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Title: Rose of the Desert
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1600151h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Feb 2016
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Rose of the Desert

by

Fred M. White

Cover Image

Published under syndication in, e.g.:
Yorke's Peninsula Advertiser Australia, November 5, 1920

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2016



THERE was no suggestion of tragedy in the little garden, no breath of trouble stirred the leaves of the almond trees. The whole place would have been fair and beautiful enough had it not been for the handiwork of man himself. Here and there along the valley were huge black mounds, like festering sores on the sloping hillside, and beyond these again broken derricks and the old-time machinery associated with pit-shafts.

Before the search for coal had began the valley had been a mass of tender green larches and birches light and feathery as thistledown; but now the mines had gone, too—failed—and all that remained here and there were the gigantic piles of "slack" which hovered over the valley like some dingy avalanche.

They were quiet, law-abiding folk, these people of the valley, hard working and lacking in imagination. They had no hobbies and no outdoor pursuits, though the slopes of the valley belonged to nobody in particular, and might have made cheap allotment gardens. But the soil was poor and harsh, and the attempt had been abandoned in despair. It was nothing to them that Paul Trevelyan had succeeded where they had failed.

But, then, Trevelyan only cultivated flowers. He was different from the rest. His speech was clearer, his dress better; it was known that he spent most of his money on books.

And his system of gardening was contemptuously spoken of as "French." The villagers did not see the sense of growing lettuces in February and turnips and beans before Easter. And as to the flower culture, it seemed rather effeminate for a strong man. But Mary Tretise did not think so; the flowers were a dream of delight to her. She had blossoms on her tea-table in March that a duchess might have envied.

Mary did not work down at the cloth mills with the rest of the women. She had her own hand loom, and it was her province to design fresh patterns for the Waylan tweeds that found so much favour in the South. She also lived alone in a little cottage up the valley, not far from Trevelyan's. For sole company she had a little girl of two, the child of her dead sister Nell. Nell's husband had been killed in a machinery accident, and his young wife had never held up her head afterwards. A little above her class was Mary Tretise, and highly respected by her neighbours, who, nevertheless, regarded her as a fool. A girl must be that who had promised herself to a drinking, swaggering fellow like Tom Pengelly when, as everybody knew, Paul Trevelyan was over head and ears in love with her. She would learn wisdom some of these days perhaps.

As a matter of fact, Mary was learning her wisdom already. It had been a great shock to her to discover that he was a drinker. He had promised the reformation that never came, and now those reckless grey eyes were growing red and bloodshot, and the handsome features were coarsening. There had been something of a scene the previous Saturday night, and Mary had not ventured out on the Sunday. On the same evening she had posted Pengelly's ring to him, and in fear and trembling sat down to wait upon events. Not that it much mattered. As far as she was concerned, life was at end. She could devote the measure of her ripe years to the upbringing of her little Nell. This was Mary's outlook at three-and-twenty.

Pengelly had not come as she had expected. She had looked forward to a stormy meeting; she had steeled herself to face the inevitable. In her sweet and gentle way she could be firm enough if she chose. But Pengelly apparently accepted his dismissal. For the rest of the week he did not go near the mills; most of his time was passed in the village public-house, drinking savagely.

He had a grievance, of course, Mary was a heartless flirt; she cared nothing for him, and she had set her cap at Paul Trevelyan. The more Tom Pengelly brooded over this, the deeper grew his sense of wrong. There was murder in his heart, and tragedy in his glassy eye, as he staggered up the valley this lovely April evening. The caressing touch of the sun lay like liquid gold on the lurches; here and there a birch stood out flickering like loam in the amber light. Somewhere in a thicket a blackbird piped his evensong. Surely there could be no evil in such a world as this!

But Pengelly's heart was black and bitter enough as he slouched past Mary's cottage. He was a little more sober now, but no less firm of purpose. He made his way up the slope to the spot where Paul Trevelyan's cottage stood, and where the tiny garden lay like an oasis in a desert of black stag and coal dust. There was just a suggestion of frost in the air, and Paul was feeling anxious about his Parma violets. He did not want to cover the frames this spring, but it looked as if he would have to. Anyway, he would wait till bedtime before deciding.

