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Title: As Luck Would Have It Author: Edward Dyson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1500081h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2015 Most recent update: February 2015 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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THE late-comer, homing at 2 a.m., sat on the edge of his bed, and made crapulous noises, regardless of inarticulate complaints from the three sleepers. There were three other beds in the room, a bunk against each wall: in each bunk a tired man rolled in an amorphous bundle amongst miscellaneous bedding.
"'Oh, Lieutenant Holland,' says she, 'I'm sure you are a hero.'" The young man whooped, and taking his military cap from his head, with a fine flourish, adroitly tossed it on to the toe of his left foot. Jerking off his collar, he cleverly ringed the other toe, shouting hilarious appreciation of his skill. "'My dear Captain,' she says, 'there is nothing I admire in a man like courage. My dear Captain,' says she, 'you really must come and see me.' Whoop!" Holland tore off his coat, and whirled it from him. The coat fell over the Baron's face, and the Baron, stifling in its folds, dreamt of a monstrous growth assailing him, and fought feebly in his sleep, making the noises a man makes with a bone in his throat.
"'Major,' she says, 'you are a charming man.' Inglis, sit up and listen. Damn you, your poor 'ink-slinger,' where are your manners? 'Oh! here's the darling Colonel telling me such stories,' says she, and she a big buck-up with the deadliest dark eye you ever saw in a human woman, and 'Colonel,' says she—Colonel! So help me Abraham, if I'd stayed another ten minutes I'd have been a General! Rapid promotion—what?" The soldier threw his shirt aloft with a barracker's howl of rapture. The shirt settled on the battered and superannuated gas bracket in the centre of the room, and hung there like a poor, suicidal ghost in the dim light cast by the heavily smoked and intolerably smoking oil lamp.
"In the name of the ancient devil shut up, and go to bed!" Inglis was thrashing about among his welter of blanket, Wagga rug, and articles of daily wear. "What the hades do you mean by coming home at this ungodly hour, and hooting like a zoo, dragging respectable people from their sleep?"
Robert Holland took hold of himself, he became very cool, and remorselessly articulate. "Jimmie," he said—"little Jimmie Inglis, the small weekly sheet you now edit was always the dullest, and most stupid and illiterate of its awful sort, but I will say this of you, old man—under your able editorship it has not deteriorated." He uttered another unmeaning yell.
"Go to sleep, you besotted idiot!" from the third bed.
"Ello, ello! 'Sthat you, Fryer, my boy. Fryer, why will you draw lil' women who look like enraptured spooks? You ought to have been with me to-night. God love you, you all ought to have been with me to-night. 'A party in a parlor, all silent and all damned.' Not a bit like it. A real, rousin', rorty shivoo. And she says to me, 'Colonel, you're just the loveliest soldier ever. I'm sure you've got fifty medals,' she says. Fryer, you should see her—solid as a house, a pack of black hair, and an eye—phew! You'd never draw attenuated and beatific visions for women. Oh, she's the fruit—a real, ripe mango. Mangos for Bobbie. Whooroo!"
"Oud!" The Baron had awakened, subdued his monster, and was sitting up. "Oud heem."
Three scant shirts and three pairs of graceless legs descended upon Lieutenant Robert Holland. He was taken up bodily, and tumbled without ceremony through a door into the kitchen of their bachelor establishment, his tick and his blankets were thrown on top of him, the door was closed and locked, and three weary Bohemians dived back into their bunks, and slept again, quite regardless of the muffled eulogies of a certain overpowering dame with a billow of black hair, coming from the depths of the bedding in the back room.
Fryer was first up in the morning; Fryer always was first up. Temperamental defects and certain proficiency in the handling of foods, called cooking for the lack of a more accurate definition, had marked him out immediately after the organisation of their small fraternity as head housekeeper, cook, and comptroller. He found Holland sitting desolately among the ruins of his bed, his arms embracing his shins, his chin resting on his knees. No, you couldn't do it, but Lieutenant Holland was 26, and thin and limber, and the attitude was easy to him.
"What happened, Fod?" Fryer's Christian name was Hilary, and that was reason enough for calling him Fod, which, as I understand it is a corruption of Fred. Holland did not wait for explanations. "Is there a bottle?" he queried plaintively.
"There's the taste and the smell in one that was opened yesterday," answered Fryer, with grudging sympathy.
"Then for the love of heaven, old man!"
Fryer produced the bottle, and poured beer into a handleless cup. At the Hut all cups so crippled were promoted—they became tumblers. Holland drank with the air of a man taking his medicine, and groaned aloud.
"Why do I do it, Fod?" he asked miserably.
"That happening to be the peculiar kind of idiot you are."
"No, no, no!" the soldier rocked his head on its pedestal of knees, winced, and desisted. "After the first drink I hate it, but one goes on." He groaned again, and curling down on the tick dragged the blanket about him.
"Here, here!" cried Fryer, "you've got to get out of this. I can't have my kitchen all littered up. Hike!" He look Holland by one leg, and dragged him towards the door. Holland clutching his bedding, and submitting unconcernedly.
"How did I get here, anyhow?" moaned Bob, in transit.
"You were chucked out for being a common nuisance. There was something about a piratical dame with wild eyes and a tussock of black hair. Fryer had dragged the sufferer and his bedding half into the adjoining room. He left him there in the doorway, an impediment to traffic, and resumed his domestic duties, lighting a fire on top of the colonial oven in the Hut's large, battered kitchen fireplace.
"A woman?" said Holland. He had jerked himself on to his hands, and looked reproachfully at Fryer, as if he suspected that young man of letting him in for this. "Not a woman, Fod?"
Fryer nodded. He was filling the kettle at the kitchen sink. "Oh, yes, and all very fine and large, I gather. You were full of her—her and other things."
"Lord, yes, I remember—I remember. She called me 'Colonel.' Great Gohannas! I asked her to go to the theatre, and I haven't a bean." He was staring wildly at Fryer, in his eyes a piteous appeal.
"No," said Fod determinedly—"not if your tongue was hanging out a yard."
"But I asked the woman to go. I even mentioned supper. Fod?"
Fryer banged the kettle on the smoking pile of wood. "See here," said he, "there's just five and ninepence between the household and defalcation and dishonor, and not haporth of credit for us in a whole cityful."
"But I've got to get the money."
"And a durned good thing, too. You'll have to work."
"Work! Work with a head like seventy leagues of flaming desert, and ten thousand policemen doing a route march through it, every man Jack with spiked boots on. Work!" Bob howled at the thought of it, fell face downward in his tick again, and murmured faint evil words.
"Yes, work," continued Fryer relentlessly. "There's that war story for Macalpin. I wonder he gives you even a look in after the way you've treated him. You promised that yarn faithfully for last issue. You swore on your honor as an officer and a gent it would be in the office in good time for this issue, and there's ten lousy slips of it fluttering about in the front room grate at this moment, and my drawings hopelessly damned under the couch, where I chucked 'em yesterday week. If you'd finish that story I could collect on the illustrations, and you could lift the three quid promised to you. Get to work, you lazy cow."
Holland moaned. "A head like ninety miles of bush fire!" said he.
"Serve you gaudy well right, too. Because he's a little gimp hero in a pretty uniform, stuck all over with bits of tin, he must get blithered every time he is asked to be toy lion at a wild tea fight in South Yarra."
"You know, Fod, I can't get to you in my present delicate state of health," said Bob feebly. "You know perfectly well I cannot rise and grind your skull on the hearth stone, and you presume upon it."
"What is it the matter is?" The Baron had come through from the sleeping apartment. He stood in the small of Holland's back, leaning on the door jamb, yawning. "Someone is hurt der feelinks of der bolt soltcher boy, der hero of all Africa, der loof of all der laties."
The Baron was a simple Pole by birth and inclination, the title was purely complimentary. He was a short, tubby man of thirty, and played a deafening brass instrument in a theatre orchestra for a bare living. The piano in the front room was his, he was the responsible man in the presence of the landlord. By reason of his steady billet and the financial stability a regular wage conferred he carried more weight in the Hut than his frivolous character, his limited inches, and his Dago-like indifference to Anglo-Saxon conventions could be held to support.
"Come down," groaned the lieutenant—"come down, you despicable Pole, you poor stick, or—or——" Bob made a threatening movement.
The Baron stepped down, one large, splay foot in the lieutenant's hair. "All ride, all ride," he said. "Eeef you weel mislay your bed all oafer der house like a sauccpicious cat, what iss it you expect but to get der tail trod on to?" The Baron stood grinning at Bob, an elfin figure, like a podgy Thor minus the whiskers, in copious pyjamas that had seen long service, and were patterned like a hotel wallpaper, the nether section of which he held on with a deft twist of the left hand. The grin faded, and a touching sympathy settled on his singularly mobile visage. "Dit you giff der poor boy some pier, Fryer?" he asked. He seized the bottle, drained its remaining gill into the crippled cup, and administered the dose, raising Bob's head after the manner of a fond mother with her child. Bob mourned in profound self-commiseration.
"That's right, make a mummy's boy of it. Pet it instead of putting in the boot. I didn't get a wink of sleep through his amorous howlings. Who's going to hold my hand, and comfort me with strong drink?" It was Inglis, feather-headed, bedraggled, bitter with his bed, but reluctant to leave it.
"Ah, well," pleaded the Baron, "we wass all young once or twice." He raised Bob. "Der was hydropathic cures for der ill dot man endures. I treat you mit der Melbourne water supply." He helped Bob out, seated him in the large, sunken sink under the tap by the kitchen door, and turned the tap on his head.
Bob took his bath like a Briton. "Soap us, won't you, old man?" he pleaded, looking out through the curtain of spray. The faithful Pole produced a half bar of yellow soap, and setting to work on Bob converted him into a snow-white, saponaceous mass on to which the Yan Yean played again, and washed out a new man. Fryer made shrill, house-wifely complaint about the splash, and a rude little boy thrust his head in at the back gate, and passed familiar and derisive remarks, but Bob arose, a warrior refreshed, and already the prospect of having to entertain the comely widow, and the necessity of earning the wherewithal by cumbersome literary effort had lost half their terrors. Jan Strikowski supplied a vigorous massage with a rough towel, and then washed his own visible parts gingerly in half a pint in a tin.
"Dot iss 'ow eet iss," explained Jan Strikowski, "virtuous men who dreenk water oscape de necessidy of unpleasant external excess."
THE breakfast menu was porridge, toasted bacon, scones, and coffee, quite excellently handled. Holland came again for the porridge, he begged to be favored with a little more bacon.
"That's the curse of strong drink," commented the editor with ironical compassion, "it robs a man of appetite for wholesome fare."
"The man needs plenty of sustenance who is about to engage in continuous intellectual effort," mourned Bob. "I haven't the faintest idea what the devil I am going to do with that hero of mine. Where did I leave him, Fod?"
"Fighting like a tiger under five Boers."
"Only five? Thank God it wasn't eleven. I must get him out of his difficulties, and wind him up triumphantly, with a wife."
"I suppose he is a Scott," continued Inglis, "and you give him the Gaelic? Anything that makes a noise like a Scotchman will go with Malcolm Macalpin."
"There blows the spleen of the detested contemporary."
Jimmie Inglis bit deep into a buttered scone, and snorted his contempt. His paper, "The Native," was a threepenny society organ, devoted to frivolous comment on current affairs and conspicuous people; Macalpin's "Adviser" was a solid 6d. journal, with a reputation for sound judgment in matters of politics and finance, and affecting a serious and superior tone in literature.
Malcolm Macalpin of the "Adviser" claimed to have discovered that brilliant young literateur, Lieutenant Robert Holland, author of "Letters to Nobody," "The Test of Battle," "The House on the Veldt," "An Uncommon Soldier," "A Brother Boer," etc., etc. As a soldier in South Africa, Holland had suddenly developed an unaccountable itch for writing. Having no one to write to when all his comrades were writing, Bob conceived the idea of his series of letters addressed to no one, letters full of incident, facts of camp life, feelings in battle, vital touches breathing the hopes, the fears, the sufferings, joys, triumphs, and the anguish of a simple soldier, a dirty, hungry, ragged soldier wet from torrential rains, or burnt crisp by an African sun.
The stuff rang true, it was intimate, it dragged the reader in, made him party to the whole business, and through it all sped a weft of elfish humor, robbing of sordidness the fighting man's weary waitings in the muddy slums of war, beset by a hundred needs, beleagured by infinitesimal enemies that took him under his shirt. It left a sense of all the horrors and terrors, the trials and tribulations, as felt by a resolute and somewhat ribald spirit rising superior to everything.
Then as Bob looked at the stuff he received a call—it must be printed. He could never quite rest until it was printed. Holland had been a miner in Westralia when the summons to arms reached him, with as much idea of ever adventuring into authorship as he had of taking wings and singeing his pate at the noonday sun. He had an ordinary, Victorian State-school, sixth-class education, plus a passion for books. Inditing a brief letter to an old-time mate had been a source of extreme mental annoyance to him, yet after a few months' actual experience of war he felt the impulse of authorship, not merely stirring within him but raising an insistent hulabaloo, demanding the satisfaction of paternity. It was no new and peculiar thing, he had found a number of his comrades taking feverishly to the pen after big events, as though great emotion must find relief only in adequate expression.
The "Letters to Nobody" had been sent to the "Adviser" by post. He chose the "Adviser," because he had once or twice read out-of-the-ordinary articles and stories in its pages; Editor Macalpin published them, with an occasional benediction. They were liked, and when eventually Bob turned up in the "Adviser's" outer office, with the manuscript of his first story. "The Test of Battle," in his hand, Macalpin himself came forth with an affectionate greeting. The "Test of Battle" was satisfactory.
"We must have peectures for this, Holland," said the editor. "I'll gi' you worrd to Hilary Fryer. Stand over him man, see the young rascal doesna fob you off wi' mere slapdash. Choose your own subjects, and get three gude, honest illustrations, wi' the gust o' life in them. Fryer can do it if he will."
Holland found Hilary Fryer at the "Hut," Fryer received him in shirt, vest, and boots. Fryer, though no Scot, had a Caledonian detestation of trousers. His first act on returning to their bachelor habitation after a visit to the city was to tear off the detested garment, and emancipate his legs. He had read the "Letters to Nobody," and liked them. He took on the story with enthusiasm.
"It's all-right stuff," he said, after he and the author had chased through the slips together. "That incident of the old woman and the canary makes a fine picture." He had a square of Bristol board pegged to his drawing board, his pencil was already busy roughing out the idea.
And that was Lieutenant Robert Holland's introduction to the "Hut." The "Hut" was a little, old, four-roomed, weatherboard cottage, tremulous at the knees, shaky in the roof, literally held on its feet by the interlacing vines that smothered the place. It was set far back in a narrow strip of wild garden between the sheer brick walls of modern pretentious buildings, and had escaped condemnation at the hands of the authorities by a miracle. Vines roofed in the space between the back rooms and the neighboring house on the left, and through these vines in the season two giant mulberry trees dropped their fat, black fruit. The "Hut" stood in a somewhat pretentious suburb, just through the Fitzroy Gardens, and since coming into the hands of its present tenants had afforded more or less shelter to every vagrant young scamp in local journalism, every homeless poet, artist, musician, and actor. It was warmed with congenial feeling, and lit with the spirit of youth, and although the fare was sometimes meagre, and the furniture was a jumble of rubbish, lame chairs, and decrepit tables, with Jan Strikowski's bright new piano loaded with books, half-burnt candles, cigarette ash, hats, and, possibly, boots, standing out in aggressive dignity, there was a kind of happiness to be found there that existed nowhere else on earth.
On the occasion of Bob's second visit to the "Hut" he met Inglis and Jan, and helped to eat one of Fryer's amazing meals contrived most dexterously, and all of a sudden, it always seemed, out of the limitless disorder of that vagabond kitchen. Here and now he sampled Fod's speciality, the delicious roast lobster which alone might have served to invest the "Hut" with fragrant and grateful memories.
Holland already was envying the three their happy home life. Straight from the misfortunes of war and the vicissitudes of ill-ordered camps, there was nothing in the menage at the "Hut" he cared to object to, and much that made it highly desirable to a lonesome youth in a strange place. But it was Jimmy Inglis put the matter to him.
"I say, Holland," said the journalist, "what about your coming and pigging in with us here?"
Bob flashed, "To tell the truth," he confessed, "I've thought of it more than once, but hadn't the cheek."
"Don't be a damn fool," said Inglis curtly.
"Der wass Gus Glover,"' said the Baron helping Bob to beer, "but a too nice girl got a hold of heem, and convert heem to dark suits and pointed patend leather shoos der toes of which he sharpens effery mornink. Now he iss marriet, und we are lonesome."
"It we are to work together it will be ever so much more comfortable to live together," said Fryer. The meeting was unanimous.
Bob was touched. "It's blasted good and very friendly of you all," he said. "I've never had anything in the shape of a home since I was a nipper."
"Eet iss settle then," Jan offered a hand. "Enter into der home adobt der family."
Hands were shaken all round, a toast of fealty was drunk, and Bob became one of the society of the small commune, a commune of the kind that asks so little of its members and gives so much, a commune we are all glad to have belonged to, though none would be content to return to it perhaps.
Soon after breakfast on the morning following his meeting with Mrs. Longmore, Bob went sadly but resolutely to work, collected the opening slips of his new story out of the front room grate, and with a wet towel to cool his brow, and tie his mind down to the matter in hand, forged slowly ahead. He had a neat, natural gift for story telling, a true sense of character, and an impulse of honest workmanship he could not evade. The tale was told by noon. Fod fished his illustrations from under the ruined couch, furbished them up with a crust, and Bob dashed off to the "Adviser" office to collect.
In response to eager solicitations and specious arguments, with which he was not unfamiliar, Macalpin paid cash down, and Bob returned to the cottage, with Fryer's money and the amount of his own contribution to the weekly expenses.
"Which leaves me just two quid to entertain the bounteous widow," said he. "Can it be done?"'
"We entertained nine people here one night, including a fat grass widow," said Fryer reassuringly, "and it cost us every penny we had—seven and elevenpence."
So Bob went off in uniform, with only minor misgivings. He was back home before midnight, and finding all his friends in bed entered with the greatest care, undressed in perfect silence, and went to bed.
"'Sthat you, Bob?" from Jimmie's bed.
"Yes, it's me," Bob replied, not more grammatical than most of us out of business hours.
"What's the matter—are you sick?"
"No, no I didn't, want to disturb you."
"Whenle this sudden gust of virtue?"
Holland offered no reply. There was silence for ten minutes, and then Bob: "I say, Inglis."
"Huh?" out of the thickness of half-sleep.
"I say, Fod—Baron."
Two grunts and vague stirrings in the bunk opposite, "Well, well, what is it?" testily from the occupant.
A brief pause, and Bob spoke again, spoke in deep contrition. "It seems I asked her here."
"Her—who? What d'yeh mean?"
"Her—the widow, Mrs. Longmore. I asked her to pay us a visit at the 'Hut.' She is coming to-morrow."
"A woman coming here to-morrow! Suffering mothers!" The howl was from Fod.
"Yes. She's—she's bringing her beautiful daughter Miriam."
The other three were up in their beds, snorting as one indignant bachelor.
"What in thunder and hail do you think we are going to do with your widow and her beautiful daughter, Miriam in this den?" demanded Inglis.
"The fact is I asked her the night of the party, when I was two-thirds full. At any rate she says I did, and of course I couldn't contradict the woman to her teeth. I had been talking about you all, saying how bright and fine you were, and all that—writers, artists, musicians."
Further grunts of disgust out of the darkness, and the Baron: "Here iss a musician poorer than der orkan grinters—they can afford to keep monkeys."
"Of course she was deeply interested; and full of curiosity concerning these dear artists and writers."
"It's to be a course in natural history. Why the devil don't you take the woman to the Zoo?" inquired Inglis.
"Of course I'm awfully sorry, but if you knew her you wouldn't mind. A big, downright, frank sort of scoundrel—you'd be at home with her in ten seconds."
"And the beautiful daughter Miriam?" hinted Fod.
"I haven't seen her yet. She was away at some place they have in the country. The mother asked me if she might bring her. You'll just love her, Fryer. She's your ideal Carmen."
"What, the beautiful daughter Miriam?"
"No, the mother. They've got some sort of a place of business in the city—appear to be very comfortably off."
"And you propose to entertain the rich middle class here in this crib? Where will you sit your society friend, on the three-legged couch of wire mousetraps, or in the big armchair that lets its occupants through to the floor?"
"I suppose I have taken a liberty. I'll contrive to put her off somehow."
"Ah-h, shut up!" said Fryer. "Are we a push of greasy cheese-mongers that we cannot entertain a couple of ladies without plush suites and cut glass? We'll make your friends comfortable, Bob."
"Then for the love of Lucifer, what's all the cackle about?" demanded Jimmie.
"Der one ting I haff always say is wrong mit us iss der lack of congenial female siciedy," said the Baron.
"Thank you, boys, you're all so dam decent," said Bob.
Three young men snored vigorously.
MRS. LONGMORE was coming to the evening meal on Sunday, and that involved a complete house cleaning, for the reason that the front room of the Hut was the only possible apartment for social entertaining, and the back room, the kitchen, was the one room in which a meal could be eaten. To reach the kitchen from the parlor you must pass through the spare room and the bedroom, the Hut having no passage.
"Let's serve it out under the trees," Bob had suggested. "And have great, juicy mulberries falling in the ladies' hair, and dropping plunk into the soup," replied Fryer. "No, there is no escape. A housewife's work is never done. We'll have to smoothe out and smarten up those beds, and make them look something less like an aboriginees' dump, and fake a dressing table with a couple of kerosene cases and that old window curtain."
"Suppose I drop in and see what I can borrow from the girls?" suggested Inglis.
It was a happy idea. Inglis had a sister living in free spinsterhood with a couple of girl chums, art students like herself, and a visit to their high Olympian apartments in the city produced three quilts, adequate disguise for the kerosene case dressing table, and a rug that covered the worst spots on the bedroom floor. Looking lovingly over their re-furnished dormitory, the boys were impressed by its civilised air.
"After all," said the Baron, "der iss somedink to be said for der luxurious life."
Little could be done with the spare room but square up the piles of books, music, art material, and various rubbish it contained, and sweep it out, and pass it off frankly for what it was, a mere repository of lumber. It had been a bedroom once, but a former resident with Fryer, the original lessee, a young artist with a craze for photography, using the space under one of the beds for a dark room, had carelessly left a candle burning there, and burnt the floor so thoroughly that a man trusting himself on it had a ten to one chance of going straight through. In fact two or three occupants suffered this experience before the room was abandoned.
But it was to the front room that the four devoted their best attention. This had to be squared up and dusted, and even scrubbed. The Baron, down on his knees in a hessian apron, industriously lathering the floor, stirred Bob to deep compunction. Jan had a good four inches of lather all over the place, and was so covered with suds himself that at a distance he might have passed for the little lamb that Mary had, which was as white as snow.
"Caesar's ghost! what are you going to do—shave it?" demanded Fod, looking in.
"If you tink eet would be better," Jan agreed, sitting up in the mimic snow storm he had created.
Jan Strikowski had crude ideas of domestic duties—he had started to scrub without divesting the room of its amazing accumulations, with the result that a dirty high-water-mark was visible upon everything, including books, piles of music, pictures, drawings, and the pale blue valence that served to hide the decrepitude of the old colonial sofa.
Here Fryer took a hand, and when Mrs. Longmore and Miss Miriam Longmore arrived the room into which they were shown had a specious air of primness and precision, provided you did not look behind the piano, where were thrown photographs invaluable to the artist, numerous sketches from the nude, a battered guitar, three discarded hats, and odds and ends; or under the "couch," where stacks of old illustrated papers were crammed with a worn-out suit of Dick's, and half a cwt. or so of modelling clay, two battered trunks, and a sketching outfit; or under Dick's table in the corner, where there was a litter of old and half-finished compositions, including that famous play, "The Money Power," manuscript music of Jan's, four very battered boxing gloves, and a swag of yellow-covered, cheap French novels in advanced decay.
Bob received his guests alone, and carefully disposed big Mrs. Longmore in the great arm chair, which had been repaired and stayed for the occasion, and Miss Miriam Longmore on the couch which he had cleverly re-upholstered during the morning with two pillows and part of an abandoned tablecloth.
"Well, here we are," Mrs. Longmore had said heartily. "This is my girl Miriam, Lieutenant Holland. She knows all about you."
Bob told Miss Longmore he was very delighted to meet her. Bob told Mrs. Longmore he could not believe it possible Miriam could be her daughter.
"I expected a girl of fifteen or so," said he, "and even then it would beat me. You are so much of a great big girl yourself. Surely you are having a lark? Miss Miriam is your sister."
"Get away with your Irish," replied the widow gaily. "Miriam's my girl, and might easily have been four years older."
Bob put up his palms in despair of the pranks nature played, and Miss Miriam, who was rolling her sunshade between beautifully gloved plump hands, said:
"Yes, people always look upon me as rather a bad joke played on poor mamma."
"Not a bad joke," replied Bob, hastily—"a delightful jest."
Miriam rewarded him with a smile that displayed two rows of wonderfully strong, even, white teeth. Partly because of those exquisite teeth, Miriam was prone to laughter, and nobody's little joke passed unheeded. She was a big woman like her mother, with the same plenteous, dark, red-brown hair; the same handsome, large mouth that set Bob speculating on the task of filling it with kisses: similar eyes, large, almost black, and curiously frank, investing every person they rested on with a special interest flattering and soothing.
Mrs. Longmore differed from her daughter in being twenty-two years older, but at 42 she looked a fair thirty. Bob had thought her magnificent, till he saw her daughter; now it seemed to him that Miriam Longmore was the sublimation of all womanhood. Mary, mother of Miriam, realised the effect, and perceived the transition of interest. It was a development she was not unaccustomed to, but a great sigh ruffled her ample breast.
It is a sad experience to have as a rival one's own daughter, possessing all one's characteristic attractions refreshed and rejuvenated, and Bob had made a decided sentimental appeal to the large woman's still juvenile susceptibility.
"Have you one here will interest her ladyship," said Mrs. Longmore, her hand upon Bob's knee, a sidelong smile towards Miriam. "She is a supercilious miss, I may tell you, hard to please in the matter of men. You should hear her on the desirable one."
Miriam raised her chin with drooped eyes and protruding underlip. "Don't talk nonsense, mother."
"She asks for a Prince Charming?" said Bob, ruefully.
"With a dash of the devil," Mrs. Longmore answered.
"Ah, then there is hope. At least we can provide the dash. Inglis has that, so has Fryer; but there is no elemental devil in old Jan, I'm afraid."
"And who is Jan? I haven't heard of Jan, have I?"
Bob provided a brief description of his friend Jan Strikowski, a cheerful rapscallion, kindly, courteous, unkempt, at thirty still a raffish youth in all matters but music, in that an artist serious and accomplished. "He can give you the best," said Bob, a hand on the piano; "but if it will help an evening go by is content to be the monkey on the organ." Inglis was the stable element in their small community. "He is running a wretched enough little paper now, but he will go a long way. He can do anything in journalism, and do it rather better than others. He is a grafter too, works hard for sheer lust of working." Bob read them scraps of Jimmie's verse. He showed them Fryer's drawings, and expatiated on their quality. "There's a little glow of genius in old Fod," he said. "Look at that girl. He etherialises, it isn't quite human, but it is beautiful."
Mrs. Longmore insisted that the little drawing was lovely—absolutely lovely. "I must get him to do something for me," she said. "Does he do portraits?"
And then Fryer entered the room with the Baron at his heels, and the two were introduced. Fod had made no effort to disguise his special peculiarities as cook, but Jan had donned his best suit, or at least two-thirds of the evening dress uniform in which he appeared professionally, but he had discarded the black coat in favor of a pyjama article with obtrusive stripes, from which the broad arrows were obtrusively absent, and a pair of rather old and brutally ill-treated carpet slippers was another distinctively Strikowski touch. Jan paid the ladies elaborate compliments in his quaint, distorted English, and retreated precipitately to the piano stool. In unusual company the Baron could only feel quite at his ease on the piano stool.
"We have been looking at your drawings and paintings, Mr. Fryer," said Mary Longmore. "I love them."
"Very, very clever," murmured Miriam.
'"I was wondering if you did portraits."
Fryer was already taking a screw at her with a painter's eye. "Carmen," he said.
"Oh, come, I say," protested Bob, precisely as if he had not suggested the same thing.
"Bizet Carmen," Fryer insisted. "The operatic Carmen."
"Why not?" demanded Mrs. Longmore. "Give me a mantilla and a red rose." She flung back her head, hands on hips in a familiar operatic pose, and broke into a great laugh. Mary Longmore's teeth were lit with gold, but her laugh had still much of the charm that made Miriam's so fascinating. Mrs. Longmore's laugh broke down all barriers. Everybody laughed.
"By Jove, if you only would!" said Fod. "An ideal Carmen."
Bob withdrew his opposition. "After all, it will do Fod a lot of good to paint a real, flesh-and-blood woman," he said.
Jimmie Inglis entered from a complete essay of mock serious quality on "Woman and Her Hat." Jimmie had a knack of timing his appearances. He loved to come in when other theories were staling a little, to figure as a stimulant, a welcome innovation. Jimmie was successful with the sex. He had certain rudimentary good looks, a touch of distinction aided materially by an accidental clump of white hair set in abundant, youthful, dark brown locks, over his left eye, and a quality of grave courtesy that impelled women to set him down at once as English, and early English at that. But Jimmie was born in one of our small mining towns 27 years ago, and was never nearer England than Warrnambool is. Mr. Inglis was delighted to meet the ladies. It was pure kindliness that had brought them to shed a little sweetness and light on their poor bachelor abode.
"We are lucky to be here," Mrs. Longmore declared. "Lucky to meet clever people. And, oh, I am just delighted with those strange verses of yours, Mr. Inglis."
"'A dark eye stormed in a cloud of hair,
But a red lip smiled at me,
On a changing day is my lady fair,
With the sun and the rain on the sea.'"
"Bob, Bob, you shouldn't," said Jimmie in grave reproof. But Holland knew Jimmie Inglis, and only smiled. Fod withdrew to his culinary duties. Jimmie occupied himself with Miriam, and an animated dissertation on Henley's verse, for which latter the girl had expressed great admiration. Bob sat by the widow and talked of the plays they had seen. The Baron placed a soft, appropriate background for the conversation.
THE meal was a pleasant one. Fod had outdone himself, and over the fish course, which was roast lobster. Bob rewarded his friend with glances of dumb gratitude. The diners grew quite merry, as the feast proceeded. Fod had given them oysters on the half shell as a hors d'oeuvre, and there was tomato soup from the tin, but improved beyond recognition by a few additions of Fryer's own. There was a roast duck, there was an excellent green salad with gruyere. But the cook provides a good dinner, the spirit that completes it the diners must contribute. Fod's meal moved to a crescendo of laughter and jest, with a suggestion of song provided by the Baron, who expressed exuberance in his own language.
Mary Longmore insisted on handling the coffee pot, and dealing out Mocha told a story that had a laugh in every line. The story was a great success: it broke down the last barrier, and Mary Longmore was admitted unreservedly to the brotherhood.
Fryer apologised for the garlic in his salad. "It sauces everything in our miniature Bohemia," he said. "It provides what an artist calls——"
"Atmosphere!" said Jan, and there was a general laugh.
"In confidence," said Mary, "I love it."
Jimmie Inglis put in a word for the favorite. "The world had grown flat and flavorless. It needed a savor, and a benignant Providence sent garlic." Jimmie went on to tell of his father, a mythical "Scotchbyterian" of strict religious principles and intemperate practices, whom he had adopted, purely for the convenience of the improvisator. This grotesque parent, it seems, had put three pounds of garlic, purchased for domestic purposes, in the tail of his long Sunday coat, and being comforted with nips and stayed with flagons was run down in attempting a crossing, and the disreputable vegetable was crushed to a pulp in his pocket by the wheels of a dray. Then followed a rich description of the good man's adventures and misfortunes as a pariah in trains, and trams, and public places, because of a pungent Italian odour he carried with him, soaked into his clothes.
Jimmie on occasions set aside his characteristic gravity to indulge in rabid reminiscences of this kind, rich with pawky humor, and the father, "fra Aberdeen awa," was a popular character amongst the habitues of the "Hut."
Cigarettes were mentioned. Mary confessed that she had long cherished the habit. Miriam would take just one, and Bob lit it for her, taking delight in the smallest service for the goddess. He had been at her elbow all through the meal, helping, prompting, keeping her well in the movement of things, and believed her to be happy, as she insisted she was.
Mary rolled up her sleeves, and announced her intention of attacking the washing-up. Fod would not hear of it, but Mary Longmore was a person not easily set aside. "It's my duty as a woman and a sister," she said.
They compromised: Fod would wash, she might dry. So a serviceable tea-towel was hunted up, and the others left Mary and Fryer to the most loathed task in a bachelor menage, and betook themselves to the "drawing room," where Miriam confessed she sang a little, and did so to the general satisfaction.
Jimmie's sister came in; a slim girl, with short-cropped red hair and Irish-blue eyes, staccato in manner and speech, suggesting a great nervousness in combat with a resolute spirit. She greeted Miss Longmore with a little fountain of talk, all about nothing much, but useful in providing a sort of mist of words in which the poor girl sheltered from confusion, much as the cuttle fish escapes unwelcome observation.
Jan played an out of the way Hungarian composition, "Is the Swineherd Now at Home?" Nancy Inglis having once expressed a great appreciation of it, and it being one of Jan Strikowski's serious aims in life to please Miss Inglis, an effort Nancy rewarded with chilling indifference.
"Eet iss de meeserable short legs I haff," Jan had explained ruefully. "Two long legs der girls want in a man, eaven eef he iss short a head. Look at Inglis, how dey love heem."
Fryer and Mrs. Longmore came in from their domestic duties. Fryer delighted.
"Its all arranged," he said; "Mrs. Longmore is to pose to me for Carmen."
The importance of the announcement was admitted by all. Jan applauded noisily. "Eef eet mean de lady come here often," said he, "we will excuse anything, eafen Fod's painting." Nobody minded what Jan might say; in matters of criticism he was a chartered libertine.
Fryer produced the wine. It was a tradition at the "Hut" that women will drink any sort of wine if it is only sweet enough. The libation was Tokay at a shilling a bottle. Mrs. Longmore expressed a preference for beer, and increased the respect in which she was held by the boys. Beer was forthcoming, and more cigarettes. The liquor was served in damaged cups. The Hut boasted only two tumblers. As an emergency egg cups did excellently for wine glasses. It was no longer felt that there was any need to apologise for harmless deficiencies of this sort.
