said Nellie sullenly. 'I thought she might sorter be interested in the Commissioner. She's been down there often enough.'
Winny wanted to say 'So I am' naturally, but her lips and tongue felt dry and parched. Emmie was watching, and when she would have spoken no sound came.
'Of course she takes an interest in him,' said Bob soothingly; 'we all do. Tell us now, what's up?'
'My colonial! Do you think I'm going to blurt it out before the lot of you, and with her standing there'—she pointed a scornful thumb at Mrs. Langdon. 'Why, it's as much as my life is worth. She wouldn't care what became of the likes of me.'
'Oh yes, she would,' said Bob, coming out strong and astonishing himself in his new role of peacemaker; 'she's frightened of you now because your baby's got the measles. You have no idea what a sweet thing she is, as a rule. Come along outside, there's a good girl, and tell me all about it.'
'It's her I want to tell,' she said, pointing to Winny, who sat looking at her without saying a word, the teapot in her hand. 'I swore I wouldn't tell a soul; but she was good to my kid, an' she sorter likes him.'
The blood began to creep slowly up Winny's face. Was this anything of importance, or was she being put to shame for nothing at all? If only Emmie had not been there—Emmie, with her most proper air of shocked and injured innocence! How could she ask what this woman meant? Possibly she meant nothing at all. She was a woman from a low shanty—coarse in her ideas. What could she have to say to her about Jocelyn Ruthven that might not have been said before all the world?
'You can surely tell me what you want,' she said coldly. 'I have no secrets from my people.'
'Oh, Lord Almighty! Ain't we cockered up! I don't want to tell you anything, there now! Not one mite, there now! I just sorter thought you might like to help the Commissioner; but if you're so mighty high-flown, I guess it don't matter. You ain't got no secrets, ain't you? If they find a bloody corpse some day on the ranges, I s'pose it ain't no concern of yours. It ain't of mine, I know that;' and she dashed out of the room through the kitchen, and was on to her horse and off before Bob, who had made a dash at her, could stop her.
Winny finished pouring out the tea as calmly as she could, and Bob whistled softly to himself, while their sister-in-law walked across the room, and seated herself in her husband's chair.
'It's no good my speaking, of course—no one ever pays any attention to me; but I told you how it would be long ago. If I had had my way, Winifred should never have been for ever going down to that man's camp. What must the world think of her when his wife, his own wife, comes and couples her name with his—thinks she'll take more interest in him than anybody else?'
'A dirty little drab of a girl,' said Bob contemptuously, 'with whom he hasn't lived for ever so long.'
'That makes it all the worse,' said Mrs. Langdon solemnly. 'I'm sure I don't know what's to be done. Winny must go right away, that is certain, and mustn't come back till this blows over. Oh dear! oh dear! What have I done that I should be mixed up in a thing like this? I have always done my best for you, and this is the result. I knew how it would be—I knew. I have told Benjamin scores of times that if he would let a girl run wild—— But I might just as well have spoken to the wind.'
'Oh, let up, Em!' growled Bob. 'What are you making such a row about? Anything that girl says isn't worth considering.'
'She mixed your sister's name up with her husband's. I don't like to say it, but that's what she did.'
'Win was good to her baby, and the men she is mixed up with are threatening the Commissioner. She don't go much on him, but she doesn't want to see him hurt. It was safer to tell a woman than a man, so she came along here to tell Win. Then we—we didn't receive her with open arms exactly, did we? And she got mad, and let out generally. That's the long and the short of it. Now, Emmie, don't you go making things unpleasant by spinning astounding yarns to Ben.'
'I, Robert? You don't know what you're talking about! I shall tell Benjamin the exact truth, and let him judge how he likes such conduct in his house;' and she drew herself up and walked toward the door.
'I tell you what, Emmie,' said Bob angrily: 'if I hear any astounding yarns about the Commissioner and Winny, I shall know where they came from, and I shall take good care to let Ben know it's all my eye and Billy Jackson.'
'You can do as you please;' and Mrs. Langdon swept out of the room.
'Pack up your things, Win,' said her brother kindly, 'and let's get over to Squimy's. The missus' ll have found something new to worry over by the time we come home.'
'Bob,' Winny's lips were quivering, 'it was dreadful! She—she——'
'Oh, for God's sake, Win, don't be unhappy over anything she says. She was a deal thicker with Ruthven than ever you were, and the silly donkey let him marry her to that girl; then he found out what he'd done, and chucked her. Never was so clear a case of chuck; that's what makes her so bitter about him.'
'And, oh, Bob, what did the woman mean?'
'Nellie? Oh, Fraser and that lot are planning vengeance deep and dark, I expect, and the little baggage can't stick to one man.'
'But, Bob, she spoke about a bloody corpse out on the ranges. Oh, Bob, I ought to have asked her more; I would if Emmie hadn't been there. Suppose—suppose they set on him, and——'
Winny had the greatest difficulty in commanding her voice, but Bob laughed lightly.
'Run away like a good girl and get ready, and see you don't contaminate the kids. Comfort yourself by remembering that threatened men live long. I'll tell Ruthven all about it the first time I see him.'
'You mightn't see him. It might be too late.'
'Oh, I'll make it my business to see him, and if I don't see him, I'll tell his men. That's all right. Hurry up now. Let's get away before Emmie finds something more unpleasant to say.'
Only one more word had Bob to say on the subject, and he said it as they were riding over to Byaduk.
'Now, Win, you take my advice, and have Squimy. He thinks you are a new-fangled sort of angel, and he'll let you do what you like for the rest of your days, and, my word! won't you be able to snap your fingers in our beloved sister-in-law's face.'
Which last argument, it is to be feared, had more weight than it should have done with Winifred Langdon.
'Your gift is princely, but it comes too late,
And falls like sunbeams on a blasted blossom.'
'THERE goes that trap!'
A tall, rough, unkempt-looking man stood just within sight of the narrow track along which Commissioner Ruthven was riding on his way to the Packhorse.
'Got your revolver, Bill? Then, why the devil don't you pot him?' asked the soft tones of Jim Fraser. 'Why——'
'Why? 'Cos there's his bloomin' orderly alongside, an' two to one ain't good enough.'
'We're equal. Two to two I should call it.'
'Should yer? What's the good of a white-livered, sneakin'——'
'D——n you!' said Fraser. 'No bad language, Bill. We're partners till this job's done. No one could have got you out of that mess up at Kiandra neater than I did.'
'And no one but you'd a' got me into it. There we was pretty comfortable, an' now we're hidin' in these ranges worse off nor ever. An' the traps after us, too, all along of that gal of yours.'
'We're bound to take it out of that Ruthven's hide,' said Fraser, dexterously turning the other's wrath against its legitimate object. 'If it hadn't been for him, we'd have been rich and spreeing it in Melbourne now.'
Norfolk Island Bill took the bait.
'Hanging's too good for the likes of him, but we can't touch him. Here's the third time we've seen 'em, an' that blanked trooper is allus so close there's nary a chance. An' now that gal of yours has split we'll have to be makin' ourselves d——d scarce. This is our last chance gone.'
And as the hoof-beats of the horses died away in the distance, he put his revolver back in his belt, and sullenly retraced his steps to their horses, just out of sight and hearing of anyone passing along the narrow track.
'He has to come back again,' said Fraser grimly.
'Blast him! An' we must clear this very night. Now that gal of yours has set the traps a-scourin' the country——'
'Stow that!' said Fraser angrily.
The scrub was close and thick, almost impenetrable, and though it was still quite early in the morning, there was every promise of a very hot day. It was Friday—the day the Karouda people invariably sent for their mails—and Ruthven, seeing there was no hope of Winny's coming, and feeling that to spend the long, hot day thinking over what might have been was rather more than he could stand, decided to kill time by riding over to the Packhorse. The two men, James Fraser and Norfolk Island Bill, bound together, not by ties of friendship, but by that stronger tie of evil committed together, had, almost by the merest chance, drifted back to the ranges above the Packhorse, and then, not daring to show their faces in any of the diggings camps around, employed their idle time in schemes of vengeance against the Commissioner at Deadman's. They felt they must have vengeance for the high-handed proceedings after the riot at the Packhorse, and even on the eve of their compulsory departure they were willing to try once again.
This must be the last time, for these ranges were certainly getting too hot to hold them.
'It'll be dusk,' said Fraser, 'before he's back.'
'Ay,' said his mate, 'with that d——d trap in his adjective pocket.'
'You're a good shot, Bill,' said Fraser meditatively. 'Get behind that big tree and shoot him as he passes.'
The other man swore with many oaths he would do no dirty work in which his mate had no hand, and, drawing his revolver, so effectually cowed Fraser that he suggested one of them should shoot the orderly, and the other the Commissioner, in order that both should be implicated.
The old convict listened half admiringly, half scornfully, to his companion's plan, but though both were consumed with a burning desire to injure the Commissioner, neither was particularly keen about touching the orderly. Careless as they were about human life, neither was anxious for the thankless task of putting away a fellow-creature merely because he stood in the way of their vengeance. Finally, they decided to go back and watch the track again that evening just on the chance of something turning up.
Meanwhile, Ruthven, unconscious of these plans against his well-being, was spending a rather unsatisfactory day at the Packhorse. It compared so unfavourably, he thought, with the Fridays he had been spending of late, and as the afternoon waned a sort of impatience seized him to be home again. Suppose Winny should have changed her mind, and come for the mails, after all. Oh, a mining camp was a horrible hole—any mining camp; but, at least, Deadman's was preferable to the Packhorse, and he decided to go back as quickly as possible.
He called to his orderly and ordered his horse for half-past six, and was surprised at the cloud he saw on the lad's countenance.
'Why, Simson,' he said, 'what are you looking so glum about?'
Simson shuffled his feet and looked sheepish.
'I thought you'd spend the evening here, sir,' he said.
'Oh, and you wanted to—— Come, now, tell me: what's the attraction? Not the girl at the shanty, surely?'
'You see, sir,' said Simson still more sheepishly, 'we never see a girl at all at Deadman's; and—and to-morrow's Christmas Day.'
'And what the deuce has that to do with it? Oh, you'd like to spend it here, I suppose? I should have thought you'd had a good enough innings to-day. You'd like to stay?'
'Very well. As it's Christmas Day, I'll give you leave, if you like, till Sunday. Come, now, will that do you?'
'Thank you, sir,' said the trooper gratefully—'thank you, sir. But about going back to-night?'
'I think I'll be equal to taking myself back, Simson. Now then, be off with you, and see my horse is ready by half-past six.'
It was half-past seven, though, before he was ready to start.
'Merry Christmas to you!' he said chaffingly to the trooper as he mounted. 'See you make hay, Simson, while the sun shines.'
And the lad answered, grinning: 'Thank you, sir—same to you, sir.'
'Same to you, sir,' thought Ruthven, as he trotted slowly away, and turned into the narrow track that led across the ranges to his own camp. 'I wonder if the beggar guesses what a mess I've made of things. I expect he does. Servants know everything nowadays.'