He had in his hand a bunch of carnations, on their slender spiky stems. He was tying them deftly as Pengelly came along. The sight of these clove-scented blossoms sent the blood flaring and humming in Pengelly's hand. He snatched furiously at the glowing petals, and tore them in fragrant fragments.

"She won't get those, anyway," he said thickly. "How are you going to take it, my lad?"

Trevelyan made no reply for a moment. He knew perfectly well what was passing in Tom Pengelly's mind; he could read him like open print. The whole village knew exactly what had happened, and because of this Paul had not seen Mary since. Those carnations had been for her, of course. Pengelly had guessed that.

"I shall know how to take it when the proper time comes," Paul said quietly. "If you were sober you would not behave like this."

"Well, I'm not sober," Pengelly said, with a certain savage pride. "I haven't been sober for a week. I've been drinking all the time. And you know why, and everybody in the valley knows why. Lor' what a fool I've been! I thought she cared for me!"

"She did care for you. You have nobody to thank but yourself."

"That's a lie," Pengelly cried. "I'm not good enough for the likes of her. She's got her ambitions, dear Mary has. She don't want me any longer when she knows that she's only got to put up her little finger and you'll go crawling to her feet."

A dangerous light danced for a moment in Trevelyan's eyes.

"Take care," he said hoarsely. "Take care, or, drunk as you are, I'll teach you a lesson. You are lying in your throat, and you know it. You had your chance and lost it. A true true woman like Mary Tretise doesn't play with a man like that. Do you suppose she hasn't suffered? Do you suppose that she has done this without pain and grief and bitter tears? You said just now that you were not good for her. That was true; you're not."

"And you think that you are?" Pengelly sneered.

"Possibly," Paul retorted. "I am going to give her the chance of deciding, anyway. She won't have me, I know. Still, there never has been another girl for me."

The blood was humming in Pengelly's head again. A red mist blinded him. There was something bitter in that feeling of helpless inferiority to Trevelyan. Murder was in the air as Pengelly dashed forward. His hands clutched for Paul's throat.

Trevelyan was ready; he had seen exactly what was coming. In point of physique he had some little advantage over his antagonist. He was cool and collected. His perfect health and strength were too much for the man spent and exhausted by his excesses. Pengelly went down presently, limp and helpless, the blood pouring from a cut in his forehead. The punishment had sobered him somewhat, but the livid hatred in his eyes was undimmed, the flame of vengeance burned as strongly as ever. If he could only get even with the man! If he could do him some deadly mischief! There might be some way in which he could wreak his revenge upon the dual causes of his unhappiness. To get these two out of the way, to overwhelm in common destruction! Ah! that would be fine! That would be talked about in the village for many a long day. Children in years to come would shudder as they listened to the tale of Tom Pengelly's revenge!

He rose from the ground.

"You shall be sorry for this," he said hoarsely. "You shall repent it."

"I am sorry for it now," Paul said bitterly. "Sorry for Mary Tretise's sake."

"Aye, and your own, you treacherous dog! I know a way—I know a way to be rid of the pair of you, I've only got to take a good stout——"

He broke off abruptly, and his eyes grew hard and cunning. He turned and left the garden, all the sweeter and more peaceful for his going. It had been a sorry scene with all that brutal violence, and Paul was feeling somewhat ashamed of himself. Still, the quarrel had been none of his seeking. He had merely defended himself against an attack that had meant something more than mere mischief. There was just the chance, too, that Pengelly might turn his vengeance on Mary herself. The mere thought of it filled Paul with uneasiness. It was only about two hundred yards farther down the slope that Mary's cottage stood, and Paul strolled that way. The little house was quiet enough; the gleam of the lamplight filled the window of the sitting-room. So there was no evil to anticipate in that direction.

When midnight came Paul stood in the garden still. His thoughts were with the cottage down below. Still, as far as he knew, there was no living, tangible danger. Nothing less than an earthquake could bring disaster for the moment. There were no earthquakes in Wayland Valley, of course, but there had been landslides fruitful of disaster now and then. The great mounds of slag and cinder at the brow of the disused pits gave way sometimes, and more than one cottage had been buried in the avalanche. But precautions had been taken as far as the dingy mountain above Paul's cottage was concerned. There were big struts and baulks of timber here and there laced firmly together so as to form a barrier. Paul forced a smile at his own uneasiness.