Jimmie Inglis sang a chanty; Miriam, Nancy, and Bob joined in the refrain. At least it was a jubilant sort of noise, and everybody demanded more. When the singing ceased temporarily, Halliday, a stout, fair man of perhaps thirty, burst in upon them, with a Berserker demonstration of affection. He was bald, blue-eyed, fresh-colored, and pregnant with words, a tremendous teller of tales, coalescing the comedian's talent and the fluency of the practised writer. He was followed by Greenway and O'Malley, the first a slim, boyish figure, pale, with a clever face like a cutwater, and marvellous hands running so long, thin fingers tapering to such a point, you imagined he might have made a wonderful drawing with his finger tips, an artist with an almost etherial delicacy (wholly deceptive, for he was destined to live to be famous), fall-read, and brimming with ideas, he expressed himself in a splutter of eager speech, never quite completing a sentence. His companion, a man of 40, had a large head on an attenuated body, brown haired, red-bearded, a poet with verses to his credit known in every household, but without a second shirt to his back. He, too, had remarkable, thin, white, fragile hands, and fluttered them as he talked, with a peculiar butterfly effect.
Two shy girls came a few minutes later, and were introduced as Jess and Jollie. They might have been models for the head and sections, Fod deposited them against the wall, himself between them, making them his special care, all three on one box.
The sweet wine circulated. Fod had cigarettes for the girls—scented cigarettes. They lent the cloudy atmosphere a hint of incense. More beer was uncorked, and there was loud, gay talk, singing, laughter, music, and noise, noise, noise. Plenty of noise. Everybody felt things were going well while the noise was healthily maintained. If it subsided Jan Strikowski, now enthroned on a high-backed chair artfully contrived from a barrel, fell over backwards on to his head, or his neck, confident in the thickness of his skull, and so created a diversion, and hilarity welled up afresh.
O'Malley had seated himself by Mrs. Longmore on the seat vacated by Fryer, and when the fluctuations of merriment permitted entertained her with talk of the others present. His voice had a gentle charm, his comments were kindly if pungent. He said nice things about women. In the 58 years to which his life extended, nobody ever heard Vincent O'Malley say a coarse or evil thing. Mrs. Longmore was delighted with him. He picked at the atmosphere with his thin, prehensible fingers, and kept her in a simmer of merriment.
The centre of the room was cleared for the Baron's dance. Nancy went to the piano. The Baron's dance was a stock joke. Jan had invented it himself. Much of its humor was due to his short, whimsical legs, but it was danced with extraordinary vigor, and was grotesque and unashamed. The the speed of a flying shuttle, they assumed the most ridiculous poses, they did the most preposterous things. He rolled from the back of his head on to his heels with a perfect hoop-like movement, he revolved like a sleeping top, and head and hands were in the dance. His expressions were so frantically absurd you imagined his face had the quality of dough, and might be pulled into all conceivable and inconceivable shapes. He finished, exhausted, amid a yell of applause. It was a performance that might have won Jan Strikowski fame and affluence as a circus clown, he preferred to remain best local manipulator of the French horn, with leisure for the composition of symphonies.
Jimmie talked of his father from Aberdeen, Halliday told of an Italian city organist (barrel organ) who would suspend a performance to have heated and vigorous disputation with his monkey, the humor of which lay in the interpretation of a flaming red Paduan with a copious flow of whimsical broken English, and the spitting vehemence of the ape.
Fod who had withdrawn twenty minutes earlier with Jollie, reappeared with a piled dish of garlic sausage sandwiches.
Still more beer, and all took supper where they sat, with a running accompaniment of badinage and laughter. A hectic happiness possessed the party, and with it went a glow of affection, softening hearts strangely. Mary Longmore uttered a cry of alarm.
"A quarter past eleven! No trams till to-morrow morning, Miriam, my dear; we have to face the walk home."
"What of it?" demanded Bob. "It is a lovely night. As well walk home an hour later."
"I simply won't hear of another minute. It's been quite glorious; I never spent a more cheerful night, but we must be off."
"At any rate I shan't lose you yet a while. It is my privilege to see you safely disposed on your own mat."
There followed the usual hustle after hats and wraps and the clatter of reciprocal invitations. The boys and their friends must all give Mary Longmore an opportunity of seeing what she could do for the entertainment of artists. She fixed on a Sunday in the near future, and when they were well away she gave Lieutenant Holland further assurances of her gratitude for a really merry afternoon and evening.
"So different to the usual evening they bore you with in the suburbs," said Miriam.
"A stuffy sentimental song or two," continued her mother; "a mild game of cards and a supposed humorous recitation that always reminds me of the evolutions of a performing bear, and gives me pangs of conscience because I cannot help thinking of the preliminary agonies of the poor bear," Mary laughed aloud.
"I'm glad you liked the boys," said Bob gratefully.
"They're darlings," said Miriam.
"A honest lot of young blackguards—I love them," said Mary. "What a bright, gay nature that Mr. O'Malley has. He is a poet, you say."
"Yes," laughed Bob; "and working at it."
"Makes a living writing poetry; I shouldn't have thought it possible. Would he earn a great deal?"
"Not nearly as much as a third rate bookmaker, I'm afraid, but there is consolation in the fact that he does not particularly want to. A loaf of bread beneath the bough, a flask of wine, a book of verse, and his needs are satisfied."
"But you forgot a very important detail—'thou.'"
"The 'thou' in this case is a bedraggled wife with a sharp tongue."
"Oh, poor fellow, and he seems so gentle. He talks like an angel with a sense of humor."
Holland stopped short and faced her. "Did he?" he asked. "It's no business of mine, but did he?" He rubbed two fingers and a thumb in a gesture suggestive of the smooth flow of sovereigns.
Mrs. Longmore nodded. "A mere nothing," she said.
"The scamp! The scamp! I'll never forgive him. Our guest! He has no shame in matters of this sort, but I'll give once round the house for this." They resumed their walk.
"Now, Lieutenant, you will please do nothing of the sort. It was only three pounds, and I do not mind if it will help the poor fellow."
"It will help him to further flasks and another book of verse perhaps, but you will never get it back, not a penny piece of it. O'Malley regards whatever he may get in this way as only adequate recompense for the arts and graces he has displayed in gaining it."
"He certainly did it well."
Meanwhile in the "Hut" Fod was admonishing Jan Strikowski with some heat. "When that women offered to dry the dishes why the devil didn't you step up and insist on doing it? You knew damn well we had no such thing as a tea towel. It's your own gaudy fault if you haven't a fresh boiled evening rag for business on Monday night. I had to go and tear that towel out of the only clean shirt you had."
The Baron shrugged his shoulders, and sighed philosophically. "Eet no matter iss at all. I sew the front into the vest, and she iss all ride," he said.
GREAT curiosity concerning the widow was expressed in the "Hut" at breakfast next morning. Holland had to admit he knew nothing more than he had told them, beyond the fact that she lived in a handsome villa, with an acre of land attached, in an expensive street.
"I am to paint her as Carmen," said Fryer, "and not to stint myself, she said. I am wondering if she means in the matter of paint."
"The woman is a long way from being a peculiar fool," commented Inglis.
"But has she any idea of the value of pictures?"
Jan exploded: "I a distinct recollection haff of seeink four beautiful paintinks by der celebrated young ardist, Hilary Fryer, uset to put a roof on her hen howse."
"And an infernally good roof, too," Fod declared.
"I'll nose out the place of business in the city to-day sometime," said Bob. "But I am sure Mary is a person of substance."
"Oh, I'm perfectly willing to chance it," said the artist. "It will be a pleasure to paint her. She's great good company."
"And has a very proper admiration for the young artist," mused Inglis.
In pursuance of his promise Bob did go to some trouble to hunt up Mary Longmore's name in the "Directory." He eventually located her place of business in a small street lately reclaimed from the foreign element, and now showing a new, staring, red front to the world. Among the freshness of the recent brick additions the establishment of Longmore and Co. had an old-established air, if not mediaeval, at least middle aged.
The building was of roughly hewn bluestone, with small barred windows, quite in the early colonial style, and deep sunken double doors, strong enough to resist a siege. The doors were blocked open with two large lumps of rocksalt. The whole front had a dark, stained look, as if the commodities long retailed within had given off a certain seepage that had soaked the building through; for, as it hurt Bob to see, Mary Longmore's business was that of a dealer in farm and dairy produce, notably butter, bacon, hams, cheese, and lard, but with side lines like honey, eggs, sauces, and pickles, tinned milk, and rabbits.
Lieutenant Holland entered the shop, and an alert, young-old man with a large, round head, and large, round eyes, a pink, almost infantile, skin, a face as wanting in lines and as smooth as one of the bladders of lard stacked on the counter end, bobbed up to serve him.
The shopman was afraid the boss was busy, but if it was very particular perhaps she would find time to see Lieutenant Holland.
Bob was rather discomfited on finding Mrs. Longmore, manageress of Longmore and Company, a very different person from the Mary Longmore the boys had entertained in their own brusque way the day before. She was formal, a little terse, the practical business person, with no time of her own to waste, and no desire to waste anybody else's. This was so essential to a person running a going concern like Longmore and Co. that Mrs. Longmore did not think it necessary to apologise.
Bob, half seated on the edge of her office table, looked down at her where she sat, tapping a front tooth with her pencil end. He had made a revision in the time for the first sitting for Carmen, and it struck him how utterly incongruous it all was. This smooth emphatic direct woman as the tempestuous Spaniard. He smiled.
"Well?" said Mrs. Longmore.
"Has anything happened to you over night?" asked Bob. "Have you seen the error of your ways? Are you for renouncing us, and all our courses?"
She arose, and put a hand on his arm. "Good afternoon, Lieutenant," she said. "Talk to me like that at my party. Don't bother about me here. You won't like the business woman a bit."
"I don't. You are kicking me out. I'll go and find Miriam. I hope to heaven she is never quite business-like."
Mrs. Longmore smiled as he passed out. She remained for a time, staring at the door he passed through, tapping that front tooth with the lead pencil, revolving something in her mind that had to be shaken off with a deliberate effort before she could give herself to her figures again.
Bob Holland, swinging quietly from Mrs. Longmore's office into the front shop, met a sight wholly unexpected and most surprising. All had been peace and quiet in the place of business, a fat cat had been drowsing on the end of the counter, the pink-skinned, round-headed shopman had suggested a man awakened from a long sleep by an unaccustomed intruder. Now there was the same silence, but the whole place was stirred into action. The cat whirled off the counter, and sprang for one of the high sills; the shopman, pulled half way across his own counter, was being calmly but systematically choked by a brawny youth of a peculiarly hang-dog cast of countenance; while another, rather older, whose face, too, bore the impress of a hard life spent in nefarious pursuits, was tiptoeing to the side door opening into a lane.
Bob gazed a moment in complete amazement. It was all so unexpected, the silence of it and its suddenness made it so unreal. It was as if he had stepped abruptly into a picture theatre, and encountered a sensational reel in the act of being run off to an otherwise empty house. But his consternation lasted only for a moment, and then the man of action predominated. He sprang for the man heading for the door, the chamois bag in whose hands suggested the accomplishment of a lawless purpose.
The struggle was of the shortest. Bob cross-buttocked his man, and sent him with his thick head cracking against a barrel of salt herrings. At the same moment the chamois bag flew against a big box with hoop-iron edges, and was torn open, and its contents scattered all over the floor—a flood of sovereigns!
Bob did not wait to contemplate the beauty of the bright, new coins rolling in all directions, but dashed at the second man, who had released the poor shopman, and was coming at him with a natty life-saver upraised. Backing warily to a row of bottled pickles, Bob took one bottle from behind him, and threw with such precision that the picalilli broke on the ruffian's skull, and he joined his comrade on the floor, his head in a most grotesque mess of pickles and blood.
Bob stood over his fallen adversaries, and looked up with a laugh. The shopman, piteously pawing his damaged throat, was coming towards him. Mrs. Longmore had issued from her office, and stood, gazing at the scene, her face a perfect picture of consternation.
"That was so sudden," said Bob.
"Why—why, what does it all mean?" demanded Mary.
"Look at their faces," answered Bob. "Look at their nice, list-covered, shoes, and say for yourself."
"They were hidden in the small store room," the shopman explained, looking at Mary. "They thought I was alone here, I suppose, and came out at me. They had a bag of sovereigns."
"Yes, Mrs. Longmore, and here is your shop paved with gold. I think this is the cue for the police." He moved towards the telephone.
Mary Longmore intervened hastily. "No, no; not the police," said she. Then, noting Bob's surprise: "You don't know what a nuisance a prosecution like this is to a business person. I have been in one, and I would not be in another for two hundred pounds."
"But would you let these scoundrels go unscathed?"
Mary looked at the victim of the pickle bottle, who was on his feet, groping helplessly. "Unscathed?" she said. "It seems to me, Lieutenant Holland, that they have not got off wholly unharmed."
The second man was on his feet, pawing his head. He staggered towards the door. Bob intervened.
"I think we will let them go this time," said Mrs. Longmore.
"Well, of course, it is your affair," said Bob reluctantly. "How does this chap like the idea of turning them loose. He has had his windpipe torn from its moorings, and looks like a three days' corpse."
"Oh, let 'em go—let 'em go!" gasped the shopman. "I don't want to be let in for any long trials."
"Well, I'm damned!" was Bob's eloquent comment, as the two beauties sneaked into the street.
"You don't understand, Lieutenant," said Mary, "what it means to a business person to have to attend one of these interminable criminal trials."
"I can understand what it means, having your gold hiked off by a set of infernal thieves," said Bob.
"But they have not got the gold, and that makes all the difference. They have failed, thanks to you, Robert. I am very much obliged indeed. It was very smart of you, and most heroic. I really am very deeply indebted to you."
Bob glanced down whimsically at the gold covering the floor. "I don't think much of your banker," said he.
"You think I am foolish to have so much money about the place. Well, you see, we do a very large business with Chinamen. They pay in cash, and it is early in the month."
"John Chow isn't as fond of gold as he used to be," said Bob. He noticed that Mrs. Longmore was greatly disturbed, and did not pursue the theme, but started to assist the shopman in gathering up the sovereigns. "They are lovely and new," said he.
"They are, indeed," Mary replied. "Don't let us trouble you further, Robert. I am positive Miriam is lonely, and will be delighted to see you."
"You think so!" Bob did not disguise his eagerness.
"Why, I am certain. You are a great favorite of hers."
"And you are not afraid of those beauties returning?"
"Is it likely they will come here again? I will ask the policeman on the beat to keep an eye on us. There is no further fear."
"Well," said Bob, "this is one of the quaintest experiences of my chequered career. Do all business people let shopbreakers go rather than face the trouble of a prosecution?"
"They often do. Scarcely a day passes that a thief is not detected in one or another of the big drapery establishments, for instance, but how often do you read of action being taken?"'
"It is your affair, Mrs. Longmore; I'll go."
"Good day, Robert, and thank you—thank you very warmly."
"Don't, Mrs. Longmore. My part in the affair was quite enjoyable."
Bob found Miriam at home, lazing in the garden, with a book that would take hold. He said nothing then of the adventure at the shop, not wishing to divert her from the trip he had in mind. The girl seemed glad to have him. He was comforted by her smile, and tempted her forth for a desultory row on the river. Bob was gratified; she was very pleasing, with nothing of the self-consciousness that had stiffened her on the previous day. She made a fine picture, too, lolling in the stern in a well-fitting dress of cloth, light in color and texture, her dark eyes revealing themselves occasionally in their ambush of long lashes. She sighed a little, and was affected by the beauty of the day, and the lush greens and deep shadows of the willows. The glamor of sentiment pleased him; it womanised her, he thought; it was a concession her size and the square rig of her strong shoulders made necessary. If he had had anything against her it was that she seemed a girl a man could not easily take to his strong arms for her protection and comfort. For what else is the young male of the species made brave and powerful?
The boat is drawn in close to the green bank; and the showering slim strands of a willow, forming a screen between them and the outer realities. Bob made love, but only with eyes and accents. He had a kind of eloquence, and had seen much of life in the last ten years. She listened, the smile that bared her perfect teeth rewarding him, her hand dipped idly in the warm river water. Suddenly she sat up.
"Why did you go to fight in Africa?" she asked.
He paused. There was the temptation to take the heroic role. He put it aside. "I was young," said he. "I was doing nothing. It offered adventure, an opportunity of seeing something more of the world."
"Then you did not think it was your duty to crush the Boers?"
He shook his head. "I'm afraid I did not. I don't think I had any fine ideas of saving the Empire. I did not think the Empire was in any jeopardy."
"So you were willing to go out killing men just for a sort of whim."
"I took a lot for granted—that the killing was essential, that there was some great cause to be served."
"But, all the same, you did not trouble your head about the moral side."
"No, that's a fact."
He detected something like satisfaction in her sigh. He felt there was an intention behind her attitude.
"Why do you ask," he inquired: "pro-Boer?"
"Oh, no; I just wanted to know your attitude towards the ordinary idea of the rights and wrongs of things."
"I hope that ordinarily I am with the angels."
Miriam pointed a finger to her breast. "Meaning?" She laughed aloud.
"That's a quaint idea—I one of the angels! Don't be absurd. If you have not already discovered my crude worldliness, that pretence of knowing people through, which I find in your stories, is all humbug."
"You have been reading my stories?"
"Why, of course. I hunted them all out in the 'Adviser' when mother told me I was to meet you. I like the tales. There is no nonsense in them. You seem to take men and women as they are, and make the most of them. You are not pitiful, or reproachful or bad tempered when they don't happen to come up to orthodox standards in morals, and honesty, and all that."
"No, I try to tell what men and women are. I leave it to the preachers to say what they ought to be."
"But when your soldier mates steal, and drink, and riot, you seem to have, what shall I call it?—a sort of sneaking sympathy with them."
"Don't forget their peculiar position, their great need, the power of reaction in men long tied to a strenuous and deadly task."
"You wouldn't be so generous to ordinary mortals in ordinary circumstances, perhaps?" She had her fine eyes on him; he thought they were a little distressed. The faint smile on her lips hinted at a mask.
He took her hand, and held it close. "I am no more judge than parson," said he. "But your troubles! You are a mere girl, beautiful, happily situated, care-free, well-beloved——"
"Continue the enumeration of my blessings."
"Am I right?"
"Right or wrong, it amuses. I want to know your qualifications as a psy—psy—what is the ugly word?"
"Yes, a reader of souls, isn't it?"
"I am searching yours not for news of yourself."
"For what, then?"
"For news of me. How do I stand there?"
He had drawn closer to her. Contact with her warmth and her firm limbs was provocative. What would she do if he kissed her? A small boat is a precarious place for such experiments.
She drew her fingers slowly but decisively from his grasp. "This is our third meeting," she said. "Life is short, but not so short as all that."
He stumbled a little over the usual contention that time is not for lovers, that he might have known her for years, and she laughed. Already she had taken the oar, and was pushing the boat through its screen of willow wands into the hot sunshine.
"I shall row back," she said. "Oh, yes, I insist. I am quite good at it. You take my place. It is very warm."
There was no denying her. In the last few seconds he had been subdued by a touch of the mother's manner, the business woman's dryness and emphasis. He spoke his thought.
"Heaven preserve me from making love to a business woman."
It amused her only. "I don't languish easily. In fact I have never languished yet. Possibly I never shall."
"Don't give up," he replied, jocularly, to cover the feeling of failure, "Who knows what you may accomplish with sympathetic aid."
She did row very well, and loafing in the stern, his hands overboard, Bob submitted, feeling in a vague way that the man in Miriam Longmore's life would have to be content often with some such position.
Mrs. Longmore was still absent when they returned, and Miriam gave Bob whisky in a summer house ablaze with bougainvillea.
"Your mother sticks to it pretty closely," he said.
"Why, have you seen her in the office?"
"Yes; I called there before coming over here. She didn't actually kick me out."
"But she wasn't affectionate. You didn't want half a ton of butter, or a hundred hams."
"No, I admit I had no business there at all."
"Ah, then, you would notice a certain lack of amiability. Mother leads a sort of double life. At the business she is Longmore and Co.; with her friends she is Mary Longmore, a jovial scapegrace, with a decided liking for people and things just a shade over the odds."
He was surprised at the expression. "She liked us," he complained.
"Well, you boys down at the 'Hut' don't pretend to be ultra respectable, do you?"
He shook his head. "It is a mournful fact that we do not conform. That being so, I hope we shall see quite a lot of Mary Longmore after business hours."
He made no further attempt at love, and when he was going she bestowed a little lingering pressure of the hand.
"I am not as unromantic as I pretend," she confessed. "Perhaps after all I am only shy. Absurd, isn't it, in a creature of my size?"
"No sane man would have you different from what you are, whatever you are," replied Bob with a flourish.
When Mary Longmore returned home that evening she gave Miriam a mothering hug and said "Holland has been here?"
"Yes. We were on the river together."
"He was in at the shop. Strolled in in the most perfunctory way, looking all about him, apparently very much interested. He wanted nothing."
"Surely you don't imagine there was anything behind it."
"My girl, we can't afford to be anything but suspicious of everyone."
"Yes," said the girl after a moment's thought; "that is the damnable part of it."
Mary looked at her sharply. "We needn't go into that," she said; "and after all, I suppose Holland's call was prompted by nothing worse than idle curiosity."
She told Miriam of the afternoon's adventure, and the girl was greatly disturbed. The affair afforded the two subject matter for talk for the whole evening.
MARY Longmore's party was a comfortable, well-fed affair, kept keyed to gaiety largely by force of the hostess's exuberant geniality. Mary never let things down. A lull found her ready with one of her yarns; a story of the kind nobody could tell but Mary, so true to character, so whimsical, so suffused with our little human foibles and vanities, that not even the most stupid could think them dull.
"Why don't you write, them?" demanded Inglis. "It makes an editorial heart bleed to see such ripping stuff practically running to waste."
"I can't," wailed Mary. "The moment I take a pen in hand I am hopeless, helpless, bereft."
"I have shorthand notes of the last, and it is going in." Mary was enraptured with the idea of figuring as an authoress, but Bob shook a warning finger at the editor.
"Better be careful, Jimmie," said he. "You'll be making that paper of yours quite bright, then out you go." For the benefit of the company he explained: "Slater, the printer who owns Dick's paper, 'The Native,' is haunted with the fear that it will be made clever if he does not exercise eternal vigilance, so he is continually at his exceptionally brilliant young editor, restraining his avid appetite for bright verse and smart paragraphs and stories. He contends that the readers of 'The Native' wouldn't understand good stuff if it was given to them. They want social gossip, news of weddings, with complete lists of the presents, details of social functions, and intimate information concerning matrimonial engagements. Give them anything better, he says, and they will drop the paper; so he lives in mortal terror of his editor smuggling in really readable matter. One of Mrs. Longmore's stories would give him a stroke."
"That explains," said Miriam. "I knew Mr. Inglis wrote bright, entertaining things, and I bought his paper, and hunted it through. I was bitterly disappointed."
"I have often wondered how clever matter is kept out of the papers," said O'Malley. "The vigilance of editors is marvellous."
The poet had come in full evening dress, and shone in splendid isolation, sartorially speaking.
"It belongs to Weatherspoon," O'Malley explained in an aside to Inglis. "I promised to deliver an address on Elizabethan literature to a gathering of his constituents last night, and he lent me the suit for the occasion. I retained it to grace Mrs. Longmore's party."
Inglis sympathised with Weatherspoon, M. P. He knew that only a miracle could keep that suit out of the pawnshop over Monday.
Early in the evening Bob was introduced to Henry Mair. Mair was Mrs. Longmore's brother-in-law. He was the youngish, elderly man, round-headed and pink-skinned, whom the lieutenant first met behind the counter at the produce warehouse. His wide open, round eyes gave him a very alert look, but he never spoke, excepting to recite small jokes culled front the column headed "Facetiae" in his favorite weekly, a substantial journal devoted to agricultural interests. These anecdotes he slipped in whenever opportunity offered; but as they were brief they excited small resentment.
Other guests were a bookmaker of notorious integrity, and his small spouse, whose single aim in life was to prove that a bookmaker's wife could be a lady; several nice girls called from local families; and Uncle Joseph Flatman. Uncle Joseph Flatman was Mrs. Longmore's twin brother, Miriam explained as a matter of peculiar interest, and the fact certainly excited remark in exploding the general impression that twins invariably bear a marked resemblance to each other. Uncle Joseph was a small, wire-drawn man, with a thin, dried-up visage, ears as tiny and delicate as those of a child, and a mop of reddish hair, so dry and crisp that it suggested teased out stringy-bark, and looked just as inflammable.
"Uncle Joseph was an engineer's draughtsman," Miriam told Bob. "He is still very clever with his pen, but he now manages our place in the country. I will show you something he has done."
She brought a sheet of paper from another room, and presented it to the lieutenant. The paper was peculiar: it had a cloth-like quality, and in the centre was an oblong spot of which Bob could make nothing. The girl handed him a magnifying glass, and he discovered the spot to be a perfect representation of a £5 note, drawn with the pen. The reverse of the note, was on the other side of the paper, and the drawing was done with such perfection of detail that it seemed to the young man he was gazing upon the genuine article. Certainly Uncle Joseph had a peculiar talent.
"Now, if he would only do life-sized studies of these," laughed Bob, "Uncle Joseph might be a great money maker."
"That's absurd!" Mrs. Longmore had intervened rather abruptly, and took the paper from Bob's hands. "Imagine the amount of patient trouble that goes to the making of such a drawing? It would be more profitable to saw wood."
"Of course, I was joking," said the young man. He looked from Miriam to her mother, and guessed that Mary was angry with the girl for an indiscretion.
Bob's interest in Uncle Joseph increased. He found him a shrewd little man, with a keen edge to his tongue, well read apparently, but with an irritating contempt for living exponents of art and literature.
"Little monkeys," he said of several novelists Bob had mentioned, "gamboling about, imitating their betters, and doing it badly."
"But you read them," said Bob.
Uncle Joseph rattled his dry hands. "Sometimes, for the want of something better to do," he admitted.
"As for art here and now, I think you will find that Fryer over there, for a comparative youngster, will give you a wonderfully interesting and suggestive painting of Mrs. Longmore."
"Mary's a fool," grunted Flatman. "If she wanted paintings to look at she could have got excellent reproductions of Velazquez and Rembrandt for half what these finicking popinjays will charge her for an absurd libel on herself."
"Perhaps, but a painting of a chinny Hapsburg or a gnarled dwarf by Velazquez is not a painting of handsome Mary Longmore by Hilary Fryer."
"No, I admit there will be a difference—a vast difference."
"And all art cannot end because Rembrandt painted Dutch fraus so wonderfully well."
"Yet, when Rembrandt passed, already had been painted as many fine pictures as the world has real need of."
"I would rather sacrifice what has been than what is to be."
"That is the egotism of youth."
"And your attitude is the despair of age."
Later, when Bob had cajoled Miriam into the garden, she spoke of Uncle Joseph again. "Mother was angry with me for showing you that drawing."
"Why? It is very clever in its way. It stands for ingenuity and marvellous patience. It is a curious talent of a kind that has its highest expression in the minutia of Japanese carving, I suppose. Every man to his bent."
She seemed relieved that he looked at it in that light. "I was thoughtless," she said. "Strangers might get quite a wrong impression from the wretched thing."
But Bob had small interest in Uncle Joseph just then. Miriam had seemed in a kindly mood, and they were in the bloom-covered summer-house, little of the glare and the noise of the party coming to them through the open windows. He had captured her hand, and so they talked, very close together, and the theme was of such interest that Miriam failed to notice the sly, insinuating arm that had stolen about her waist. It was only when he made a libertine bid for a kiss, and missed his objective, which was her warm, red mouth, and just reached an ear, that the girl sprang to her feet and declared she was neglecting her duties as second in command.
Fod had had a sitting from Mrs. Longmore that afternoon, and was most enthusiastic about the possibilities. He and O'Malley had Mary between them in a corner. Inglis was singing a non-Sabbatarian song, and Nancy Inglis, grateful for any cover in strange company, was making Jan Strikowski happy by listening to a serio-comic description of the woes of a horn-player who found the trumpetings of the wretched instrument getting inside his head, and threatening to remain there. "One of doze days I to der asylump go mit mein brain all a prass pand," he said.
Mrs. Longmore's supper was given in a beautifully furnished dining room, on a well-appointed table, with fine, white napery and exquisite ware, and was served hot, and the drink was sparkling moselle—an excellent climax to a gay evening. Miriam did not disdain the wine, but Bob missed the kiss he tried for under cover of a palm and Miriam laughed at him in mockery.
"Better luck next time," said Bob ruefully. "You are tantalising, and it doesn't become you. You are too big. These are the attitudes of little women."
"And have I no right to coquetry?" she asked gaily.
"It is the weapon of the weak, and you are like Diana. The strong should be merciful."
Scrubbs, the honest bookmaker, sang after dinner. He sang with such gusto you might have been excused for imagining he was following his calling under the elms at Flemington racecourse.
"He should nod do eet on a stomach full," said Jan, meaning a full stomach.
"But look at the proud and happy wife," commented Inglis. "She is sitting for a study called 'Fond Delusion'."
Little Mrs. Scrubbs was well to the front, her proud and happy eyes turned up to the singer, her expression one of worshipful admiration. She at least had no doubts. There may have been other singers in the world, in fact she had heard of several, but there was only one Scrubbs, and he had been christened Isaac. Scrubbs swelled in the atmosphere of her generous appreciation, and the house trembled.
"What is it?" demanded Fryer.
"Eet iss really der Death of Nelson," Jan explained—"but eet may be der death of any of us."
They all applauded Mr. Scrubbs very warmly, to the tremendous delight of Mrs. Scrubbs, who beamed like a pleasant day.
"Does Mr. Scrubbs sing 'Asleep in the Deep'?" asked Jimmie, with marked solicitude. If Mr. Scrubbs did not sing "Asleep in the Deep" it would be a bitter and abiding disappointment to the young man.
"Oh, yes," cried Mrs. Scrubbs. "Isaac sings 'Asleep in the Deep'—Ike sings all sorts of songs. Ikey, dear, Mr. Inglis, the editor, wants 'Asleep in the Deep'."
Ikey arose again, coughing, and squared himself for a formidable task.
"Now you've done it!" gasped Fod, and kicked at Jimmie under cover of a small table.
James Inglis was imperturbable. He clapped his hands gently, and said, "Hear, hear!" encouraging the singer.
Mr. Scrubbs sang "Asleep in the Deep." "Und notting iss der left asleep in der deep," murmured Jan. "It vould wake oop der Dead Sea."
The bookmaker had even more enthusiastic applause for this effort. Jimmie shook hands with him.
"I should say," said he, "'The Toreador' would suit your voice admirably."
Mrs. Scrubbs gave a little cry of rapture. Ikey sang "The Toreador" repeatedly, indeed it was his happiest effort. Nancy was at the piano. She found a "Carmen" score. Mr. Scrubbs sang "The Toreador."
"Eet iss nod 'Der Toreador'—eet is der bull!" From Jan.
"Silence!" said Jimmie impressively. "Hush, please." He could not have been more solicitous for a Caruso.
Mary Longmore joined the friends. She pinched Jimmie surreptitiously, but with vehemence. "You devil!" she whispered. "No more. No more, or I shall be furious."
"Does Mr. Scrubbs recite 'Denver's Dream,' do you think?" asked Inglis ingenuously.
"You do! You dare!" threatened Mary.
But Mr. Scrubbs did not recite. He regretted it. On the earnest recommendation of Mr. Inglis he promised to take up the art. But to compensate for his deficiency in this respect he would sing "The Bandalero." And he did. When he had finished he joined Jimmie, and received the opinion of an expert on his vocal efforts. It appeared he had never taken lessons.
"Incredible!" murmured Inglis.
"Never a day's training," said Mrs. Scrubbs. "If you'll believe me. He just picked it up, crying the odds."
Scrubbs declared it had been a most delightful evening. He had never enjoyed himself so much in all his life. Before going he took Jimmie carefully aside, with the mysterious air of one about to impart a dangerous secret.
"Look here," said he. "I like you. I want to do something for you." He beckoned Jimmie's ear nearer, and whispered: "Back Chimera for the big event next Saturday. He's a cert."
By the way, Jimmie, departing from his custom, did back Chimera, and won seven pounds. Thus are the virtuous rewarded.
When saying good-night to Miriam Bob tried for a kiss once more, and missed. It was becoming ridiculous. "My shooting has been shocking to-night," he said. He felt himself a failure, and went home in a silent mood, which was not noticed, however, his companions making noise enough for twenty.
Robert Holland was having some difficulty in finding himself these last few days. Macalpin of the "Adviser" had told him that the reading public was wearying of war stuff.
"I canna dictate to the readers," he said. "I have to gi' them what they want, man, and temporise wi' conscience by trying to gi' it to them gude. Why not get ye back to the bush. Ye lived a deal in the wilds before the war, canna ye make something of it?"
Bob seemed dubious. "I don't seem of much account away from grubby soldiers and the howl of battle. Once I turn from it I find my brain empty. Perhaps if I had another smell of the gums——"
"Then go and get your smell. Sniff your soul full."
Bob was thinking it over. No doubt Macalpin was right. He could not go on for ever, working up South African experiences; he must come nearer home. There was material enough in the old goldfields life, if he could only get into the swing of it as he had done with the wartime stuff. He began to see the coming of a break with the boys at the "Hut," and the prospect saddened him. He had been very comfortable during the last few months, very much at home with his three friends, and the idea of a break afflicted him with a touch of nostalgia in advance.
"But your bed's always here," said Fod. "You come back when you like."
"Thanks, old man. I haven't worked myself up to the idea of going yet, although I suppose it will have to be."
But Bob hung on, doing a little general journalism, and hoping that the new inspiration would come. He had developed a trick of writing verse of late, and found his rhymes saleable. He had had "The Young Pretender," a set of four foot iambics, obviously addressed to Miriam Longmore, published and paid for. Anyhow, he concluded he could make a sort of a living, so he grubbed along, avoiding as much as possible the harsh necessity that Macalpin continued to rub in at every opportunity.
Then came Higginson, as if sent by an overseeing Providence. Bob heard his name called in Swanton-st. "Holland! Holland!" and out of a motor car came the long, lean Englishman, and pounced on him like a mantis on a fly. "You jolly beggar, here have I been lookin' for you for months."
"Higginson! How are you, old man?"
"Your jolly troubles." Higginson prised a monocle in his left eye. "Remember what you promised that night on the veldt at Spion Kop, when the dashed Boers were rollin' pebbles as big as a bally horse on us down the side of the ridge."
The men were still shaking hands vigorously. Noting the insolent curiosity of the crowd, Higginson dragged Bob into the car. "The flat!" he ordered, and then was at Holland again. "You promised on your sacred honor as a warrior that if we ever came together in Melbourne you would spend a solid month with me in the Hidden Hills shootin' fishin', swimmin'."
"Did I? So I did."
"So you did. Well, here we are together, and I'm rusty for wayback as a moth-eaten hyena cooped in the bally zoo."
Higginson hung on to Bob till he had him fairly landed on a fat, leather-covered couch behind a long whisky and soda in his flat at the top of a high St. Kilda building.
William Henry Higginson was an Englishman of means, less than thirty, but looking older, six feet two in his boots, and possessed of but one discoverable passion, a yearning for adventure that manifested itself in a determination to go fishing in all sorts of out of the way places, the nearer inaccessible the better, for fish that he did not want; to seek hyperborean remoteness, to shoot creatures that he could not eat, and to train himself to a whip-cord, seeking proficiency as a boxer, without the vaguest idea of ever engaging in a fight.