So—so—— What was the good of going over the whole miserable story again? What was the good of vain regrets? He had spoiled his life, spoiled it utterly before he was thirty, and now there was nothing in the wide world to hope for, nothing to look forward to, nothing to work for. He had been mad after women before—he would get over that, he supposed; the sharp pain would pass away, but the happiness that a good woman—a woman like Winifred Langdon—could and would bring into a man's life, that he had lost for ever—for ever—for ever. He said it over and over again to himself. There was no room for hope. It was impossible even to have her for a friend; friendship between man and woman that were not man and wife was an impossibility. And he rode on slowly, very slowly, for the path was steep and rough, and the first six miles was all uphill.
'Take it easy, old woman,' he said, every now and then when the mare quickened her pace—'take it easy. There isn't anything for you and me to do when we do reach home.'
There was no view, the close scrub and towering trees shut out all but the immediate surroundings, and it was very hot and close, so close that Ruthven might be excused for not desiring any violent exercise. He let the mare go slower and slower, as if in very truth he were playing into the hands of those awaiting him very little further along the track.
Winny, Winny, Winny! Out here in the Bush, all by himself, there was no need to keep up appearances, no need to wear a mask—he might think of her just as much as ever he pleased; and he did think of her till the cicadas shrilling in the bushes close beside him seemed to have caught her name, and the magpie pouring out his evening hymn made the lonely Bush ring with her praise.
Suddenly the mare swerved aside, and, looking up from his dreaming, Ruthven found himself opposite a woman, the last woman he wished to see at that moment, for it was the girl he had taken to wife so rashly eighteen months ago.
She stood there against a messmate, her hands on her hips, and her lilac sun-bonnet hanging off the back of her head, held on only by the draggled strings. She put one in her mouth the moment she saw him, and, curiously enough, he could think of nothing else. It was so like her to put her hands on her hips and chew her bonnet-strings defiantly in his presence. He had but one desire—to get out of her way as quickly as possible; but when he would have ridden on without taking any notice of her, she stretched out a hand and caught his rein.
'Lord Almighty! we're mighty uppish, ain't we?'
Into Ruthven's brain came the provoking question, What ought a man to do when he meets the wife who has left him? Pass on, certainly—most certainly. There was no object in speaking to her; she could have no claim on him now. But she stood right in the path, and the scrub was thick on either hand. The westering sun fell full on her face, a weather-beaten, sun-burned face, with a coarse mouth and tously dark hair that looked as if it never were brushed. And this was the woman he had married—oh God! He must have been demented even to speak to her. He thought of Winifred Langdon, and muttered a curse beneath his breath; but she heard.
'Oh, cuss now, cuss, do! Lord! don't think I'm a-hankerin' to come back to you. I had enough of that. You don't catch me tryin' it again.'
'May I ask, then,' he said between his teeth in the most freezingly polite tones, 'to what I owe the honour of this——'
'Shut up with that rot!' she interrupted; 'can't you speak a woman fair? I come along to do you a good turn, and you——'
'Really, I am much obliged, but——'
The woman stamped her foot on the ground furiously.
'Stop it, now,' she cried—'stop it! Do you think I come along up here through the Bush this hot night just to be gassed at like that? I've had enough of that, an' more 'n enough. You think I'm a blamed bad lot for runnin' away, but mortal woman couldn't stand it. You with your fine-gentleman ways an' your best manners a-tryin' to improve me, an' hatin' the sight of me all along. I was good enough for you up on the hills, but I ain't ever been good enough since. You hate me, don't you? But you don't hate me more 'n I do you. You reckon I spoilt your life, but what about mine?'
There was truth in what she said, Ruthven felt that; but had she sought him out here on the hills just to tell him that? She came from the slums of the camp, and it was the way of the slums to be abusive.
'Would you kindly stand aside?' he said; 'the mare is restive, and I am in a hurry.'
'Well, I reckon you won't get along far if you don't listen to me. You're a-sparkin' it to Karouda, I suppose? Shame on you, an' you a respectable married man! But Squimy Selby's after her, too, an' I don't know as you'd have a show alongside of him. He's got a deal more to offer, you see, an'——'
'Will you allow me to pass,' asked Ruthven furiously, 'or must I ride over you?'
'That touched you, did it? She's too good, an' sweet, an' pure, I s'pose, to be spoke of by the likes of me. Well, it ain't hampered me much, gettin' married; but I guess it's sort of settled you up.'
Ruthven turned the mare's head into the scrub. Better to push his way through the tangle of leaves and branches than to listen any longer to this.
The woman stepped forward and laid her hand on the pommel of his saddle.
'I come here to do you a good turn,' she said; 'and I'm a-goin' to do it, spite of your high an' mighty ways.'
'Take your hand off and let me pass,' said Ruthven angrily; 'I only want to be let alone.'
'Even then you can't marry her,' said Nellie with a laugh that grated on his ears; and he caught her hand and flung her roughly aside, so roughly that she stumbled and fell over the root of a tree, and before she could pick herself up again he was galloping away down the narrow track far out of her reach.
'For the love of God,' she called after him, 'stop, stop! Don't go that way! Stop, stop!' and she ran panting along the track, calling his name every now and again at the top of her voice.
She might as well have called to the wind. He slowed down his horse, certainly, but that, she knew, was because the ground was rough, not because he had the least intention of stopping for her, and he never so much as turned his head.
'Oh God!' she moaned, 'the pride of him!' And then she stopped and sat down and rested a minute. 'He's that hard, drat him!' she said to herself; 'he's that cruel hard! Why should I bother? He ain't nothin' to me;' and she leaned up against the slender trunk of a wattle, and, taking off her bonnet, wiped the perspiration from her face with it. 'He ain't nothin' to me,' she muttered again, as if to convince herself, and then she sprang to her feet, and cried aloud: 'Oh Lord! he's a-goin' to his death sure as I stand here, for Jim an' that there Bill won't have no more mercy than if he was a dog. I ain't no cause to love him, but——'
He was hidden from her sight by the turn in the road, but horror and dread lent wings to her feet, and she flew over the rough track shouting his name aloud and calling to him pantingly to stop.
'For the love of God stop!'
Another turning, and then she knew there was a short cut she could take in the scrub. She would meet him there, and shout her warning as soon as she saw him; no need to be bandying words with him and angering him. She had no reason to love him, but she could not let him go to his death without making at least an effort to save him.
Then she paused a moment. What if Jim caught her interfering with his plans?
'I guess,' she said to herself, 'he'd make short work of me.'
She would chance it as far as the corner. She ran on a little further, then stopped, and, putting her hands to her mouth, sent her voice pealing down the narrow track between the thick scrub.
'J-o-c-e-l-y-n R-u-t-h-v-e-n, s-t-o-p!'
Another call, and she ran on again, holding her head down now, because turning had brought the level beams of the setting sun right into her eyes. She durst not go much further; but the short cut was not far, and she thought she would risk that much for the man she had married and left. She put on another spurt, gave another loud call, and ran right into the arms of a man just at the turn of the short cut.
'Oh my God! Jim!'
James Fraser caught her by the shoulders, and put a rough hand across her mouth.
'What the devil do you mean by this?' he said.
'Nothing, Jim—nothing. Sure as death, I didn't mean nothing.'
'My oath!' said the big man beside him derisively.
'Nothing—nothing, you little devil!' said Fraser, bending her slowly backwards. 'What did I say I'd do to you if you meddled with my plans?'
There was a cruel look in his cold blue eyes that terrified her more than any blustering could have done. He had said he would kill her if he caught her meddling, and she believed he meant to keep his word.
'Oh, Bill,' she cried, turning to the other man, 'don't let him hurt me.'
Fraser gave her arm a little twist that made her shriek aloud.
'Stow that,' said Bill warningly; 'that trap ain't so far but that he can't hear.'
The girl looked up. Fraser held her like a vice, and when she saw the pitiless look in his eyes her terror deepened. If Ruthven came back, at least he would save her, and she verily believed these two men would murder her. Momentarily her fear grew. She gave herself a twist, but there was no loosening of that iron grip.
'You're hurting me, Jim.'
'I'll kill you, sure as you stand here. I'll teach you to meddle in my affairs!'
He looked as if he meant it, too, and she was at his mercy. Hers would not be the first blood that had stained his hands, she knew right well. Then her eye fell on the pistol in his belt, and she put out her hand and caught it, and shrieked aloud for help. He let her go, and grasped at the pistol, but not in time to prevent her drawing the trigger. He spoiled her aim, though. The bullet made a long gash across the palm of his hand, and buried itself in a tree-trunk beyond, and, as she stood dazed and terrified at what she had done, he whipped out his long knife, and the next moment she was lying on the ground with a wound in her side, vaguely listening to the hoof-beats making straight for them.
Ruthven heard the woman's cry and the shot, and without pausing to think, turned straight in his tracks.
There was real terror in that cry, and he could not but heed it.
He put his hand to his revolver as he rode, but not from any fear for himself. He represented the majesty of the law. They might brawl and fight among themselves, these people whom the girl he had taken to wife chose to associate with, but they would be quiet enough once he appeared on the scene, and his only feeling was one of anger at having once more to face this woman whom he hated—and face her he must. A shot and a cry of terror like that could not be disregarded, though likely enough there was nothing worse the matter than a drunken brawl.
All sounds had ceased before he rode round the turn, and when he did, all he saw was the woman lying with her arms stretched out on the side of the track.
'By Jove!' said Ruthven to himself, 'she is hurt, after all;' and he sprang from his horse and bent over her.
The next second he heard a step behind him, and knew he had given himself away. He turned quick as thought, and found himself looking straight down the barrels of a couple of revolvers.
Instinctively his hand sought his own.
'Drop that,' said the man nearest him, with an oath.
And, seeing he did not at once obey, he fired straight at him. The bullet hit him just above the elbow, and the revolver dropped from his helpless hand. He was at their mercy. One man caught him by the shoulder, and the other laughed in his face.
'Now,' he thought, 'I am done—clean done. If they want to murder me they can do it;' and his eye fell on the woman lying at his feet, a pool of blood widening close beside her.
'Good God!' he cried, 'it's murder!'
'Some folks as is partikler calls it that,' said the taller of the two men. 'Now, matey, you just keep your hand off your barkers, case of accidents.'
And Norfolk Island Bill kicked the one Ruthven had let fall out of his reach. The other was still in his holster, and Fraser, with a drawn revolver, stood close beside his mare.
'You're done—clean done,' he said quietly; 'best take it coolly.'
Exactly. There was, as Fraser pointed out, nothing else to be done. The pain was nothing, but he felt the warm blood soaking through his sleeve and trickling down his fingers. The man behind him held him with a grip of iron, and the man in front held a loaded revolver. If he could have mounted his horse again it would have been all right; but that was out of the question.
They had murdered the woman—would they murder him? He looked down at the girl. What had they done this thing for? What was the meaning of it all?
'God!' he cried, 'you must do something. She is bleeding to death.'
Fraser stirred her with his foot, and the other man swore a gory oath.