"I'm like some timid girl tonight," he told himself. "I'll go to bed."

He stood there just for a moment looking up to the stars. It was intensely still. Not a breath amongst the larches moved. Then something went off with a snap like the sound of a beam of wood cracked in halves. The noise was repeated twice in quick succession as Paul stood there wondering. He could hear something cracking and groaning much as if some creature were in pain; then a great fragment of rock came with a bound down the hillside and crashed through the garden. Paul could hear it as it smashed into one of the violet frames.

There were other rocks and fragments hurling themselves down the slope now; then a dull, sullen rumbling, followed by a wild, despairing cry for help in a human voice. The cry was snapped off short, as if someone had clapped a hand over the callers mouth. It came to him like a flash. The barricades of timber had given away, and the great avalanche of slag and stone and rubbish piled up there by the labours of half a century had fallen, and the whole of the hillside was in motion. A wild fear gripped Paul's heart.

Mary! Mary Tretise and the child in the cottage! They were all alone there, and sleeping peacefully, utterly unconscious of the danger. With the terror creeping on behind him, gathering force as it came, Trevelyan bounded down the hillside, and beat frantically on the door of the cottage. A thin red light gleamed in one of the windows, and a frightened voice began to ask questions.

"Come out at once," Paul yelled. "The barricade has given way, and the top is sliding down the side of the valley. For God's sake, come now!"

"Don't wait for me," Mary said. "It's very good of you, Paul, but you can do no good by waiting. And there is the child. I couldn't come without the child."

Paul hurled himself against the door, and the frame cracked and splintered off its hinges. Mary had huddled on some clothing; she had the still sleeping child in her arms. She was pallid to the lips, but there was no sign of fear in her eyes. Paul caught the child from her arms and dragged her to the door. Already the cottage was rocking and trembling to its foundations. Trevelyan made for the doorway, only to draw back again. He was white as his companion now.

"It's too late," he said quietly. "The avalanche is upon us. To try and get out of the way now would be sheer madness. We may save the child."

Mary stood there watching Trevelyan. What a man he was! Strange that she should care nothing for him, and that she should give all her pure affection to——What was Paul going to do? He placed the child in a corner of the room, and upturned the stout oak cradle upon it. Then the force of the great landslide shook the cottage, and it crumbled like so much broken bread. The tiles and rafters slid away, the great square oak beams came tossing to the ground. One of them struck Trevelyan on the shoulder, and he fell prostrate on the floor. The mass pinned him there; all the feeling in his right leg seemed to have gone. A quivering sigh escaped him; he caught his lip savagely between his teeth.

"Are you there, Mary?" he asked.

"Yes," the girl whispered. "I am close by you, Paul. But I can't get up. One of the beams has fallen on my leg. I fancy the danger is over now."

The garden was gone, and the carnations and violets were no more, but Paul was not worrying about them as he sat out there in the sunlight a month afterwards. He was reading a letter which had just come for him, and he was wondering how much longer Mary was going to be. She came presently, her face glowing with happiness. At the same time there was a certain gravity in her eyes.

"They have found out all about it," she said. "Last night they discovered Tom Pengelly's body just behind the broken barricade. It was just as you imagined, Paul. They found him with the lever for raising the timber still grasped in his hand. He must have been mad that night, Paul. Nobody but a madman would have deliberately sacrificed his own life for a revenge like that."

Paul was silent. He had known all this from the first; he had known it the very moment that he had heard that strange, broken cry on the night of the disaster. On that point he had made up his mind to remain silent, but the secret was out now.

Trevelyan passed the letter over to Mary.

"We shall have something better than that," he said. "Here is a renewed offer that was made to me two years ago. I am to manage a factory like this in Devonshire. I have seen the house—a delightful old place, where my pet blossoms will grow out of doors nearly the whole year round. It's a paradise, Mary. But I didn't take it, because I could not leave you, dear. I always had a feeling in my heart that if I stayed here I should get you in time. Shall we take it?"

Mary bent down and kissed Paul tenderly.

"I shall be glad," she whispered, "very glad."


THE END

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