Bob and Higginson had come together in camp in South Africa, each reduced to a human common denominator by the dirt, the rags, the hunger, and the concomitant misfortunes of war; and they had become good friends long before Holland discovered his mate to be a rich man who had enlisted in the ranks in the same spirit as impelled him to visit strange lands and face peculiar vicissitudes to catch an exceptional fish.
Higginson felt his friend's biceps. "As soft as a babe," he said. "What the devil have you been doin' with yourself?"
"I haven't had a glove on since that afternoon in the hotel with you at Cape Town," Bob replied.
"That's going to be altered. You've got to get fit again, and, my boy, I'll get all over you, and give you particular hell in the meantime."
Before they parted W. H. Higginson had Bob's promise, and the date of their departure was fixed.
"You'll love the place," William explained. "It's a rippin' spot. Right away from everythin' and everybody, plenty of wallaby, swarmin' with duck, black fish in the pools, the sea within a couple of miles, and, what'll be just into your hands, gold in the creek sands. When you get sick of sport you can go for a fortune in the alluvial. How's it?" Higginson screwed in his monocle and transfixed Bob with its metallic glare. "It's ten years since I was there, but the place can't have altered."
"It's fate," said Bob ruefully, explaining to the boys. "Just as I'd found all sorts of apologies for hanging on here, Higgy turns up with his ridiculous scheme that is just the thing I wanted and was trying to avoid. He offers me £5 a week as sparring partner, camp attendant, and gun-bearer, and now I haven't a single reasonable excuse left for remaining. We leave on Monday."
"All, well," said Fod; "to me it looks like a pleasant excursion, the other fellow paying all the expenses and taking all the trouble."
"You don't know Bill Higginson," Bob replied. "Once he gets within reach of anything he can shoot, hook, or trap, nothing will shift him while a possible victim remains."
But the trip had more attractions for Bob that he admitted. Higginson's assurance that there was gold in the creek had stirred up an old passion in his soul. Once a digger, always a digger, and the prospect of pottering about in virgin country, with pan and shovel, on the track of rich dirt, made the adventure irresistible to a man who had been a fossicker since he was old enough to shake a handful of "wash" in a rusty fryingpan.
Mary had a sitting on the following Saturday, and on the Sunday Bob saw Miriam. The fact that he was going into Gippsland country with a companion on a sporting expedition was mentioned more than once, but not followed up in conversation. Bob was pained to find a new restraint upon Miriam.
"I suppose you won't be away long?" was all she said, and they parted with a formal handshake.
Higginson had partaken of a lunch at the "Hut," and met the boys. Art had only a limited interest for Higgie. He admitted having some ripping hunting, and big game canvases at his place in the old country. Incidentally he had two Landseers, a Reynolds, a Raeburn, and two or three little things by those old Dutch Johnnies. However, he had gone far and seen much, and contrived to be very interesting in a quiet and wholly unconscious way.
Fod bade Bob good-bye at the station entrance on the Monday afternoon. Jimmie could not desert his office, and the Baron had a rehearsal to attend. On the platform Higgie was waiting with half a truck load of impedimenta, which a languid porter was conveying to the van. At some distance along the platform Mary Longmore stood at a carriage door, conversing with Miriam, who occupied a seat at the window. Suddenly Mary gripped her daughter's arm.
"Look!" she said. Her eyes were upon a small group consisting of Lieutenant Holland, Higginson, and a third man, an acquaintance of Higginson's, whom the latter had just met, sauntering on the platform.
"It's Bob," said Miriam. She looked at her mother's concerned face. "Perhaps, after all, only a coincidence," she said.
"Coincidence!" Mary's tone expressed incredulity. "Do you recognise the man with him?"
"The tall fellow? That will be the English friend he spoke of."
"I mean the short, stout man. It's Oliver Bean."
"The detective?" Miriam betrayed something like consternation.
"Yes, the detective. If you ask me, the tall fellow is another. I don't think they have seen me. I'll beat a retreat. Good-bye, my dear; take care of yourself, and keep a sharp eye on——" She stabbed at the knot of men with an incisive forefinger, and crossing the platform entered the ladies' waiting-room. Miriam dropped the window screen, but found a crack through which she could watch the three men. Presently Bob and his friend shook hands with Bean, and came along the train, looking in at the windows. Miriam shrank back in her corner, and took cover behind the spread of the "Herald."
"Here?" suggested Bob at the door.
"No, no, let's find a smoker," said his friend, and they passed on.
Miriam Longmore saw them enter a compartment, near the engine, and sank back, a prey to troubled thought. As the train puffed out, Mary threw a kiss from the waiting-room door, followed by a gesture which the girl interpreted as conveying the need of caution.
Once or twice at intervening stations Miriam saw the young man pass, but contrived to screen herself from observation, although the suspicion that they knew perfectly well she was aboard the train haunted her mind.
It was dark when the train drew in at Tadmor, and Miriam made a somewhat precipitate flight from the station, with the single handbag containing her small luggage. She waited a few minutes, standing among a clump of saplings fringing the mere wheel track leading up to the township, and watched the people leave the station. There were three travellers to Tadmor beside herself, and Bob and his friend were not of the number.
The girl hurried on, feeling much relieved. If Lieutenant Holland and his tall friend had ulterior motives attaching to her in making this journey, she had eluded them for the time being at any rate. Presently Miriam was able to laugh at her fears. After all, wasn't her mother suspicious of most people, and hitherto almost always without reason. The fear that Robert Holland was not what he seemed, and was for some reason too concerned in their affairs, was based upon the slightest evidence, evidence that would have received no credence if it were not for their own nervous terrors.
Miriam was received at the solitary Tadmor hotel as a familiar guest.
"Anybody from the Hills?" she asked.
Sykes, of the Railway Hotel, shook his unkempt head. "No, Miss Longmore. Was you expectin' to go up to-night?"
"Oh, no. Uncle will be along in the morning. Any bookings from town, Sykes?"
"None, bar the rabbit inspector. Things is very dull."
Miriam heaved a sigh, and ordered coffee and a light supper. This she was eating, intent upon her thoughts, when a light laugh interrupted her. Her sudden upward glance encountered the laughing eyes of Bob Holland.
"Well!" he said.
If his surprise was not genuine, it was wonderfully well acted. Miriam's mood was not trusting. "Lieutenant Holland!" she said, and the tone was far from enthusiastic.
"The idea of running against you here first thing. Why, you must have travelled up on our train."
"If your train was the twenty past five from town, I did."
"Well, now, there's miserable luck, and I had to endure Higginson's sporting reminiscences throughout that long, slow, sleepy, anything but silent, ride. But you knew we were bound in this direction."
"I did not know precisely when; and my trip was hastily undertaken."
"No, not at all. A matter of business. We have a place out-back."
She resumed her meal, and he was silent for a moment, then said in rather a hurt voice:
"Only that I have my friend, here, I would accept your urgent invitation to share your supper."
"What is here I would be ashamed to offer."
"Don't urge me. You see Higgie is already busy on our mutual cold chicken. But I must see you after."
She did not answer, but finished her supper rather hastily, and left the room. Ten minutes later Bob went seeking her. He found her only after something of a hunt where she sat on a seat screened by a low-growing wattle.
"On my soul, I believe you are hiding from me," said he.
"Not at all. Why should I?"
"I don't for the life of me know why you should, but you are very unlike Miriam of the 'Hut' party, the Miriam of the river." He sat close beside her. "I have offended you."
She moved just perceptibly. "No," she said.
"Then you are distinctly unfair. You give me the impression that I am a nuisance."
"I am on a business trip. Mother and I are alike in this—business hardens us."
"Then the devil take business. Shall we see you where we are going? Higginson is bound for a locality he calls the Hidden Hills."
"Never heard of the place."
But she offered him no information as to her destination, and presently, oppressed with a feeling that he was very much in the way, he left her.
Despite his tiresome journey. Bob lay awake for over an hour, puzzling over the situation, trying to hit upon some reasonable excuse for Miriam's conduct, to recollect some action, some word of his to account for the antagonism he found behind the cold politeness with which she now received him. He could not satisfy himself in what he was to blame. Perhaps she resented his attempts to kiss her, but she had not done so at the moment. The resistance she offered was quite good humored: she had made no effort to hide her coquetry. Oh! confound the women, they were as variable as a Victorian spring. How was a poor man to know what the devil they were driving at. He gave it up in despair, only to swing back to the subject twenty seconds later. Perhaps it was coquetry, still no girl had the right to freeze a man stiff for the gratification of her vanity. If these were roguish wiles, how was a poor beggar to distinguish them from sheer ill-temper and vindictiveness.
Bob was hurt. He was perilously near to being in love with Miriam Longmore. A little convincing display of affection on her part, and the thing would have been done. As things were he hovered on the brink like a reluctant diver who longed for the refreshing element, but found the stream too cold. Not many men fall in love without sufficient allurement, and now there was none for Robert Holland.
"The red Amazon didn't keep you long," came from Higginson's room.
Bob was in his bed, a fierce retort on his tongue. Here at any rate was a means of relief, but better judgment came with a rush. He must not give the matter too much importance in Higgie's eyes' mind. He lay down again and subdued his tone to a commonplace inflection, defending her hair. It was not red, it was true auburn.
"The poor girl was dead tired after that rotten trip up," he added.
"Rotten!" commented Higginson drowsily. "And you've done that funeral march from the Cape to Joeberg. I've been through an all-fours creep across Siberia. Why, my dear fellow, to-day's journey was a flash of lightnin'."
Bob looked with covert eagerness for Miriam at breakfast next morning. She did not appear, although he delayed his meal, dragging it out till Higginson yawned with frank impatience.
"Oh, say, my dear old fellow," Higginson exclaimed, "whatever is the matter with you? You eat like a canary."
"Well, of all the rapacious assassins!" retorted Bob. "Naturally you'll neither eat nor sleep with any satisfaction while there is a live creature, beast, fowl, or fish, left in the district."
While their traps and ware were being loaded on to the vehicle Higgie had hired, Bob interviewed Sykes taking a simple, limited wash in a small basin at the tank.
"Is Miss Longmore not well this morning?" he asked. "I noticed she was not up for breakfast."
Sykes emerged from his towel. "She'll be as fit as a fiddle," he said. "You couldn't 'urt her with an axe. She didn't stay for her breckfust."
"She left early?"
"Fer the matter iv that she didn't stay fer bed. She rid off las' night fer her place out past Yam. Hired a horse from me, 'n' skeedaddled."
"Last night? Why it must have been eleven when she left."
"A quarter a-past, as a matter iv fact, but she ain't a girl to stick at a little thing like that."
"You have known her a good while?"
"She's bin comin' to my place off and on fer the past three years. Ever since they bought out old Tom Ogilvie at Fish Creek."
"Where is Fish Creek?"
Sykes made a vague gesture in a southerly direction. "Out there a bit," said he.
"Matter iv fourteen miles or more."
"Yes, but where exactly—how would you reach it?"
Sykes eyed Bob up and down. "I dunno," he said, "but it seems to me the girl wasn't what you'd call overpowered with joy when you turned up."
"Oh?" The interjection had an interrogative twist, but this Sykes disregarded. "I don't know why," Bob continued—"we were excellent friends in Melbourne."
"Melbin' ain't Tadmor," replied the publican. "Any'ow, do you know the back country there?" He repeated his southerly gesture. "No, well 'is no use me tryin' to direct you. You'd on'y get boxed in the hills."
So Bob joined his friend trudging at the back of a loaded dray along a shambling track, under weeping gums that shed their scent upon the cool morning air, more than ever perplexed by Miriam's conduct, but perfectly satisfied on one point, that in connection with this trip of hers she had no manner of use for Lieutenant Robert Holland. Bob's self-esteem suffered a salutary twinge or two. Resolutely he turned his back on Cupid and all his works, determined to make the most of his holiday. Already the old ardor of the bush was creeping in his veins.
FOR the first three or four miles their journey ran between fences of rail and wire, enclosing paddocks of rung timber, the dead trees standing, with their skeleton limbs spread in pitiful expostulation, their stark nakedness awakening a sense of compunction for the ruthlessness of man. The murmur of innumerable sheep was in the air. This, with the pulsing, ringing whirr of the locusts, formed a background of sound so monotonous, so familiar, it became a sort of silence against which the shrill cry of a flight of blue mountains, shooting across the line of vision like a splendid meteor, or the glorious morning call of a magpie struck with shrill resonance. At length fences that had seemed endless ceased, and the road dwindled to a solitary wheel mark. Eventually that too disappeared, and they were travelling under flocking blue gums and hunched wild cherry, with occasional groves of wattle where the way dipped into a gully, with its trickle of water in a narrow, rocky bed, its banks a wavering streak of lush green meandering through the wilderness of crisp, dun-colored grass and red-brown bracken.
Here the air was heavy with the sweetness of honey-laden gum bloom, scattered by the hundreds of foraging parrots, filling the pendant boughs with glowing color, and making a continuous gluttonous murmuring as they gorged themselves at the bunched blossom dripping nectar. A male magpie drove at them from the heights, clipping his keen beak at Higginson's ear with a startling clap. Twice he repeated the dive, and Higgie went for his gun; but Bob's hand was on his arm.
"We don't do it," he said. "It is as derogatory as shooting a fox in the English counties. Besides that pert fellow is only putting up a bluff for the safety of wife and child and the old home. It would be a pity to kill him."
"Oh, very well, old chap," said Higginson; "but look here, you know, I haven't come out into the wilderness to watch the play of your what-you-may-call-ems—your finer emotions."
They camped for the midday meal by a deep, running, cool, clean creek in a small, shaded gorge gemmed with delicately tinted ferns, the conventional lines of which nature had thoughtfully broken with a gossamer of delicate parasites. Higginson caught and grilled a brace of fat blackfish. They drank billy tea, and then smoked, spread upon the heather.
"There's a fellow you can pot with my blessing," said Bob. He pointed across the narrow gully to where a five-foot black snake hung over a log, his lean head swaying in the air with a pendulous movement.
"By Jove, yes!" said the Englishman; and a moment later his bullet clipped off the floating head with the neatness of sword stroke.
Bob had seen too much of the Englishman's shooting to express surprise. "And after that I reckoned we will be pushing our barrow," he said. "There'll be a lot of his sort in this Eden."
"Go on!" Higgie's ears pricked. "Let's turn but a few."
"Thanks, no. I hate looking for trouble, and to tell the truth I have the smallest faith in that infallible cure for snake-bite in your bag. Besides, if we are going to get somewhere to-day it seems advisable to arrange our arrival in time to rig the tent and make a kind of camp before night."
Higgie yielded with reluctance, but he got a couple of rabbits on the open land beyond, and that comforted him a little. Higgie wasn't particular, a rabbit or a rhinoceros, all was fair game that came his way.
They skirted the ridge that had loomed blue and formidable above the township of Tadmor, and this brought another range of timbered rises into view.
"There you are," said Higginson. "That is what I call the Hidden Hills."
"What you call the Hidden Hills? Then, that is not the geographical name for them? No wonder people gaped at me when I spoke of the Hidden Hills. Both Sykes and Miss Longmore thought I was speaking of unheard of country a hundred miles away."
"Well, isn't it a good name? They are hidden no matter what direction you approach them, excepting from the sea. It is quite ten years since I was here, but they do not appear to have altered in the least."
Higginson was interrupted by the bump, bump, bump of a herd of kangaroo in flight. They passed across the travellers' route, heading uphill, quaintly balanced in the air, with no appearance of haste; but covering the ground at the speed of a good horse. Higgie got a lean doe with a well grown joey in her pouch and the carcase was thrown on the load for the dogs who, after almost running themselves off their legs in rapturous pursuit of all living things, were now tethered and trotting in more or less contrition under the dray, grateful for its shade. Bob assumed charge of the joey, intending to make a pet of the little creature.
"I see I shall be in need of intelligent companionship," he said.
Higginson grinned all round his monocle. "It is not wise to give lip, my lad," said he, "while your muscles are as flaccid as an oyster. Think what I'll do to you when we have the gloves on in the morning."
The sun had dropped out of view behind the range before Higginson called a halt. "This is somewhere about the spot," he said.
There was a clear, cold creek for water supply, a deep-set pool for bathing, a little plateau for the tent, with a wallowing elephantine boulder to provide shelter from the sea wind. The tent was set with its back to this. Jim Cobbledick, the dairyman, who up to now had spoken five words, proved himself an accomplished hand, pitching camp, and knocking together a meal, one feature of which was a kangaroo fry with bacon, for which Bob and William were both volubly grateful.
It was early to bunk that night, and Bob slept through nine hours on end without a glimmer of consciousness, and awoke to a glittering morning, clamorous with bush voices, the suggestion of a hot day already in the air. Early as it was Higgie had captured material for a fish breakfast, which Jim was cleaning.
Higginson's morning greeting was a pair of new boxing gloves thrown at Bob's head.
"This is where your regeneration begins, dear old chap," he said, clamping his eye-glass into place.
Higginson was almost helpless without his monocle, not that his eyesight was affected, but, as he explained, because the bally thing ran in his family and was second nature. Robert Holland had seen him go into battle fresh as paint, with a single-barrelled eye-glass up, and come out a tattered sweep, with the precious lens still in place. He had even seen the Englishman wash his face without removing his monocle.
"Fact is, old boy," Higginson told his friend, "the male of the Higginson species has always worn the single eye glass ever since we came over with Caesar, or William the Conqueror, or some other historical Johnnie. I have half an idea that now and then a Higginson is born with one. Anyhow we would not be recognised in our county without the left eye glazed, and the Squire, my dear old father, caught the chill that killed him through followin' a fox hunt after a fall that broke his monocle. The doctor said it was the fall did for him, but we all knew better."
They boxed five brisk rounds, and Rob found himself much too slow for the Englishman who, apart from being in excellent pick, had the advantage of a tremendous reach, and availed himself of it without remorse, keeping Bob ducking and using his footwork to the limit of his ability to avoid a thorough pasting. It was Bob threw off the gloves.
"Enough's as good as a feast," said he. "I feel that I am going like a fat alderman after a big banquet." He dropped his two articles of apparel, and making for the pool went in from a rock.
The two swam and gambolled much like little wanton boys for ten minutes and came out famished, greedy for the breakfast Jim had in steaming readiness on an improvised, out-door table under a small willow-like peppermint gum that offered scent and shade.
"We're going to miss you, Jim," said Bob. "More especially my friend Higginson will lament your absence. I couldn't fry a blackfish like this to save my life."
"Grill 'em, don't fry 'em," replied Cobbledick tersely.
An hour later Jim harnessed up and started on his home journey. He had orders to return at stated intervals with supplies, newspapers, and mail matter, and went reluctantly. His departing words were a burst of eloquence from a man so chary of words.
"Wisht I had arf yer luck," he said.
The first day was spent in getting the camp into good living condition, providing efficient bush furniture, such as banks, table, and seats, securing the commodious tent against all weathers, building a stout breakwind, and running up a sort of kitchen convenient to the fire in case of rain.
Bob unpacked a liberal box of books, and ranged them on shelves at the end of the tent, and disposed his writing materials, of which he had a large supply, in a box under his bunk, while Higgie arranged a quantity of fishing tackle, and lovingly cleaned the sporting rifles with which he was provided.
"Wish to the Lord we had a boat," he said.
Bob wheeled about. "A boat!"
"Yes, a tidy little yacht. The sea is just at the back of us a mile or so. Didn't you hear it last night?"
"I heard, saw, and felt nothing last night."
"There are tremendous sand dunes, and this side of them long, shallow lagoons where duck used to be plentiful. There is a sweep of clean, white, wide beach for miles, and never a human visible on the whole stretch of it."
"Which is highly desirable, there being a perpetual close season for humans."
"A perpetual close season? What about Africa?" As Bob gave no reply, Higgie continued: "I cannot help associating your present foolish fancy for the company of your kind with the large, handsome, auburn specimen of the species we met at Tadmor."
"Could a reasonable man desire a better excuse?"
"A reasonable man with a taste for big game prefers lions, tigers, bears, hippopotomai," drawled Higginson. "It is safer."
The young men, their guns on their arms, made their way down to the sea on the following morning, taking the dogs, Bob carrying lunch in a kind of haversack. At the camp the bush had something of the stunted, sprawling aspect the sea winds give it, but as the ocean was approached the trees thinned out appearing more and more diminished and misshapen, all groping inland, till presently they assumed the appearance of tormented and weirdly-contorted dwarfs fleeing wildly and in greatest terror from an arch enemy. Then came a stretch of open country, with no growth but tussock grass.
From the top of a dune they beheld the lagoons lying partly in the shadow of the huge sand heaps beyond, but like pools of light where the searching morning sun struck to their shallow bottoms of golden sand. They were very beautiful, very tempting in their pellucid purity.
"Duck," said Higgie, pointing to where a score or so of the birds floated in the shadow. "You work round to the right. I'll get at them from down here."
The dunes were fringed with sparse growths of ti-tree. Through this Bob worked his way to well within his distance. Higgie gave the signal, and they got a fat brace apiece. Bob was carrying his birds back ploughing along the ridge of the highest dune, when he discovered a curl of smoke against the blue away to the north-west. He fancied he could detect indications of a clearing, and the glitter of a window. The discovery gave some lilt to his spirit. Might not this be the place Miriam had spoken of. Wasn't it just possible that she was within reach, and that despite her incomprehensible attitude at the hotel they could be good friends, and so make this adventure into the wilds supremely delightful.
Bob Holland stopped at that. The idea of making Miriam his wife persistently failed to present itself. She was extremely attractive, just being in her company was happiness, she was tugging at his heartstrings, she had an imperative call, it was an irritation to be far removed from her, the thought of a permanent estrangement was something to be hustled out of mind as intolerable, but he was not battling to win her, at least no such idea was nursed as a deliberate intention.
When Holland mentioned the indications of a habitation Higginson groaned. "There is no privacy left in the world," he said. "Settlement here about means scarce game and social nonsense instead of easy, out-of-door living, and doing and dressing just as one damn well pleases."
But they wandered the marge of the sea nearly a whole day, swam in the water, and wrestled and ran in the sun, and discovered no other indication of the presence of man, and Higgie returned to camp bone-tired and content.
IT was the morning of the third day, Bob and Higgie, accompanied by the dogs, had gone up the creek spying out the land. Progress was difficult, keeping close to the stream; near the water the tree ferns were thick and the undergrowth profuse and matted about fallen limb and trunk. Higgie had branched off up the left bank with the dogs, seeking wallaby, of which there were numerous indications. Holland remained in the creek, more interested in the gravel in its bed, possibly auriferous, than in the delights of the chase.
Bob Holland was no mighty hunter; the experience of war had left him, he found, with a strong repugnance to bloodshed. He could not reconcile himself to wanton killing. After some inspection of the wash drawn from fissures in the rocks with his hands, the cupidity of the miner awakened within him. He regretted he had come from the camp without a dish, and determined to pay another visit to this spot on the following day. Coming up from the creek through the tangled scrub he found himself dripping perspiration. The heat of the covered creek under the noon sun was as oppressive as that of a hot house.
Bob leaned against the bowl of a huge white gum, fanning himself with his hat, listening for some indication of the whereabouts of his friend. Suddenly something struck the tree a sharp bat, within a foot of his head, and at the same moment the report of a gun cracked in the trees in the direction in which he was facing. Holland started forward, amazed, and a moment later the purr of a bullet, the smart bat on the tree trunk, and the report of the rifle came again, almost simultaneously. The instinct of the soldier stirred Bob to quick action: he jumped for cover behind the tree, and cowered there, a prey to sheer amazement. He knew Higginson too well to believe him capable of such folly; besides the reports had come from a direction opposite to that taken by the Englishman, who must have made a complete detour to be in a position to fire the shots.
Bob was convinced he had been fired at, and by someone unknown, with what intention he could but guess. Possibly some rough and ready bush humorist was responsible, perhaps the intention had been to scare him, but it seemed more likely that deliberate murder had been attempted.
In response to Bob's cooey Higgie called from just across the creek, and presently came scrambling up the bank.
"Those were not your shots?" said he.
"They were not," replied Holland decisively, "but it looks very much as if they were intended for me."
Holland explained, and presently the two ventured forth to examine the butt of the white gum. There were no further shots. Using a tomahawk they carried with them, Higginson essayed to cut out a bullet, and in a couple of minutes offered Bob a battered leaden slug in the palm of his hand.
"There's no manner of doubt about that," he said. "The rifle was a .450 bore, a sporting arm, and if the man who fired it did not mean to kill you he must be an infernal idiot."
The two made search of the bush in the vicinity the hidden enemy must have occupied, but found nothing to indicate that a human foot had ever trodden the soil.
The incident gave the young men something to talk about for the rest of the day.
"It proves one thing anyhow," said Bob—"these wilds are not as exclusive as you imagined."
"It proves another thing, old sort, that our mysterious neighbors are homicidal maniacs, and we've got to jolly well look out for them."
But three days passed and there was no repetition of the unpleasant experience. Higgie had hunted, and Bob had put in his time for the greater part, prospecting along the creek. His friend was right in saying there was gold in the gravel, but so far Holland had been able to secure no satisfactory results. He got only a few colors to the dish, and the gold was very fine, but the fact that there was gold at all meant a reef somewhere in the surrounding hills, and Bob resolved to do a little trenching there before leaving the district.
On the fourth day after the shooting incident, the friends returned from an excursion to a distant bay, where Higgie had put down a basket for lobsters and secured two beauties, and found their camp in disorder, much as if somebody had conducted a hasty search, or as if some large animal had clawed their bedding about, turned over boxes, and broken a few articles of crockery.
A cry and a curse from Higginson brought Bob to his side. The tall fellow was standing over the body of Smuts, one of the dogs, a big cattle dog, and a great hunter. Smuts had been killed by some more powerful creature. His throat was torn out, his left fore paw was crushed by irresistible teeth, and there were a dozen bad wounds about the shoulders and ribs.
"It was a dirty fighter killed him," said Bob, "but he put up a good go, poor old chap."
All about the spot where Smuts was tethered the ground was clawed up and littered with hair and blood. Some of the hair Higginson gathered up.
"This is off the other brute," he said. He displayed a tuft of reddish-yellow hair. "What do you make of it?"
"Looks like dingo," Holland replied; "but no ordinary dingo would have had a chance with Smuts, even if it had had the pluck to attack him, which is not likely. Probably it was a wild hill dog. On occasions a mastiff gets loose, throws in his lot with the dingoes, and breeds a brute that is as dangerous to animals as a panther."
They buried Smuts, the other dog Gunner acting as chief mourner with quite a touching display of grief and perplexity. When Bob and Higgie left, Gunner dug up his companion's body, possibly to give him another chance, as Bob put it. Then, when Smuts was buried again and his grave made inviolate with rocks, Gunner started on a hunt for the enemy. Following him up Higginson came upon tracks in the mud on the creek bank. These he pointed out to Bob.
"Don't tell me that is only a dog, Bobbie," he said.
"He'd be a bonzer," Bob admitted. "Something the size of a horse, I reckon."
"If this was Africa I'd say leopard," said Higginson—"and a notable specimen at that."
While the young men were occupied over the tracks, Gunner had padded off into the bush, sniffing right and left. Higginson's sudden imperative call evoked no response, although Gunner had proved himself a most bidable dog.
"He's gone off to avenge Smuts," said Bob. "He'll be done in for a certainty."
Higginson called and whistled again and again, but they saw no more of Gunner till sometime after midnight, when his master was awakened by a low, complaining sound just without the tent, and investigating in his pyjamas found the dog stretched by the fire in a pitiable condition. He was torn almost as severely as Smuts, but had contrived to crawl back to camp, possibly to die.
Higginson, in whom the lust of the hunter was accompanied by an extraordinary tenderness for dogs and horses with which he associated, spent two hours dressing Gunner's wounds, and made a particularly good job of it. He returned to bed, wondering as to the nature of the animal that had perpetrated this mischief, hoping with all his heart that fortune would presently bring it within the range of his rifle.
The wish was speedily realised, although the fact of the realisation did not dawn upon Higgie at the time. He had been out to more open country to the north-west, where there were a few hares, and was returning with a detour to the south, when he came suddenly, and to his great surprise, through an abrupt wall of tall gums upon a luxuriant orchard, splendidly fenced, and closely wire-netted. The trees ran in neat rows north and south. West, east and north the bush rose square and formidable about the trim Eden, and to the south the fruit trees marched methodically over a rise, and were lost to view. There was no sign of a habitation from where Higginson stood, and no human being was in sight.
The Englishman set his rifle against a post, and vaulted the fence. Peaches of the finest were hanging in masses on the bowed limbs of the trees. Higgie helped himself. In the presence of such abundance he felt no scruples, he filled his pockets, remembering Holland, then turned to where he had left his rifle, only to find his passage barred.
The enemy confronting William Higginson was a tremendous great Dane, his color running from cream to deep yellow; his ears cropped close to his head gave him a very business-like aspect, which was emphasised by slight lift of the lip, showing fangs as convincing as any Higgie was acquainted with. The hair along the back of the Dane's neck bristled fiercely, but the animal did not offer to bite. He set his head against Higginson's thigh and growled. Instinctively William jumped back a stride.
The dog seemed satisfied. He stood firm set, fair on his four legs, like a thing cast in copper, a magnificent creature. Higgie felt a thrill of admiration for him, even while realising that the brute had him in a tight place. He attempted to advance again, longing desperately for the comforting feel of his rifle; but again the hair sprang to attention on the Dane's neck, again came that painful quiver of the lip, exposing the spiked teeth, and the low ominous growl was repeated.
"Good dog!" said Higgie, in a tone intended to be propitiatory. "Good old fellow."
His extended hand provoked a more venomous growl, and was instantly withdrawn. Higgie made a whistling sound between pursed lips, a sound supposed to be most consolatory to disturbed dogs. The Dane responded with a snarl.
"Here, boy. Here, boy. Good dog." Higgie patted his thigh. Far from showing a proper appreciation of these friendly advances, the Dane curled back his nose, and the hair on his neck resembled the quills of the fretful porcupine.
"There is no sense in your trying to gobble that dog," said a quiet voice, and Higgie wheeled upon a small man standing within a few yards. The man was dressed in shirt, trousers, and boots. He wore no hat, but had a curious, thick mat of light-colored, frizzy, hair, so dry in appearance that it seemed it might have broken and crumbled at a touch. The stranger was extremely thin, but looked as hard as nails.
"Oh, I say, how do you do?" said Higgie, quietly. "Would you mind callin' him off." Higgie pointed at the Dane, who resented the familiarity with a growl. "I can't say I appreciate him. I—I don't like his color."
"What the devil are you doing in my orchard?" demanded the thin man, ignoring levity.
"Well, to be quite candid, old sort, I was helpin' myself to some peaches."
"To be more candid, you were robbing me."
"Oh, come, I say, and you with these miles of trees."
"I didn't take the trouble of clearing this land and planting these trees to provide fresh fruit for every damned vagabond who chooses to lay thieving hands on it."
"With the dog to champion you and keep your courage up you may see no need to modify your tone," said William Higginson, almost gently, giving his monocle a twist, "but if you had only yourself to depend on I would rub your nose in the dust for those words. 'Pon my honor, yes."
"You get to hell off my land," said the small man, just as quietly; "and go before worse happens you."
The dog seemed to understand what was expected of him. He stood aside, but followed Higgie up. The latter recovered his rifle, and turned, astride the fence.
"Moreover," said the small man, "don't ever trespass on this property again. Next time I might not be with the dog."
"Next time I promise you—to lay at rest any concern you may feel on my account, my dear fellow—I won't part company with this." He patted the stock of his rifle.
The small man almost grinned. "Don't flatter yourself that Grip would give you an opportunity of using that," he said.
"I suppose at an extravagant estimate the peaches I have eaten, and those I am carryin' away, are worth one shilling." Higgie clipped a coin on the top of a post, and descended from the fence. The small man advanced, took up the shilling, and put it in his pocket. He gave Higginson no more attention, and the Englishman turned into the bush again, and resumed his journey.
Higgie did not tell Bob Holland of the incident in the orchard until they had eaten the evening meal Bob prepared, and had filled their pipes. Then in a few casual words he introduced the matter.
"It was demned disconcertin'," said he. "You could have rubbed the scamp of a man out between finger and thumb, but the dog—pooh! the dog. I never saw one like him."
"Yellow, you say?" interrogated Dick. "That's the brute worried Smuts."
Higgie's eyes opened. "By George!" he said, and his eye-glass fell into his lap. "By George!"
FOR what William Higginson had held to be pristine wilderness the Hidden Hills disclosed a quaint array of characters. The young men discovered Peebles next day, when drifting about with the intention of learning more in connection with the peach orchard and its peculiar owner. Bob came upon the first hint of Alexander Peebles, and called to William.
"What do you think of this?" he said, pointing to a board nailed to a tree. He was wearing a broad grin.
Higginson looked closely, and spelled out the faded notice. "Stevenson Library," he said. A hand had been painted on the sign pointing a rigid finger due east. Higginson turned a puzzled eye in that direction, and encountered only dense bush, through which he could see a distance of about twelve yards.
"Your uninhabited wilds seem to run a library," said Bob. "Eventually we shall stumble on the theatre, the hotel, and the church."
"But who reads the books?" demanded William.
"Possibly your friend of yesterday, and the mysterious individual who tried to put a bullet in me." Bob was examining the land. "This is an old track," he said, pointing to indications of ruts. "The bush has almost entirely reclaimed it, but you can see where the axe has been at work. And these are hub marks on the trees. Suppose we follow the finger, and see if the Stevenson Library is still catering for the intellectual needs of the clamorous public of Hidden Hills?"
Their investigations brought them presently to a sadly deteriorated dogleg fence beyond which stretched a clearing of some thirty acres of what had once been cultivated land. The marks of the plough were still traceable, but the bracken had come back, and young saplings dotted the land, and the creek passing along the length of the clearing was roofed again with a prodigal growth of fern, stink weed, and supple jack. In the distance, with its back to the uncleared bush, stood a drab, weatherboard house with a bark roof and a ramshackle verandah.
"The place has a deserted appearance," said Bob. "We'll look it over. It promises us a commodious residence."
As they approached the house, however, a lank dog came out, and barked at them in a non-committal sort of way, capitulating as the men approached him, bending his body into abrupt hard curves, and wagging his aggressively long tail in eloquent expression of amiable intentions.
A man met them in the doorway, a tallish man with a great deal too much hair and a patriarchal beard that hung almost to his waist belt, and betrayed evidence of careful treatment. The man looked about 55. The extraordinary clearness of his mild blue eyes was the detail that struck Bob after the beard had been taken in. For the rest the librarian's appearance had the careless abandon of the ne'er-do-well of the bush whom seclusion has relieved of the necessity of any pretence of "dolling up." His dress was a shirt and trousers. He wore no boots.
"And a very good day to you, sir," said the man in the doorway in reply to Bob's salutation.
"We thought the place was uninhabited," Bob explained, "but I see you are running a business here." He pointed to the window on his left.