She half turned over, moaning:
'Oh? my baby—my baby—my little baby!'
Ruthven would have stooped over her, but a revolver at his breast kept him still.
'Let her be,' said Fraser sarcastically. 'You don't want any truck with a woman who's played you false. Now she's played me false, and I told her how it would be. This isn't a nursery party you've poked your nose into.'
Ruthven thought a moment. All the cruel stories of men lost and forgotten in lonely gullies that had come to his ears came back to him now. They had stuck him up here, and they meant to murder him. He had not the faintest hope. If they would not let him help the woman, there could be but one construction put on their actions. He looked at the setting sun just sinking behind the tree-tops—setting in the midst of a golden glory. It would be gone in a very few minutes. Should he see it? Then he looked at the evil faces of the men, and down at the dying woman at his feet. No, they would never let him go to tell a tale like this. Dead men tell no tales. They only waited now because they were so sure of him. And that girl, had she—was it possible?—had she tried to warn him? Had this wife of his—this hated wife of his—died for him, after all? It looked like it.
'Oh, my baby,' she kept moaning, 'my baby, my baby!' and the words went to his heart, though the child she cried for was none of his.
'Hush, hush!' he said gently, 'don't fret. The baby is all right.'
Fraser looked at him with a mocking smile on his face.
'If you touch her,' he said, 'I'll shoot you. It's no business of yours.'
'Shoot, then,' said Ruthven with sudden indifference, dropping on his knees; and he heard the loud report of a pistol close to his ear, and a bullet whistled over his head.
It must come sooner or later, what matter how soon! And he bent over the woman.
She felt the touch of his hand, opened her weary eyes, and recognised him.
'You!' she said; 'you—curse you, curse you! Oh, my baby, my baby, my little wee baby! You brought me to this—you brought me—you with your cruel, grand ways! Oh, my baby, my baby, my baby!'
The blood rose up in her mouth and choked her, and she shut her eyes, as if she would shut out a sight that was hateful to her. She was beyond any aid of his, he saw. Whether anyone could have helped her was doubtful. Certainly he could not, wounded as he was, and already he was beginning to feel faint and sick from pain and loss of blood.
Norfolk Island Bill put his hand on his shoulder and dragged him to his feet, and he rose up unresisting.
'My baby, my baby!' moaned the woman, her voice getting fainter and fainter.
'What now? What do you want?' asked Ruthven wearily. 'I suppose you know this is a hanging matter?'
Norfolk Island Bill broke into a loud guffaw.
'My gory oath!' said he, 'if he ain't a worrittin' about us, mate. By——!'
'Don't trouble yourself,' put in Fraser gently; 'these gullies tell no tales.'
'Come on, mate,' said Bill, putting his hand on his shoulder.
For a moment or two Ruthven fought furiously. It was for his life; and he put out all his strength and struck Fraser, the slighter man, to the ground, shook off the other man, and made for his mare, standing so quietly by. But it was no good. Before he could reach her Norfolk Island Bill had struck him a swinging blow on the back of the head, the earth rose up to meet him, he grappled with it, and remembered no more.
'But if in vain down on the stubborn floor
Of Earth, and up to Heaven's unopening Door,
You gaze To-day, while You are You, how then
To-morrow, when You shall be You no more?'
WHEN Ruthven came to himself, he was lying flat on his back with his hands tied behind him in a small open space at some distance from the track. The sun had set, and night was coming on apace. One by one the bright stars, like points of gold, were coming out in the clear dark sky that seemed so far above him, looking down kindly on him, and whispering hope where no hope could be. He could hear the restless movements of the horses tethered close behind him; but the moan of 'My baby! my baby!' that had rung so heart-breakingly in his ears was silenced, and, raising himself and looking round as best he could with an aching and swimming head, he could see the woman nowhere. There were only the two men in sight, standing talking in low voices over by the horses.
They came and stood over him, looking down on him, and he, feeling his helplessness, closed his eyes as if he would gladly shut them from his sight. The old convict kicked him in the side with his heavy boot, jarring his wounded arm, and giving him such intense pain that he could not suppress a groan.
'Ah, that touched him up a bit! My colonial! Won't he look at the likes of us?' said Bill, as Ruthven closed his eyes in hopeless misery, and turned his face away. 'Speak to the beggar, Jim; you was a gen'elman onct—speak to him.'
'What do you want?' asked Ruthven. 'What's the good of all this? Fraser, it's true enough—you were a gentleman once. It can't do you any good. Your share in the business is sure to come out sooner or later. It'll be suspected from the first. What do you want? Money?'
'Money!' scoffed Fraser. 'All the money you're worth and a hundred times as much wouldn't set me straight again. No, my mate's right. You made the place too hot to hold us, and as chance has thrown you into our hands, why, we're just going to take it out of your hide.'
'If you're going to murder me,' said Ruthven, looking him straight in the face in the fading light, 'for God's sake be quick, and put me out of my misery!'
But Fraser still looked down at him, and touched him every now and then with his foot—gently, so as not to hurt him, but enough to emphasize the fact that he was master, and had his enemy under his heel.
'Curious,' he said thoughtfully; 'I've always had an edge on you. You've crossed me ever since you came here. It was always you that crossed my path. You took away the girl I wanted. I got even with you there, though, for if you didn't want her yourself, it wasn't seemly that the Commissioner's wife should be stravaiging the ranges with all the bad characters in the place. And there's a baby, too. Oh Lord! I reckon I got even with you that time!'
Ruthven shut his eyes, and turned his face away.
Fraser touched his wounded arm with his foot, and laughed lightly as he saw him shrink.
'And then there was that Packhorse affair. It was a rich claim, and I'd as good a right to it as the yellow agony you gave it to. Many a man's started with a worse record. No one'd have been half as particular as you. You crossed me there. You didn't even let up when I was out of your district like many another man would have done; you've kept me hunted for the last six months. You've made a wild beast of me, and you've only yourself to thank if I act as such. Oh, I swore I'd be even with you, and my turn's come at last.'
Ruthven looked at him for a moment. A wild longing came upon him at least to die fighting, and he made a desperate effort to shake off his bonds. He might as well have tried to break a bar of iron, and the two men standing watching him laughed mockingly. There was nothing to be done, nothing but the hardest of all things—to lie there quiet and helpless and await their next move.
Rapidly in his mind he calculated the chances of deliverance, only to dismiss them all one by one. Someone might pass this way? No one was in the least likely to pass this way. If they did, the scrub was dense, he would be easily enough silenced, and the men only had to lie quiet till the unsuspecting passer-by was out of hearing. But there would be no passer-by. And at the camp they would not miss him. Anderson was away, and the sergeants would only think he had decided to stay at the Packhorse. Not till his orderly came back on Sunday would they miss him and wonder where he was. Good God! and this was only Friday evening. There was nothing for it but to die, and to die as bravely as he could.
Then he thought about the girl, his wife. Had she been trying to warn him? Had she bravely tried to do him one great kindness, and died in the doing of it? Poor Nellie! poor little ignorant girl! He had wronged her. Now that he was face to face with death, he felt that. But was she dead?
'The girl?' he asked. 'Something ought to be done for the girl at once, or she will die.'
'And if she does,' said Fraser brutally, 'it's no business of yours. You handed over your interest in her to me just about twelve months ago. You keep your own breath to cool your own porridge. It'll take you all your time, I can tell you;' and the other man laughed as at a good joke.
'Come on, Jim,' he said. 'We ain't going to wait here all night. Let's get this job over.'
'What are you going to do to me?' asked the Commissioner as calmly as he could.
'You'll find out quick enough, you can take your oath of that. Come, get up!' and he kicked him roughly in the side.
'I can't,' said Ruthven reluctantly. 'You have broken my arm and tied my legs. How can I get up?'
Fraser laughed, and, stooping down, untied the rope that bound his feet together.
'Look out for squalls, Bill;' and he drew a revolver. 'Now,'—as Ruthven struggled to his feet somewhat unsteadily—'if you make a single effort to escape, my friend, I blow out your brains there and then. You're a man of your word, and so am I.'
Ruthven looked at him wearily, and half thought of rushing on him and ending it there and then. At least it would be soon over. He was entirely in these men's power, and they were fiends incarnate. They would stop at nothing for revenge. What might they not do to him if he waited their pleasure?
But it meant certain death there and then, and the love of life was strong within him. His life had not been so satisfactory so far; but, still, it was life, and to die in a hole here in the scrub, so that no man might even know how he had perished—no, it was not to be thought of, and he stood silently before his captors. Then he grew faint and dizzy again, and sat down on a fallen log.
He heard the two men talking about him, but though they were quite close, he felt so ill that their words sounded dim and far way, and it might have been someone else's fate they were discussing. If they would only go away, and leave him alone here to die quietly! But he knew they would never do that. The loosening of his bonds had relieved him somewhat, and in spite of the pain of his arm, or perhaps because of it, a dull feeling of insensibility was creeping over him.
From this he was roughly roused by the two men seizing him by the shoulders and hoisting him on to his horse. He did not resist, he had no energy left for that; but he would not aid them in the smallest degree; nor did he protest—where was the use?—and the mere effort to sit upright in his saddle took all his strength. The old convict was at his horse's head, and Fraser walked beside him, revolver in hand. Hope of escape he knew there was none, even were he in full health and well mounted. Well mounted he certainly was, but they were in the very heart of the ranges; the scrub was close and thick, and the ground steep, rough and stony. No, the fleetness of a horse could avail him nothing in such a place as this, even could he have got the reins into his own hands.
The darkness had closed in on them now, but still his captors went steadily on as if the way were well known to them. Ruthven himself had but the vaguest notions of the country; he had never troubled himself to explore these ranges, and only knew by the stars they were travelling eastward, in the direction of Karouda, he thought sorrowfully. They must be on Selby's run; indeed, the track to the Packhorse cut across a corner of the run, and now they must be within five miles of the home-station. They might just as well be five hundred miles away, he thought bitterly, for all the help they were likely to be to him: for it was but seldom, he knew, this range country was visited by the squatter or his men. All their good land lay more to the east and south. They travelled on for about half an hour in silence, broken only by the oaths of the old hand, who swore as only an old hand can swear as he tripped over the logs and stones and rough inequalities of the way.
'Gor-bli'-me,' he said at last, 'if this won't do. I allus swore as I'd finish un off in the Whipstick Gully.'
The threatening letter he had received so many months ago, and remembered only now, flashed through Ruthven's brain. He remembered the reference to 'the good stout tree in the Whipstick Gully,' and wondered were they going to hang him?
Surely they had not brought him all this way merely to hang him.
'Up the hill, mate—up the hill,' urged Fraser, as coolly as if he had been selecting the spot for a picnic-party; 'there's a pleasant view from the top of the hill.'
And the Commissioner wondered still more. But before they reached the top he had fainted, and when he came to himself again he found they were binding him with a rope to the trunk of a great gum-tree. Then he knew, then he fully understood, their fiendish purpose.