A range of rough shelves had been put up inside the small window, and on these were arrayed for public inspection a fair show of books, novels in the main, Stevenson's novels in particular, but with here and there a tomb of more weighty character, one volume of Gibbon's "Rise and Fall," for instance, one volume of Chambers' Encyclopaedia, and a full set of Charles Whibley's essays.
"Yes, young man," replied the occupant. "There are many more inside, if you care to inspect them. Times are rather dull just now, but when the mill was going at Pibroch I flatter myself I was instrumental in disseminating some little taste for good literature in this district."
He had preceded Bob indoors. Two walls of the room were filled with rudely carpentered shelves, and these were loaded with a miscellaneous collection of novels, books of general literature, magazines, histories, and biographies. The room was furnished scantily as an ordinary settler's living room, a table in the centre, two cane seated chairs, two bush stools, a colonial sofa against one wall, and a few trifling articles of ornamentation scattered about. On the floor, were three or four rugs of a kind once made by industrious housewives in the back blocks by drawing pieces of colored woollen materials through holes pushed in an ordinary flour sack. The place was orderly and clean. There were even fresh flowers in handleless cups on the table and the shelf over the fireplace.
"Why, you have a library for a large township here," said Bob.
"Yes, yes. It represents the collection of years. I purchased the books for my own reading, but they accumulated, so, I thought I would try to pass them about: but of late there is only a trifling demand. A couple of Flatman's men from back of the hill, Flatman himself, and a settler from here and there, riding by once in a way. My name, sir, is Peebles—Alexander Peebles. You are strangers here, of course."
Bob introduced himself and his friend Higginson, and they were offered seats.
"Not the most sumptuous," said Peebles, "but they serve. I can offer you a pannikin of tea."
The young men declined. "We are just from our camp," said Bob. "I couldn't trouble you."
"No trouble in the world, Mr. Holland; the simplest hospitality of the bush."
"You mentioned a Mr. Flatman," said Higgie—"what's the fellow like, a little chap is he, with a bush of wool like a Papuan?"
"That is he precisely. Very thin, hard as wire."
Bob had started to his feet. "Uncle Joseph Flatman!" said he. "Of course it's Uncle Joseph. What a numbskull I was not to think of that before."
"A relative of yours, Mr. Holland?" said Peebles.
"No, no, a casual acquaintance made in Melbourne, but he interested me."
"A remarkable man, a peculiar man. He has worked wonders with his land here, but he is most reserved, most unsociable."
Higginson had sat full of thought, looking at Peebles through his eye-glass, "Mr. Peebles, do you happen to know of a Johnnie in this locality who might amuse his leisure tryin' to blow a casual stranger's head off?"
Bob explained his experience briefly. Peebles looked perplexed. "No," he said, "we are most orderly here at Selkirk, a settlement of most law-abiding Scots. I cannot imagine who would be responsible for such an outrage. At Flatman's they are—what shall I say—a little jealous perhaps of strangers. They keep themselves very much to themselves, but they are decent and seemly people. I am quite certain none of them would be guilty of an action of that kind. Bless me, it is serious, shooting at people!"
"It impressed me as such at the time," laughed Bob.
"An accident, perhaps," suggested Peebles. He seemed quite anxious about the good name of Selkirk.
"And Flatman's dog?" said Higginson, suggestively.
"He's a magnificent fellow," Peebles explained, with enthusiasm. "When the wood boat went ashore down at Seal Beach he saved three lives."
Higginson whistled. "And he came so near eatin' me out of my boots yesterday that I shiver to think of the brute," he said.
"And just by the way he killed one of our dogs, and was within an ace of worrying the other to death," Bob explained.
Alexander Peebles regarded them with undisguised amazement. "You are not having a game with me, young sirs?" he said. "Because I have seen Grip play by the hour with Nero, that lubberly mongrel of mine, and never offer the smallest mischief in the world. And as for attacking a man, I can hardly believe he would do it in any circumstances."
"Have you ever trespassed on Flatman's confounded orchard?" asked Higgie.
Peebles confessed he had not. "I would not dream of it," said he. "I know Joseph Flatman's temper, and I see very little of him or his. They come here for a book, they take it and ride away. That is the limit of our intercourse."
Bob selected a couple of books to the great apparent delight of the curious librarian, and the two left, Peebles accompanying them across the clearing, still bootless. Bob commented on this.
"Boots," said Peebles. "I never wear them. That is one of the things I came here to escape from—boots. Hats are another. I have not worn a hat in eighteen years."
"I am going to make a neighborly call on Uncle Joseph Flatman," said Bob, when they had left Alexander Peebles a hundred yards behind.
"That's a rum old Juggins we've just left, too. The bush breeds some extraordinary freaks."
"Or attracts them. I should say old Peebles had been drawn to the bush because he was something of a crank. He is not a creation of the bush."
Another surprise awaited the young men. Higginson was first to take the alarm.
"Look!" he said, pointing through the trees. "Smoke. Did you leave a fire?"
"No, I very carefully doused it. It looks like the camp though. By the holy, it is the camp!"
They broke into a run, but were too late to save more than a few smouldering articles of bedding. The tent was completely destroyed, practically everything they possessed had been burned. After doing their best with what remained, the friends, blackened, singed, and exhausted from their task, sat on a log, and gazed dolefully at the burnt pile. As they did so the dog Gunner crept to Higginson, thrusting a muzzle into his hand.
"Look at this, Bob," said the Englishman, suddenly alert. "The arsonist showed some little compunction, confound him!" He pointed at Gunner. "If he had been left where he was tethered he would have been burnt. See, his bark humpy has gone."
"He pulled his stake," said Bob.
"Did you notice how I drove home that stake? No dog could have drawn it." Higginson strode to the spot where they had tied Gunner after doctoring him, and examined the ground. "Come here," he called. "As I suspected, the stake has been dug up. I say, what the devil's doin' about here? What's the meaning of it all?" He put up his monocle to peer at Bob. "Some damn scoundrel has wilfully burnt our tent and destroyed our property. The same infernal villain tried to pot you, and there was nothing but pure malice in the attitude of that little scamp in the orchard. What's their game?"
"Apparently the object is to drive us out of the district," said Bob.
A cold, implacable light shone in Higgie's eye. "And how do you feel about it, old son?"
"I feel that I should like to stay, please."
"That is how I am feelin'. I want to stay till I get the man responsible for this, and when I do—" Higginson stiffened his 74 inches, his gesture hinted at annihilation for the guilty party. "Here is where we get to work on the new home."
Fortunately Bob had stripped enough bark to make a second roof for the tent, and this was piled under weights at some little distance. Using it they were enabled to knock up a shelter of a sort. Luckily, too, they had established a sort of larder between two rocks down in a cool place by the creek.
Over their rough meal they discussed the situation, advancing various theories to account for the hostility of the unknown. Obviously there was a marked animosity against them on the part of some person or persons. Who was the enemy, and what the reason of his enmity?
"You heard the old chap at the library say that at Flatman's they were very reserved, very jealous of strangers?" said Bob.
"I did. But you said this Flatman was a friend of yours."
"An acquaintance only. Uncle to Miriam Longmore, the big girl who came up from Melbourne in our train."
"And who treated you as if you were an impertinent and intrusive bounder."
"Not as bad as that, I hope."
"I gather at least that the lass was not cordial. Are you sure there was nothing Uncle Joseph Flatman could take exception to?"
"I am certain. Anyhow, I shall make a point of calling on Uncle Joseph and his inexplicable niece to-morrow."
"Do. I shall make a trip into Tadmor, and bring out fresh supplies. Perhaps I could get a horse from his Whiskers, the Selkirk librarian. Mind you look pretty closely after yourself, old son. By gad, this fellow, whoever he is, is capable of serious mischief."
William Higginson left early in the morning, after a breakfast of bread and baked blackfish, intending to call on Alexander Peebles in the hope of being able to hire a horse. He had the good fortune to meet the librarian driving a solemn old bay in a peculiar vehicle, the body of which was built by himself apparently out of kerosene cases, and attached to the springs and wheels of out-worn landau. Peebles was driving to Tadmor, and welcomed William's company on the long road. Higginson was grateful for the lift, although it proved in the end that he gained little time thereby, Peebles insisting on getting out, and walking a considerable part of the distance, solemnly holding a dilapidated green umbrella over his horse's head to shield him from the rays of a burning sun.
"Treeman in at Tadmor lost a valuable horse by sunstroke last summer," Alexander explained, "and I have too great and strong an affection for Nelson here to sacrifice him unnecessarily."
As Peebles persisted in pushing behind when they came to anything like a rise, Higgie was constrained to dismount and walk too.
"I've heard of the folly of keeping a dog and barking oneself," said Higginson. "Why do you keep a horse?"
"Well, between us two, largely for companionship," Peebles admitted, with a grin.
Late in the forenoon Bob Holland took his rifle on his arm, recollecting Higgie's experience with the great Dane, and struck across country, guided by his friend's directions, heading for Flatman's orchard. In less than an hour he found himself breaking through a rampart of bush upon a vista of neat trees in orderly rows, faintly touched with the tints of their ripening fruit.
Keeping to the left Bob skirted the orchard, till he came to the top of the rise on the eastern slope of which it was planted, and beheld below him a cleared space of some four acres bound on two sides by a broad, shallow creek, and containing the living house, stable, barn, and huts of a considerable homestead.
Before the house spread a well-kept garden, and through the shrubbery Bob could see faintly, seated on a lounge seat, on a verandah looped with passion vine, the figure of a woman. He vaulted the fence carefully strung with barbed wire, and advanced towards the house. He had progressed perhaps thirty yards in this direction, when he heard the pad of paws behind, and felt the thrust of a nose against his leg.
Bob turned his head swiftly, and found what he expected, the big Dane at his heel. The dog stiffened the bristles along the nape of his neck, drew up a lip and snarled. Bob advanced again. It was plainly what the dog was insisting on. He now noticed that the woman was coming to meet him, and recognised Miriam. She had no smile of welcome. Her face was cold, her mouth set hard.
"Away, Grip!" she ordered, and the dog obediently forsook his charge, and trotted unconcernedly towards the house.
"Why Miriam!" said Bob, heartily. Then her expression, and his memory of her recent bearing chilled him. "It's a great pleasure to see you," he added.
She did not offer her hand. For something to say she asked: "Are you enjoying your holiday?"
"It is immensely interesting," said he.
"How can you pretend to like this silent desolation after the delights of town, you an author with so much to do that is better worth doing?"
"I might have wearied of the solitudes, but someone is good enough to infuse quite a novel and unexpected interest. For instance, I have been shot at twice."
"With intent to kill?"
"By an unknown hand. Our dog has been killed by the same friendly mystery, and yesterday our camp was burned."
She met his eye calmly. "You appear to be very careless," she said.
"Oh, very," he agreed, with a touch of sarcasm. "I am waiting further developments with keenest concern. This adds new zest to the chase."
To his surprise her face flushed red at the word, and she gnawed at her lip with a row of sharp, white teeth. She seemed on the point of giving an angry reply, but restrained herself, and when she spoke her tone was that of a person a little bored. "It's a strange taste. The bush wearies me to death."
"Yet here you are?"
"Oh, yes. The doctor said I had nerves. They insisted on change and rest, and sent me here, the very worst place in the world for nerves."
The conversation had been conducted under a tree. Her attitude was that of one dealing with a casual caller, who was expected to pass on at any moment. She was a trifle pale, he thought, and did not look as if her stay in the chosen health resort was having any desirable effect; but it seemed to him she was more beautiful for the change that subdued and refined her.
"You are a little wan," he said, "but more beautiful than ever."
She gave him an inexplicable look in which he traced a touch of rebuke. "You look very well," she answered. "Tan improves you."
He waited a moment, looking at her. They were silent. "Miriam," he said, "where are your manners? Have you no hospitality? I told you our camp was burned out. It may be that I am starving."
He was baiting her wantonly, recognising her reluctance. She made an indecisive movement towards the house, and Robert Holland followed her. Standing between them and the open door was Joseph Flatman, leaning on the verandah post. They continued towards the house, and Flatman stepped from his post, and planted himself in Bob's way, barring the path.
"How are you, Uncle Joseph Flatman?" asked Bob with heartiness. He was finding some humor in the little comedy they were playing. "Miss Longmore has asked me in to lunch."
"Miss Longmore has not," answered Flatman. "Or if she has she has forgotten we have no lunch to spare for strangers."
"You don't recognise me, Uncle Joseph?" said Bob.
"On the contrary. I quite recognise you."
"Then doesn't it strike you as a curious thing that we should play at being excellent friends in the city, and pose immediately after as strangers in the country, between whom, not merely ordinary hospitality, but ordinary decency is out of the question."
Miriam had plucked a rose, and was dismembering it, leaf, by leaf. She flushed again at his words.
"It does not strike me as curious at all," replied Uncle Joseph, composedly. "What strikes me as curious is the persistence of unwelcome people in a situation like this."
"To tell the bare truth," said Bob, "it is vulgar curiosity that prompts me. The air is full of mystery. You are as mysterious as the other mysteries. Perhaps, after all, there is only one mystery. I hoped you might help me to solve it. I hoped you might be able to tell me why my friend and I are the recipients of such marked attentions in a part of the country so sparcely inhabited that we cannot be considered unduly intrusive, and where our choice of suspects must necessarily be very limited."
"If you and your friend are as self-assertive and insolent with others as you are with me, I don't see how you can be surprised at the attentions you complain of." Flatman's speech was very formal.
"Bless you, I am not complaining." Bob's smile was most cordial. "I am highly entertained, and there is always the chance of dropping in on our too attentive friend, you know."
"Get out!" said Uncle Flatman. "Don't stand here plaguing me with your damned trivialities."
"Good day, Miss Longmore," said Bob. "Good day, Uncle Joseph." He moved off a few paces, paused, and turned to Miriam again. "By the way, Miriam," he said, "could you direct me to any other house in this desolation where a destitute stranger could beg a crust and a cup of tea?"
Miriam moved, as if about to reply, met Uncle Joseph's eye, and was silent. Bob surveyed the pair for a moment, raised his hat with nice courtesy, and left them. He pondered the matter, drifting campward. He had been betrayed into saying much more than he meant. Of course it was absurd to link her up in any way with the shooting and the burning; what was now evident was that the girl was dominated by Uncle Joseph Flatman, and was compelled to humor his misanthropical obsession. Her consciousness of this domination in all probability explained her attitude in at Tadmor. He felt some pangs of regret. He had been cruel to the poor girl. He poised on a heel a moment half bent upon returning to offer an apology, but funked it after a moment's irresolution.
Bob spent the afternoon fossicking in the creek. Back at the camp for the night he made himself a damper, ate some boiled duck, smoked, tried to read, failed, and, abandoned himself to his loneliness. Lying on his back he watched the great moon riding up through the trees.
The night was warm and beautiful; where the moonlight splashed upon the rocks it was almost day. A sudden impulse lifted him, and drove him out towards the sea. He had only intended to mount the rise and see how the ocean shone under this brilliant moon, but the brightness of the glittering water led him on.
He had his rifle. He was never quite easy without it now. He walked into the thinning bush, out among the scurrying malformed gums looking like so many malignant Quilps capering in the moonlight, traversed the open stretch, and mounting a high dune overlooking the crystal lagoons spread himself under a clump of ti-tree and waited, the vast ocean upon his right drifting and shifting under the opulent white night, the sparkling lagoons below him on his left, silence and solitude over and around him.
He had a vague idea of getting a young duck to grill for breakfast, but his thoughts drifted to work. He began weaving rhymes of "moon" and "lagoon," "witchery" and "stitchery," caught by the lace-like patterns woven on the face of the water.
Then, like a flight of startled birds, his rhymes fled from him, he sat up sharply, craning forward, staring at the moonlit water, his lips forming a word of wonder. Like another Aphrodite springing from the flood, a slim, white, human figure was starting from the radiant water. Three times it shot into the air, straight up, clear of the shallow flood, dropping back again amid showers of jewels.
Bob sat rigid, his mind a jumble of classic allusions and similes from the fairy tales. His first impressions were frankly superstitious, but without fear. He felt he was witnessing the enactment of a purely literary fancy; but when the lithe, boyish figure splashed a way of glory from the water, and started running on the sands he realised that he was fully awake and perfectly sane.
The slim, fairy-like form raced into the shadow of the dune, issued from it again at a bound, and went dancing and twirling on the further shore, executing a lawless sort of dance, wonderfully graceful, strangely suggestive to the solitary spectator.
The Hidden Hills had revealed the unexpected again. Who was this amazing boy who came out of the vastness of the unpeopled bush to dance like a naiad by the brook? Bob arose, and keeping well in cover of the ti-tree proceeded warily along the apex of the sand dune, and then down to the level of the lagoon.
The bather was back in the translucent water, splashing joyously, throwing sprays of diamonds into the moonshine. Bob seated himself on the sand, embracing his knees, and presently found he was in close proximity to a small, shaggy, brown pony who stood untethered with drooping head, sleeping by a small mound of clothing. On the clothing Bob descended. He picked up two or three articles and dropped them from his fingers in amazement.
Then Robert Holland fled. He crossed the untimbered strip with every precaution, dreading to be seen not for his own sake, but for the peace of mind of the bather. Once only, like Lot's wife, he looked back. No avenging Providence froze him in his tracks and he reached the camp, still much perturbed, and occupied with random guesswork.
We can have faith in young Mr. Holland's great concern, believing him a decent fellow with quite a proper respect for the other sex. The garments he had found under the guardianship of the sleeping pony were a girl's.
NOT expecting Higginson back till late in the afternoon, Bob sauntered across to the Selkirk circulating library. His own books had been destroyed in the fire, and he contemplated making good use of Peebles' curious institution while he remained in the Hidden Hills. Another reason for his visit was the hope of being able to beg or borrow a little bread for lunch. The last of the flour saved from the fire was gone, and baked or boiled fish or game without any vegetable accompaniment was not a pleasing prospect.
Bob shot a small wallaby by the way, and hung it on Peebles' fence. As he approached the house he heard voices from within raised in anger, it seemed, and when he was within ten yards a man came from the front door backwards, staggering as if forcibly ejected. The man was laughing heartily, and made to return, with some jesting protestation. At the same moment a second figure appeared in the doorway.
"You shall not come within again, Mr. Slocombe," said the latter. "Nay, I cannot allow it. Since you cannot behave as a gentleman should you must need pay your visits only when my father is nigh."
Bob looked Mr. Slocombe over and grinned. Nothing less like a gentleman could easily be imagined. Slocombe was a long slab of a bush-bred Australian, and an extreme type at that, big-footed, big-handed, dressed in what was obviously his best, a suit of light grey tweed that fell far short of the demand in every respect. It was too tight, too short in the leg, too brief as to the sleeves, too skimpy in the matter of vest, displaying a protruding quantity of shirt between the latter garment and the waist band of the trousers. All the buttoned places gaped under an insistent strain, and the coat crept so far up Mr. Slocombe's ungainly person at the back as to suggest a bad attempt at a Zouave jacket. Slocombe wore very large boots and a very small hat. His head was almost tiny as compared with his long, bony body, and what little face he had was almost extinguished under formidable brown eyebrows and a ferocious, ginger moustache reaching almost to his clavicals on either side.
But Bob devoted brief attention to Slocombe. The girl in the doorway held him from the moment a movement on Slocombe's part permitted a clear view of her perfections. Bob judged her to be between eighteen and nineteen years of age, she was about five feet four only, slim, almost willowy, in a neat, plain, light-colored dress of what struck Bob as better make and material than is customary on bush girls of the class to which she seemed to belong. She was dark with large, gentle, blue-black eyes, the first feature to strike you in a face of deep olive, flawless in its tone and its satiny smoothness. The eyes were drawn so long as to suggest that there had been necessity to widen the face at the temples to accommodate them. This gave the faintest hint at something Oriental in the girl's beauty, and her hair was as black as a houri's, but glossy and soft, lying in suave folds about her neat, small head.
"Ah, come along, Ollie, be a sport," pleaded Mr. Slocombe, extending his arms. "You know I'm fair gone."
"Will you please go away. My father would be vexed with you. It is not proper that you should come to his house, pretending to be a friend, and behaving as you do."
"But, s'elp me, I am yer friend, Ollie! You ain't got a better." Slocombe took her by the arm.
"Take your book, Mr. Slocombe, and be going, or I am sure I shall be very angry with you myself."
"Ah, garn, not you." Slocombe attempted to draw her to him, and over his shoulder the girl discovered Bob.
"If you please, behave yourself," pleaded the girl. "This is shameful, sir."
"Well, give's a kiss. Jist one kiss, 'n' I'll cry quits."
"No, no, no. If you please!" The last three words were an appeal to Bob.
Robert Holland put aside his rifle, and advancing laid an impressive hand on Slocombe's shoulder. "Drop it," he said.
The ardent Mr. Slocombe stepped back, and eyed Bob in surprise. "Struth!" he said, "'n' who 're you?"
Bob addressed Ollie. "My name is Holland," he said. "I took a book from here the other day. I want it changed, if you please."
Slocombe interposed. He seemed quite good humored, but desirous of impressing his point. "You got no right to put yer hands on a man," he said.
"The gentleman did so at my request," said the girl. "And I have to thank you, sir, for your service!"
Bob laughed. "I shall be pleased to help you in any way," he said.
"Meanin'," said Slocombe, "you're here, 'n' willin' 'n' ready to deal with me?"
"Don't be a fool," Bob replied. "Plainly the young lady does not appreciate your picturesque charms."
"I makes love to my own girl in my own way, 'n' what's more, no town dood can stop me."
His hands were on Ollie again, and Bob's were on him. The struggle was very brief. In that short contest Bob realised the man's extraordinary strength, but Holland knew, and Slocombe did not. Bob's wrestling with Higgie since coming to the bush had restored him to form. The result was that Slocombe, overcome largely by his own impetuosity, presently crashed on his back in the dust.
"That was pretty good," he said, still without temper; "but you can't do it again."
Bob did not attempt to do just that again, he did something more effective, he met the bushman coming in, and a clip and a throw sent Slocombe sprawling some ten yards on.
"Better drop it, old man," advised Bob in a friendly way. "I might give you a fall that would break a bone, and I don't suppose the young lady wishes that."
"Indeed, sir, I do not. I am very much disturbed already. Mr. Slocombe, if you do not desist you must never come nigh my father's house again."
Slocombe was dusting his clothes with his hat. "I don't want me bes' suit spoiled," he said. "But look here mate, it ain't the dinkum thing for no bloke to go interferin' with another bloke's courtin'."
"I wouldn't dream of it," replied Bob, "but you forget it takes two to make a courtship, and if the lady's unwilling, well——"
"Ah, garrt, that's gammon. She's just flirtatious. All girls is like that."
Bob looked at Miss Peebles, with a smile in his eyes, and she answered his glance. "I shall be grateful to you, good sir, if you do not leave me while this man is here. My dear father shall thank you."
"Miss Peebles—I presume you are the daughter of the Mr. Peebles I met here on my first visit——"
"Alexander Peebles is my father, sir."
"I am at your service." He turned to Slocombe. "You hear, old man," he said. "You are in the wrong."
Slocombe pulled on his hat with a boyish gesture of disgust. "These wimmen!" he said. "Well, I'll be goin'. And if you want me back you can whistle for me, Ollie Peebles, see."
He shambled off, and the girl looked after him, a grave, reproving light in her dark eyes. "He is a poor fellow who works at Flatman's farm," she said. "I do not think he intends to be disobliging and insolent, and he has a genuine affection for me, but he is ignorant and not well-mannered. You, sir, I presume, are one of the sporting gentlemen my father told me of."
"No doubt." Bob presented his book. "I would like a book or two by Wells, if you have anything of his."
"Aye, we have several. There is 'Kipps,' 'War of the Worlds,' and 'The Island of Dr. Moreau.' Will you not come in?"
But ere they could enter there came a clatter of hoofs on the floor, and a small, shaggy, brown pony trotted through the house, and stood thrusting his muzzle into Ollie's face.
"Oh, rascal!" cried the girl in mock admonition. "Oh, villain and knave! to dare to walk through my clean house like this, and you never wiped your feet. Go sir, at once, and wipe your feet."
The pony stepped forth, and stood making a ridiculous shuffling movement with his hoofs, as if obeying the command. Bob was expected to express some appreciation of the pony's great wisdom; that much shone in the laughing eyes of Miss Peebles, but Bob was too possessed by his own disturbing thoughts. He recognised the pony, he recognised the light skirt Ollie was wearing, he had met those small buckled shoes before.
Miss Olivia Peebles was the nymph of the lagoon, the heroine of last night's strange adventure, the slim, white figure dancing in the moonlight. And she was beautiful, she was amazingly beautiful. Bob felt his limbs a little tremulous, he lost his accustomed self-possession, he fumbled a word, he disregarded her request that he would step indoors.
"Then if you will bide a moment I will bring the books forth," said Olivia.
She brought him "The Island of Dr. Moreau" and "The Food of the Gods," but he would only take one. His mind worked quickly enough when it was a question of seeing her again soon. He offered the money.
"I am very sure, sir, my father would not wish to take the few pence from you," she said. "These books we have, and we are pleased to lend them to anyone who may take pleasure in them."
He stumbled over wishing her good morning, and made an ungraceful departure. He had never been so disturbed in his life. Not even in the face of a charge, or under the deadly fire of a concealed foe had his self-control deserted him as now. He fled across the clearing, conscious of his ignominy, angry with himself, but incapable of bettering his actions or his state of mind.
Where he had left the body of the wallaby Bob sat in the grass, well screened from the house, but commanding a full view of it. Olivia was still at the door, looking after him, he thought, pondering, he told himself, who this precious boob might be, this blundering boor. The idea made him savage. Metaphorically he kicked himself with precision and ferocious vigor.
Bob read for the rest of the day, or, at least, he lay under a tree with a book in his hand, but again and again he discovered that while his eyes had followed a whole chapter, line by line, his mind had not taken in one word of it all, being preoccupied with the vision of a girl with unbelievable eyes, standing in a doorway, leaning on the jamb where the sun lay a loving touch on her glorious hair; or a still more marvellous thing, a snowy-limber naiad, lithe as a young panther, dancing in the moonlight.
Never could he breathe a word of that sacred revelation to other ears, but some day perhaps he would whisper the truth to her—some day when they were so much to each other that she might hear it with no more than a pretty blush. So swift is the fancy of a young man.
WILLIAM HIGGINSON returned just before sundown, with Jim Cobbledick and a drayload of supplies to replace those lost in the fire. A new tent was pitched on the old site. Higgie paused in the midst of his exertions to express a fervid wish that Heaven might be good enough to deliver the arsonist into his hands in the act of igniting this tent.
"I made inquiries all over the place in at Tadmor," said he. "Nobody could provide a clue. As for Flatman he seems to be universally respected. But if a man pays his way in the bush, the natives, in their natural amazement, credit him with all the virtues."
Robert Holland told of his visit to Flatman's homestead, and of Uncle Joseph's discourtesy. "The red maid Miriam was no more propitious," he added.
"The what?" said Higginson, turning wide open eyes on his friend. "The red maid Miriam! You mean Miriam, the auburn-haired."
"If it is invidious to split straws, what of hairs?"
"Yes, but hang it all, I happen to have a distinct recollection of a heated argument with an ardent and impressionable young friend of mine, who bolted straight down my throat when I spoke of Miriam's red head. If I recollect aright, he insisted that Miriam's hair was the most glorious auburn. He said it had the beauty of bunched new wallflowers aglow with morning light, don't you know." Higgie breathed on his monocle, and replaced it.
Bob paused in the middle of a stroke, then resumed his task. It was perfectly true that he had taken Higgie in hand rather hotly on this theme. He laughed now. After all, what the devil did it matter what color Miriam Longmore's hair might be. He caught himself up again—why this sudden indifference concerning Miriam. It would bear thinking out, but he gave it only a moment's consideration, and then went to work with whirlwind energy.
William got very little companionship out of Bob Holland in the week that followed. Holland had developed into an avid reader. It seemed that he simply tore his way through a book, and was off to Peebles after another.
"Why not bring a bunch and save your legs?" questioned Higginson.
"I never know which I'll want next," Bob replied; "and it's a great collection the old fellow's got there, full of stimulating stuff. I am hot to get back to pen and paper."
But Bob was writing, too. He was much enamored of the intricacies of ballade and rondeau, triolet, and villanelle just now, and found his rhymes coming glibly enough, but could not blind himself to the source of inspiration. He was in love. Reading the stuff over with a cold mind he remembered a summing up of such verse from Jimmie Inglis.
"All men in love write this sort of piffle. It is a kind of morbid secretion induced by man's abnormal condition."
But Bob did not burn his verses, as he had thought of doing. It occurred to him that one of these days (in a fortnight or so) he might sum up courage to ask Olivia to read them.
And now his thoughts were all of Olivia. He even carved "Olivia" on certain white, smooth-barked trees in imitation of Orlando and ten thousand beside, and with the name went appreciative couplets. He recognised that his was a well authenticated instance of love at second sight, love absolute, unquestionable, absorbing. How adorable she was, what a winning quaintness was hers. Could anything be sweeter than that peculiar primness of her speech, a primness that went so well with the Quaker-like touches of character, and which as he found was the result of her having had no companionship in life apart from that of her father, excepting in books. She had taken little tricks and turns from favorite heroines, all unconsciously, and was the sweetest, gentlest wild bird Providence in a whimsical moment had endowed with life.
He found to his great delight he had no difficulty in meeting her. Her father seemed to impose no restrictions. She had the freedom of the wild things, yet there was not in her anywhere one touch of the uncouthness we are apt to associate with the human wildling of the woods. She had read deeply. Her taste had been care-passed at their second interview, result that an unerring instinct for the good thing in literature had been bred in her; yet she retained a delicious simplicity.
Bob's awkwardness and diffidence passed at their second interview, replaced by a determination to win her, an anxiety to appear well in her sight, to awaken in her breast something of the passion then flaming in his own. He wooed her with hand, and eye, and tongue. Every touch was a caress, every glance an act of worship, every word, however trivial, an appeal. If he had been asking her to pass the mustard it would not have been without an insinuated plea for some little regard; a gleam of her eye, a word, a touch of her fingers.
On a later day they were sitting together on the down-bent limb of a gnarled gumtree. He had taken her hand, and was parting the small fingers. "Do you know," he said, "there is not in all the world another little woman like you?"
She looked at him with a touch of surprise, and replied without shyness or coquetry. "How can you say so, Mr. Holland?" said she. "I find a little that is myself in all the women of those books. Aye, sometimes, even in the wicked ones."
"But there is none like you."
"Strangely, it has seemed to me how like we all are."
"You will have not seen many women. You have had no girl friends?"
She shook her head sadly. "I have talked a little with the school teacher's daughter, and some at Tadmor, when I have gone there with my father. It was not often. I have seen the beautiful Miss Miriam Longmore, and have spoken with her a while, but never have I had a companion. There was the sawmiller's daughter at Pibroch. Her name was Dora, and she had a sweet face, but she did not like me, I fear."
"She must have been a fool," said Bob.
"Why, sir? She seemed bright, and could play the piano most beautifully."
"She must have been a fool, because no person with a grain of sense and a mite of observation could do anything but love you. And, please, please, don't call me 'Sir.' That I don't like in you. You make me feel like a schoolmaster or a grandfather. Suppose you call me Bob. Bob is brief and comfortable."
"Yes, it is a nice, easy name. I will call you Bob, Bob." She laughed in his eyes, and his hand tightened on hers.
"But you have not told me wherein I am so different from others," said Olivia.
"You are gentler and kinder, there is no spite in you, no pride, no vanity."
"No vanity?" she blushed. "Perhaps it is that you do not know me well. I love my hair greatly. I will spend an hour, sitting, brushing it, till it shines like new metal. Is that not vanity? And I look at my eyes a long time."
"So would I. I would look at them for ever. They are very beautiful."
"You say it is I who am so different, but you, too, are not like others. My father might talk a little like you, but none other, and you have quiet ways, and you are all kindness. Kindness is in your eyes and your smile always. Then your hands are smooth and are not stained with the timber, or made ugly with heavy work. Your dress is different, all your manner. Mr. Slocombe is not like you at all."
"I hope the difference pleases you," Bob whispered.
She nodded her head, smiling. "It does, indeed. And poor Mr. Shuter is less like you still."
"Poor Mr. Shuter? I have not seen Mr. Shuter."
"He, too, works for Mr. Flatman. He is most unfortunate. It is a deformity, my father says."
"Nay, his body is not harmed. It is his face, and that you do not like to look upon. You cast down your eyes for fear he should mark you beholding him, and be deeply hurt, for it is a terrible affliction and a most sad thing to be so misshapen of face. Some laugh and make a game of it."
Olivia's distress for poor Shuter in being the possessor of what she at another time spoke of as an "ungainly" face was genuine; it brought tears to her eyes, and Bob, looking on at her tenderness, appraised her with all the exaggeration of a young lover.
"You dear little woman," he whispered. "You dear little woman." He drew her nearer, and kissed her cheek, not with fiery ardor, but as a poet might touch the wings of an opening rose.
She slipped from the branch, and pushed herself free. Her face had paled a little. "Perhaps we should go," she said.
"Have I frightened you?" he asked. They were walking towards the house.
"I do not know," she murmured.
He took her hands again, but she swung her face away from him. "You are not angry?" He knew in his heart he should have taken her in his arms then, and he didn't. He abused himself all the way back to the camp for not doing so. He asked himself "Why? Why?" with angry insistence, as if addressing a separate entity whose pusillanimity he despised.
Higginson was sitting astride a rock, cleaning his rifle. He looked Bob over frankly. "You look so disturbed," he said, "'pon my soul, my dear old chap, I don't know whether it is a rebuff or an acceptance."
"Go to hell!" was the cordial response.
"It's a rebuff, for a tenner," continued Higginson. He had been made aware of the existence of Miss Olivia Peebles, and had ostentatiously renounced all respect for his Hidden Hills. "The place only needs a creche and a street band," said he, "to possess all the disadvantages of civilisation."
Disregarding his friend's banter Bob dived into the tent. Higgie raised his voice. "I begin to have a sort of inkling why Miriam turned red-headed in a single night, old soul," he said.
"You are not subjecting that mind of yours to too great a strain?" asked Holland, with marked solicitude.
"My sanity will survive it, chum. Look here, Bob, are you in a fit state to consider the advisability of pushing up the coast ten or twelve miles?"
"You couldn't shift me with a traction engine. Why?"
"Well, I encountered two more beauties to-day. The place is overpopulated. They scared off a drove of kangaroo, pounding through the bush like a regiment with howitzers. They graciously introduced themselves. No paltry pride about your Australian bushman, good lad. Slocombe was an ordinary sample of the species, but, my old hat, you should have seen Shuter!"
"I've heard of him. I gather he is no Greek god."
"Man alive, he is not fit to be at large. He is a perambulating incubus. He suggests the need of an asylum for eyesores."
"He is not frightening you out of the hills, is he?"
"He well might. Wait till you see him."
IT was about nine on a warm, misty morning. The two mates had boxed, and wrestled, and bathed, and Higginson was at a small mirror suspended against the butt of a huge gum, shaving, while Bob bent over a pan, frying rabbit for the breakfast. Higginson, without the excuse Bob had for keeping up appearances, was as meticulous about the care of his person as if he were within call of Mayfair. He shaved every morning.
This morning Higgie's razor was far from satisfactory, and wrenched an oath from him with every stroke.
Came the ping of a rifle in the bush, and Higginson's mirror fell in pieces at his feet.
"My God! What was that?" Higginson turned a startled face to Bob, who looked up from his task with inquiring eyes.
Ping! and a bullet dabbed the trunk so close to Higginson, that there was no longer any room for misunderstanding. He was being made a target. He sprang for cover. Bob arose, stepping back towards the tent to escape a tree that obscured his view. "Ping!" again, and a bullet struck the box contrived from a kerosene case, suspended from the projecting ridge pole of the tent, and the pet kangaroo joey rolled over, dead. That bullet had come too near Bob's head to be pleasant. He made one bound and joined his friend.
"It is my enemy of the other day for a hundred," said he.
"The fellow's making himself a nuisance." Higginson's words were frivolous, his expression was not. Bob knew the grey in his face was not the tinge of fear. He had seen it before, had it had been an ill omen for the men who provoked it.
"See, there is smoke." Bob pointed to a spot up the creek where the faintest smoke rack drifted against the scrub.
"Get our rifles. We will give the beauty a run for it."
They armed themselves in the tent, and creeping out under the canvas at the back stole into the creek, along which they made their way under the thick cover its undergrowth afforded, till they came to the spot from which Bob estimated the shots had been fired. A careful reconnoitre failed to reveal the enemy.
Bob advanced to the tree about which the smoke had appeared, and carefully examined the ground.
"The shots were fired from here," said he, pointing to an impression in the bare earth near the butt. He looked more closely at something that had attracted his attention. "A clue," said he, pointing to the tree.
Higginson looked closely, took out his monocle, screwed it in his left eye, and looked again. "Why, what the deuce is it, my boy?" said he.
Bob traced a pattern on the bark where a root shot out. "He rested his foot there," said Bob. "On the sole of his boot there is a circle of hob nails. Men do not usually have a circle of nails under the ball of the foot."
Even as he spoke there came another report, and the sharp bat of the bullet striking the tree trunk between them.
The two friends missed a meal, and hunted for two hours in vain pursuit of their enemy, Bob much the cooler of the two, despite Higginson's dry comments and apparent appreciation of the humor he seemed to find in the situation.
"Pon my soul," said he; "I'll never use a razor in comfort again. That was altogether too close a shave."
* * * * *
The disappearance of Robert Holland dated from the following day. He had taken a small axe, a short handled prospecting pick, and a gold dish, and had gone off on a voyage of discovery, intending, as he told Higgie, to prospect the creek much higher up than he had hitherto gone.
"Somewhere about here there is gold in plenty," he said.
"And you have some special incentive for making a fortune in a hurry. What?" Higgie said.
"I was never averse," Bob replied with a laugh.
By sundown he had not returned. Eight o'clock came, and there was still no sign of him. Greatly perturbed, William Higginson struck through the bush to call on Peebles, cherishing a hope that Bob would be there. Peebles had seen nothing of Bob since the night before. Olivia, pale and anxious-eyed, stood against the wall in the full light of the swung lamp, the hand at her breast trembled. Despite his concern for his friend Higginson spared a thought for her. It was worth while perhaps to have a fond woman who would feel for one the anxiety tearing at this girl's heart.
"Is it possible he has been hurt?" asked Olivia in a low voice.
It was on Higginson's tongue to remind her of the shooting escapade, but he restrained himself. "I think it more likely he has been bushed," he said. Higgie hardly believed this. He knew Bob had a sort of instinct for directions and localities. He had heard him claim that he could hardly be put wrong in the bush. It seemed most likely that Bob had injured himself in some way.
Alexander Peebles joined Higginson in a night-long search up the creek. They did not find Holland, or any trace of him. In the morning Peebles appealed to Flatman for assistance, and Uncle Joseph sent Shuter and Slocombe. He was very willing to assist.
"I did not want these young chaps about my place," he said, "but I wish them no harm."
Miriam, looking a little gaunt and dark-eyed, showed unmistakable concern.
"Search closely, Shuter," she said. "Don't leave the job till you have found him."
Shuter was refuted the best bushman in the countryside. It was said of him that he could track like a black, and despite his sinister ugliness men spoke of him as a decent sort of cove bearing up courageously against a dire affliction.
Peter Shuter's unsightliness had something inhuman in it. Looking at him, instinctively you associated such deformity of features with madness. Ever conscious of his defect he went with his face turned to the ground, and it may have been to this habit that his familiarity with the signs and symptoms on the face of the earth was due.
"P. Shuter 'll find him if he's on top of the ground," Slocombe told Higginson. "He could track a cat from here up a tree and 'ome agin'. He don't on'y know the color of a man he's follerin', but his religion, 'n' the time by his watch."
Shuter got on to Bob's track near the camp. "He 's goin' a little light on his left leg," he said after a quarter of a mile had been covered.
"Yes, there is a slight limp. He was wounded in Africa," William explained.
Shuter lost the track in the creek, picked it up again some three hundred yards further on, lost it again, and found it once more.
"Here he waded," said the tracker, ten minutes later. "We'll get him again higher up."
But despite the most careful and persistent search, no further trace of Holland could be found.
After two days there was no sight, no word of the lost man. He had not been seen in Tadmor. A telegram to his friends in Melbourne brought word from Fryer:
"Seen nothing of Bob since you left. What does it mean?"
Flatman's men and a party from the Tadmor district maintained the search for ten days. The Government sent police and a police tracker, but there had been heavy rain in the meantime, and the tracker had no success. Hope was abandoned even by Higginson, who for a week was in a half-frantic condition, and who had maintained the search for his friend long after it was abandoned by the others; that is, all but one other. There was one who continued the search, when even Higginson, long after abandoned hope, abandoned effort. Olivia Peebles had no fear of the bush. All her days she had lived in it, she knew it as a town-dweller knows the city he has inhabited throughout his life. Plunged in its darkest depths, where the tops of the close-set giant gums shut out the light of day, and where the climbing and clustering undergrowth hemmed one in a vast entanglement, she knew infallibly the way she had come and the way she must go.
Every day Olivia went wandering up the gorges penetrating the Hidden Hills, searching their small tributary gorges. Accompanied by her vigilant dog, and riding the sturdy brown pony, the girl hunted assiduously, shrinking always from visualising that which she might find, spurred ever by a sense of the inevitability of her task. She had known Robert Holland only a little time, but it did not concern her, that in so short a space Robert had come to mean so much to her that the loss of him stood out as an overwhelming grief, a matter of such consequence that it seemed nought else that could happen in this great world could ever be of any moment to her.
The girl did recollect how she had grown in a few days to wait and watch for his coming, thrilled by the knowledge that he must come. She remembered every word, every intonation, every action, the wonderful thing in his eyes that so disturbed her, yet gave her a sweet exultation that opened for her a new conception of happiness.
Olivia had not confessed her love even to herself; she acknowledged a glorious emotion that possessed her, she knew that Bob brought a new rapture into her life, but she had not given it a name. His kiss upon her cheek to which he imagined she had not given a second thought was to her a vivid thing; it could never pass, it entered into all her dreams. She realised that in all her life she had never kissed till then. Other lips had touched her perhaps; his lips had set a seal upon her. They had made her lips his for all time, through life and death.
And now he was gone. She shrank from admitting to her soul an eternal parting, and sought on and on, day after day, impelled by an instinct of fidelity, and in her heart and over her and about her was sorrow, a grey shadow upon the world.
One evening William Higginson called. There was strong sympathy between them, the outcome of her love and his strong liking for Robert Holland. He brought a photograph of Bob.
"It is the only one I have of him," said William. "I knew you would like to have it. I think he would wish you to have it."
She took the picture, in tremulous hands, and looked at it through tear-dimmed eyes that saw only a blur of the smiling face, and Higginson turned from her to talk with Peebles, who thoroughly understood the situation, and whose concern for his daughter was most pathetic.
"I came into this wilderness, away from love and the hell it makes in our hearts," he confided to Higgie; "but it pursues. My poor Ollie! My poor little girl!"
"It's hard, man. It's damned hard," was all the sympathy William could offer.
Later Higgie confessed his hopelessness. "I can stay no longer," he said. "The dashed place is getting me down, by Jove! I'll have to go. Poor Bob's past my help wherever he is, and the loneliness is eating into a fellow's bones." He shook himself with a quick, shuddering sound. "'Pon my soul, I believe I am funking."
Olivia, who had been standing by his side, a hand on his arm, slipped into a seat. He had imparted something of his despair to her. She was crying softly, and the two men looked at her in a pitying, helpless way. There had always been at the back of her mind a pale, flickering hope. That feeble light went out for the moment, and life seemed dark, indeed.
"I can't get quite rid of the idea of foul play, old chap. I can't, on my honor," said Higginson.
Alexander Peebles shook his head. "I know it has been in your mind," he said. "I cannot see good reason for it."
"That shooting in the bush, the burning of our camp."
"Accidental, I think. A coincidence."
"That was the police opinion. The officer Johnnie laughed at it, for which, candidly, I think him an infernal fool."
"Who would hurt him?" asked Olivia. Her dark eyes burned with a strange light. "He was so kind, so gentle. No one could wilfully injure him. That is too dark an evil. It cannot be! It cannot be!"
Two days later Higginson left; Olivia followed, unseen, for two miles, then watched till the dray and the two men passed from sight. Now Bob was really forsaken. She did not weep. No tears were left, it seemed that she would never weep again. The girl turned back into the deeper bush, the bush that held and hid him somewhere in its wildest and darkest part, and felt more than ever consecrated to the search.
* * * * * *
Bob when last seen by his friend on the day of his mysterious disappearance was making up the creek in a westerly direction. He continued along the bank for a distance of close upon two miles, and here descended into the bed, and began his work. The creek was heavily overgrown. The gum met above it, and they were interlaced with suplejack and a thousand parasitical growths. Bob had to cut his way down to where the shallow waters ran broadly on a rocky bottom. He washed two or three prospects scooped from ripples in the rocks, and was rewarded with only a poor showing of very fine gold, but this was a little better than any previous prospect. He had proved that the showing improved as the source of the creek was approached.
With the intention of advancing another mile or so, Bob clambered up the bank. He was now struck with the peculiar aspect of the scene before him. There was a familiar suggestion in the mound ending within a few yards of where he stood, and in the abrupt face of the hill above and beyond. To the right and left the rise sloped naturally to the creek, here it fell in a straight wall, but the projecting mound and the face of the hill alike were covered with ordinary bush growth. A fair-sized gum tree grew out of the mound. The face of the hill where it junctured with this mound was thick with scrub and sapling.
"I could swear to it," said Bob. He drew the pick from his belt, and dug into the mound with a few rapid blows. The subsoil was only about six inches deep, and below was slate-colored reef. This would have had no significance to an ordinary observer, it served to convince Bob that his first conclusion was correct. At some time there had been mining in this vicinity. Somewhere at hand fairly extensive operations had been carried on. Standing back Bob could trace the formation of the mullock heap, and arrive at some conclusion as to the locality of the shaft. He climbed the mound, and advanced along its top to the flat face of the hill.
"A tunnel," he said. But the hill presented no signs of an opening. Where it might have been expected that the mouth of the tunnel was located stood the dead trunk of a tree growing hard against the wall. Peering behind this for a further indication of workings, Bob found, to his great surprise, the trunk revolving under his hand. The tree was hollow and a section had been carefully sawn out of the butt, and pivoted above and below. Turning on these pivots the door (for such it was) revealed an opening large enough to admit a man into a dark chamber beyond.
Bob stepped into the excavation, the heavy door in the tree when liberated revolved into place, and the young man found himself standing in complete darkness. He struck a match and held it aloft, and perceived himself to be in an ordinary, well-timbered tunnel, the roof of which was upheld by rough, workmanlike sets standing about six feet apart. A few yards ahead the tunnel curved to the left. Before advancing Holland assured himself that he was not in a trap. The door in the tree trunk moved easily at his touch.
At this moment there came to Bob Holland's ears the faint far clink, clink of hammer on metal. He remained motionless listening. The sound was repeated. Somewhere ahead of him in the depths of the hill work was going on. Holding another match above his head Bob advanced cautiously as far as the curve. Here his match expired, and he remained a minute with intent ears. The sound of beaten metal was more distinct, and far ahead he could see a pale radiance. It was not a light in the tunnel, but suggested the slight admission of light from above.
There was no fear, no suspicion in Bob's mind, the predominating sense was curiosity. Who worked this mystery mine, and why was it worked behind trap doors? An idea came to him. The radiance he saw ahead indicated the presence of a shaft. From this shaft the mine was worked, the tunnel was a drive that had been run out to the side of the hill at some time to save haulage. He moved forward with more confidence. His heart bounded with a jolt sharp as a blow. Something had thrust itself against his leg from the back. He paused, and the thrust was repeated, pushing him forward.
BOB HOLLAND realised in an instant. He had felt that uncanny pushing at his leg before. When he struck a match, and held it aloft he saw only what he had fully expected to see, the great Dane Grip standing squarely behind him, the lips moving convulsively, showing teeth as formidable as a tiger's, the hair along the back of his neck bristling into a ridge. The dog pushed with his nose, prodding with the solidity of a brick, and he growled a note of warning.
"Hello! Hello!" murmured Bob—"you here. So Uncle Joseph Flatman is the mining man."
Bob regretted that, despite his good resolution, he was taken without his rifle, as Higgie had been.
"Lie down, you infernal brute!" he ordered. When the Dane thrust at him again he kicked back, taking Grip a sharp blow on the nose. Instantly the dog was upon him, toppling him back against the side of the drive. He felt its fangs in his shoulder, but the dog did not bite home. He fell away, and resuming his place in the rear, thrust Bob forward, uttering his blood-chilling growl.
"He means business all right," said Bob. "Well, here goes." He walked on in darkness, the dog following close at his heels, so close that if he loitered a little the push of the hard nose reminded him of Grip's vigilance.
The reef of the roof had powdered, and covered the floor of the tunnel with a thick, soft dust. Bob's feet made no sound; the dog moved behind him like a ghost. Far ahead shone the light, and as Bob advanced he perceived that it fell from the right hand side, not from above. He schooled himself for the coming interview, but no expectation formed by him was realised, and when presently he came into the presence of the workers he stood spellbound at the entrance of a large, cavern-like apartment hewn out of the reef, and shored up with stout timbers. This place was brightly lit with large lamps swung on chains from the roof, and here three men and a woman were working busily, so preoccupied with their tasks that none of them had seen the intruder.
Bob recognised the place. At one time horses had been used to haul the trucks, and this cavern had been excavated for a stable. It was no longer a stable, it had now the appearance of a busy workroom. Two men toiled, stripped to their flannels, at a curious mill through which they were rolling broad, flat strips of yellow metal that shone like gold, which, in fact, Bob took to be gold, and he had a miner's instinct for the precious metal. Another man stood over a crucible on a forge, slowly working the bellows, and in the far corner to Bob's left the woman was seated at a bench, slowly passing small discs of the same yellow metal through a rapid little machine worked from an oil motor against the opposite wall.
Bob's eye rested on the man at the forge, peering through large spectacles into his crucible, a thin, wire-drawn man with a crisp mass of drab hair. It was Uncle Joseph Flatman. The woman at the machine was Miriam Longmore. Working at the rolling mill were Slocombe, and a man whom Bob recognised from the description Higgie had given of his fiendish ugliness as Shuter. It seemed to the young man that Flatman might be a scientist engaged on some great invention.
Slocombe saw Bob when the latter had gazed for fully half a minute at the curious company. For a moment the man stared in blank surprise, then he pointed a slow, doubting finger at Holland. Shuter turned his eyes in Bob's direction and he, too, was silent for a few seconds, gazing as if confronting a spectre.
Presently Slocombe called softly, like one afraid of disturbing a quaint vision. "Perfesser!" he said. Then a little louder, "Perfesser!"
Uncle Joseph Flatman lifted his head, and peered over his spectacles at his companions. His eyes went to Robert Holland, and rested there. He showed none of the astonishment that marked the faces of his friends. When he spoke it was sharply, authoritatively.
"Shuter!" He swept a hand toward Holland.
Shuter, who had been looking for orders, moved towards Bob. The movement was menacing, and Bob realised that he was in danger. He half turned with the idea of running, but the great Dane, was snarling in the opening. He instantly faced about again.
"Keep off," said he. "Stand back, you loathsome brute!"
"Slocombe," ordered Flatman, and Slocombe advanced.
"Garn," said Slocombe, protestingly, "You don't wanter go callin' them names." Then earnestly, "You'll break his heart. You might have been struck that way yerself." He seemed quite concerned for poor Shuter's susceptibilities.
Shuter stood almost within striking distance, his great hands at his hips in a wrestler's attitude, but Bob stepped smartly forward, and drove a straight left into his face, sending him back against the mill, over the bed log of which he stumbled, and went sprawling in the dust.
Slocombe had had some experience of Bob's powers, he watched for a more favorable opening, and Shuter came again, creeping in the same attitude, and in him Bob recognised the dangerous enemy. He was a man to whom a blow meant little.
"I warn you, Mr. Hideous," said Bob. "I'll crack your monkey skull like a nut against that iron wheel. God! Flatman, whatever your dirty work may be, you have secured a sufficiently ill-looking monster to carry it out."
Shuter dropped his face, but before he did so Bob saw with astonishment the effect of his words. A strange piteousness had come into the man's repulsive countenance. Bob had seen the same look in a dog whipped by a loved master. Tears were running down his cheeks.
Slocombe protested again. "Ah-h-h, shut up! There ain't no sense in gettin' on to a pore bloke becoz of his misfortune."
Bob was beginning to find the situation humorous, but he caught a glimpse of Miriam. Her face was deathly grey, her eyes were wide with terror. To her plainly this was no jest.
Then Shuter rushed. Bob met him once more with a well planted left, and swung his right to the jaw, but Shuter bored in, taking him round the loins in an embrace that Bob respected.
"Grip!" commanded Flatman, and the great dog flew at the word, and fastened on Bob's neck near the shoulder. It was Slocombe's opportunity. He stepped smartly up with a spanner, and settled the dispute for the time being. Under his blow Bob sank to the floor, senseless.
Uncle Joseph Flatman threw a revolver from his hand on to the bench. Sinking her face in her palms, Miriam gave way to tears, sobbing convulsively. She stepped down from her seat, and stood behind Slocombe, who had turned Bob on to his back.
"Is he dead?" she whispered. "Oh! not dead—not dead?"
Uncle Joseph put her aside, and knelt by Bob on the floor. "You were a little heavy-handed, Dan," he said, "but he is all right." Then to Miriam. "Wash the wound, and tie it up. We must find a place for him. You see now whether my suspicions were well founded or not. He is a detective, or a damned spy of some sort!"
"Then we should not have continued. Oh, I pleaded with you not to. He might die. This is dreadful, dreadful. Poor fellow! Poor Bob!" She was already busying herself, dressing Holland's wound.
"Shuter," commanded Flatman, "go out and see if his friend is about. If not, cover this man's tracks. Be very careful."
"I'll be very pertickler."
"And don't mind what he said, P. Shuter," interposed Slocombe in soothing tones, pointing to Holland's unconscious form. "You ain't so bad as all that. Gorstruth! I've seen lots iv blokes worse lookin' thun you."
With his face bent to the floor. Shuter stumbled into the tunnel, and went on his mission.
When Robert Holland recovered consciousness he had a stiff neck, an aching shoulder, and a head that hummed with pain. There was a bandage about his head. He lay on a rough sort of bed in absolute silence and absolute darkness. He tried to call clearly to mind what had happened, and felt that a long time had elapsed since the fight in the cavern. On his knees he groped his way off the couch, and felt around him, seeking a clue to his whereabouts. The floor was earthen. The wall where he could reach it was earthen, too. He called, and his voice echoed back to him.
It occurred to Bob that he was still in the cavern. He felt for matches, but his pockets had been rifled. Bob moved about feeling cautiously. He was not, he found, in the large excavation. His present quarters were narrow, not more than seven feet from wall to wall, and the walls were of reef that powdered to sand between the fingers. He moved along the chamber lengthways, and came upon an upright log. Feeling carefully, he recognised a set of timber, and knew that he was in the drive of a mine. Presently he came to the "face," the wall of reef where operations had ceased. Turning his back to this he walked in the other direction, with even greater care. The shaft must lie this way, and there might be dangerous depths awaiting him there. At a distance of twenty-five paces he felt a gate-like structure barring further progress. He thrust an arm through, but could feel nothing beyond. He picked a morsel of reef from the wall, and threw it. The missile struck a wall, and after a second or so he heard it plunk into water below. Here, then, was the shaft, and it was deep and wet. He called again, but only the echo of his own voice, curiously warped, came back to him.
Sick at heart, Bob returned to his couch, and lay down. He was parched, famished, and feverish from his wound. What did his captors mean to do with him. Leave him where he was to perish of thirst and famine, perhaps. He started up at the grim thought. His out-thrown hand struck a bottle. The bottle contained cold tea. Feeling about on the floor by his bed he found a metal tureen. In this were sandwiches of mutton, and a thick slice of cake.
The discovery brought relief. At any rate there was no immediate intention of doing him serious mischief. He drank thirstily, and ate the sandwiches, and fell almost immediately into a deep sleep again, as if from the effect of a strong drug.
When Bob awakened he had no idea how long he had slept, but after a minute spent in uncertain speculation he started up with a cry. The drive was illuminated, feebly to be sure, but there was light, and the man who sat long in darkness, anticipating many days of darkness, alone knows what this means. A single candle in a spiked holder stuck in the side of the drive burnt down by the shaft. Bob sprang to his feet, and ran to the spot. The hurdle of stout slabs was still in place. A basket containing food and drink, and a couple of books, hung on a cord in the shaft within easy reach. Beyond the structure was the timbered wall of a shaft. Below was darkness, above so far as he could see was nothing but the black walls of the mine. He called and called again, and the echoes mocked him.
Holland realised that he was in an upper level of an old mine of which the tunnel was a part. His conjecture that the tunnel communicated with a shaft was correct. The air was good, and the drive in which he found himself was as dry as a bone, but as a prison it had much to commend it, it was practically unbreakable and absolutely exclusive. Assuming that the mouth of the shaft was well masked (and he understood that the man responsible for the cunningly disguised entrance to the tunnel would see to that) his friends might search for years, and never discover a clue to his fate.
The prisoner's heart jumped. He had recollected the pan, pick, and axe left on the bank of the creek; but his spirits fell again instantly. Uncle Joseph Flatman could be trusted to remove all discoverable traces of his victim, having the best incentive to great caution. It was a matter of self-preservation. Bob had no doubts as to the business on which Flatman and his subordinates were engaged in the cavern above. Uncle Joseph was a coiner. The small discs Miriam was engaged passing through her machine were undoubtedly sovereigns receiving a finishing touch. Here deep in the bush a busy mint was actively employed, turning out false coin, and doubtless it was the coiners' intention to keep him securely stowed, till such time as they could get safely away.
Already Holland's active imagination had explained Mary Longmore's connection with the business. Her store in Melbourne was the centre of distribution. No doubt the tins of honey and boxes of butter she received from the farm managed by Uncle Joseph Flatman hid the illicit sovereigns forwarded to her.
In the days that followed Robert Holland lost track of time; he could not separate day from night. He ate, and slept, and read, but most of his waking hours were spent in deep thought. He had much to speculate upon his probable fate, what was being done for him above there in the light of day, what action his friends had taken, how Higginson was behaving, what Olivia was thinking. Fate, at least, had given him a subject for endless dreams and tireless thought—Olivia. Did she miss him? Would she care? Was this to her just a misadventure to a casual acquaintance, or a catastrophe affecting her own life. He had seen something in the girl's face that gave him reason to believe the blow would not fall lightly upon her.
BOB wrote many notes to his captors, and sent them up in the basket. His request for writing materials had produced a lead pencil and an exercise book. His notes were sometimes threatening, sometimes appealing, but they provoked no verbal reply. In response to a demand water and soap were provided. In fact he was given anything in reason he might ask for. His watch and most of his belongings were eventually returned to him.
Meanwhile his lengthening hair reminded him of the passage of the days. He had had a clean shave on the morning on which he was led into captivity, he had how quite a considerable beard. The long, futile search for his body had probably been abandoned. It would be thought he had perished in the bush. Olivia would think that. He was just another the wilderness had engulfed, and refused to account for. She was mourning him as dead. Eventually he would be forgotten. From thoughts of Olivia he turned to schemes for effecting his escape. Long these seemed utterly hopeless, but eventually there came an idea that seemed to offer some feeble chance. Two or three times, disturbed by a faint sound, he had discovered a face peering at him through the timbers of the barricade across the drive, a face of such ugliness that at the first glance he had believed himself the victim of a fearful nightmare, but the next moment he recognised Shuter, and sprang forward to speak with the man. His effort was fruitless; Peter went up the side of the shaft with extraordinary agility. He reappeared again not every day, but at odd times, and Bob concluded that he came down on a rope ladder as precaution, merely to see that the prisoner was still secure.
Out of these visits Bob fashioned a hope. He might break down some portion of the barrier, lie in waiting for Shuter, attack him, throw him into the shaft perhaps, and utilise his rope ladder to regain the tunnel. Seeking about the drive he had found under a small heap of loose reef a battered pick head. He had seized upon this eagerly as a weapon, and now he used it in his effort to displace the timbers fencing him off from the shaft. He toiled for hours, slept and resumed his efforts again and again, without the smallest result. The timbers were heavy and sound, they were secured with great spikes which no effort of his could budge a fraction of an inch. He thought of burning the wood, but it was green, and after he had wasted two days' supply of candles he abandoned that idea, and turned again in his disappointment to the making of verses. He wrote of love and Olivia and the green earth, and the rioting sunshine. Never had heart of man so loved love and the splendor of day.
Now Holland was spending much time, walking a beat he had made for himself the length of his prison chamber. From the "face" to the barricade he tramped, from the barricade to the "face," to and fro, with the insistence of a caged bear. He had come to an understanding of the brutes of the zoos in their monotonous and tireless jaunt—it was the response to an intolerable necessity, the healthy creature's need of action, and in a measure it sprang from the gnawing lust for revenge. As time sped there grew in Holland a terrible craving for the blood of the wretches responsible for his sufferings. He endeavored to weary this anguish of hatred by deliberate effort.
And still he plotted. Of course there was a way out. There must be many ways. What ingenious device would serve to give him his liberty. It came to him as he lay, deliberating in what he believed to be the dead of night and he jumped to his feet with a cry eager to begin. Then he lay down again to think the idea out clearly and definitely. Satisfied at length that he had discovered a likely means of deliverance he lit his candle, and set about his task.
In his endeavor to break down the barrier across the shaft he had torn a long splinter of wood from one slab. From this he must fashion a handle for his pick. It was a long and wearisome job, with no tool but a splinter of quartz and the jagged edge of a tin plate he had torn to serve as a saw and he had to work warily. Any moment the silent visitor from above might descend upon him and discover his purpose.
Bob had sought to divide day from night by the appearance of the basket at the barricade, and by a record of Shuter's visits. He estimated that the basket was brought at some time in the morning, and that Shuter dropped his rope ladder, and paid his visit during working hours in the cavern. He accustomed himself to listening for the fall of the ladder. Once he pleaded with Peter for the time. His watch when returned to him, had run down. Shuter made no reply.
"Damn it, man, you might tell me is it day or night." But Shuter was dumb.
The man's seeming imperturbility threw Bob into a furious rage. "You swine!" he cried through the bars of his cage, "look out for me. If ever I get out of this I'll do for you. I swear to God I'll be the death of you."
But Bob set his watch by Peter Shuter, making him eleven a.m. That was the hour at which he was to be expected. He noticed in due course that the visits were fairly regular as to the hour, although 48 hours might pass without a call.
Having decided, Bob proceeded to turn their day into his night. This would give him the night free for work. With his precious pick, and the fragment of the tin plate for a shovel, he started digging into the "face" of the drive. He was beginning a new drive, but a very small one, just large enough for him to wriggle his body into and continue digging. The dirt resulting from his toil he collected on the rug of his bed, and dropped through the barricade into the shaft.
On desisting for the night he carefully blocked the opening he had made with bits of reef, so that close scrutiny would have been necessary to detect evidence of operations. Later he devised a kind of trap door, using the covers of his exercise book and the covers of two novels for his purpose. These had to be fastened together to make a single piece of the dimensions necessary. He overlapped them, and laced the edges with string that had come round various parcels of food. With the remains of a helping of rice pudding he made a paste, and strengthened his trap door, pasting leaf after leaf torn from a book upon the cardboard, till he had a stout square of material. This square he proceeded to coat thickly with a mortar made from the reef, and into the mortar while it was still wet he stuck various lumps of reef. The result was a screen that exactly corresponded with the rest of the wall.
Bob had made the square of his small drive with meticulous care, and the screen he manufactured fitted it so closely that the drive was perfectly concealed when the blind was in place.
So far the prisoner's efforts had provoked no suspicion. His estimate of the time had proved fairly correct. He worked by night and slept by day. Shuter's reports were always satisfactory. "He appears to be always asleep," said Peter, one afternoon.
"Lucky to be able to," grunted Uncle Joseph Flatman. "It passes the time, and he will have a lot of time to pass before we are done with him."
"Pretty rotten 'ard mozzle for Holland," commented Slocombe, "seeing it turns out he wasn't a cop or anythin' of that sort."
"It will be a lesson to him against peeping and prying," replied Flatman, who was not above finding a conventional justification for his conduct. He was now a moralist administering salutary punishment.
Miriam had returned to Melbourne. Higginson, calling on the boys at the hut, had learned of the success of dryer's painting of Mary Longmore as Carmen. It had been exhibited and received as the picture of the year, and Mary had paid Fryer's price ungrudgingly.
Higgie took a meal with the three friends at the Hut. He found them eager for news of Bob. The papers had told the story of the disappearance with elaborate detail, and Macalpin of the "Adviser" had spoken of the death of Robert Holland as a serious loss to Australian literature, while the "Native" had given a full column of warm appreciation to the youthful author of the justly celebrated "Letters to Nobody," but the three rained questions upon Higginson, unanswerable questions for the most part.
All had felt Bob's death keenly. Jan Strikowski was, if anything, more distressed than his companions.
"Der iss a bad luck on this howse," said he. "Someting it happen to all der goot fellows vot come here—death or marriage."
Higginson told them of Olivia, and they listened in sympathetic silence, but the account Higgie gave of the treatment Bob had received at the hands of Miriam Longmore provoked astonished comment.
"Could it have been jealousy?" asked Inglis.
"She was apparently very sweet on him here," Fryer put in.
The possibility had not occurred to Higginson. "At any rate it was not Olivia provoked it. Miss Longmore had taken up a deuced cold attitude towards poor Bob before he ever met Miss Peebles."
"Yet the mother remained on the best of terms with us all here. If there was a quarrel she was no party to it."
Higgie again gave expression to his fear of foul play. "It may not sound logical and all that, but, by Jove, I can't get away from the notion that somebody had us set. The police thought a chap was simply potty about it, but well-directed rifles don't explode of their own accord, and tents don't take fire out of mere perversity—what?"
"You don't suggest that Miriam Longmore or this uncle——" Inglis did not finish his sentence.
Higgie shook his head. "They were confoundedly ungracious," he said, "but I would not say murderous, although they did keep a bally brute of a dog at large that was as dangerous as a grown lion."
"Neither the shooting nor the burning of your camp can be proved to have been a malignant act," argued Jimmie, "and the coldness of Miriam can be explained on the assumption that Bob was at some time a little too effusive a suitor."
"He was distinctly inflammable, and very prompt in stating his case," said Fryer.
"Eet iss most like he haff got heemself bit mit a snake." This was the Baron's suggestion.
Higginson shook his head. "He would have made for home," said he. "He carried an antidote that would have kept him up for some time, if it did not cure. Snakes were pretty numerous about the creek, and we took this precaution."
They gave the problem best, and devoted themselves to the enumeration of Bob's good qualities. At almost the same time the fate of Robert Holland was being discussed in another Melbourne home; Mary Longmore and her daughter were seated in their breakfast room, a favorite apartment, Miriam held a book, and was staring steadfastly above it at a spot on the wall. Mary was looking almost as fixedly at the girl.
"For heaven's sake, my dear girl, don't stare at nothing in that insane way," cried Mary—"you give me the creeps."
Miriam lowered her hook into her lap. "Mother," she said decisively, "I am going back to Selkirk."
Mrs. Longmore arose, went quietly to the door, and opened it. Having satisfied herself neither of the servants was at the keyhole, she returned, and drew her chair nearer to her daughter.
"If we are to discuss the well-worn theme of Lieutenant Holland's misfortunes, let us not forget the important fact that walls have ears, my dear."
"I am going back," Miriam repeated, with the same emphasis.
"And why, in the name of heaven?"
"Because I do not trust any of them up there to treat that poor fellow with common decency."
"You can depend upon Joe seeing no particular harm comes to him."
"No particular harm? And the boy buried in the earth, shut off from sun, and light, and all companionship! If you had seen Uncle Joe when Bob appeared in the chamber, a pistol in his hand, and his face black with murder."
"Tut, tut, tut!"
"Yes, murder—murder—murder! You would have no more confidence in his assurances than I have. He would have shot Bob down like a dog had the poor fellow had the smallest chance of escaping."
"You don't forget the pretty pickle we would have been in, had he got away, knowing what he knew."
"Mother, do you believe that our danger was sufficient justification for Bob's death?"
"Don't let us talk of death. Nobody is going to die. But Lieutenant Holland must stay where he is till this big, new batch is finished and disposed of. These sovereigns, like the others, will go to China and India. Then we must sell the farm and the business, and get right away to some country where we shall be safe."
"It is a shameful thing. Mother, mother, why did you ever permit yourself to be drawn into it?"
"I think, Miriam, we have talked that matter pretty well to death."
"It was never worth while—never, never. You have never had a moment's true happiness since. You have been surrounded with fear and suspicion by day and night. It was your doubts and fears involved Bob, and after all he had no thought of us that was not kind and friendly."
"You must admit it was very suspicious—his dropping in at the store the way he did, his sudden interest in us, and then his visit to the very spot in all the world that made him a danger to us. Then the meeting with detective Bean on the station platform."
"Yet there was nothing in it all but the dangers with which our guilty consciences invested it, and Uncle Joe's actions gave Bob and his friend good ground for the belief that we were either mad or hiding something of which we were terribly afraid. You think Uncle Joe very wise, but his action in setting Shuter to fire at Bob and Higginson was the act of a fool. As if a soldier fresh from the field of battle was going to be scared into ignominious flight by the report of a rifle. Burning the camp and setting Grip to kill their dogs might have driven them off if they had been arrant cowards; as it was these efforts were acts of almost childish folly."