'Men! Men! Oh, my God!' he cried, struggling with all his remaining strength to free himself; but the rope was strong, and he was as a child in their hands.
The convict laughed.
'Ah, I thought that 'ud touch my gen'elman up a bit,' he said. 'Calc'lated to make him squirm, ain't it, Jim?'
'For God's sake,' prayed Ruthven, utterly unnerved, 'kill me outright, do anything you please, but, as you are men, don't leave me here to die by inches.'
Why, oh why, had he thrown his chance of death away? One rush, and it would have been all over—and now!
'Dying by inches,' said Fraser, with a glee all the more terrible because of the man's soft voice and the remnants of culture that still hung about him—'dying by inches. Yes, that's what it is. We've fixed you with your face to the east, so you'll have a glorious view once the sun rises; but I don't imagine you'll admire it long. The crows and the magpies 'll come and pick out your eyes; and there's a nice ant-heap handy; I guess you'll be quite a godsend to the little beggars. They won't be looking for you yet a bit at Deadman's, and when they do—well, it won't be so easy to find you.'
'Kill me!' moaned Ruthven, making one last appeal as the horror of the situation burst fully upon him—'for God's sake kill me outright!'
They only laughed aloud, and Norfolk Island Bill remarked:
'You won't be feelin' very lonesome, for we ain't a-goin' more 'n a mile or two away, an' we might drop in friendly-like to-morrer—see how ye're gettin' along, eh, mate? Pay a mornin' call. It 'ud be genteel.'
'I shan't,' said Fraser, striking a match, which burnt brightly in the still air. 'I'll take one last look, and then I never want to see your face again. I think you'll acknowledge, Mr. Commissioner Ruthven, we've taken a pretty revenge out of your hide.'
Ruthven drew himself together. If there was no pity in their hearts, at least they should see no weakness in him.
'Ay, look at me,' he said; 'for as sure as I stand here dying, and at your mercy, there will be a pretty vengeance taken for this some day.'
'Threatened men live long,' scoffed Fraser. 'We are quits now, Jocelyn Ruthven, and we shall be more than quits before morning. The balance is on my side now;' and, raising his heavy whip, he struck the defenceless man before him a heavy blow right across the face.
'What about the horse?' asked his mate, as, their work completed, they turned to leave the place.
'Ah, yes, what about the horse? You haven't any more rope, have you? No. Well, tie her up to that sapling there by the reins; they're strong enough to hold, and she may as well keep her master company.'
The mare was a good one, and Bill looked at her with covetous eyes as he fastened her to the tree, but she was well known all the district round as the Commissioner's favourite horse, and was far too conspicuous for them to dare to take for their own use, so, with a refinement of cruelty, they tied her up, and left her to die as her master was dying, and then made their way down the steep hillside to the spot where they had tethered their own horses.
'So when the Angel of the darker Drink
At last shall find you by the river brink,
And, offering his Cup, invite your Soul
Forth to your Lips to quaff—you shall not shrink.'
AS he listened to the sound of their retreating footsteps, Jocelyn Ruthven did indeed feel that he was tasting the very bitterness of death. While they were yet with him, there lingered, almost unknown to himself, the hope that this thing would not be true—that they could not mean to carry out their purpose. But now even that frail hope was swept away, and he realized that there was nothing before him but a painful and lingering death.
'Oh, Winny,' he thought, 'you will never know now;' and then his thoughts flew pitifully to the woman who had shamed and betrayed him, had dragged his name down to the very dust, and yet had given her life to try and warn him. He was sure it was her life, as sure as he could be of anything, and her pale face rose up before him in the darkness reproachfully, and out of the scrub there seemed to come her last pitiful wailing cry, 'Oh, my baby, my baby!' Poor girl! poor child! And Winifred Langdon had pitied her, because he had tried to do his duty by her—just his duty, and nothing more. He had sought her out for his own amusement, casually, without a thought for the future. He had married her to please another woman. Oh God! oh God! The shame of it all! He had made life too hard for her, and she, according to her lights, had been better to him than he to her; and now he had brought death on her, and she haunted him, wailing for the child she loved that was none of his.
How long could he last? he wondered. He had been knocked about a good deal, he felt. The blow on his head made him giddy and sick; the wound on his arm was enough to lay him up; and though it did not bleed much, the pain of the broken bones was almost more than he could bear. The hard cords binding him to the tree cut into his flesh, and with the morning's dawn he knew would come the fierce midsummer sun to add to his misery. He might last a long time yet, and what a death it would be! If in dying may be expiated the sins and shortcomings of a lifetime, then his must surely be wiped out by such a death as this. But no! there lay the sting. The remembrance of his shortcomings only came as an added bitterness to a lingering death. Nothing he could do now could alter things, and the woman's wail rang in his ears, 'Oh, my baby, my baby!'
How long could it last—how long? He remembered Fraser's taunt, and seemed to see the crows and the magpies swooping down on him, tearing away at the flesh ere yet the breath had left the body. Was it true about the ant-hill? The blood which trickled from his wound, little as it was, would be sure to attract the little creatures. Almost he thought he could feel them crawling over him already, and he struggled with the bonds that bound him till he lost consciousness.
How long his faint had lasted he did not know, but it must have been some time, for when he came to himself, the red rim of the moon was peeping over the brow of the hill opposite, setting the whole forest on fire. Ruthven watched her gradually silvering as she rose higher and higher in the clear dark sky, paling the stars that lay in her path. The dear old moon! how friendly she looked!—the same old moon that had looked down on his childhood in far-away England. His thoughts flew back to one night—the week before he had left his native land—when he had gone down to the churchyard where was his mother's grave. It had been a sort of silent farewell to the dead mother, whose only son he had been, and to-night he seemed to see clearly before him the white stone, with the ivy trailing over it, in the moonlight. She had been a good woman, that mother, and he had loved her dearly. But she was dead, and it was better so, for, good woman as she was, would she not have been shocked at the record her only son had to show? His wife had given her life to warn him, but she had died crying for her child, which was another man's child, and but twenty hot summers of her native land had passed over her head. Oh, the pity of it! the shame of it! And he had given all his love to another woman. He cried aloud then; it was more than he could bear. If he could only die now—now!
'God help me!' he moaned. In twenty-four hours, perhaps, he would be dead, and what then? What could it profit him to speculate on the unknown country to which he was slowly and painfully wending his way? He could only think of all he was leaving behind in this world. Was there no hope? Once more he seemed to see Winifred Langdon's beautiful face bending over him in the moonlight. He felt her breath on his cheek, and heard her soft voice imploring him to be careful and take care of himself, because she would be happier if she thought he was doing so. He had had no right to be glad then. He had less right now, surely, with that dead woman's voice crying in his ears; but yet he was glad—glad with a great gladness that was bitterness, too, because now he could never see her again. Would she miss him—his darling, his beautiful darling? Would she wonder what mishap had befallen him, miss him for a little and then forget him, or but remember him as a man who had done his best to make her life pleasant whenever it had touched his?
His head was swimming, and his eyes burning, and every bone in his body was racked with pain. His sin against the girl he had made his wife rose large before him, but at least there came to him this one comfort—that Winifred Langdon would mourn him sincerely. Even if she did not love him as he loved her—and he had no right to suppose such a thing—at least, she was his friend, staunch and true, bound to him by a thousand little ties—ties that each, taken alone, might count for nothing, but together made a bond firm and strong and certain as death itself—that inevitable death, the death that was closing round him so slowly. But, oh, if he might only have told her he loved her, might have heard from her own lips that he was loved in his turn!
Then wearily he began to wonder how long it would be before they missed him at the camp. His tired brain refused to calculate, and he could only think dully that at Deadman's they would think him at the Packhorse, while at the Packhorse they would believe him back at Deadman's. Not till his orderly returned would they realize he was missing, and Simson would not be back till Sunday morning, and it was now about midnight on Friday. Even then they would not know where to search for him. It might be days before his body was found. No, it was hopeless, hopeless, utterly hopeless. He must put all thought of this world behind him. He was even now as one dead.
Before him lay the landscape, fair and lovely in the bright moonlight, hill after hill stretching away to the distant horizon, and he knew that by daylight he would probably see Karouda nestling down among the trees. He wondered if he would be sensible by to-morrow; should he be able to see and recognise anything? Even though he must die, he would like to keep his senses to the last. There is something appalling to all of us in the thought of losing our own identity, and Ruthven felt as if his senses were slowly slipping from him. Down in the gully at the bottom of the hill the frogs were solemnly croaking in the reed-beds; overhead, in the very tree to which he was bound, a night-jar was drearily crying 'Mo-poke, mo-poke'; the mournful wail of the curlews rose on the air, now rising clear and loud, now almost dying away, and from the hills round came the whimper of the dingoes, those terrible wild dogs that must find him out sooner or later.
It was all like some cruel nightmare, and as he listened and tried to define the various noises of the night, he felt as if he were one standing apart, looking on the sufferings of another man who was not himself. Every now and again it seemed to him he lost consciousness, and once he dozed—dozed and dreamed of Winifred Langdon bound helplessly to a tree with cords that cut into her flesh and cramped her in every limb, and gave her intolerable pain, and his wife was wailing and crying to him to help her, to hasten, to hasten, and he could not stir hand or foot, try as he would.
Then the pain roused him, and he felt thankful that it was not Winny, but he, who was left here to die. All the sunshine that had come into his life lately she had brought, and he tried to think only of her, to go over and over again the little incidents that had marked his friendship with her, to shut out the present and its pain, its hopeless pain that must grow worse, and could never be better, to hush the wailing mournful sounds that were ringing in his ears with such persistency.
'Oh, Winny, Winny!' he said aloud; and his voice sounded strange in his own ears. But the mare, made fast to a sapling not ten yards away, turned at the well-known sound, and a new faint hope sprang up in his breast. If she would only break away and get back to camp, then his men would search; but the hope was so faint it died almost as soon as it was born. It was not likely she would break away. The men who had made his bonds so firm were not likely to have made hers less so, and even if she did manage to get loose, it was extremely improbable she would leave him. He had made a pet of her, and he knew she would stay by him till want of water compelled her to leave.
Still he called her, 'Fanny, Fanny, Fan! poor old Fan!'
She turned her head and looked at him, wondering, perhaps, in her dumb way why she was left outside all night. But she did not attempt to break away, and Ruthven was hardly disappointed, he had hardly expected she would; but he noticed how impatiently she pawed the ground, and rubbed herself against the slender sapling that bent and swayed with every movement. Would she rub her headstall off, he wondered? Well, if she did, what then? What was it he wanted? It was too late to go down to the Packhorse to-night. Better get back to camp. Besides, Winifred Langdon would be coming for the mails, and he must meet her—he must. He had something to say to her. Was it to her? No, of course not; what had he to do with her? It was his wife who was calling him. He would not go; why should he? Why was she standing there wringing her hands, crying and reproaching him? What had he done? Had he not married her and done all he could for her, and now, when he was so ill, so terribly ill, she stood there with a child in her arms, crying and wailing, and would not bring him one drop of water, not one drop of water, and his mouth was parched, and his lips and tongue were swollen. Ben Langdon had said he should not marry her, and Emmie, so fresh, and clean, and cool, had said—had said—— And then he raised his heavy eyes, and saw the moon high in the heavens, and remembered with vivid distinctness where he was, and all that had happened.