"Perhaps. Who can say what might have happened if there had been a dog left to put on Holland's tracks?"
"And when at length the idea that the two young men were on detective work was exploded, Uncle Joe would not abandon his attitude of truculence. If I had been permitted to make friends this terrible thing would not have happened. I can't sleep, I cannot eat, I can do nothing with an easy mind while that poor fellow is penned up in the bowels of the earth, like a toad in a stone. It will drive him mad. It is driving me mad. I am going back."
"Miriam, don't be a fool. You don't want to spend ten years of your life in gaol, do you? You don't want me to finish my days in Pentridge?"
"Oh, don't be afraid, mother; I shall do nothing to bring down upon us all the fate we richly deserve, but I shall see to it that everything is done that can be done to soften that poor fellow's hard lot. Fancy leaving him to the mercy of Shuter."
"You know I am miserably lonesome here when you are away."
"Mother, you can talk of loneliness. Think of Bob Holland buried alive."
"The fact is, my girl, you are more than half in love with this chap."
Miriam looked at her mother, with a touch of defiance, smiled a smile that was half a sneer, and then collapsed with her head on her arms, and gave way to tears.
It was an unusual sight. Mary Longmore had not seen her daughter weep since she was ten. She sat looking at her now in helpless amazement, and, "Well, bless my soul," was all she could say.
Meanwhile Bob Holland was busy working out his own salvation. Progress was slow, but it was continuous, and the effort was a good thing for the prisoner: mind and hand were occupied. He worked, ate, and slept, and had little time for gloomy introspection. Hope was aglow in his heart. He was almost happy.
There appeared a marked improvement in the quality of his food; he was well supplied with books. He found a certain judgment used in the selection of the latter. Daily and weekly papers came down in the basket, and he formed a good idea of the date, and the length of his stay in the drive. A quantity of writing paper and pens and ink were provided. This gave Bob a hint of the giver. Who but Miriam would think of the possibility of his giving his time up to literary labor? Scissors and razor were denied him, however, and Bob was now profusely bewhiskered, and his hair was creeping down his back. He might have given a lively impersonation of the wild man of the woods, without the assistance of "make-up" or accessories, for his clothing was badly worn as a result of his labor, and had taken on the color of his surroundings.
When he had burrowed in to a distance of about five feet, Robert Holland turned upon his back. He commenced to dig in an upward direction. It was a distinctly awkward and uncomfortable task. The broken reef fell into his face. The fact that he must work with closed eyes made small difference, as he was working in the dark all the time.
The pick was a blunt and ineffective tool. He clawed the broken reef with his fingers as it fell, and he could put in only about an eight-hour shift, the dread of being caught on the job compelling extraordinary caution. Weeks were spent in the performance of a task that might have been accomplished in two days with effective tools, but there was a great object in view, and hope burned like a star in the back chamber he was making.
Recognising several of the books he had received as from the library of Alexander Peebles, Bob scribbled cryptic messages on the margins, hoping they might meet Olivia's eye; but it was only a vain hope, as it did not seem at all likely that the books would be returned to the library without being subjected to a careful scrutiny. He was right in this surmise. The messages met Miriam's eye only. The problem of solving them afforded her a pastime of extraordinary interest.
By piecing together passages marked in a peculiar way she evolved a message that set her heart beating. It was most effective, even loving and tender, and tears fell upon the book, when at length she was satisfied she had read the meaning aright.
"Oh, thank God!" she whispered, "he does not hold me to blame. He loves me still."
She examined the other volumes with feverish regard, and in one she eventually spelled, out the sentence:
"Imprisoned in old mine.—Bob."
Miriam dropped the book, and stood erect, clutching the mantel-shelf, staring down into the fire. Then the messages were not for her. He must know she was well aware of the prison place. Whom, then, was he addressing. Into whose hands did he expect those books to fall. She went to work again, even more eagerly than before, but in anger now, and at length a suspicion that had dawned faintly was confirmed.
It was Olivia Peebles to whom the tender words were addressed, it was she to whom he was looking, for succor. That half savage, that wretched creature scarcely right in her mind after life-long burial in the stupid bush. With a furious motion, Miriam hurled the book into the flames. With glowing eyes she watched it burn, her heart beating with a force that seemed to shake her whole body. The last message traced out read:
"Olivia. I love you, and I am well. The old mine. Help me."
"He loves her, this wild girl, and only a few weeks ago he talked love to me, looked into my eyes. I hate him, I despise him. Let him stay in his prison. Let him suffer. He has made me suffer, why should I help him, why should I eat my heart out with grief for him?"
Next day Miriam Longmore tried to put herself in Olivia's way, but it was not until the evening that they met, and then quite by accident. Miriam came upon the girl walking up the track Flatman's people had made through the bush on the way to Tadmor. Olivia was leading her pony; the dog Nero, footsore as if from a long day's hunting in spear grass and bracken, limped by her side. Miriam was startled at the change in Olivia. The girl was pale, the healthy, deep-olive tinge had gone from her face, her cheeks were hollow and her dark eyes had a sunken look. The dark circles in which they were set gave her face a strange and eerie look. Her skirt was torn, her hair fell loosely about her ears, and utter weariness hung about her, dragging her limbs, and weighing upon her head.
"Why, you poor thing, where have you been?" said Miriam sharply.
Olivia lifted a limp arm towards the hills. "I have been there in the dark gorges," she answered softly.
"You are worn out."
Olivia nodded weakly. "It is a far way, it has been a long search," she said.
"But why do you do such a thing? You might be bushed. Something might happen to you."'
The girl shook her head. "I must go. I could not rest. I must find him. He was my good friend. He was so kind and gentle. There was no other like him in all the world."
"Him? Whom?" Miriam drew nearer. "You mean Robert Holland?"
Olivia threw her arm over the pony, and leaned upon him. She bent her head wearily. "I could never desert him." Her voice was little more than a whisper.
"But what was Bob Holland to you that you should wear your heart out for him?" Miriam's voice did not wholly disguise her anger, the movement she made towards Olivia was almost threatening.
Olivia answered simply, "He was my friend."
"Your friend! You mean your lover."
Olivia looked at Miriam with quiet eyes. "My lover?" she asked with wonder. "My lover!" She started her pony, and turned off from the track in the direction of her own home. "My lover," she repeated, and as she went the same words drifted again and again from her lips, "My lover. My lover." The tears stole down her cheeks unheeded.
Had he indeed been her lover, her own lover. Miriam had given words to dreams Olivia had never shaped so definitely, and her loss seemed the more poignant for the thoughts flowing from those words. Her resolution was redoubled: she lifted her head, her step was firmer. To-morrow the search must be renewed.
That evening after dinner Flatman commented on Miriam's appearance.
"You are looking washed out," said he—"wretched. This is no place for you."
"All the same I intend to stay here while Holland is in your hands, uncle."
"And a lot of good you can do."
Miriam's face clouded, tears filled her eyes. "I don't even know that I want to do good," she said.
Uncle Joseph Flatman looked at her closely. Her proneness to tears of late had not gone unnoticed, and Miriam had been a proud girl, hardness had been her marked characteristic. Flatman had trusted her where he would have trusted no man. He pursed his lips now, "Ah-h," he said.
"And just what do you mean by that self-satisfied grunt?" asked the girl angrily.
"Your mother is right. You are in love with this fellow, Holland."
"Mother has written that nonsense of hers to you?" Miriam's fine eyes took on a distinctly unpleasant glow. "Mother will regret it deeply if she sets herself to make a fool of me. Tell her so."
Uncle Joseph had been about to add that the conclusion was his own. He changed his mind, and went on with the filling of his pipe.
"I want to know," said Miriam presently, "just how long this is to go on."
"We cannot clean up and get away in less than three months. Your mother's business is for sale. I have had an offer for the farm and orchard."
"And he is to stay where he is for another three months?"
"For three months at least. I have the largest clutch in hand that we have ever ventured on. It's a ghastly shame that we have to abandon this goose of the golden eggs. If I had my way it would not be for five years."
"Perhaps we need not be in any great hurry after all."
Flatman jumped to his feet. "You mean you withdraw your objection to our keeping Holland where he is indefinitely?"
"I mean that perhaps we need not rush things." Miriam's face was crimson, her lips were tremulous. She hastened from the room to hide her tears.
Uncle Joseph Flatman remained seated, staring after her, his unlit pipe between his teeth, for fully ten minutes, then he repeated his sagacious summing up of the situation. "Ah-h!" he said.
Work was being carried on in the underground stable just as before. Uncle Joseph had greatest confidence in his methods. He left fears and doubts to his sister. Their mintage was not disposed of in Australia. Returning Chinese and Hindoos carried it to Asia, and although a very large sum had been disposed of in this way so far no complaint, no hint of suspicion had come back.
In point of fact, Uncle Joseph Flatman's sovereign was so excellent an imitation that it might have been passed through the hands of an expert without trepidation. It was to some extent a golden sovereign, and to procure the real metal that went to giving this fine forgery its convincing ring and satisfactory exterior, Shuter and Slocombe were working a bed of alluvial in a secret place where the creek came down through the Hidden Hills.
This latter enterprise was not particularly good considered as a mining venture, but it produced sufficient gold for the "Professor's" purpose, and some fear of Bob eventually dropping on their claim had helped to make him a most undesirable resident from Flatman's point of view.
Uncle Joseph had discovered a method of impregnating a base metal with gold, and this gave the idea of setting up for himself as a money maker in a new country some little time after his exquisitely drawn Bank of England five-pound note had begun to excite suspicion in London. It was in its way a far cleverer thing than the original, but banks are so punctilious.
Uncle Joseph's specious arguments had drawn Mary Longmore into his venture at a time when the city business, beset by larger and more enterprising rivals, was being threatened with bankruptcy. Uncle Joseph's smartly managed farm had helped to rehabilitate the town house, while it afforded ample and excellent cover for passing the product of their other profitable private enterprise over Government railway lines. Many a jar of honey had covered layers of bright new sovereigns, many a box of butter had owed some excess of weight to the bright yellow coins embedded in its centre.
One day Uncle Joseph turned from his work in the cavern, and dropping a rope ladder, secured to the top of the opening set of timber in the tunnel, into the shaft of the old Barrenjack mine, went down, and finding a footing on the barricade at the mouth of Bob's drive, flashed an electric torch into the chamber.
Robert Holland lay sleeping on his bunk, the sleep of a weary man, and he only awoke when the bright light had been playing on his face for a couple of minutes. He sat up abruptly, bewildered by the glare, and Flatman kept the bright beam full in his eyes.
"You sleep like a monkey bear," said Uncle Joseph, "turning night into day."
Bob was on his feet, a mad hope that succor was at hand having leapt into his mind. He advanced to the barricade.
"What is it?" he demanded.
Uncle Joseph turned the torch upon himself, a dry smile played upon his features.
"I am a particular friend of yours," he said.
"Save me from my friends," Bob replied dryly. "Have you come to liberate me from this private hell?"
Bob sprang forward a stride, he peered through his barricade, and Uncle Joseph moved cautiously beyond the reach of a possible weapon.
"What do you mean—perhaps?" demanded Holland.
"I mean possibly. It depends upon yourself."
"Out with it, whatever's coming." Bob was breathing in short gasps, his heart was beating wildly.
Back on the rope ladder, Uncle Joseph eyed Bob Holland critically. All the tan had gone from the young man's cheeks, his face was puffy and pale, and he showed an unhealthy fatness. A dull sullenness was upon him.
"You are not the pert young soldier you were," said Flatman with a grin.
"Have you taken the trouble to come down here to jibe at me?" said Bob. "It's poor sport. A slight change of luck, and it might be my turn to crack a joke. Then head over tip you'd go into the black waters below."
"No, no, no," protested the other, "I am not jeering. As I have just said, possibly I am your good friend. There is a way out of this, if you care to take it."
"Well? You are going to propound terms."
"Yes. I suppose you have formed an idea of what is going on up there in the old mine stable?"
"I suppose I have."
"It is a particularly profitable game."
"I don't doubt it. It should be distinctly lucrative—while it lasts."
"And it has lasted for two years."
"This sounds like an inducement."
"It is meant to. What do you say to standing in? Before answering, let me offer you this." He reached over, and placed a sovereign on the edge of the slab nearest him.
Bob took up the coin. "Thanks," he said with an ironical smile.
"Examine it closely."
"It looks as much like the genuine thing as a forgery could, I suppose."
"It looks more like the genuine thing than does the genuine thing itself at times. In fact it defies detection. It is actually a gold sovereign as much as those links of yours are gold, yet, there is a profit of 75 per cent. on it."
"And what of it?"
"Bluntly, what do you think of a working partnership?"
"I become a forger?"
"To be sure. Why not? There is nothing the world needs more than money, help fill a long-felt want. Necessarily you will be for some time, and to some extent, our prisoner. That is until you are quite involved and have given us a sufficient guarantee of good faith."
"A guarantee of good faith? What would that be?"
Uncle Joseph Flatman pursed his lips, and lingered a moment. "You might become definitely one of us—one of the family even."
"I don't follow you."
"Dear me, it's all so very simple. There is Miriam, for instance; a fine girl, handsome, spirited, affectionate"—he lingered over the word—"and unmarried."
Bob was silent for half a minute. He fully understood. Presently he said. "And what does the spirited Miss Longmore think of this proposition?"
"She could be reconciled to it, if we were judicious."
"Have you put it to her?"
"That fact that I am alive, and am not lamed or winged answers that. No, it has not been put to Miss Longmore, but Miss Longmore may have put other ideas occasionally which may justify me in the belief that the arrangement I suggest is within the bounds of possibility."
"And if I accept?"
"You will work with us up above, you will participate in our profits. In non-working hours you will be detained down here until such time as the wedding is celebrated at the farm."
"And I am to become an efficient forger?"
"I will undertake to make you that."
"You can go to hell, Uncle Joseph Flatman!"
Uncle Joseph was quite unmoved. "You prefer to remain a virtuous young man under ground. So be it. But, I warn you, you will have a long long time for repentance."
"When I repent I will let you know."
"That is understood. I will look you up again in a week or so, when you have had time for reflection in a milder mood."
Uncle Joseph went slowly up the ladder and drew it up after him, as was always done, and Bob returned to his bed, but not to sleep: he lay awake thinking over Flatman's significant words with reference to Miriam. He did not regret his action, although he recognised that the offer he had refused opened wide an opportunity for escape. He would have no compunction about entering into an agreement with these men, however solemn, and breaking it at the first opportunity; but he had grasped the fact that this scheme would serve if his own should fail. Come what may he would never marry Miriam Longmore, but he would undertake to do so, if by that deceit he could outwit the villainy of his enemies, among whom Miriam Longmore must be numbered.
This train of thought led to Olivia. He thought of the night by the lagoon, and the slight, ivory figure running in the moonlight; he thought of her as she stood and as she looked on that day when he kissed her soft cheek, and he wondered how it was possible he had ever been attracted by Miriam's rude beauty and cold worldliness.
"Olivia! Olivia!" The drive echoed the cry, as it had done a thousand times, and at that moment Olivia, standing on the hillside above not fifty yards from his prison, looking out over a stretch of bush, lifted her arms to the passionless, secretive trees and the secretive hills, and three times she called his name. Miriam Longmore coming from the tunnel hidden in a clump of saplings, heard her, and hated her for it.
"She believes him utterly lost, yet she is not as wretched as I," was the thought at Miriam's heart. "Her romance is true, her faith is sincere. And one day he will come back to her. Never! Never!"
Miriam had no deliberately formed evil intention, it was her passion that framed the words.
Bob spent the night following on Flatman's visit, sawing the edge of one of the big planks forming the pallisade across the drive, with the torn tin plate. He would saw two cuts within a distance of two inches of each other to a depth of half an inch, and then chip away the timber between with the point of his pick. He worked at this for fully ten hours, at the end of which time he had gnawed away so much of the plank that it might have been possible to squeeze his body through.
But once through what hope had he. The sides of the shaft rose smooth and perpendicular, without a single toe-hole, and slippery with mossy and fungoid growth. So hopeless was his chance of making a way up the centres, that the barricade across the drive was quite unnecessary, excepting as a safeguard to keep the prisoner from a plunge into the depths of the Barrenjack shaft.
When he had completed his task to his satisfaction. Bob drew his coat several times through the aperture he had made, scratching it roughly on the raw edges of the timber.
At eleven o'clock on the following day Shuter went down the ladder on his trip of inspection. He returned in a few minutes, dashing into the cavern where Flatman and Slocombe were at work.
"He's gone!" Shuter stood in the entrance, his terrible face paste color, he pointed a shaking hand the way he had come. "He's gone, I tell yeh. The drive's empty."
"Gone! Holland gone?" Uncle Joseph was confronting Shuter, peering into his eyes for further evidence of the madness he half suspected. "It's not possible."
"See for yerself. He is gone."
Uncle Joseph Flatman snatched up his electric torch, and ran for the ladder. Below he threw the strong light into the drive, searching every part of it. There was no sign of Robert Holland, but there was one place where the prisoner might be concealed—under his bunk, the rug of which hung half from the bed, trailing on the floor.
"You can come out from under the bunk," said Uncle Joseph casually. "I would like a little further talk with you on a subject I have already mentioned."
There was no reply, and Uncle Joseph continued in a taunting voice: "You are wise, my friend. How do you think this is going to serve you? If you decide to be non est we may resolve to withhold light, and food, and water. The daily supply is due, if you want it, you will have to call for it."
The electric torch searched the bed for some sign of the prisoner, but there was no sign, and after a little more vain and foolish talk Uncle Joseph went up the ladder, a very puzzled and perturbed man.
"Did you look for a track?" he demanded of Shuter, indicating the dust in the tunnel.
"There was none but those we've made. He couldn't come up the shaft. No living thing could do it."
"Then he is hiding under the bunk."
"P'r'ps not." Shuter pointed down with grim significance. "There's that way."
"What into the shaft? Suicide?" Shuter nodded. "Don't he a damn fool!" said Flatman.
Nevertheless, the idea gave Uncle Joseph poignant concern. "Get down there, you Peter, and rig a staging. You lower the slabs, Slocombe, and don't stand there, gaping like a stuck pig. We must have that barrier away. Quick!"
In a quarter of an hour the staging was in place across the shaft down at the first level, and the three men on it labored to tear out one of the slabs. Flatman was the first to crawl through. He went straight to the bed with his torch, kicked the rug aside, and peered under.
"No one, by God!" said he. He swept the length of the drive with his torch. He even went to the end near the face, and scattered a small pile of broken reef. It was a foolish thing to do, the act of a man distraught. The pile was not big enough to conceal a dead cat.
Shuter had lit a candle, and was peering about. The three felt themselves in the presence of a miracle.
"'Professor,' jest come here," called Shuter. He was examining the slabs of the barrier. "Say, what d'yeh make of this?" he pointed to a freshly broken place in the timber, widening the gap between planks.
Uncle Joseph Flatman brought his torch to bear, and they examined the gap closely. Shuter pulled some strands of wool from the rough edge, and held them up to the Professor, who recoiled from them with the first evidence of fear his associates had ever seen him betray.
"What 'id I tell yer?" said Shuter. "He went through there, and headlong down. He's down there now a dead man." He peered into the depths, and started back with a shudder.
"I don't believe it," Uncle Joseph almost quaked.
"There's nothin' more certain sure on God's earth."
But Uncle Joseph went back the length of the drive, seeking again. He returned to his companions, looking very white. "By God, it's true!" said he, and he sat on the bunk, looking helplessly to the right and left.
"Well, Gorstruth, we didn't kill him!" piped Slocombe in a fierce, argumentative tone. "Our troubles. We never done it. If he goes an' kills hisself it's his own lookout, ain't it?"
Flatman struck at him fiercely with the torch. "Hold your yap, you damned fool!" said he.
AT the evening meal Uncle Joseph Flatman was very restrained. Miriam notices he had no appetite, an extraordinary thing, Uncle Joseph's appetite in normal conditions being one of his most vigorous attributes. Miriam noticed, too, his shiftiness and preoccupation. "There is something wrong," said the girl, decisively.
"Huh?" Uncle Joseph looked at her with faraway eyes.
"You know quite well what I said, Uncle Joe. Something is the matter."
"Yes, I am a little out of sorts. I need pills."
"You were never out or sorts in your life. Things have gone wrong at the Mine, and you are trying to keep me in the dark. You should realise by this that it is not possible to fool me. If I am not told I shall go and look for myself. I have an idea I shall go and look in any case. You don't imagine I would hesitate to use the rope ladder, if I thought it advisable, do you?"
Uncle Joseph Flatman put up a hand, and wagged his head despairingly. "I set no limits to your folly," he answered. "I don't admit that anything is wrong. On the contrary, I am of opinion that things could not very well be better. Events in short, have worked out very much to my satisfaction."
"Events? What events? Is it anything to do with Lieutenant Holland?"
"In a measure, yes. Lieutenant Holland, my dear, has ceased to be a problem."
"Just what do you mean by that? You are doing your best to irritate me."
"God forbid! Lieutenant Holland has disappeared."
Miriam backed to her chair, and sat down. "Disappeared. How, disappeared?"
"He is not in the drive. When Shuter went down to-day the drive was deserted—our prisoner was gone."
"But you have said again and again that escape up the shaft was impossible."
Miriam was in a whirl of bewilderment, she saw nothing clearly. She felt that there was something behind Flatman's confession. She did not trust him.
"I still say that escape UP the shaft was impossible."
She noted the emphasis. "If not up then DOWN." She was on her feet again, leaning across the table, looking into her uncle's eyes.
Uncle Joseph sprang to his feet, and strode the room. "It was his own doing. The young fool must have made an effort to escape. He hacked away a portion of one of the slabs, and dragged his body through, and, as must have seemed inevitable to him if he had not been half an idiot, he fell."
Miriam, leaning against the table, followed her uncle with incredulous eyes. The shock had distracted her. "There is more, more," she said—"tell me."
"What more do you want? He tried to climb a shaft that a monkey could not scale, and he paid the penalty."
"You are sure? You are absolutely certain? You have been down? You have found the—the body?"
"I have not. Have you any idea of the depth of the Barrenjack shaft? Do you know there is probably eighty feet or water in it? Without rope or windlass, it could not be done. No, he is there; he is done for. There let him bide."
"I will not! You will not!" cried Miriam wildly. "I won't have it. Oh, my God! then this is the end of our infamy? it is murder at last. I dreaded it; I foresaw it. I did not trust you." She threw an accusing hand towards him. "I have felt it in my very bones that you hoped for his death as the easy way out. I have seen it in Shuter's dreadful eyes. It has filled my nights with terror."
Flatman swung round in front of her, his face was as hard as flint. "Don't you be an infernal fool," said he. "I had no finger in this. Shuter had nothing to do with it, absolutely nothing. You think Shuter an unmitigated scoundrel because he has the bad luck to look like one, but down in your heart you know that that is a lie, that Shuter is not vicious in that way. He would not hurt a sick kitten. He is coming in here to-night. Be very careful you do nothing to weaken his allegiance. Slocombe is coming, too. We are going to talk matters over."
"Oh, I don't know what to do," wailed Miriam. "I am a miserable wretch, utterly miserable. Misery will cling about me all my life."
"You are a fool," replied Uncle Joseph. "Why should you fret yourself into melancholia over this fellow?" Uncle Joseph bent to her ear. "He had no use for you, I know it. I had it from his own lips in effect. Be sure the concern of the Peebles girl is not for nothing."
Miriam, with her face down upon her arms, was sobbing desolately. She heard his words, but gave no answer.
The consultation with Shuter and Slocombe resolved itself into a more or less philosophical acceptance of the position, and the dictation of a line of conduct by Uncle Joseph.
"We shall go on just as usual," said the 'Professor.' "This development, however unfortunate for Holland, suits our programme admirably. It is no longer necessary to hasten our present measures, or to abandon the game. We are not morally or legally responsible for Holland's death, and we need not let it trouble us a great deal. Of course it is a very great pity that things have turned out as they have, we had nothing in particular against this young chap—it was just his bad luck."
Uncle Joseph Flatman paused. Shuter, sitting opposite him at the fire place, emitted a sob. His face was buried in a large, colored handkerchief. The man was genuinely moved, but Miriam regarded his manifestation with loathing. She found something sinister in everything he did.
Slocombe was more sympathetic. "There, there, P. Shuter," he said, patting Peter soothingly on the shoulder—"don't you go for to take it to 'eart like that. He never done you no good, 'n' you never done him no 'arm. 'Twas me fetched him the skelp that flattened him in the Mint. Why, you've bin his friend, if it comes to that."
"But he's dead down there in the dark. And him on'y a kid," Peter shuddered at the thought. "And he might haunt us!"
"Shuter, you're an ass!" snorted Flatman.
"Well, what's to prevent him?" demanded Peter Shuter. "Tell me that—what's to hinder him hauntin' us, if he takes it in his head?"
Uncle Joseph, seeing danger to his enterprise in Shuter's superstition, delivered a terse dissertation on the ghost as an impracticable and unbelievable proposition, but logic was vain, against the faith that impregnated Shuter's bones.
"We have to keep our tongues between our teeth," said Flatman. "As long as we do not tell the fate of Holland must remain a mystery."
"And he is to remain down there," said Miriam—"for ever?" Her face was blanched, her lips were trembling. "Then I hope he will haunt you. I pray to Heaven he may rise from the dark waters, and make your lives hell to you." She looked like avenging Fate, standing above them, the masses of copper hair disarranged, haloing her white face, her eyes glittering with tears and the radiance of the fire they reflected.
Flatman looked at Shuter. The man's ugly face was distraught with fear, his eyes were fixed upon the girl, he seemed on the point of grovelling at her feet.
"Miriam!" ejaculated Uncle Joseph, sharply, "can't you see?" He pointed to Shuter. "Do you want to ruin us all? Have a little common sense."
The girl swung upon him, full of defiance, but turned away almost immediately, and fled through the door. The darkness and loneliness of the house pulled her up. She had learned to dread these things in the last few hours. In her own apartment she lit the lamp, and threw herself upon the bed, gathering about her head the pillow wet with the tears she had shed in a wretched hour after the evening meal, and wept again, filled with a weary sense of her hopelessness and helplessness.
Shuter had followed her half-way to the door, like a slinking puppy. He returned to his seat. "I'll never have the heart to go into the tunnel alone after this—never," he said.
"That's the worst of bein' sensitiff," exclaimed Slocombe. "I'm glad I'm not sensitiff."
Had the little gathering about Flatman's ain fireside been privileged at this moment to look into the drive in which they had imprisoned Robert Holland, would their feelings have been of gratification or consternation? Certainly they would have been amazed, for there was a light burning below, and there was a man moving about in the drive, and that man was Bob Holland. Bob was walking rapidly up and down the drive, flexing his muscles. He had been slow to emerge from his secret hiding place, and had come forth terribly cramped from the awkward position he was forced to keep in the small retreat he had made for himself behind the face. His first action was to hobble to the barricade, a lighted candle in his hand. At the first glance a cry of joy, almost a shout, broke from his lips. The thing he had hoped and prayed for had happened—the rope ladder was left dangling in the shaft.
Bob did not attempt to leave immediately. There was still something to be done. From the small chamber he collected a few things he valued, and then with great care he closed the mouth of the small drive with the trap-door, fitting it perfectly. It was so well disguised that it might have escaped the most cautious eye. Bob ate some of the food he had taken into hiding with him, and then set about the task of getting his limbs into good shape for a possible fight. There might be a guard set up in the tunnel, he might yet have to try conclusions with Grip, the great Dane. It would be folly for him to face the coming adventure half crippled with cramp.
Bob had masked his light in the drive. He went up the rope ladder with the utmost caution, but carrying a candle and matches. He carried, too, tucked securely in his belt, the old blunt pick that had served him so well. This was his only weapon.
In the tunnel all was silence. The darkness was like a black velvet curtain hung before his eyes. He waited for some minutes, listening intently, and then flashed a match to see if there was a possibility of his tracks betraying him; but the thick dust had been so trampled that his footprints were lost.
With his pick clutched in his right hand, ready for any emergency. Holland began his stealthy march to the mouth of the tunnel. Feeling along the wall he found the entrance to the cavern, but after listening a moment he passed on. He was troubled by two unpleasant prospects, the possibility of Grip being on guard at the mouth of the tunnel, and the chance of there being some means of securing the exit, the undoing of which would entail a lot of work, and the likelihood of discovery.
But Grip was not on guard, and the door in the tree trunk swung open almost at a touch, and a second later Bob stood out under a great moon, lifting his hands to heaven in mute thankfulness.
Robert Holland's plans were already made. He had removed his boots, and he covered his tracks carefully for some distance from the tunnel. He had overheard Flatman's talk with Shuter in the drive, and knew that his ruse had succeeded, and that they believed his dead body lay in the water at the bottom of the old mine. He guessed, too, that Uncle Joseph and his companions used every precaution in coming and going, so that no definite track might mark the way to their retreat.
Bob's face turned first towards Olivia, and his heart yearned to her, but his heart must exercise still the patience it was so well drilled in. There was work to do. Taking his pick, Bob climbed the hill to a spot he believed to be sufficiently secluded for his purpose. Here he fabricated a rough stake about three feet, the pointed end of which he drove into the ground. From this stake he dug two trenches reaching north and east, and in a cleft in the stake he inserted a small, folded paper he had taken from his vest pocket. Having seen that his handiwork was in some measure disguised to escape passing attention, although there was small likelihood of any human being coming to this spot from one year's end to another, Bob coiled down on the warm earth, and was presently in a deep sleep.
THE stir of the bush awakened Bob at dawn. He washed in the creek, and ate a fragmentary breakfast, finishing the food he had brought from the drive. His thoughts were all of Olivia, and he stood irresolute, although he had quite made up his mind not to risk the wrecking of his plans by calling upon Peebles at this stage. There was another important consideration: he felt himself to be anything but presentable in his wild and woolly condition. He hunted out a still pool to serve as a mirror, and took a good look at himself, and then seated on the bank indulged in his first hearty laugh for many a week, refreshing his hilarity with occasional glimpses at the shaggy, unfamiliar person reflected in the creek water. His hair had grown almost to his shoulders. It had always been thick and strong, it now pushed out about his head like the coiffure of a Papuan warrior, and he was whiskered to the eyes, only eyes, nose, and a pinch of cheek being visible in the dense scrub. Meeting himself in an unexpected mirror, Bob would never have recognised this hirsute object, and it amazed him that a natural growth could bring about so complete a metamorphosis. He looked middle aged, almost mediaeval. He tried to picture himself being tender and sentimental towards the darling of his heart in this guise, and shrank in real terror from the notion.
Bob had become curiously confident of his darling's love for him while pent in the mine, he wondered now if the love of any girl could survive a shock like this. He had all a very young twentieth century man's contempt for whiskers, and could not grasp the idea of Olivia not sharing his horror. At any rate he could not bring himself to face her, an object of ridicule, even if his serious intentions did not necessitate an immediate escape from the district.
Nor was Bob more presentable as a lover from the sartorial point of view and he was instinctively a neat dresser. His trousers had no knees, and the leg under was worn almost to the bone with his strenuous exertions in the small excavation he dug to hide from Flatman. His coat was more presentable, and he had a clean shirt, thanks to Miriam, no doubt, but his felt hat had been used to carry broken reef from the "face" to the shaft, and was an utter wreck, and his boots were absurdly curled and broken at the toes. Furthermore, there was the need to reach the office of the mining registrar with the least possible delay.
A little while he stood, looking towards Olivia's home, deriving some sort of pleasure from contemplating even the point of the compass that touched her dear heart. Then Robert Holland struck off through the bush in a northerly direction, making, not for Tadmor, but for Cradle Creek, a little place some ten miles further up the line. He had a long walk before him, and no track to guide, but one evening Peebles had explained how by keeping the right shoulder rigidly on a point in the Blue Range, a pedestrian, taking ridge and creek in his stride, would make Cradle Creek in rather less than twelve miles from Selkirk.
That trudge was wearisome and uneventful. Until he was approaching the township Bob encountered no one. He was walking with the aid of a long stick, his feet having failed him in the broken boots, and after their long familiarity with soft reef, when a young fellow came out of the trees, driving a spring cart in the opposite direction. The man drew up, gaping at Bob. He swung round as the pedestrian passed, staring open-mouthed.
"Well!" demanded Bob.
The stranger gulped. "Oh, nothin'," he said, half apologetic. Then added: "Gorstruth! Where'd you lose yourself, mate."
"I'm walking round the world for a wager," Bob explained, with gravity.
"What, and ain't you struck a barber up to now?"
Bob passed on, leaving the man in the cart staring back at him with rabid curiosity.
However everything comes to an end, even a twelve-mile walk, and Bob limped into Cradle Creek township, an object of wonder to all beholders. With the little money that had been returned to him he bought a good meal and paid for a bath. It had been his intention to enlist the services of a barber here, but he changed his mind, possessed with a whimsical desire to impose himself on his friends in Melbourne just as he stood, stick and all, much like Rip Van Winkle down from the mountain after his long sleep.
At the hotel in Cripple Creek, with a mob of curious citizens gaping in at the parlor door at him. Bob wrote a letter to Olivia Peebles, the letter of a loving heart, to a confessed lover, explaining nothing, assuring her that he was alive and well, and adoring her with every pulse of his being, asking her to tell no one but her father anything concerning him.
"It is a strange story, dear one," he wrote, "and I will be with you in a very few days to tell it, but in the meantime it is absolutely necessary that no one at Selkirk should know I still live. I am sure you will be secret for my sake. Dearest, dearest, I never told you I loved but you, but I feel you knew it. I feel, too, that you care. I may be mistaken. Tell me when we meet, for I shall be throbbing with a wild longing to know. Olivia, how I have loved you in this strange parting. It was not my doing. I yearned for you in all my waking hours, and in my sleep visions of you hovered ever above my bed. I felt your sweet small hands in mine, your gentle eyes shed kindliness about me. God bless you, my dear, dear one, and keep you till I come."
With this Bob enclosed a small poem he had written in captivity, a poem that expressed very prettily, and with a line or two spurting fire, the love of the beloved, a simple enough thing in itself, but capable of shedding a glory about one girl's heart the finest love song in the language could not evoke.
Bob Holland was attended to the station by a silent crowd, staring like Lawson's "luny bullock." He took a second-class ticket to Melbourne, and his following pressed about the door, gaping in at him, as if still hopeful of some startling development to reward their close attention. Opposite Bob sat a woman with a small, copiously-freckled, ginger-headed boy of about six, who stared with round, unwinking eyes, one finger in his mouth, struck speechless, yet cherishing a soul full of apprehension, for the moment the train started, and escape was no longer possible, he emitted a shriek of the most poignant terror, and plunging his face in his mother's dress, howled and howled, and refused to be comforted.
"Folk's ain't got no right to go round without their hair cut that way," complained the mother—"scarin' children into fits."
Bob commenced an apology, but at the sound of his voice little Willie was so convulsed with anguish, and yelled so terribly, that the young man gave it up in despair. At Tadmor little Willie's mother removed him to another compartment with great haste, and complained to the world at large, with her head through the window, about "people what ain't got the decency to clip theirselves not bein' fit to be allowed out."