But how she haunted him, that woman, moaning and sobbing and wringing her hands! Whatever his pain, her presence seemed to double it; whenever he comforted himself with the thought of at least one good deed done, she thrust her presence in. Sometimes she was crying and wringing her hands; sometimes, so it seemed to him, she had a little child at her breast, crooning over it, and murmuring words of love; sometimes she was lying, as he had last seen her, moaning and wailing, 'Oh, my baby, my baby, my baby!' and always her presence was a bitter reproach to him, as long ago Ben Langdon had told him it would be. She was dead now, or he was dead; it did not matter which, if reproaches like this followed one beyond the grave and added to the pain which was racking every limb. He was paying for his sin or his folly. Langdon had called it folly, Emmie had called it sin, and sin it most surely must have been to follow him like this even past the grave. But no, he was not dead—he certainly was not dead. He felt a cool puff of air on his face, and the moonlight was still on the trees, though the moon herself had crossed the heavens behind him.
And so the night wore slowly away, the short night of summer, that seemed to him to have stretched out into interminable years. By-and-by a soft velvety nose was thrust against him, and he realized that the mare must have rubbed her headstall off at last. The mute sympathy of the dumb beast touched him inexpressibly. He could not move hand or foot, but he tried to lay his face against her glossy neck.
'Go home, Fan,' he murmured; 'go home and tell them to tell Winny how I loved her.'
But the mare could not understand, and moved away, plucking mouthfuls of the fresh dewy grass. Over in the east light clouds of crimson and gold heralded the sunrise, the moonlight was paling and fading before the coming of the lord of day, and all Nature was awaking to life. A jackass down in the gully was making the hills ring with his mocking laughter; a flock of green paroquets had replaced the mo-poke in the tree overhead, and were chattering shrilly as they made their morning meal off the white gum blossoms; the cicadas, and the grasshoppers, and the crickets were shrilling cheerfully in the grass and shrubs, just as they had done as he passed along the track the night before, which seemed years ago. Even the magpie, with his melodious chant, was greeting the rising, as he had bidden farewell to the setting, sun. Tinier birds flew in and out of the bushes, and chirped about his feet, apparently unconscious of the proximity of their enemy, man.
'Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?' thought Ruthven, remembering the Scripture he had learned at his mothers knee, and remembering, too, her implicit faith. 'And one of them shall not fall to the ground without your Father.. .. Fear not therefore——' Ah, but the sparrows fall—they fall, for all her tender faith. A hawk rose up on the still, clear morning air, and hung hovering over the hill, and the smaller birds hushed their twittering and crept into the scrub. Ah, but they fall—they fall.
The sun rose up above the hills, and his rays fell full on Ruthven's face, dazzling his eyes and making his weary head ache and throb as if it would burst. There was no escaping the garish sunbeams. What would they be as the day advanced? It was Christmas Day—a typical Australian Christmas Day—cloudless and hot. They would be holding high holiday down in the police camp, and at Karouda over yonder. Would they ever know what weary eyes were looking down upon them? How long would the day last—how long? The heat seemed intolerable already, and the early freshness had not yet worn off the morning. Could he last out the day? Or would Death—kindly, gentle Death, the great deliverer—come to his relief? He watched the shadows shortening—shortening, till the whole landscape swam as one blurred mass before his eyes. There was a ringing in his ears—a ringing which seemed to merge itself into the loud neighing of a horse.
'Fan, Fan!' he tried to say; but his swollen tongue and parched lips refused to articulate the words. He heard another loud neigh, and then the sound of her hoof-beats as she galloped down the hill. What it might mean he had not strength to think; but it seemed to him his last friend had deserted him, the last link that bound him to this life was broken, and as his head sank forward on his breast, he lost consciousness of all around him.
'Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits—and then
Remould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!'
HARRY SELBY was engaged in ironing his clean shirt, and, to economize time, he was eating his mid-day meal at the same time. There seemed no particular reason why he should save time so carefully; but, as a matter of fact, he used for an iron the bottom of his teapot, and, of course, it could only be so used when it was full of hot tea. Hot water would have done as well, but that did not occur to Selby.
And his laundry operations were not very satisfactory, either. The shirt still looked as crumpled as it had done that morning when he had washed it in his bath, and he put his head on one side and regarded it dubiously. There was something wrong somewhere. The tea did not seem very hot.
He went round to the other side of the table, and cut himself a slice from a round of corned beef, and put it into his mouth thoughtfully.
'I really must get someone in, if those Carters don't get back soon,' he said to himself.
He was in the kitchen, which opened from a somewhat meagrely furnished parlour, decorated principally with dingo-brushes and cockatoo-crests, trophies of his prowess with the gun, while over the mantelshelf hung two stony pictures which purported to be paintings of Selby senior and his wife, long since laid to rest.
But Harry Selby did not occupy the parlour now he had no servant to wait upon him. He made shift with the kitchen, and he had reduced it to a state of chaos. The bare deal table was piled with dirty cups and plates. He appeared to have begun at one corner, and then moved on steadily for every meal, leaving the debris of the last behind him. There was only about a foot of clear space left now, on which he was conducting his laundry operations, and that it must be confessed was somewhat greasy, owing to his having inadvertently—a couple of days before—spilled the liquor of his boiled beef impartially over the whole table. But it didn't show so much where the space was taken up by crockery.
He lifted up the shirt carefully. It looked to him somewhat dirtier than when he had put it down.
'I don't believe,' he said, 'I'll be able to wear it. It doesn't look as if it were going to come right, somehow.'
There came a sudden rapping at the door—the door of the parlour, which was, in fact, the front-door, as Selby's house boasted no passage.
'Come in,' he called hospitably, his mouth full of boiled beef, 'come in!'
The knock was repeated, and he roared out a little louder, without moving from where he stood:
'Come in, come in! Lord Almighty! what more do you want? Didn't I say "Come in"?'
Then the door opened, and presented to his astonished gaze Winifred Langdon, and behind her her brother, Bob.
'Good Lord!' cried Squimy Selby, blushing right through the sunburn to the very tips of his ears, and scrambling the shirt under the table somewhat abashed. 'Good Lord! who'd have thought of seeing you?'
It was Winny's turn to look red and uncomfortable now. She almost wished she had not come, but the habit of years reasserted itself; she had for so long looked upon Harry Selby as one who was bound to her service, and she could not begin to look upon him in any other light now, even though he did want to marry her, and she had almost made up her mind to do as he wished. Therefore she walked straight through the parlour, but at the door leading into the kitchen laid down the valise she was carrying, and began to laugh gently, while as for Bob, he leant up against the wall and roared.
'Lord, Squimy! what the deuce!'
'I'm batching myself, you see,' said Squimy modestly, rubbing his hands together awkwardly.
Then he became suddenly conscious that he had nothing on but a flannel shirt and a pair of riding breeches, and the shirt was not fastened at the neck. He put his hands up desperately, but there was no button or stud, and for the life of him he could not remember whether he ever had been in the habit of fastening this particular shirt. It was months since Winny had lent him the light of her countenance in his own home, and no other woman was likely to come there unexpectedly.
'Behold the rich squatter,' began Bob, with a lordly wave of his hand; 'you see him surrounded by his waiting menials, banqueting off—off——'
'Cold salt beef and heavy damper—all the same as hatter,' put in the culprit. 'Stow that, Bob. I'd have had things more shipshape if I'd thought there was the least chance of you coming over.'
'You seem to have been like this a good while,' said Winny, glancing round the kitchen.
'We've come to stop a bit,' announced Bob Langdon. 'And what the devil, Squimy, do you mean by living like this? You might as well be a hatter, as you say, instead of being a respectable, well-to-do man.'
'I told you,' said Selby ruefully—'at least, I told Winny yesterday—the kids all got the measles, and Sam Carter and his missus got into such a state of mind about them, I just packed the whole boiling off to Beechworth to the doctor, and told 'em to stop there till they're well.'
'At your expense, I suppose?'
'Oh, well—yes, of course. They couldn't afford to pay for board and lodging.'
'Puts 'em up at the best hotel, and lives like a hatter himself,' laughed Bob. 'Well, Squimy, you always were a deuced good fellow, and there's always been somebody around to take advantage of it since I've had the pleasure of your acquaintance. Why didn't you get somebody in to look after you?'
Selby opened his round blue eyes wide.
'I was just thinking of it,' said he; 'but who the dickens could I get—Christmas-time, too?'
'Well, we've come to stop a bit,' said Winny decisively, 'and we can't allow you to go on living like this. I shall just spend the afternoon cleaning up, and you shall help me. I'll change my dress, and we'll clean out the fireplace to begin with. You couldn't expect a fire to burn choked with ashes like that. Is that tea you have there?'
Selby looked at the big tin teapot dubiously, and then into the cup beside him. It certainly contained a liquid that might pass for tea, so he said without hesitation:
'Yes, it's tea. Will you have some? There's a clean cup somewhere, I know. I calculated I would have enough to last. I was going to have a grand clean-up to-morrow, any way—Christmas, you know.'
Winny lifted up the teapot, and as it seemed to her very heavy, she raised the lid and looked in.
'Why, goodness gracious me, Harry! it's full of tea-leaves. No one could possibly drink that stuff.'
'Oh, of course; I remember now. I was saving 'em to brush the floor with, don't you know. You have to think about these things when you're by yourself. Capital thing is tea-leaves to brush the floor with.'
'Oh, Harry, don't you think it's a godsend for you that Emmie turned me out of the house?'
'A godsend? I should rather think you were. A man gets near melancholy mad all by himself, and nothing seems to matter. Now, you're not to do a hand's turn. You just wait, and I'll get an easy-chair for you to sit in. You can tell me what to do, and I'll do my best to make you comfortable.'
He had forgotten his dilapidated shirt in his eagerness to welcome her, and he stood before her a very ragged object indeed, but with a face beaming with kindliness and goodwill.
'You'll just do what I tell you. What room can I have—this? Very well, then. Wait till I put on another dress.'
And she picked up her valise, and disappeared into the room Selby had pointed out—somewhat doubtfully, it is true, because he was not at all sure that it was in a fit condition to receive a lady. However, it couldn't be helped, and when she had gone, he slipped his hands into his trousers pockets, and dropped into the nearest chair with a sigh.
'I'm mighty glad to see you, Bob, old man, but why the dickens didn't you contrive to let me know? I wouldn't,' he said solemnly—'I wouldn't for a five-pound note have had Winny catch me like this if I could have helped it.'
'Serve you right, old chap, for living like a pig,' said Bob philosophically. Winny was not his sweetheart still unwon. 'Let you know? Bless you! I didn't know myself till breakfast this morning. You might have knocked me down with a feather when Win said she'd come over here. I never thought she'd do it, and when Emmie cut up rough, I suggested we should go down to Deadman's for a week or so; but, bless you! she wouldn't have it. Nothing would do her but she must come up here, and a week ago—well, I give up girls,' said Bob, shaking his head sagely. 'You can try your hand now, Squimy, and don't you make a mull of it.'
Squimy regarded his boots dubiously.
'Only last night she said "No" pat as anything,' said he reluctantly.
'She's thought better of it, evidently.'
Squimy was rather of that opinion himself. Still, he hardly dared hope so much as all that.
'It's not beginning well, is it?' he said dolefully, 'to let her in on such a howling wilderness, and not have even a cup of tea to offer her;' and he mopped his face thoughtfully with the tail of the shirt he was still holding in his hand.
'Well, you must make the best of it now; you'll never have such another chance, Squim, old man. And look here, it's not much good my stopping here, is it? I think I'll just go down to Deadman's, have a yarn with Ruthven, and bring back any letters there may be. Shall I stop dinner with him?'
'Right you are, old man,' said Selby, thinking how pleasant a whole afternoon and evening spent alone with Winny would be. True, only last night she had refused him, and sent him home in despair; but this morning she had sought him out of her own accord, and what might not be the meaning of that?
When she came out, dressed in a neat morning print, she did not look exactly pleased at finding Bob had left her to her own devices. Even if she did eventually make up her mind to marry Harry Selby, she did not want him to herself quite so soon. She had expected to come into a house with a man and his wife in it to do the work and make things comfortable, and had decided that it would be a rest after Emmie's worry to spend the long, hot days lying on a sofa reading in a cool, dark room, while Selby and her brother went about the business of the run. To be turned into a sort of charwoman, with Selby as her sole aid, was hardly what she had expected. For the moment she was inclined to be cross, and then somehow the look on her host's face vanquished her. There was such evident delight in her presence, struggling with doubt as to how she would take her surroundings. And no one had been pleased to see her since she had parted from him the night before.
'Don't look so doleful, Harry,' she said, laughing. 'If you knew how grateful I am to you for taking me in, you wouldn't mind if the place is untidy. Besides, if you will help me, well soon set that right. Now, just get a shovel, and we will clean out the fireplace to begin with. We can't do anything without hot water, and we can't get a decent fire in a place like that.'
How those two worked! In after-years, when she had a house of her own, Winny was wont to declare that never in her life had she worked as she did that Christmas Eve to get Harry Selby's house into something like decent order. But it was done. The long, hot day wore to its close, the sun set, the moon rose, and two hot, tired people sat down to a tea of boiled eggs and griddle scones in a perfectly clean kitchen, at a neatly-laid table with only so much clean crockery on it as they actually required for their present needs.
Selby sighed a sigh of deep satisfaction.
'Would you believe it, Win, this is the first decent meal I have had for ages.'
'That's your own fault, Harry. Why on earth didn't you get somebody in when Mrs. Carter went away? It's only a question of money, and you've plenty of that.'
'It doesn't seem to get me what I want, though,' sighed Selby.
'You can't expect things to drop into your mouth—working women, at least. If I had your money——'
'You might have,' said Selby promptly.
'Don't, Harry—please don't.'
Then there was an awkward pause, which Winny broke by wondering where Bob was.
'Stopped dinner with the Commissioner, I expect,' said Harry. 'He'll be back soon.'
But it was eleven o'clock at night before he turned up. His sister and Harry Selby were sitting in the moonlight. Selby was smoking peacefully, but Winny was a little inclined to be cross at being left so long. She did not so much mind being left with Harry Selby in the daytime, but she did think Bob might have been back before dark.
Something of this she said, but Bob put it aside lightly.
'It couldn't be helped, my girl; I really couldn't get back before. I found some letters I had to consult Ben about, and it took us all the evening answering them.'
'Then, you didn't have dinner with the Commissioner?'
'Not I. He wasn't there. They said he had gone over to the Packhorse. He must have stopped there too, because I came round by the camp again on my way here, and there wasn't a sign of him.'
Winny sat up straight. All her fears came back to her. Nellie Ruthven's warning, but half heeded at the time, and that threatening letter received months ago, that she herself had read, seemed pregnant with meaning now.
'Bob,' she said, trying to conceal her real anxiety—'Bob, something might have happened to him.'
'Something might have happened to your grandmother.' He had taken out his pipe, and was busily pushing in the tobacco with his little finger. 'Give us a light, Squimy; I'll have one more pipe before I go to roost. What can have happened to him, Win? He's stopped at the Packhorse, of course.'
'But he hates the Packhorse,' persisted Winny; 'he never stops there longer than he can help, and he would like to get back to his camp for Christmas, I know.'
'He's stopped there to-night, anyhow,' said Bob carelessly. 'If he didn't, where is he?'
'Bob, suppose—— Don't you remember that letter he got one day we were there, and that—that girl only this morning?'
'What letter? And that girl—oh, she was always a lunatic! on to make a sensation of some sort—she don't count. She and Emmie taken together are enough to make a man forswear women for the rest of his days. And they appear to be Ruthven's taste, too,' he added, laughing.
'But she must have meant something, Bob,' persisted Winny.
'She came along to Karouda, and made a deuce of a fuss till he married her, and then she made a deuce of a fuss till she ran off with Fraser; and now I suppose she's sick of Fraser, and wants to come back again.'
'That would be impossible,' said Winny decisively. 'I don't see why she shouldn't have been a little sorry, and really and truly come to warn him of danger.'
'What rot! The idea of danger to two strong, well-armed chaps like Ruthven and his orderly! Did you ever hear such nonsense, Squimy? Tell Win it's all rot.'
But Squimy was deeply considering the weighty matter of sheets for the beds. Were there sheets and pillow-cases on the bed in Winny's room? For the life of him he could not remember. And if there weren't, where were they kept? He was getting hot and uncomfortable over the subject, and was making mental resolves that tomorrow at the very latest he would set out for Beechworth and would bring back a woman of some sort, if he had to pay her five pounds a week for the privilege of her services.
'Squimy, isn't it all rot?'
'What? About Phillips' Nellie being married to Ruthven? By Jove! I believe it is.'
'Not married to him!' cried Winny and Bob in a breath.
'Oh, Lord! I don't know. I didn't mean to say that, but yesterday she did tell me some all-fired yarn about her having married in joke your man old Hall; but she didn't consider that a marriage. It may have been all lies, of course; she's a little devil. But there may be a foundation of truth in it.'
'By Jove!' said Bob, 'what a let-up for Ruthven that would be. Ride over to-morrow and tell him for a Christmas-box.'
'I thought I'd just nose round a bit first,' suggested Squimy, 'and find out if it's true. It would be such a horrible sell for him if it isn't.'
Winny rose to her feet.
'I must go to bed,' she said. 'You don't know how tired I am.'
'Indeed you must be,' said Selby contritely. 'And I feel it's all my fault. I wonder what I could do to make amends?'
But she said nothing. Her mind was in a turmoil. There was such bitter shame in wishing this girl should turn out to be no wife of Ruthven's that she dare not acknowledge to herself the tiny hope that had sprung up in her heart. She had come over here with the full intention of marrying Harry Selby, and now with his own lips he had destroyed his last chance.
She was ashamed, bitterly ashamed, of herself, and she crept into bed, and hid her face in the pillows, and tried to forget it all in sleep. But sleep would not come. Over and over in her brain the various questions kept revolving themselves. If he were not married to Nellie Phillips—if he were not—if he were not—if he were not—— She grew hot all over at the thought; she felt the blood flaming in her cheeks in the darkness, and then another thought came to chill her blood with horror. There was that threatening letter—she remembered it so plainly: 'There's a good stout tree in the Whipstick Gully.' The words haunted her, they fairly burned before her eyes; and then, as if to emphasize them, came that woman's warning, and Ruthven's absence from Deadman's this evening. And no one knew better than she how he disliked the Packhorse. Could anything possibly—— But no, common-sense rejected the idea. As Bob had pointed out, two strong young fellows like the Commissioner and his orderly were not likely to come to any harm. If he had been alone; but two together—no, there was no possible danger.
And what was this Harry Selby was saying? She was not his wife—not his wife—no more to him in the eye of the law than she was in reality—if it were true—if it were true—— Oh, the shame of lying here thinking of such things! Why could she not love good, kind-hearted Squimy Selby? Just because his ridiculous nickname had stuck to him all his life? Because that represented to her something wanting in him? Was that the reason why? Could she never go to sleep? There were two striking clocks in the house, but neither of them struck correctly. One struck twelve distinctly, and a few minutes later the other in a weak and undecided tinkle, as if it feared it had not got things quite right, proclaimed to whom it might concern that it was five o'clock. Winny entered into an abstruse calculation as to what really might be the right time, and it took her so long, that at last she fell into a troubled sleep, and dreamed that Squimy Selby had married her sister-in-law, who had promptly hanged him from a tree in the Whipstick Gully while she set the Commissioner to clean out the ashes from under Selby's colonial oven.
And when she awoke in the morning she could not tell for the moment where she was, or what it was that was troubling her. Then it all came back to her. Of course he would be all right—why should he not be? and she sprang out of bed and looked out of the window at the hot red sun rising in all his glory.
It was going to be such a hot day. Already the dewy freshness of early morning was going off the grass, the little green grass parrots were quarrelling in a great gum-tree opposite her window, and on a dead limb a blue-black crow sat and cawed dismally. Such a hot day, and there was no servant, Winny reflected mournfully. There was breakfast to be prepared, and the work of the house to be seen to, however hot it was, for she could not live as Squimy had chosen to live. There was consolation in the thought that she had a willing slave to do the hardest, dirtiest part of the work, and at this moment there was not the least intention in her mind of sparing him. What woman could resist making a slave of the man who loves her, and whom she does not love, if he is only such a fool as to allow her to ride rough-shod over him? Oh, if only she knew where Ruthven was! Only just to hear that he was safe, and her fears were groundless. She would work cheerfully from dawn to dark if only she could find that out without betraying herself. But it was hopeless to think of hearing anything from the police camp—quite hopeless.
She began brushing her long dark hair carefully, and smiled when she heard a stir in Selby's room, and knew that he was going down to the kitchen to light the fire. Was ever man kinder than Harry Selby? If only she could hear from the camp! Or if only she could go down to the Whipstick and satisfy herself that the threat which haunted her had not been carried out! And why not? Surely she might manage such a simple thing as that without exciting remark. And yet it would be difficult. They would be sure to think she ought to stop in the house on such a hot day—that she would want to stop. What excuse could she possibly make?
Then she twisted her hair up in a coil at the back of her neck, and combed it down over her ears, as was the fashion of those days; put herself into a clean print dress with wide sleeves; left her room, and caught the unfortunate Selby, in scanty attire, down on his knees, with his face all black smuts, trying vainly to light an unwilling fire.
'Blast the thing!' he said. 'If it's on the run, the thing is to keep it from lighting: it goes like tinder; but because I want it to, here have I been for the last half-hour——'
'Your sweetheart's in a bad temper, Harry. Let me try.'