Holland posted his letter to Olivia in a box on the Tadmor platform, and returned to a compartment now occupied by three native Gippslanders, who speculated aloud on his appearance, the consensus of opinion being that he was doing it for a bet. Bob screened himself behind a paper, and suffered in silence.
Bob arrived at Prince's Bridge station at dusk. It had been his intention to take a tram to East Melbourne, but the sensation he created among the crowd at the gates induced him to change his mind, and as he was still able to scrape together half-a-crown he crawled into welcome cover in a cab, and was driven away.
Fryer, Inglis, and Jan Strikowski were at their evening meal, when Bob strode noisily through the house and into the kitchen. He stood a moment, looking down at his friends, and the three ceased operations to look up at him, Jan with a knife load of boiled cabbage on the point of being tilted into his wide open mouth, Fod biting off a piece of bread, Jimmie pouring tea from his raised cup into his own lap.
"Well, who the devil are you?" demanded Fryer, who was first to recover.
Bob jerked a chair to the table, and sat down, seized a plate, and raising a tureen lid helped himself to roast rabbit.
"You will excuse, me," he said, in a disguised voice. "I am hungry."
"No, I am damned if I will!" Fryer arose, and kicked back his chair.
Bob helped himself to potatoes, and began to eat. He took some bread. "Pass the mustard, you, Strikowski," said he.
"Don't you think you have got an infernal cheek to come in here," cried Fod, "making yourself at home with our food?"
"Leave him alone, Fryer," said Jimmie. "Poor devil, he must be mad."
Jan had arisen, he was leaning across the table, pointing with his knife, the weapon still loaded with cabbage, but discharging part of its burden with every pulsation of the excited Pole. "Bob eet iss!" he cried. "Bob, Bob eet iss; dot—Bob!"
Bob burst into a roar of laughter. Inglis was on his feet. The three were silent a moment, and then they rushed Holland, they bore him down, they hugged and pounded him. He was hoisted up, and twisted, and tugged, and bounded against the walls in an exuberance of pagan affection and all the time voices were yelling questions—"Where? When? Why? How?" The demonstration exhausted itself in two minutes, and then Bob was held down in his chair by imperious hands.
"Tell!" said Inglis.
"But I'm famished," pleaded Bob.
"Not a bite, not a sup, till we know the strength of it all," said Fod.
Bob raced through the essentials of his story, and the astonishment on his friends' faces deepened into incredulity.
"It's a shamefully brazen romance," expostulated Jimmie, "and crude at that. These things don't happen."
"I had dug a little chamber for myself," Bob continued. "The small entrance which I could close behind me was so artfully concealed that only a careful search inspired by a suspicion of something of the kind would have revealed. I crawled in there, and there I remained, lying close, completely hidden until they were convinced I had fallen into the shaft. Deeming precautions no longer necessary they left the rope ladder. I took advantage of the opening, and here I am?"
"I won't have it," Jimmie persisted. "It is the feverish imagining of a mind debased by cheap fiction."
Bob drew several articles from his pocket; and laid them on the table; he drew more from the small bundle he carried, and set them beside the first. "Do you know what that is?" he asked.
Inglis took two or three pieces in his hand. "Specimens," said he. "This is quartz, and it seems pretty rich."
"Yes," said Bob, "those are quartz specimens, and I know where there are more like them, thousands of tons very likely. They represent a lode that will yield at least two ounces to the ton. The lode is wide and well defined. It is mine. I have pegged out the mine, and lodged my application for a lease at Cradle Creek."
"But what have these to do with your mad story?"
"As luck would have it, I cut the reef in that little excavation I made to hide in. The old Barrenjack was an alluvial mine. They had puddlers down at the creek. But the men who worked it had some suspicion of a reef in the vicinity. They put in the drive I was imprisoned in, prospecting for quartz, and stopped short within two feet of what is probably the richest quartz lode in Gippsland."
"I won't have it," moaned Inglis. "It's something by Hall Caine or Fergus Hume."
"My idea is that you boys put aside everything else, come out there with me, and peg claims for yourselves along the line of lode; I have other work for you, but this is the important thing. There is probably a fortune in it for all of us."
"Undiluted 'Deadwood Dick'," protested Jimmie at his last gasp.
"NOTHING in all you have told surprises me like the hypocrisy of that woman Longmore," said Fryer, after Bob had had his meal, and the friends had ceased their comments on Bob's hairiness and his rags, and settled down to a more grave consideration of the case.
"She is in it, of course," said Bob, "but Uncle Joseph Flatman is the responsible party."
"But I was with her for half an hour only the other day. She was most anxious to know if there was any news of you. The blackguard actually shed tears."
"You don't think they were necessarily hypocritical. Probably the poor beggar felt like crying her heart out. One does not appreciate being a murderer, even at second hand."
"What are you going to do about her?" asked Jimmie. "It's a case for the police."
"Ah no, no, no, no!" pleaded the Baron. Jan's morals were very primitive. "She iss a goot feller. Vot a goot time ve half by her place. It aind't right dot ve put her to gaol."
"If she goes, the girl will go," said Bob. "And I am convinced Miriam did her best for me while I was stowed in that infernal hole."
"Isn't it true, too, of Flatman and his rapscallions? You try to gaol them, and you drag the women in."
"My idea was to give the women time to get away. It can be done. I am not naturally malignant, but I can't submit to the thought of that precious scamp Flatman going scot free. There have been moments when I could have torn the throat out of the cold-blooded villain. I am not feeling that bad about him just now; in fact I am feeling too good for words, but he must be made to sit up and realise his sins."
Jimmie nodded. "I can't see how, unless you take his punishment into your own hands, and the law does not allow you to mete out judgment in our own case, however virtuous."
"There's a way," said Bob. "Similia similibus curantur. But you boys have not said that you will stand in."
"This to-night I haff to told olt Herr dot he needs anodder French horn, dis one iss too reech to go on plowink hees prains out troo a brass tube," said Jan.
"I suppose I could get away for a week or two on a pinch," commented Inglis.
"And I am always at liberty," from Fod.
"Then it's settled. I am sorry old Higginson's gone. He should have been in this."
"He sailed a fortnight ago."
It was a night of excitement in the hut. There was no sleep for either of the four, till well on in the morning. A fever was in the blood. Bob's reappearance from the grave, his wild story, and on top of all the prospect of fortune coming to them all, left the boys incapable of rest or of consecutive thought. They rushed from one theme to another. They talked of grand plans for the future. Jan thought of a trip to his native Warsaw, Fod of a year in Paris in the Latin Quarter, Jimmie of enjoying the run to London.
"And I have no madder dream than a pleasant little villa in St. Kilda, a sea view, and three meals a day," said Bob.
"Huh?" questioned a voice. '"It sounds like matrimony. There is not a beauteous heroine to your romance by any chance?"
"A companion prisoner in the mine of mystery?"
"Good night!" said Bob.
Robert Holland had told them nothing of Olivia Peebles. Not that he dreaded receiving an unsympathetic hearing. He could hardly have given a definite reason for his restraint, but as yet his love was his secret, and one other's, and until he could present Olivia to his friends, and say, "She is mine," he preferred to be silent.
After breakfast next morning Fod offered to reduce Bob's hairy profusion to civilised dimensions. "You won't care to carry that patriarchal growth about with you," he said, "and there is no professional barber handy. Suppose I have a shot at it."
They made a game of this performance. Jimmie roughed up a sort of tableau, and called it "The Shearing of the Rams." Jan attended as tar boy, with an old black paint pot, but Fryer proved himself something of an expert. He slashed off the abundant locks with scissors, and then shore to the pink with a small clipping apparatus; chopped off the great excess of whiskers, and provided a clean shave without drawing blood. Bob stepped from the chair, having regained his lost youth, looking paler than he had been, but particularly trim in a suit from Higginson's bundle.
"I don't tink I effer notice how a good lookink feller you was, Bob," said Jan, admiringly.
Contemplating himself in the strip of mirror Fod used when posing as his own model, Bob felt a little egotistical satisfaction after the recent vision in the pool. Yes, he could face her now. He burned with a sudden eagerness.
Holland crushed his specimens in a mortar obtained from a convenient chemist with whom Fod was on borrowing terms, and obtained a little over six ounces, for which he was paid twenty-four pounds, five shillings. Jan bundled his piano on to a van, and sold it for thirty pounds.
"No madder," said he, "I veel haff pianos all oafer der place preddy kvick."
The fifty-four pounds would serve to finance the expedition, till such time as Bob was able to draw on his apparently boundless resources in the mine, and all necessary purchases were made, including a sporting rifle apiece (second hand) and necessary ammunition. Bob obtained with some difficulty an unusual looking weapon vaguely resembling an old-fashioned pistol, the barrel of which was a kind of syringe.
"Looks like a distant relation to a stomach pump," said Jimmie Inglis.
"That is an ammonia gun," Bob explained. "Not deadly, but most effective. In Africa I saw one used on a young lion. I have had great respect for the weapon ever since."
On the second day following upon Bob's reappearance, the little band booked for Cradle Creek. Bob strongly suspected Sykes, the publican at Tadmor, and had no desire to have the news of his resurrection precede him. At Cradle Creek he hired a small waggon and an anything but jolly waggoner, loaded up with what goods he thought would be necessary, and a start was made for the Hidden Hills without any unnecessary delay.
It took close upon five hours to cover the twelve miles between Cradle Creek and Selkirk. A camp was struck, pitched at a safe distance from the haunts of Flatman and his party, and here a meal was eaten, and the four indulged themselves in an hour's rest. Leaving the waggon in charge of Pride, the driver, in good cover, and the man well instructed, Bob led his friends, with sufficient caution, along the creek to the old tree at the mouth of the Barrenjack tunnel.
Bob tried the revolving door, and found to his intense disgust that it had been secured in some way from within. A small crowbar was part of the equipment, and they got to work with this, and presently succeeded in breaking a way in.
"Now, boys," whispered Bob, "perfect silence, and don't hesitate to shoot for an arm or leg if it seems necessary. Follow closely upon my heels, and the first man who feels the thrust of the big dog let me know instantly."
This advice was unnecessary. As Bob turned to move forward the light of his electric torch fell upon Grip standing squarely in the centre of the tunnel, with his customary expression of unspeakable loathing.
"Grip! Grip!" said Bob, in a low voice. "Good dog." He flipped his fingers. "Good dog." He might as well have tried to coax a famished tiger. Grip ruffled his mane, his eyes glittered ominously in the dazzling light and a low snarl breathed warning.
Bob advanced quickly, the dog crouched back on his tail, his hind legs gathered for a spring, but he did not spring. Bob's aim with the ammonia gun was fairly accurate, the charge took Grip full in the face, and he fell without a sound, and lay quivering upon the floor of the drive.
"That's satisfactory," said Bob. "He's good for a long time, but if he comes clamoring for another dose he can be accommodated."
At the bend in the tunnel the torch was extinguished, and the four young men advanced cautiously, moving in silence on the dust-covered floor.
"Hush!" whispered Bob. "There is the light. They are on the job. Now, a little courage, plenty of determination, and the day is ours."
They came to the mouth of the cavern unnoticed. Uncle Joseph Flatman's faith in the great Dane was unbounded. Evidently he entertained no fear of a second invasion. Bob stood a moment in the doorway, as he had done before, surveying the group, his rifle lifted, ready for immediate service. The two subordinates were employed as before, but Uncle Joseph Flatman was operating the polishing machine. Miriam was not of the company.
"Bail up!" commanded Bob. "Flatman, I warn you, if you stir a hand I'll put a bullet through it. Fod, Jimmie—cover those other men. Shoot if they move."
The order so far as Shuter was concerned, was quite uncalled for; his eyes fell upon Bob before a word was spoken, and he went ghost white with startling suddenness, his face wreathed into a more appalling ugliness, his body was convulsed. He stood tottering a moment, and then fell face forward like a log, and lay in the dust, making a strange quivering movement, as if seeking to work his way into the covering soil like a frightened porcupine. His out-thrown hands beat up on the ground, he made a moaning sound, abjectly beseeching.
Uncle Joseph Flatman did not seem to look up from the machine; his fingers ceased their task, but he sat bent, his attitude unchanged. Slocombe shambled a few steps forward, his big hands above his head, the face behind his preposterous moustache expressing no particular concern.
"Come from that seat, Uncle Joseph," said Bob. "Put your hands out. Further! Straight out! Now, range against this wall, the three of you." He stirred Shuter with his foot, and the man clasped his ankle. Bob dropped the rifle butt on his knuckles, but plainly Shuter's intention was not hostile. His hands encircled Bob's leg, with almost a caress.
"He's alive!" moaned Shuter. "It's his livin' body. Oh, my God, he's alive! Do what you like with me, I don't care so long as he's alive," Pawing his way up Bob's body, he pulled himself to his quaking knees. "Wish I may die," he gurgled, "if I wouldn't 'a' give me own right arm to have you alive agin, mister, and here you are. Oh, Lord God, I don't mind now!"
Bob, still suspicious, sprang clear of Peter Shuter's hands.
"Get up!" he ordered. "Stand there with the other beauties."
Shuter obeyed, going on shaking limbs, and sustaining himself against the wall.
Uncle Joseph Flatman had not raised his head. The fact that a man had just sprung, as it were, from his green grave to confront him did not seem to have shaken him in the least. Bob was a little nettled at his apparent indifference. It robbed a well planned comedy of much of its zest.
"Well, Uncle," he said, "have spooks no terror for you?"
Uncle Joseph's eyes were now fixed on Peter Shuter. "You infernal traitor!" he said, almost in a whisper. "You lied to me. This is your work you dog!"
"No, no Uncle," said Bob. "I did get out, and I may tell you how before I am through with you, but you have my word, as a fairly honorable man who has no need for deception, that your friend the beauty actor had no finger it it. Now, march. This way, please. Into the tunnel, and towards the shaft, and no monkey tricks. You know I would shoot, don't you, Uncle? You quite understand I have no unreasonable regard for you. It is my turn to jest a little. Down the rope ladder, and into the drive. I intend to detain you there for quite a time. If you have anything to fight out between yourselves, you will have both time and opportunity. Down, please. You first, Slocombe, and do be careful of the landing. Quicker!"
Slocombe went down. "Now you." Bob indicated Shuter. "Uncle Joseph, good day. I wish you many happy dreams down there."
Uncle Joseph lingered, undecided for just a moment. The muzzle of a rifle prompted him, and he followed his friends down the rope ladder into the pitch darkness of the shaft.
Bob drew up the rope ladder, and threw the free end along the drive.
"We will make our camp on that small plateau at the mouth of the tunnel," said Bob, "just to make assurance more sure."
The great Dane was nowhere in sight. His appreciation of the dose he had received was demonstrated by his flight. It was an eloquent unsolicited testimonial for the ammonia gun.
ALEXANDER PEEBLES had carried Olivia's letter from Tadmor, fingering it dubiously all the way. Olivia had received just two other letters in the course of her life, and her father had not liked them. He placed this one on the table at which she was sewing, and tapped it with his finger.
"For you, my dear," he said.
Where a letter is so unusual a thing it is not to be opened lightly. Olivia looked at it where it lay, and her face clouded. "For me?" A cautious hand drew it to her, and turned it again and again. "Oh, my father, do you think——"
"I do not recognise the hand. But open it. Open it, my girl."
Olivia broke the envelope, and unfolded the paper. She had to steady her hands against the table, when the significance of the first few lines dawned upon her "Father!" she said. "Father! Father!" Tears sprang from her eyes. Through the blinding mist she strove to follow the words.
"Well, well, well, girl?" rasped Peebles, standing over her, racked with impatience.
Olivia uttered a sudden cry. "He is alive!" She arose, and stumbled into her father's arms, clasping the unread letter to her breast.
He strove to take the paper from her fingers, but she clung to it. "No, no," she said, "it is for me alone." With her father's arm to sustain her, she moved to the window, and peered through dimmed eyes at the quivering paper and at letters that blurred in a mist. "He is alive," she repeated, "and he is well."
"Is it that young Holland?"
"Oh, yes, yes!" Her throat was moving convulsively, she could articulate only with difficulty. "He says you may know." She put the letter in her father's hand, and signed for him to read it "Aloud," she said.
Alexander Peebles read the letter through. The earnest professions of love for Olivia did not surprise him. His girl's conduct since Bob's disappearance had given him to understand clearly enough what was in her heart.
"It is a strange business," said he. "Remember, my dear, he is almost an absolute stranger to you." He placed a hand on hers.
The girl was clinging to him, weeping softly, bewildered by her happiness. She shook her head.
"Not a stranger," she said, "when I know his whole heart, and he knows all mine."
"Did he speak of this—of love—of marriage?"
"Never, but we knew, we knew. Let me be, father. I would be where I have sat with him. I want to pray."
She went forth, found the bent tree where they had sat together more than once, and seated there, the letter clasped to her breast, her body rocking to and fro, she remained for hours, a prey to disordered emotions, at the back of which was a glory of happiness like the coming of the sun after a long and intolerable darkness.
Later she discovered the verses in the envelope, and she read them again and again. They sang themselves into her very being. She could not drag herself from his written words, she read and read them till the words lost their significance and were just concrete evidence of Robert's existence. When she came back to the house it was to tell the story to a little brown pony, and the mongrel Nero. She was like a child in this, that she felt the animals, the birds, the trees even must have an interest in her new-found joy.
When Olivia slept that night it was with Bob's letter and his verses clasped to her breast. Her father found her so, when he looked in late, and stood for a long time gazing down at her as she slept. For fifteen years she had been his sole companion, he hers, and his mind was troubled with old thoughts always unspoken.
"We cannot escape it," he said, "in bush or town it comes to us, and it takes us like this. My poor girl, my sweet wee Ollie, may the good God bless and keep you!" This was Alexander Peebles' constant prayer, his only one. He had never believed in the necessity of prayer till his child came to him, and then prayer became an involuntary, almost hourly act.
In the morning Olivia awoke as from a curious dream. She sat up, and looked wonderingly about her. The dream had been strangely real. She pressed a hand to her brow, striving to think, and the letter was there. Again she cried aloud, again, hungrily, feverishly, she read the treasured sentences. It was true. It was all true. He lived. He loved her. He was coming to her.
The girl sprang from her bed. There was something of a dance in her every movement. Throughout the whole day Olivia was like the spirit of the dance. She was radiant. Her father had never seen her so beautiful. He understood now the love she had for Robert, and he trembled for her. It is not well to love like this, to put all there is of life and happiness into a passion. He remembered that it was thus love took him, and burnt the fibre out of his life as fire searches and burns the dry roots in the deep soil.
At her work Olivia's eyes were rarely off the window. Such tasks as could be accomplished out of doors she carried on to the verandah, and all day she was alert for his coming. Then at about three in the afternoon she saw the slim, youthful figure come through from the bush at the top of the clearing, take the creek at a bound, and head for the house with swinging strides, and she was seized with a perturbation as profound as if she had not been schooling herself for this moment the whole day long.
Shaken in every limb she fled into the house, stood a moment at the window, her dim eyes upon him, and then went forth again, and out towards him, a slight, girlish figure, more coquettish in her dress and the arrangement of her hair than he had ever seen her, but beautiful beyond all praise, he thought as he came near.
She held out her two hands to him. There were tears on her cheeks.
For a moment they did not speak. She marvelled, seeing tears in his eyes, too, but that touched her deeply. They held each other's hands, and looked deep into each other's eyes; they did not smile, but stood like this a moment, overcome by emotions too great for their strength.
Bob's arms went about her shoulders, drawing her tight. "Olivia, Olivia, Olivia." It seemed as if he hoped by the repetition of her name to express something for which there were no adequate words.
They had turned, and were moving towards the trysting place beneath the bent tree. He held her as though fearing a chance of his happiness slipping from him at the last moment. Leaning on the bough he turned her face to his.
"I love you," he said.
He said it many times. "Olivia, Olivia," and "I love you, I love you." It was eloquence enough.
She clung to him. He felt the tips of her strong fingers through his coat. He remembered that pressure for ever after. It was as though she would grapple him to her soul.
"I was not mistaken, sweet girl. God gave me the knowledge you loved me to comfort me in a great trial. You do love me?"
"Yes, I love you. You kissed me, and I loved you. After that I must always love you. Oh, it was like a great light."
He pressed his lips to hers. She yielded to him, a soft, sweet, supple, subtle thing, her small, warm, beautiful mouth on his. From her slim body flowed an intoxicating ardor. Their kiss should have had no end, the breaking of it was a sacrifice. He put her from him a little, with two hands, and seated now held her so, adoring her.
"I love you; love you," he said. "Olivia. Olivia."
She covered her face with her hands. Sinking on the seat beside him, she hid her burning cheeks against his breast. His left arm about her held her so.
With his lips in her hair, he talked of his love, how it had first come to him, how it had grown like a fire in dry grass, how he had dreamed of her in sleep and awake, through the days and nights of his long imprisonment.
He realised now how he had suffered in that terrible term of solitary confinement, how much he had owed to her. Always in his worst moments he had turned to thoughts of her for consolation and hope, and she had never failed him.
"It was for you even more than for life that I fought," he said.
"What is it that befell you, my dear one?" she asked
"Later, later, I will tell you, my beautiful. This moment is for our love only."
An hour later Olivia brought Bob to the house. Peebles was at the door to greet him.
"I am glad to see you alive and well, Mr. Holland," said Peebles. "We all had given you up for dead. That is to say we all had given you up but one. My girl here could not be still, it seemed, till you were found."
Bob was shaking Peebles very heartily, by the hand. "There was never a man so glad to be alive," said he.
"Will you come in, and sit by the fire, man. The evenings grow cold."
"Cold," said Bob. He laughed jubilantly. "I shall never be cold again. I defy the elements. Mr. Peebles, your dear one has promised to be my wife."
Olivia crossed to her father, and embraced his arm. "I love my good father," she said. It was an assurance that in her great happiness he was not forgotten.
Peebles stroked the girl's hair. "I brought her here, hoping she might escape this that you have brought into her life, Robert Holland," he said. "As an arbiter of fate, young sir, I am not a great success."
"I think I will make you glad of your failure one day," said Bob.
Olivia rippled into laughter. "I am sure it is well, father. I am sure it is a good thing. My whole soul sings with happiness, as if it had a thousand voices."
"Well, we will have a meal together if Mr. Holland is content." Peebles led into the house.
The young man took the elder's hand in a strong grip. "Bob Holland would be content nowhere else, sir," said he. "I hope it will be 'Bob' henceforward. I shall look for that as an expression of good will."
"Very well, Bob. Sit down. What is all this mystery? How comes it that the dead have arisen?"
Bob told his story while they were at the meal, and Peebles' astonishment was profound.
"It almost passes belief," said he, "that such things could be going on almost under one's nose and escape attention."
"Now that you know the truth, is there nothing you know that links up?" questioned Bob.
Peebles shook his head. "Nothing. They might have gone on for twenty years as they have been going without awakening the faintest suspicion in my mind; but do not forget I have not been what you would call neighborly with them. I am a man who has kept himself much to himself."
"Did you know nothing of the Barrenjack mine?"
"I remember having heard of an old mine, but all indications of it had disappeared when I came here to live."
"Must these go to the prison for what they have done?" asked Olivia, anxiously.
"I suppose they ought to. They have earned ten years apiece."
"But Miss Miriam? There have been times when she has been kind to me, and she is young and so fine with the sun in her hair. To shut her away in a cold, dark prison house: It would be wicked. And the world is so beautiful." Her dark eyes were fixed appealingly on Bob.
The young man shook his head dubiously. "I know I couldn't do it for all the diamonds in Kimberley," he said. "I shall warn her. She and her mother can then shift for themselves. Meanwhile I have her uncle and the two men safely disposed of."
"What excuse could you offer in a court of law for holding these men indefinitely?" asked Peebles.
"The hope that the others involved may betray themselves. I am suspicious of that hotel keeper in at Tadmor for one."
Peebles nodded. Olivia wore a look of distress.
"It would be perfect if we need bring sorrow to no one," said the girl. "Do not cloud my happiness by thinking of revenge."
Then Alexander told Bob of Olivia's long search, of her pilgrimages into the gorges, and the day by day hunting from which nothing could dissuade her, and Bob took her in his arms there before her father, and held her so, straining her to his heart.
"I will never forget," he said.
UNCLE JOSEPH FLATMAN had made no complaint, finding the tables so effectually turned upon him, and himself in the position in which he had lately held Robert Holland. He struck a match, and took a casual survey of the drive. On the floor by the bunk was a pound carton of candles from which only one had been abstracted, the last allowance sent down to Holland. One of these Uncle Joseph lit, and then he seated himself on the bunk, taking possession of the only comfortable sleeping place in the act. Slocombe was complaining bitterly. Peter Shuter walked the length of the drive, surveying his prison. Apparently Flatman's bitter outbreak in the cavern was already forgotten.
"'Ere's a pretty mess yiv got us all into," wailed Slocombe. "Ere we are, 'n' 'ere we stick, till the coppers come up from Melbin', 'n' walk us in fer twenty bloomin' years. I knoo it was comin'. I alwiz said we'd fall into the soup sooner or later. Didn' I say so, Peter Shuter—ain't I said it to you agin 'n' agin?"
Peter gave no answer. Uncle Joseph was absorbed in his own thought.
Slocombe continued: "We might 'a knowed what would 'appen when we was mugs not to do that feller Holland in while we was about it. I wanted to, but, oh, no, we was all too 'umane, we mustn't 'urt a feller creature. Now, what's the feller creature got over us, I'd like to know. What did I say? I said 'Put him in the bottom level,' I sez. I ain't fer killin' no more than anyone else. I'm ez good a bloke ez any goin', but I sez, 'Put him in the lower level whot's wet, 'n' where he won't live long. Down there he'd 'ave died of natural causes, 'n' no one would be to blame."
Slocombe continued in this cheerful strain for about an hour. He recollected all his troubles, paraded his grief, visiting the responsibility on Uncle Joseph, and Uncle Joseph was as indifferent as he might have been to the mewing of a blind kitten.
"There's me pore mother," whined Slocombe. "This here 'll break her old heart. Think iv the disgrace."
Peter Shuter, who had found a resting place on the floor, interrupted, innocently enough: "It's a matter of twelve or fourteen years since you saw or heard of your old mother, ain't it?" said he.
"She might have starved to death, meanwhile, mightn't she?"
"Oh, acourse, anythin's possible."
"And once you was sent up fer beatin' her about the head with a boot."
"Wot of it? Why're you throwin' that up in a feller's teeth at a time like this? Any bloke's li'ble to knock his old people about, 'avin' had a drop iv drink."
"And you left the distric' to serve four years for cattle liftin', you've told me."
"Oh, I ain't pretendin' to be no better 'n most people," growled Slocombe.
"It ain't that," said Shuter, gently. "I was jist thinkin' of the uselessness of worryin' about the old mother and the disgrace. Maybe she thinks you're in gaol yet, if she's livin' to think at all."
"Damn lot iv comfort you are, P. Shuter. If you was down 'n' out I wouldn't say things to 'urt yer feelinks. I'm agin 'urtin' people's feelinks."
"That's all right, Slo; I wasn't aimin' at anythin' but to comfort you."
Slocombe had fallen asleep, and Shuter was drowsing off, when Uncle Flatman ejaculated: "He got out, why should not we?"
"Eh," said Shuter, very wide awake all in a moment.
"Have you thought of the ladder shaft, Peter?"
"No. It didn't occur to me to."
"Well, my opinion is that Holland made his way into the ladder shaft, and hid there. Like infernal fools we concluded he had gone to the bottom, and we left him the means of escape."
"He ain't likely to do the same for us."
"No, but we may find means for ourselves. Let us look into this at any rate." He sprang from the bunk, and took up the candle.
Shuter followed Flatman to the shaft. Slocombe creeping after, sleepily. The two former examined the centres on the left hand side of the shaft. Shuter spoke first.
"No," he said, "there's bin no interference with the timber here."
Uncle Joseph looked greatly perplexed. He thought he had solved the problem of Bob's escape. "Well, so much the better," he added. "If he did not go that way himself, it will not occur to him that we may. Look closer, Peter; is there any means of getting a couple of those centres out?"
Peter shook his head. "I'm afraid not, and if there was we'd be no better off."
"We might be off altogether. The shaft on the left is the ladder shaft. The ladders were left in."
Shuter blew a low whistle. "You don't say!"
"Well," complained Slocombe, peevishly, "don't stand there gapin' like a stuck pig; get goin', can't yeh? The coppers might be 'ere any minute."
Shuter was examining the stout centres carefully. "It would on'y be necessary to cut through the cleats here, and we could pull the slabs out," said he.
"What have we in the way of tools?"
The men turned out their pockets. Slocombe had the most promising article in the shape of a big clasp-knife with a saw blade.
"It might be done with this," said Flatman, hopefully. "Start on it. Meanwhile I will search the drive."
Peter set to work on the scanty staging with the saw blade, and Slocombe attacked the cleat at the near side with a knife.
Uncle Joseph's search, brought to light the scrap of tin with which Bob had worked on the cross beam. The three toiled assiduously for three hours, and then, using a slat from the bunk as a lever, Shuter succeeded in removing a centre.
"Good, good," murmured Uncle Joseph. "The next should be easy."
Within an hour a second slab had been dislodged. It was Shuter put his head and half his body through to investigate. He reported joyfully.
"The ladders are here. Give me a slab. I can make a staging by placing it from the centres across to a rung of the ladder."
The small, precarious staging was soon made, and Shuter tested it carefully before trusting his weight to it.
"She seems all right," said Peter, reappearing. He joined his friends in the drive, and for a moment they stood silent, looking into each others' eyes.
Uncle Joseph spoke. "There is the way to freedom," he said, pointing upwards. "It is dangerous—devilishly so. The question is, Do we attempt it? The ladders may be rotten. They may tear away under a man's weight, and that means death—death from a terrible fall, or by drowning in the water at the bottom of the mine. I suggest that we draw lots for precedence. The man who loses goes first. The first man on reaching the surface would have to dig his way out through the loose timber and dirt covering the mouth of the shaft."
There was a moment of silence. "I will take three hairs from my head," said Flatman. "The man who draws the shortest goes first."
Uncle Joseph pulled a hair, but Shuter held up a palm, staying him. "I'll go," said he.
A look of satisfaction glowed for a brief moment in Flatman's face. He had expected this. "Good man!" said he. "You take two candles and matches. I will follow you when I see the light of day, or of the moon, at the top of the shaft."
Peter let himself carefully through the opening made into the ladder shaft from the staging Bob had left, tested his platform with the utmost caution, and found it secure. Then most deliberately, trying every rung with his powerful, indurated hands, he went up the ladder flat against the side of the shaft. Carefully, slowly, he went. He had travelled upward about thirty feet, when the two anxiously waiting below heard a cry of mortal terror, and then the clatter of falling timbers. Dust gushed out of the opening in the centres, and then came the drum-like thud of a large body into the water far down in the depths.
The two cowered back, Slocombe uttering the cries of a terrified child. "He's gone," cried Slocombe. His face had assumed the color of wood-ash all in a moment. "He's gone! He's done for. Oh, my Gord, he's done for! It's your doin' damyer—damyer—damyer!" He was spitting the words at Uncle Joseph, catlike, furious in his helpless terror.
Uncle Joseph retreated to the bunk, and seated himself, holding his head. Uncle Joseph lacked many of the qualifications of complete villainy, he had some sense of compassion, he was capable of affection. He had liked Peter Shuter, and this blow left him a little stunned. His nerves reacted painfully, a vertigo seized him, and he sat thus, his fingers ploughing his thick hair, oblivious to Slocombe and his splenetic reproaches, till the latter uttered so strange a cry, that Flatman jumped to his feet, anticipating another catastrophe.
Slocombe was pointing to the shaft. Uncle Joseph followed his staring eyes, and beheld the head of a man; if it was indeed a human head, so hideous it appeared in its pallor and through its blood.
"Shuter!" cried Flatman, and rushed to Peter's assistance, helping him through the opening, and on to the floor in the shaft, where Peter lay, gasping, making ineffectual attempts to wipe the blood out of his eyes.
"How do you feel, man?" asked Flatman anxiously. "What are your injuries?"
Peter pointed to his head, where there was a nasty cut, but it was some minutes before he could speak; then he explained: "The ladder above me tore away when I tried it, and fell in pieces down the shaft. There must have been fifty feet of it. I had the narrowest escape in the world of not goin' with it. A junk of fallin' timber hit me. I thought I was done for, but managed to crawl back. For God's sake, gimme a drink, if there's anythin'."
Uncle Joseph found cold tea in a jug. Some of this he gave Shuter to drink, some he used to bathe the man's wound. He then bound Peter's head with a handkerchief, and helped him to the bunk.
"Ah, go on, I don't want yer bed," said Peter Shuter. "I'm all right. I'll just take a spell on the floor, till I get my wind."
Failing to persuade him. Uncle Joseph took to the bunk again, and once more he gave himself up to thought. In about 40 minutes he called Shuter.
"How are you feeling now, Peter?"
"Oh, pretty right again, Professer."
"I am glad of that. Listen. I gather that the ladder in there is good up to about thirty feet."
Peter nodded. "Quite sound," he said.
"If we went up thirty feet, and took two more centres out, we would be just on a level with the tunnel. This is an easier and surer way than the other. Take those centres out, put a length of timber across the shaft to the tunnel, and what is to prevent us walking out that way?"
"But those chaps may be watchin' the mouth of the tunnel."
"I hope so with all my heart. You don't forget the way through the roof of the cave, do you?"
Shuter uttered an exclamation. He was already on his feet. "That sounds good," said he.
"Well, well," cried Slocombe, wide awake again; "don't waste time chatterin' about it like a bunch of luny cockatoos." This did not mean that Slocombe was eager to start on the job himself. He looked to one or the other two to go up the shaft.
"It's all right," said Shuter. "I'm fit again, I'll have first cut at it."
It was a long, arduous, and dangerous job, clinging to the precarious ladder, and cutting the cleats, and hour after hour passed, and Shuter was still working. Two or three times he came down to spell, when Uncle Joseph offered to take his place, but he would not have it.
"You couldn't stand it, boss," said he. "It's my job; I'll see it through."
He went up again, and eventually tore away the second centre, leaving a gap large enough for a man to creep through right opposite the tunnel. He was now within a very few feet of liberty. All that was needed was a length of timber that would reach from this side of the shaft across to the tunnel, and it would only remain for him to cross on that bridge, let down the rope ladder to his friends, and once more the wide world would open before them.
He was leaning over side ways, one hand on the opening in the centres, the other on the ladder, when he felt the latter giving way under the lateral pressure. With a yell, he let go the ladder, clutching wildly at the edge of the slabs forming the centre wall of the shaft. The last thrust sent the ladder from beneath his feet, and another twenty feet of it went clattering and drumming down the shaft, and Shuter's light went with it.