'Well, she doesn't look so,' said Harry admiringly, running, in a moment of forgetfulness, his black fingers through his hair.
'Oh, go and get dressed, Harry, and for goodness gracious' sake wash your hands before you touch your hair. If you look in the glass now, you'll see what a dreadful sight you look. There! Now give me that paper. There, now! it's the simplest thing in the world to light a fire on a day like this. Look at that.'
But Squimy looked at her face instead of her fire, and she turned away vexed.
'Now, Harry, if you really want to help me, go and get dressed, and then see if you can get me a back log—one that'll keep the fire in all day; and try and get Bob up in time for breakfast.'
'Yes, and shall I——'
'Go, Harry—go! I'll see about the breakfast.'
And Harry retired, and by-and-by returned in a clean white coat, with Bob at his heels, which latter young gentleman sat himself down on the window-sill and watched his friend make an abject idiot of himself laying the breakfast-table under his sister's direction. Winny was snappy, there was no doubt about it; she was not her usual self; something seemed to have upset her, and Bob grinned because he thought she had made up her mind to marry his friend, and was not sure in her own mind she was satisfied with the prospect. Like many another young man, Bob could not see there was any necessity for his sister to fall in love.
'She'll be all right,' he thought to himself, as he sat down to table, and took a plate of eggs and bacon from Squimy at one end of the table and a cup of tea from Winny at the other, 'and a deuced good-looking couple they'll make.'
Selby's thoughts were straying somewhere in the same direction, but those of the young lady round whom they all centred were taken up with something totally different. How could she possibly get news from the police camp? Was it by any means possible? She answered at random all Selby's humble efforts to draw her into conversation, and at last Bob threw himself back in his chair with a loud laugh that startled her into remembrance of the ordinary duties of life.
'What on earth's the matter, Bob?' she asked somewhat sharply, because she felt sure he was laughing at her.
'Well, if you will outrage the proprieties in this way——'
'I? What have I done?'
'I said I thought Emmie would make Squimy a capital housekeeper, and you agreed, said "Yes" in a thoughtful manner, and thought I'd better go over for her at once.'
'Well, so she would make a capital housekeeper; you never saw her house untidy. It's your fault and mine we don't appreciate her properly.'
'There wasn't ever any love lost between her and Squimy—was there, old man? Remember the days when she used to slight you for the Commissioner.'
'By Jove! I ought to thank her for that. See what I've escaped! Lord! she might have married me to Phillips' Nellie.'
'I thought you said she wasn't married to the Commissioner.'
'Well, upon my word I have my doubts. I shall just look up old Hall some day this week, and maybe I'll have some good news for Ruthven.'
Winny was interested enough now. She hoped they could not hear her heart beating.
'I hope—I wonder——' she began; and then her throat felt dry, and she paused and drank her tea.
'Well, what do you mean?' asked her brother curiously.
'I mean I'm frightened,' she said desperately. It was better to speak out. If any harm came through her silence, she would never forgive herself. 'I'm frightened. I'm afraid something has happened to Mr. Ruthven. Don't you remember that letter about the Whipstick Gully? And, Bob, you know he would never stay at the Packhorse of his own free will.'
'Good Lord, Win! what business is it of yours? If the men at the camp are all serene, why should you bother?'
It was true enough, and Winny grew hot all over. She could not say, 'But he is so much more to me than to anybody else,' and for very shame she bit her lips to keep the tears back.
And Squimy Selby's heart sank into his boots. He was doing his best to serve her, and all her thoughts were given to another man, curse him! If it had not been for him—— Then he saw Bob looking at his sister curiously and angrily, and there surged up in him a sudden resolution to help her at all costs.
'Well, upon my word, Winny,' he said as carelessly as he could, stooping to pick up his table-napkin, 'I do believe you're quite right, and we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for taking matters so coolly. Of course, he may be all right—probably he is—but, taken altogether, things ought to be looked into: that letter and that girl, and Ruthven's not turning up—yes, I think I'll ride up the Whipstick Gully this morning, and just see with my own eyes he's not there. Will you come, Bob?'
'Squimy, you're an idiot!' said Bob, still unsatisfied,
'No, I ain't,' said Squimy, shutting his mouth tight, and pushing back his chair. 'Winny, you're awfully good! I'll just send Megson into Beechworth to get a woman of some sort this evening, and we'll try and make you more comfortable. I'll get up the horses presently, and we'll ride up to the Whipstick and have a look for Ruthven, just to see he's not there. If we started early, you mightn't find it too hot to come yourself.'
Exactly what Winny wanted, but she poured herself out a cup of tea, and asked her host if he would have some more before answering.
'There are the breakfast things to be washed up. I couldn't go before they are done and the beds made. You will have to live like a civilized man now, Harry.'
And she smiled so sweetly that poor Selby cried out in his heart once more, 'Ichabod—Ichabod!' As far as he was concerned, the delight had gone for him from this unexpected visit.
He rose from the table.
'You'll come, Bob?'
'On a wild-goose chase on a day like this? I'll be hanged if I do!'
'Oh yes, you will. We'll round up some of the scrub cattle and have a look at them. I'll just see Megson about the horses, and I'll be back soon, Winny, and help you wash up.'
'One hour of joy dispels the cares
And sufferings of a thousand years.'
THE Whipstick Gully was a little over five miles from Byaduk home-station; but though the gullies on that side of the run were picturesque and romantic enough, the pasture was poor, and it was but seldom they were visited. Every now and then, indeed, the stray cattle were rounded up, as Selby proposed doing now, though in reality this was but a kindly afterthought of his. He had fathomed Winny's anxiety, he had read her secret; and if he could he would help her loyally, like the true man he was, to keep that secret. So if, as he devoutly hoped would be the case, their search proved fruitless, the rounding up of the scrub cattle would take away Bob's attention from the main object of the expedition. Personally he would like to have spent the holiday lounging in the parlour, a pipe between his teeth and Winny to look at in an easy-chair opposite. Something of all this Winny divined, and her heart swelled with gratitude.
'You are good, Harry,' she murmured, when they were fairly started, the exigencies of the way having compelled Bob to drop behind—'you are good.'
'Am I?' he asked, a little bitterly. 'Don't you know I—— Pooh! what a fool I am! I thought you wanted to come, and—and——'
'You made it easy for me. Thank you. I won't ever forget how good you have been.'
Harry Selby groaned.
'Oh my God, Winny!' he said; and they rode on in silence, the girl ruefully wondering why it was utterly impossible to love a man who was as good to her, as tenderly thoughtful for her, as a mother might have been.
By-and-by the track grew narrower between the trees, the steep hillside rose on either hand, and there was only room to ride in single file. Selby rode ahead, his reins loose and his head drooped like a man in deep thought, while Winny's eyes and ears were keenly on the alert, and not a tree in the narrow gully or up the steep hillside escaped her keenest scrutiny. As for Bob, who brought up the rear, he was in a rage by this time, and swore aloud at the idiocy of coming on such a foolish quest.
When they reached the Whipstick Gully, the gully widened out a little, and the reed-beds in the middle were alive with waterfowl and wild duck.
'I declare I see two nankeen birds,' said Winny.
'Have you brought us this infernal track just to look at them?' asked Bob savagely.
'I have come to look for Commissioner Ruthven,' said Selby quickly; 'and I shall be devoutly thankful if I don't find him. Now Winny has put it into my head, that threatening letter fairly haunts me.'
But he did not look at Winny, nor did she dare look at him, and possibly he would not even have felt a glow at his heart could he have known that she felt like putting her arms round his neck and kissing him.
'It's like looking for a needle in a hay-stack,' growled Bob—'a needle you know isn't there, too. I shall light my pipe and have a snooze. You two can wake me when you've done;' and he visibly softened at the thought of a pipe.
'I'll be routing you out for the cattle presently,' said Selby, 'so don't sleep too sound.'
Then, at his suggestion, they dismounted, and he and Winny led their horses slowly round the swamp, carefully looking up the hillsides. At the other side they paused.
'I think it is all right, Winny,' said Selby. 'I don't see any trace of him.'
'No, nor I. It's all right, I expect;' and she tried to speak cheerfully.
'Sit down and rest a little.'
'Bob's asleep by this time.'
So she sat down in the shade, drew her hat down over her eyes to shut out the glare, and leaned up against the trunk of a tree. Selby lay down on his face at her feet, and for the life of her she could think of nothing to say to him. He was so good—so good and kind. And he knew all about her now—the secret innermost recesses of her heart. She would like to go right away, and never see him again.
And, after all, what had she come out to seek? What did she expect to find? She hardly knew herself. And now that she was here and had found nothing, she felt she would go back as unhappy and as anxious as she had come. Till she saw Ruthven in the flesh again, or till she heard on good authority he was safe, she could not feel happy. How easily they might miss him! There might be ten dead or wounded men in the gully, and they could have passed them by quite close and never seen them, so thick was the scrub. What a wild-goose chase she had come on! What a fool she was! He was perhaps quite safe, enjoying himself at Deep Creek, or Yackandandah, or even close at home at Deadman's. And whatever should she say to Bob? As for Harry, she looked at him as he lay there before her, his head on his arms, and she felt she could never look at him again without shame. In her misery and helpless anxiety she could have cried aloud, but the presence of the man before her restrained her. She drew a sobbing breath, and he raised his head and looked at her.
'Poor Win!' he said gently. 'Is it very bad?'
'Harry, Harry, don't!'
'I beg your pardon. Only I've been in a bad way lately, Win, and I wouldn't like to think you were there too.'
She made a little impatient movement with her shoulders. What right had Harry to suspect anything?
'Don't be angry with me, Winny. I hope—I think things will come all right for you.'
'You shouldn't——' she began angrily. 'Why, Harry,' as his horse interrupted her with a loud neigh—'why, Harry, what's Goldfinder doing that for?'
'Some other horse up on the hills, I expect,' said Harry, scrambling to his feet. 'What's the meaning of that, now? Is there anything in it? Yes, there he is answering back. I wonder if any of our horses have strayed over here.'
Again the horse neighed, and again came the answer back from the hillside.
'I'll go up and see, I think,' said Harry.
'He's coming down,' said Winny. 'Don't you hear him? Yes, and I see something in the bushes.'
The next moment a bright chestnut came into view, trotting towards them, holding up its head and neighing shrilly.
Winny recognised it in a second. Over and over again she had ridden beside that horse. After all, after all, her fears had not been without foundation.
'Oh, Harry! oh, Harry!' she cried out in terror; 'it's Fanny—it's the Commissioner's horse. Oh, Fan, Fan! where's your master?'
'She hasn't come far,' said Harry, looking at her critically, and making an ineffectual effort to catch her. 'See, she's quite cool, and she's got her saddle on. I expect she's been tied up and rubbed her bridle off.'
'But where's the Commissioner?' sobbed Winny breathlessly, the last remnants of her self-possession deserting her at this unexpected confirmation of her fears. 'Whatever shall we do, Harry?'
'He may not have been riding her,' said Selby thoughtfully. 'But there—it's more than likely he was. Still, he may be all right. Keep up your courage, Win. Anyhow, she came from the top of the hill. Let's go up and see.'
They left their horses tied to a tree, and Fanny, though she would not allow them to catch her, lingered round as if glad of the company of her kind. The hill was steep, and they toiled up it, the girl's heart beating almost to suffocation.
'Well, I don't know,' said Harry, when they had reached the top and stood almost exactly above the spot where they had first caught sight of the mare; 'I don't see anything. She must have—yes, by Jove! there's her bridle by that tree, and, my God!—be quiet, Winny'—there was a note of fear and horror in the man's voice, and he caught her hand as if to comfort her—'there's a man tied to that big gum-tree!'
Winny turned with a start. Her thoughts were still centred on the gully. Whatever was to be found she expected to find there.
'There'—he turned her round—'and, my God! I think he is dead.'
She was so close she recognised Ruthven at once. His head had fallen forward, so that his face could not be seen; but she would have known his fair hair anywhere, and there was no mistaking the frogged military coat, the boots and breeches. There was no doubt as to his identity. Her presentiments and her fears had not been for nothing. She had indeed found him, but, oh God! if it should be too late. She could not cry now; all her tears seemed dried up.
'Harry!' she moaned, 'Harry! Harry! He's dead—he's dead!'
The next moment she had reached the tree, and had raised the drooping head with both her hands. The white face was drawn with pain, and right across it was a livid mark, the mark of the bushranger's cruel whip. He was the man she loved—right or wrong, the man she loved with all her heart; and she had found him foully done to death, and now what mattered the world to her?
'Oh, my love!' she moaned, 'my love, my love!' and she put her arms closer round him.
Harry must hear; he was stooping down, trying to unfasten the rope; but just at that supreme moment she cared nothing for Harry's presence; she would have cared nothing for the whole world.
'Oh, my love, my love! God pity us!'
Was there something in that tender touch to bring him back to consciousness? He opened his eyes, and wondering saw her—the same tender, loving dark face that he had dreamt of so often. Was he dreaming still?
'You,' he murmured, 'you—you!' and Winny cried aloud with joy.
'Harry, Harry! he's alive, he's alive! Thank God, thank God! Oh, if we could only untie these cords! How slow you are, Harry! haven't you a knife?'
'My knife isn't much good,' said Harry dully.
He was glad enough Ruthven was alive; but it was hard on him—cruelly hard—and could he possibly have done so, he would gladly have dashed down the hill, and left those two to their own devices. But it was not possible, and so he laid his blunt knife on the ground, and began fumbling with the tightly tied knots of the cords that bound his rival. Winny stooped and snatched it up, and began to cut at the ropes that went across his chest, sawing them through strand by strand. Ruthven was only about half conscious, and did not seem to understand at first what they were doing. He did not notice Selby, but the presence of the girl began to trouble him.
'They're coming back,' he muttered; 'go away—go away before they come!'
'Yes, yes,' she answered. She was calm enough now she had found there was something to be done. 'Oh, how cruelly tight these cords are!'
'It's all right, Winny,' said Selby, and for the life of him he could put no joyous exultation into his voice. He felt as if there were nothing in life worth living for, and never would be again. 'There, the knots are undone. Now, better let me hold him. He won't have any feet to stand on. There weren't no slouch about the tying of those ropes. They made 'em d——d tight!'
It didn't take long to unwind them, and Ruthven fell heavily against his supporter.
'Hold up, mate. He's hurt, I think. There's blood on his boot.'
'It's nothing,' said Ruthven, 'just nothing—a knock on the arm. Is it you, Selby? I'm sorry to trouble you. I'm cramped every way. Couldn't you lay me down on the ground a bit? I'll be all right soon.'
'All right, mate. Steady now. There you are.'
Very gently Selby let him down onto the ground, and Winny lifted his head on to her knee. The blood was coming back slowly and painfully to his cramped limbs, and his mouth was parched with thirst.
Winny divined it.
'I'm sure he must want water, Harry. Could we get some?'
'There'll be some down in the reed-beds. I'll go and fetch some in my hat.'
'No, no.' Ruthven roused himself. 'You mustn't stay—indeed you mustn't. They said they'd come back, and they're devils incarnate.'
'So they are,' said Selby, pausing and looking from Ruthven to the girl who held his head on her knee.
No matter what barriers might be between them, there was no doubt in his mind as to their feelings for one another, and he wanted to get away and shut them out from his sight.
'And, my God! what a brute I am!' Ruthven made a desperate effort to sit up. 'I saw—last night, was it?—that girl—my wife, I mean—they shot her on the Packhorse track. Could I have dreamed it?'
He struggled to his elbow, and Winny rose to her feet, and looking on her face, Selby's soft heart went out in pity for her.
'Perhaps you dreamt it, old man. You dreamt queer things, I'll bet. And what should she be doing there?'
'She—she tried to warn me,' said Ruthven, sinking back, and this time his head lay on the hard ground. Winny was beginning to realize her position. 'It's true enough. I must get away at once, and——'
'Well, you won't be fit for much for a day or two,' said Selby kindly. 'If you can manage to ride your mare—she's over in the gully there—down to Byaduk, it'll be as much as you'll be fit for for the next week, I guess. We'll scour the country for the girl; and look here,' he added with rough good-nature, 'I believe she's about as much your wife as she's mine. Now I'll be off and fetch along Bob, and if between us we can't hoist you on to your own mare, I'll be jiggered.'
Then he dashed down the hillside and fell upon Robert Langdon peacefully slumbering in the shade.
'Rouse out! rouse out!'
'You be hanged!' said Bob, turning over lazily; 'can't you let a fellow alone? I don't interfere with your little pleasures. If you like stravaiging round the country in the heat——'
'Rot!' said Selby, bringing down a heavy hand on his shoulder. 'We've found Commissioner Ruthven, I tell you, bound to a tree, more than half dead, and——'
'The Commissioner! God Almighty!' said Bob Langdon, springing to his feet.
'God's in His heaven;
All's right with the world!'
THEY found her that evening just as the sun was setting.
Bob Langdon and Selby had been along the track first, and when they returned, long after mid-day, unsuccessful, Ruthven rose up from his bed and declared his intention of going himself.
'You are not fit,' said Winny, who had been left in charge of him; 'and the doctor will be here this afternoon.'
'I will have to go,' he said stubbornly, 'if I die for it; and I shan't do that.'
No one could gainsay him, and when Bob and Selby had snatched a hasty meal the three set out again.
'The troopers ought to be here by now,' said Selby; 'I sent Megson for them.'
'Lord, Squimy!' said Bob, smiling, 'it's beautiful to see the faith you have in human nature generally, and in Megson in particular. Now, if I know the gentleman, he's not been equal to passing old Mother Wilson's sly grog-shop, and he's tight as a drum by this time. We'll have to manage by ourselves.'
'I know exactly where to go,' said Ruthven wearily.
'That's well, for you're about done, old man,' said Bob Langdon, offering him his brandy-flask. 'You can go to bed for a week afterwards.'
The hot afternoon sun was pouring down on the track, the very air quivered with heat, and here, shut in the scrub, there was not a breath of wind. Ruthven felt deadly weary. If he could but have lain down, he would have been thankful; he wanted nothing more—just to lie down and rest; but first he must find the girl. She had done her best for him. She had made his life a burden, she had shamed him horribly, she had stood between him and the woman he loved, and yet, behold, she had crowned everything by dying for him—the wife he had learned to hate. He remembered Selby's words of this morning, 'She is no more your wife than she is mine;' but he felt too weary to ask what he meant by them. Time enough when they found her. Would she be alive? What a terrible time she must have had if she was! But no, she was dead; he had seen death in her face when he bent over her, only he must make sure.
Then they came to the place where he had been attacked the night before. There were but slight signs of a scuffle, and there were no signs of the woman.
'Rest a bit,' urged Langdon—'rest a bit, and we'll look round.'
But he could not rest. How could he? He kept wandering up and down between the messmate; and throughout his life, whenever he brushed up against a gum-tree and broke off any of its leaves, their pungent, aromatic smell coming to his nostrils gave him a tightening at the heart, and made him think of that long, weary, hot midsummers day when he had searched for the woman who had been his wife, and had left him, and had died to help him. Mostly it was messmate, but there was also the golden wattle, and occasionally there would be a wild cherry or a she-oak. It was not very difficult to pass through it, but it was impossible to see more than a yard ahead, and more than once Selby and Langdon would have given up in despair.
'They have carried her off, Ruthven,' said Bob, 'or maybe you dreamed it all. She was never here at all.'
'I dreamed a great many things,' said Ruthven wearily, 'but I didn't dream that. I know I saw her—dying, I think, but she may be alive.'
'We'd much better wait for the trackers.'
'I can't wait. I tell you I can't rest. Go along and get the trackers if you like, old chap.'
'I'll stop and see you through, mate.'
Up and down, up and down, pacing backwards and forwards all through the long afternoon, but no sign that unaccustomed eyes could see that the scrub had been disturbed. But at last, as the long level rays of the hot sun came creeping underneath the trees, and a faint breeze gently stirred their leaves, Selby gave a shout that startled the other two.
'There, there, under that she-oak with the branch across—isn't that a woman's dress?'
Yes, she was there, and their search was ended. Those who had left her there had broken off a branch of feathery wattle, and placed it across her by way of rough sepulture, and they lifted it off and looked down at her pitifully. So young and so pretty, now death had touched her gently and smoothed away whatever there might have been of coarseness in her face. The shadows of the she-oak needles made a pattern on her light dress, and a ray of sunlight stole through and fell across her still, white face and brought out a gleam of gold in her dark, tumbled curls. So quiet and peaceful she lay there; all the trouble and anxiety of the night before were gone. Into other hands perforce she had resigned the little baby for whom she had cried so pitifully: 'Oh, my baby, my baby, my baby!' Ruthven almost thought he could hear her wailing still. But no, she was at peace now; she thought of her little baby, the only thing she had loved, no longer. She was gone, with all her sins and sorrows, and the man who stood over her would be the last to judge her, for she had given her own life in an endeavour to save his.
'Poor thing!' said Bob Langdon pitifully. 'What d——d hell-hounds they are! You'll have to set the black trackers on at once, Ruthven.'
And kind-hearted Squimy Selby, looking at his rival's face, felt there was something there he would like to comfort if possible.
'And I'll take my Bible oath, Ruthven,' he said gently, 'she was no more your wife than she was mine.'
'Look out, Squimy; he's had about enough,' said Bob Langdon, putting a steadying hand on the Commissioner's shoulder. 'Lie down, man, for a little.'
Their voices sounded very faint and far-away to Ruthven; he seemed to be in a whirl, and the light was fading fast. Then suddenly darkness came, and he lost consciousness.
'Cut down to the police camp, Squimy,' said Bob Langdon, 'and fetch the troopers as quick as you can. I don't know what'll be the end of this.'
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