Peter Shuter was left suspended, clinging with desperate finger tips to the edge of the opening he had made, cut off from retreat, removed from all hope of help from below, death lying in wait for him down in the velvet darkness that now hung about him like a pall. For a moment he clung, bereft of thought beyond a grim consciousness of the hideous fate tugging at his heels, and then a gleam of hope shone before his eyes. He made a big effort to raise his legs, with the intention of getting astride the centre to which he was clinging. His position made the task extraordinarily difficult. The face of the timbers was slippery with a sort of fungoid growth, and his toes found no gripping place.
Three times he tried and failed, and then realisation came that every such failure meant loss of energy, and a diminution of his chances. Shuter was a very powerful man, he was still young, there remained a splendid reserve of strength. He heard Slocombe calling below, but made no reply. All that was in him must be thrown into the coming effort. He moved his grip on the slab along to the end on his left, and commenced what he felt must be the decisive struggle. It was a sustained and tremendous effort. Twice, he got a heel over the centre, twice the hold slipped, and then with a mighty heave he worked his right leg over. Another fierce, close struggle, and he was lying astride the slab, clinging to it precariously, panting like a man who had run a long race for life.
While Fryer prepared breakfast, on the morning after the capture and imprisonment of Uncle Joseph Flatman and his assistants, Bob, Jimmie, and the Baron went into the tunnel to overhaul the coiner's mint. They each carried a candle, and Bob had thrust a revolver into his pocket. While Jimmie and Bob were inspecting a die Jan called from the entrance to the cavern:
"Bob, Bob," he cried, excitedly, "Vot iss eet? Der iss someone dot is ill. See, listen. Dere, dere—you hear heem?"
Bob and Inglis had joined him. They listened intently, and from the direction of the shaft came a faint cry.
"It's the fellows below," said Bob. "Perhaps something is wrong. Perhaps they think there is a chance of friends putting in an appearance. Put out the lights. Come quietly."
They stole towards the shaft, Bob leading, counting his steps. Near the shaft he spread his arms to stay his friends. "Listen," he whispered.
They paused, silent for half a minute, and then came the voice so close to them that Jan jumped a yard in alarm.
The voice was faint with fatigue, it suggested a person in great pain. Bob struck a match and the candles were relit. The three stood within five feet of the pit. They advanced to the edge of the tunnel, and threw the light of their candles into the shaft, and there just across the blank opening, before their eyes, not two yards away, was a man clinging, as it seemed at first glance, to the sheer wall.
"By God, it's Shuter!" said Bob. "He has got the centres out. Now, how in the name of the devil did he get there? Quick, Jimmie, one of those planks. He's nearly all out."
Inglis dragged a plank forward, and the two placed it across the pit, resting the other end on the centre behind Peter, who lay on his face along the slab, clinging with hands and knees to his narrow perch.
"I'll go to him," said Bob. "Keep your eyes open for a trap. Here, Jimmie, the revolver. Don't he afraid to use it if there is need."
Bob shuffled across the bridge they had made, and laid hands on Peter Shuter. Carefully he helped him to work his body on to the plank. It was a precarious task. A very little might have overbalanced both, and sent them to the bottom. Making his way backwards, and assisting Shuter, who was too stiff and exhausted to do much for himself, Bob brought the man within reach of Jan, and the little fellow gave a hand to each, and drew them on to the dusty floor of the drive.
Peter Shuter lay where he was, incapable of further movement, his face in the powdered reef. Bob turned him, and lifted him into a sitting position against the wall.
"This was an effort to escape?" said Bob.
Shuter nodded feebly. "The rotten ladders broke away." He just whispered.
"And Flatman—where is Flatman?"
Peter turned his eyes towards the shaft and nodded. "There," he said.
"And you trusted yourself to those crumbling ladders, with 300 feet of shaft below, in the hope of making a get away? Peter Shuter, I have made some few ill-bred reflections on your physical aspect, but you have the elements of a man. Take him up, Jimmie. We'll see what a decent breakfast will do for him."
Fryer had hot coffee, and Peter was given a liberal helping of this, while eggs and bacon were frying. As Shuter ate, Bob, reclining behind, keeping a watchful eye on him, was attracted by the appearance of the sole of his left boot, the foot being thrown back under the seat. In the centre of the sole was a circle of big hob-nails.
A good breakfast refreshed Peter wonderfully.
"Well," said Bob, when the meal was finished, "Is there anything else you would like before returning whence you came?"
Peter looked at the food on the rough table. "My mates," he said.
"So I thought, Peter Shuter. You are a faithful soul, I am sorry you tried to shoot me at the creek that day. It is unfortunate you made so determined and murderous an effort to put a bullet through the head of my friend Higginson when he was shaving on an occasion you recollect very well, no doubt."
Shuter lifted his eyes to Bob's for a moment, and dropped them, standing with his head bent in his customary attitude of endeavoring to hide away the fact fate had afflicted him with.
"I wasn't aimin' to hit," said he. "Not anythin' more than I did hit. That was jist done to put up a scare."
"Oh, was it? Well, Peter, your diplomacy was perilously near to homicide. When you do those desperate things don't wear boots that leave your initials wherever you tread."
Shuter lifted his boot and looked at it.
"I been a partic'lar darned fool many times," he said. "But come what might, I'd never be the man to play you a dirty trick agin."
Loaded with hot coffee, bread, and sausage, and a liberal allowance of ham and beef for his friends, Shuter was returned to the shaft, the rope ladder was dropped, and once more he joined Uncle Joseph like a man new risen from the dead.
IT was about ten o'clock on the same morning. The tent of the four friends was pitched with its back to the hill wall by the tunnel's mouth, and Fryer, still true to his house-wifely instincts, was completing the work of washing up after Shuter's late breakfast, when he discovered the tall, womanly figure coming along the slope of the hill through the trees, a great dog at her heels. A moment later he recognised Miriam.
Miriam discovered the camp with undisguised amazement. She stood a moment, and then came slowly to where Fod was standing.
"Mr. Fryer?" she said. "You have given me quite a shock. What brings you to the country at this time of the year? This is our rainy season, you know." She was trying to be matter of fact, but her concern was too obvious.
"To tell you the truth, Miss Longmore, we were brought here," answered the artist. "Bob Holland had something to do with our coming."
"Lieutenant Holland." She spoke with marked constraint. "Then you have some reason to hope? You have heard of him, in fact?"
"We have heard from him." Fod was anxious to break the news he had as gently as he could.
"Heard from him—from him? But we all thought him dead."
"He is not dead." Fod went to the tent, and called: "Bob, Bob; here is a visitor."
Bob's voice replied from the tent, and the next moment Bob himself stepped into the sunshine, and faced Miriam Longmore. Miriam backed from him voluntarily, till her retreat was stopped by a boulder on which she seated herself. She felt she could not trust her legs.
"Bob," she said, but in so low a voice he did not hear her.
"Good morning, Miriam," said Bob, casually.
He waited for her to speak, but she only sat, staring, in her eyes the fear of a beaten animal. Her face was pale, her tremulous lips framed unspoken words.
"You are surprised to see me. It is unfortunate that I am alive."
"No, no, no!" she faltered. "I thank God to see you there. I do. I do, with all my soul. I have suffered." She dropped her face from his eyes, her fingers plucked at the material of her skirt.
"The fact that I am alive is not due to the kind offices of your friends."
"I know. I know. But they meant you no really serious harm. It was self-preservation. I thought you had fallen into the shaft, trying to escape."
"No one thought it worth while to see if by any chance I was struggling for life in the foul water at the bottom of the mine."
Miriam's eyes opened, there was a new terror in them. "Is that true? Were you left in the pit?"
Bob laughed. "No. As it happens my escape was easy, and simple."
"And you have come for your revenge."
"I have come for a fortune I found in the old mine while you held me prisoner."
"A fortune in the mine!"
"Yes, there is a rich reef down there. I found it. We have all pegged off blocks. We are very well satisfied."
"Then you can afford to be generous. You will be generous. Oh, Lieutenant Holland, I have suffered enough. The past months have been months of torture to me. Think the worst of me, but in your heart you must know I could not be a party to your imprisonment, let alone your death, and know one moment's happiness, one breath of content."
"I meditate no revenge upon you. You are perfectly free. If you take good advice you will return at once to Melbourne, tell your mother what I tell you, and leave the country as speedily as possible. Your mother, I believe, was on the point of disposing of her business."
"And what of my uncle?"
"Your uncle must dree his own weird."
"Where is he? He has not been home since yesterday morning. You have handed him over to the police." Miriam arose, and moved a step nearer.
"Why should you trouble your head about this precious uncle of yours? He has brought you nothing but misfortune, I gather. As long as he lives, and is at large, he will bring you nothing but trouble."
"Then he is at large?"
"Not exactly. But he is entirely at my disposal. No harm has come to him as yet, but if you are wise you will look to yourself, and leave him to the fate he deserves."
Miriam's eyes had gone to the broken door in the tree trunk; they turned upon Grip. The great Dane was keeping a distance from Bob, and betraying a nervous unrest.
"Grip came home yesterday, very sick," said Miriam. "I think he had been drugged." She pointed to the tunnel. "My uncle is in there," she said.
"As you please."
"You are keeping him prisoner till the police come. Have pity." She blundered forward, all unexpectedly, and went on her knees before him. "Don't betray us, let us just go out of your life. Nothing can be gained now by destroying us. There will be no more coining. We will go away. I beg! I beg!" She embraced his knees. "Bob, you have said that my—my regard meant much to you; see you can earn my undying gratitude, my warmest affection, if you will only be generous."
Bob raised her. "The time when I sought your regard, Miriam, is past. I give you your chance. Take it. I will make no promise to release that blackguard Flatman."
For a moment she looked at him, meditating a further appeal, but turned suddenly and went off through the trees by the way she came, Grip running before.
"How did you have the heart," growled Fryer.
"By Joves, aind't eet easier to lose a leg tvice. I vould nod be dot onkint by a preddy girls to safe my life."
Inglis offered no comment.
Bob laughed. "This is crude sentimentality," said he. "Do you think I would be doing that girl and her big fool of a mother a good turn by loosing Uncle Joseph upon them again? Do you believe that with that poisonous talent of his he could keep out of crime for twelve months?"
Peebles and Olivia joined them a few minutes later. At Bob's request Alexander was to pilot Fryer and Inglis to Tadmor to secure the mining blocks they had pegged out. The boys were quite ignorant of Olivia's existence till now, but both Fod and Jimmie felt themselves enlightened the moment they saw her.
"I think I understand Bob's hardness towards Miriam," said Fryer.
"Did you see how she looked at him?" asked Inglis. "I envy him the light in those eyes."
"She is rather an extraordinary little woman to run against in a wilderness like this."
"A man would look for the dairymaid variety—red cheeks and big feet."
"This is not even the wild flower type. A funny little air of erudition goes with her. And her old world speech seems quite in keeping." But already Olivia was conforming to the manner of speech of her new friends.
Jimmie performed a gallant act before leaving. "I gather you are exceptionally fond of reading, Miss Peebles," he said. "You will like this." He offered her a comfortable looking volume bound in green cloth. "Permit me to make it a gift," he continued. He showed her the inscription he had just written: "To Miss Olivia from a friend of the author."
The book was "Letters to Nobody," by Robert Holland. The book had been in hand when Bob left Melbourne with Higginson, and Macalpin had seen it through the press. It was published only within the last few days, but Bob had been too much concerned with events in the Hidden Hills to give it more than a passing thought.
Olivia uttered a cry of delight, holding the precious book to her as if it had been a babe. "He has not told me of this," she said, and a warm blush lit up her beauty.
"I may as well tell you chaps here and now," said Bob, "that Miss Peebles and I are engaged."
One after another the three congratulated Bob and Olivia.
"He haff always the luck——" said Jan Strikowski, and suddenly pulled himself up, and backed out, stammering. "I vos ass near ass dammit say 'of der deffil'," he confessed to Jimmie a moment later. "But I regolect eet 'vos nod der luck of der deffil to ged a girl like dot."
The three rode away, leaving Jan and Bob to entertain Olivia. Jan soon realised that his efforts in that direction would be superfluous, and went on a lone voyage of discovery up the creek.
Olivia, the book in her hand, regarded Bob with eyes full of mild reproach.
"Why is it you never told me of this?" she said. "You know my deep love for books, and you did not say you wrote them."
"My dearest, I hadn't a book to my credit till five days ago, and I have always had much more important things to think of in the little time I have spent with you."
"I am sure this will be very beautiful."
She was turning the leaves, but he took the book from her, and threw it on the grass. "My sweetheart shall read that some time when she is tired of hearing me tell her how I love her," he said.
"Am I never to read it at all?" she asked.
He kissed her fingers one by one. "Not when I am by. So in my long absence you went seeking me?"
She paled a little. "We must not talk of those days of suffering, must we?"
"I think of them to give the perfect accent to my present happiness. What did you expect, my darling?" They were seated together on a rock. He drew her cheek to his.
"I do not know. I would never let myself face that. I just had to go out, groping for you in the great dark, tangled bush, like one of the blind, and several times I was here. Once on the hill there I called out your name."
"And I was go near, and did not hear. It seems now that I would hear your call to me through half the world, Olivia," with an abrupt change—"when are we to be married?"
She turned startled eyes upon him. "Married? Should we not be lovers a long time before we wed?"
"No, dear; we will be lovers a long time after."
"I have not thought. I do not know. What of poor father? Am I to leave him all alone?"
"Certainly not. Where we are he may be."
"Down there in the big city. He will not go to the cities. He hates them. He had a great sorrow in the city. My mother—you ought to know, Robert—was not a good woman. She went away from him with some other. Long after she wrote to me to leave my father and go to her, but I would not. It was then he told me what suffering she had inflicted on him, and I could not feel affectionate to her because, Robert, my father is a generous, good man."
"I am sure of that, Olivia. I suspected there was a story attached. But we will give him new cause for happiness, my adored girl."
"Oh, it makes me so glad to hear you say that. It seemed to me that perhaps father might be left out."
"Nothing that may add to your joy will ever be left out."
Olivia pushed from him. "See," she said, pointing. Bob looked up. A gaunt old woman, with a gun in her hands, was standing over them.
"Are youse the people Miss Longmore told me about?" asked the old woman.
"It is poor Mrs. Shuter," said Olivia, in a low voice. "Peter Shuter is her son."
The woman was tanned the color of sole leather, there was scarcely any flesh on her bones, she had a long, hollow-cheeked face in which two black eyes shone with a brilliance most remarkable in so old a woman. As she stood there Bob discovered a kind of dignity in her. He arose.
"And what did Miss Longmore tell you about me, Mrs. Shuter?" he asked.
"I met her in the bush there a while ago. She said you'd be able to tell me what's become of my son."
"And did you ask her why I should know anything of your son—I, a stranger in these parts?"
The old woman shook her head slowly. "I didn't stay to ask her that; I didn't stay for anything. I came on to find youse where she said your camp was, and now I ask you, in the name of God, what has come to my boy."
Bob stood with lowering brows and compressed lips. "I cannot tell you that," he said.
"What's happened to him? Somethin' must have come by him. He never left me for so long afore. And he's all I have. He's my boy. It's makin' my very soul drip blood not to know what's come over him." The old woman approached nearer, pushing her face to Bob's. "Is he dead?"
"At any rate I can assure you he is not dead."
The woman's figure stiffened, her face turned to heaven in thanksgiving, but her eyes came back to Bob's probing him like lances. "Why doesn't he come home to his mother? What's keepin' him?"
She spoke the last question with sudden fierceness, pointing the gun from her hip at Bob's breast.
"Oh, please—please!" Olivia stepped in, and diverted the barrel. "Give it to me, will you not, Mrs. Shuter?"
The woman looked at Olivia and softened. She dropped the gun. "I—I want to know about my boy. He is all I have got. I am all he has got. Nobody but his mother knows him. Nobody else can look on his face, and not hate him. But for that I love him more, and more, and more. For that he loves me more. And now I have a terrible feeling that he is in danger, that I have lost him; that he has lost me. Where is he? Where is he?"
Bob was learning things. This woman's grief was genuine and profound. He thought of the object and marvelled. Shuter as a good son—Shuter as a mother's boy, tenderly loved! It was incredible.
"I have told you he is not dead," said Bob. "I can add that he is quite well—that he is in no present danger."
"How comes it you know this, and I, his mother, must not know all?" The mother spoke, in an impatient, wailing tone.
"Did you know what your son was doing here?" asked Bob.
"I knew he was workin' for this Mr. Flatman. He had been workin' for him for two years."
"Working at what?"
"About the farm and at the puddlin' up the creek."
"Puddling? Were they carrying on mining operations in the creek?"
"Yes, washing for gold for Mr. Flatman. The mine was his."
Bob remembered that Uncle Joseph had claimed that his sovereign was partly gold. He understood now the source of supplies.
"Mrs. Shuter," said Bob, "your son is detained on Mr. Flatman's business. I can promise you it will not be long. Within a fortnight's time you shall know."
Bob understood that Miriam had sent this woman hoping that the mother's appeal might succeed where her's had failed.
Olivia led Mrs. Shuter away, and was absent some little time. She returned with overcharged eyes and wet cheeks.
"Robert, you cannot break the heart of that poor old mother," she said. "I would not love you if you could do that."
"And the law?" said Bob.
But Olivia, is seemed, had only vague ideas of the law, where her notions of humanity were very definite.
Bob began to find himself in a most unenviable position. He had a nest of criminals on his hands, and the matter of disposing of them was becoming increasingly difficult. He could not deal with them himself, even though he had a very considerable score to wipe off, and he could not hand them over to the law without involving Miriam and her mother. Whatever their deserts he could not reconcile himself to the idea of being instrumental in sending the women to prison for a long term of years. Now there was Shuter's old mother, and Olivia's beseeching eyes were not making plain duty easier for him.
He was waiting with no hope of time providing a solution, but simply because he could not hit upon any decisive course of action.
The boys returned with Peebles shortly after sunset, and greatly enjoyed the meal Olivia's competent little hands had provided. Alexander Peebles had secured a block in the names of himself and Jan Strikowski, and there was a sense of security upon the party. All were eager for a glimpse of the reef Bob had uncovered in the drive where their prisoners were located.
"We will go down to-morrow," said Bob. "I must see if there is not a drive at a lower level that will accommodate Uncle Joseph Flatman and his friends for a few days."
"Suppose it dey find dot reef, und steal all der golt of it out?" said the Baron.
"That is a hideous possibility I have contemplated," replied Bob soberly.
"Iss he make a tam fool of me?" queried Jan.
Bob gave some general information on the quality, nature, and constituents of quartz reefs, and Jan added, with a sigh: "I see eet iss as usuals, I make a tam fool of me by myseluf."
Olivia and her father remained at the camp till close upon 9 o'clock that night. Jan produced a guitar from the luggage, and sang Spanish love songs. Inglis at Olivia's elbow entertained her with long talk of Bob, Bob's attributes, character, and accomplishments, and was so glowing that in an hour he established himself her friend for life.
"I would like very much if you would get for me something that Robert has written," she said.
"I have every line of it in our den in Melbourne," Jimmie explained, "and of course it shall be yours."
"I have read that writers, and poets are so envious of each other," said Olivia, naively. "You do not seem so at all."
Jimmie laughed aloud. "Well, no. I wish Bob every possible triumph, as I am sure he wishes me all the success in the world. For the rest I know perfectly well that my limitations would not permit, of my writing one of Bob's peculiar sketches, if it were to save my life. But then I know with equal assurance that Bob could not in any circumstances write certain things of mine. So we can be a perfectly honest mutual-admiration society."
Olivia's big, thoughtful eyes were upon him. "I do not like this gold he has found," said she. "It would be so beautiful if he had to go on writing fine things for his bread. Now he may be rich, and write no more." Her face expressed genuine grief.
Jimmie pursed his lips. "There's that to be said, of course. Need is an incentive in his case, I believe."
"Then I shall pray for the mine to fail." Olivia spoke with quaint incisiveness, as one with great faith in the efficacy of prayer. Had she not prayed and prayed that he should be restored to her, and was he not living and well, and was he not hers?
Bob walked across to the house with Peebles and Olivia, and when he returned his friends had gone to bunk, but were still discussing the important events of the past few days. They were all late getting to sleep, and all were awakened early.
Never had either of them experienced such an awakening. Even Bob, after long familiarity with war and its horrors, started up with an idea of the utter shattering of the universe. There was a thunderous roar, a tearing as of a continent wrenched from its bedrocks, and flung against the face of heaven, their ground rocked under them. Jan was flung from his bunk, a great stone crashed through the ridgepole of the tent, letting the canvas down upon them, and while they were struggling into the open they heard the thudding of falling rocks. The sky was raining debris.
Bob was the first forth. The air was still thick with rolling smoke and a great bank of dust, and all about their tent lay great pieces of shattered reef. Their escape, if indeed all had escaped, had been miraculous. The side of the hill far above them was blown into a large crater by the explosion, the terrific force of which was evidenced by the gum trees hurled bodily in all directions. One large gum had been lifted whole from its roots, and thrown to a distance, where it still stood upright, held aloft by the tattered limbs of companion trees.
Turning to the assistance of his companions, Bob hauled the ruined tent aside, and Fryer fought his way up, utterly bewildered. Inglis followed, but a search had to be made for Jan, and he was found where he had been knocked senseless by a portion of the broken ridge pole, and nearly suffocated by the folds of canvas.
Leaving Jan in Fryer's hands. Bob and Jimmie started up the slope, and hastened through the piled timber and scattered rock and earth to the spot affected by the explosion. Bob feared for the safety of the Barrenjack shaft, thinking of the men below.
But the blast had occurred some distance this side of the shaft.
"It's the cavern," said Bob—"and blown to blazes!"
"Look!" cried Jimmie.
Bob turned in the direction his friend was pointing. Jimmie's face had suddenly blanched, the outstretched finger would not be still. They saw a figure coming stumbling down the hillside, with outstretched hands, like a blind thing feeling its way. The figure looked small. They could see no face, but only a red horror where a face should have been, and as they looked, tongue-tied, held transfixed with shuddering abhorrence, the man plunged forward, and lay on the ground, his fingers clawing the dry grass.
"Come," said Bob. His clutch was upon Inglis's arm. He had almost the terror of a child facing that faceless thing. He would not go alone.
The two stood over the prone man, whose blood dyed the earth about him, whose nails still dug at the hard ground.
"My God, it is Joseph Flatman!" said Bob.
"But how——" Jimmie did not finish his sentence. He stood helpless, suffused with an anguish of pity for the writhing, dying wretch.
Bob, hardened by his South African experiences, turned Flatman upon his back, but shrank from the sight that presented itself, covering his eyes with his hands. It was plain that Flatman was a victim of the great explosion. Probably a huge stone thrown to an enormous height by the power of the blast in falling had struck him in the face and chest, and he was no longer a fit thing for human eyes to look upon.
Jan, not quite himself, and Fod had joined Bob and Jimmie. They asked no questions. A glance sufficed them. They shrank away.
"Get me anything we have: sheets, shirts—anything that will serve as bandages," ordered Bob, and Fryer fled towards the tent.
"Bring the tomahawk," Bob called after him.
Bob set to work at once, collecting timber suitable for a stretcher. "We must get him over to the farm as quickly as possible. We can do little for him here," he said.
When Fryer returned with a couple of clean cotton shirts, and sheets, and a rug, Bob did the best he could for the wounded man, with what knowledge he had of first aid. He cut a hurdle stretcher, spread the rug up on it, and over the miserable man, and the four took up their grim burden, two in front and two behind, began their silent march to the farm.
It was a long and wearisome task. The four arrived within view of the homestead, with aching limbs. A girl employed about the place saw them first. They heard her cry out, and Grip came bounding towards them; but Miriam, appearing on the verandah, called him back, and the big dog obeyed.
The four young men laid their burden on the verandah at Miriam Longmore's feet. She looked from the covered figure on the stretcher to Bob, an inquiry in her eye, and as he did not speak she knelt and advanced a hand to move the rug from the face. Sharply Bob put her hand away.
"Don't," he spoke, appealingly. "You could not bear it."
She rounded upon him fiercely. "Who is it? Is it he—my uncle?"
Bob nodded. "Don't waste time," he said. "Have you a good horse. Is there any one here who can ride for the doctor at Tadmor?"
"I can." It was Peter Shuter, who had stepped through a French window on to the verandah.
"You?" cried Bob.
"There is Dr. Nable at old Taunton's. We can be back in a couple of hours," said Shuter. Peter stayed to offer no further explanations; he ran towards the stable, and a minute or so later he rode at the orchard fence on a lean raking bay horse, and sped away in the direction of the township.
"You have done this," said Miriam, pointing down at the form at her feet.
"No," said Bob. "There was a tremendous explosion. He was hit by a falling rock. But this is no time for explanations. Let us get him in, and on to a bed."
They raised Flatman again, and Miriam went before. She led them into Flatman's room at the front of the house.
"Hot water," Bob ordered. "Anything you have in the nature of an antiseptic."
Miriam brought hot water and boracic acid, all that was available, and Bob went to the fearful task again. He had had experience of hospital work, and knew from the first that the case was a hopeless one.
Miriam was seated on a couch by the window. She had not looked at her uncle's face. She had the air of one overwhelmed and given up to despair.
When Bob stood by her, and said, "I think he is dying," she did not speak, but her lips trembled. "I have done all I can for him," Bob continued. "He has bled terribly. He is so injured that death would be the better thing."
They were all silent, sitting in the dimly lighted room, and no sounds came from the man on the bed, only a slight twitching of the limbs indicated that he still lived.
He died before the doctor came. "Nothing could have saved him. You did all that was humanly possible," Dr. Nable said to Bob. "How did this explosion occur?"
"I have no idea," Bob answered. "We were all asleep. We had a very narrow escape ourselves. A great rock crashed into our tent where four of us laying sleeping."
"There will have to be an inquest."
Old Mrs. Shuter was sent for to prepare the body. Bob was leaving on the heels of the doctor, but Miriam held his hand. "Will you stay a few minutes?" she said. "I wish to talk to you."
Bob lingered. "I would like you chaps to go across to Peebles, and explain matters to the old man and Olivia," said he. "They will have heard the explosion. If they chanced to find our camp in the state it is in they would be greatly put about. You go back to the camp, Jimmie, and Fod and the Baron might cut through to Peebles. You can see the house smoke from the top of the hill."
The others departed, and Bob and Miriam returned into the house. After a moment of silence in which she seemed to gather resolution, Miriam spoke.
"I AM responsible for what happened," said Miriam Longmore. "I suppose you were all amazed to find my uncle above ground. I noticed your astonishment when the man Shuter appeared on the verandah. The matter is easily explained. When I left you this morning it was with a determination to do all in my power to rescue the three prisoners in the mine.
"I succeeded. It was not very difficult, provided you knew nothing of the entrance through the top of the cavern. You did not know. When I left your camp I returned home, and waited for the night. At about midnight I ventured forth again. I went alone to the mine, I knew the spot quite well where it was possible to gain admittance to the cavern through the roof. The roof at this place was only a few feet thick, and Uncle Jo had arranged an opening in a clump of saplings, carefully masked. There was a rope ladder worked with a hidden string from the inside, which could be let down or drawn up in a moment. When drawn up it folded into a niche, and the bottom was fitted with a flat piece of lead, painted the color of the roof, and not discernible from the floor."
Miriam paused a moment, turning a locket she wore over and over in her palm. "I went into the clump of saplings at midnight, let the ladder down, and lowered myself into the cavern. I then went along the tunnel to the shaft, dropped the other rope ladder, and gave Uncle Jo warning.
"The escape was easy after that. I went up through the roof of the cavern first; Shuter, and then Slocombe followed. My uncle remained a while. I knew why. I knew he was arranging the mine we had always in readiness to completely destroy the cavern should danger of discovery ever press too closely upon us. There was a large stock of explosives in a small chamber in the wall of the cavern, with an electric appliance for exploding it from what we believed to be a safe position on the hill.
"Uncle Jo did not explode the charge at once. He wished to give Slocombe and Shuter a chance to get well away from the locality. Shuter refused to take that chance. Uncle went out before daybreak. His intention was to destroy this evidence against us.
"You know what the result has been," Miriam was now weeping unrestrainedly. Thrown face down up on a couch, she gave herself up to a paroxysm of tears.
Bob seated himself beside her. "Try to calm yourself," he said. "We have still to decide on what is to be done. You heard the doctor mention a coronial inquiry. Our evidence will be demanded. If the whole truth is not to come out we must agree on a story. I have been thinking the matter over, and it seems to me that it could be put as a very reasonable theory that your uncle resented our presence here, hated our interference at the old Barrenjack mine, of which he had some hopes himself, and blew up the tunnel with the intention of destroying the mine, and doing me as much mischief as possible. If we tell that much we need tell no more."
It was a shameless conspiracy to defeat the law, but no one concerned cared to face the alternative—the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
"You are very good," whispered Miriam. "I hope that one day you will forgive."
"There is not a touch of resentment left," Bob answered.
Miriam sat up. "I hope you will be very happy," she said.
"I hope we shall all be very happy," Bob answered, gravely.
"There is something else. Will you come with me for a minute?" She led the way into the big breakfast room. In one corner was a large built-in cupboard. This Miriam opened, lifted a few articles from the lower shelf, worked a small lever hidden from sight, under a ledge, and let the shelf down. It sank at least four feet, right into the ground beneath the house.
"Step in there, and see for yourself."
Bob stepped down, and lit a match. Before him, well under the floor, was a compact brick chamber. On the cement bottom of this a stout canvas was spread, and on the canvas was piled a mass of glittering metal—thousands of brand new sovereigns, as bright and beautiful as the genuine coin, and having all the impressiveness of wealth.
"What am I to do with that," asked Miriam, broken by her responsibilities.
Bob thought a moment. "If it were mine," he said, "I would load it on a dray one night, and cart it out into the sea, and tip it there."
"Shuter shall do it," said Miriam.
"You can trust him?"
"Yes, he will do anything I tell him."
"Better have him in."
Miriam went on to the verandah, and called Peter Shuter, and he followed her in, hanging his face, and stood, his knuckles bent on the table, looking down, and saying nothing, while Bob explained what had been agreed upon in connection with the inquest.
"There are these spurious sovereigns," Bob went on. "It is part of the conditions under which I consent to save you from a long sentence, that you take this stuff and sink it in the sea."
Peter Shuter inclined his head toward Miriam. "Yes, Peter," said the girl, speaking to him more gently than ever before. "It is for my safety, for your own, too."
"All right then, I'll sink it deep enough. It 'ud never bring no-one no luck." Shuter turned away, and drifted out.
"Don't think too hardly of me, Lieutenant Holland," said Miriam, when they were parting. "I was brought in to this when I was eighteen. I was ruled by stronger wills. I shall be grateful beyond everything to be out of it."
"I understand that the stuff your uncle made went abroad with returning Chinese and Hindoos. Recollect Nemesis may come back at your mother at any moment. She would be wise to go."
Miriam had followed Bob. They were standing where along the front of the verandah a passion fruit vine dropped a thick green curtain from roof to floor. The girl advanced impulsively, and laid a hand on his arm.
"If I could only be sure I am forgiven," she said. Her lips trembled, she was on the verge of tears again. "I—I am terribly unnerved. I feel utterly desolate. Won't you tell me again that you forgive utterly?"
"I do forgive you. It is not difficult, believe me. I am, after all, not a great sufferer. 'Sweet are the uses of adversity.' In my case they have been unusually so."
"Yet I find it hard to feel convinced. You are not what you were to me, Robert, it was my mother's endless suspicions that forced me to assume an attitude towards you quite opposed to my inclination. You noticed a deepening of my distrust at the hotel in Tadmor. Then when I reached here my uncle took control. It was painful to me. I wished to see you, to be near you." She clung to his arms, and looked into his face, seeking pity, or something more than pity. "Robert, you acted like a lover. I dreamed of you as a lover. Is that all gone—is it past forever, irrevocably?"
"Yet you say you have forgiven. You have not. You have not. You hate me in your heart. You loved me, and it is turned to hate."
"No, no, no—I assure you, no. But——"
She was very near him, and at that moment she saw Olivia come to the end of the verandah behind Bob, and stand there. Olivia was watching them, her dark eyes wide with apprehension, her face white in the shadow that fell across it from a clump of vine. In that moment a wild hope surged in Miriam's breast. She recognised her rival, a determination to make one last, reckless battle for the man she loved possessed her. She clung closely to Bob, her breast to his, her face thrown up to him.
"You loved me. You loved me," she whispered. "It cannot be that that love is wholly dead. Do men lose all affection for the dear one so easily? Kiss me, Robert. Kiss me. Kiss me." She spoke in a low, passionate tone, and held him near to her. "Oh," she pleaded, "won't you kiss me once—a kiss of forgiveness? Just one kindly kiss to show that I am not detested."
Bob bent his head, and kissed her. Actually he did it because it was the simplest thing to do, the easiest way out of an extremely trying situation. Olivia did not see it in that light. With a pain through her heart like the thrust of a knife, she fled along the side of the house into the thick orchard, and sped swiftly under the trees to where her pony was tethered among the gums beyond, and as she ran it seemed to her that her whole precious world was tumbling about her ears. The beautiful future, resplendent with roses, and lit with a light of tender beauty, grew suddenly black and forbidding. Dragging the horse after her, she plunged into the depths of the bush.
Bob's kiss upon her cheek stirred Miriam as she had never been moved before. Her arms went about his neck.
"I loved you," she said "I loved you all the time. That day on the river my heart was all yours. Oh, Bob, cannot we forget and begin again?"
He broke her hands from his neck, and seated her on a wicker settee. "It is impossible, Miriam," he said. "This is all most painful. It must be final. There is another—one from whom no power on earth could tear my heart. I tell it to you brutally, may be, for it is the truth inviolable."
She held to him still. She pleaded for consideration. He had loved her first, perhaps his love would come back to her. Perhaps it was only that he was angry with her, momentarily embittered. He could not have forgotten so soon. He had once said she was the one woman in the whole world.
He insisted on the irretrievable breach. He was now without compunction, perceiving that the desire not to hurt would be wrongly construed. Finally he broke from her fingers with force, and left her. He was greatly disturbed, and resolved that after the inquest he would be careful to see no more of Miriam.
In the orchard he was confronted by Peter Shuter. The man seemed friendly.
"Then that's all settled definite what you told me?" said he.
"Yes," replied Bob. "Have you seen your mother?"
Shuter hung his head, kicking at a tussock. "I'm goin' across home now," said he. "The girl here took her word."
"Well, so long, and I hope you will see the advantage of going straight."
Bob was moving on. "Did you see Miss Peebles?" Shuter called after him!
Bob turned. "To-day?"
"Just now," Shuter replied. "She went up to the house. She asked me if you was there. It's not more than a quarter of an hour ago."
"At the house—at Flatman's?" Bob started towards the homestead again.
"She's not there how," said Peter, "I saw her runnin' through the orchard. Looked is if she'd had a scare, I was wonderin' if she'd seen him—the dead man."
A sudden dread seized Bob. "Which way did she go to the house?" he asked.
"Around the south end. She came back the way she went, on'y a few seconds after."
"Good day!" Bob's rush to Peebles' house was headlong. He found Jan and Fryer still there. Peebles explained that Olivia had gone out with her pony after breakfast, intending to look the boys up at their camp. She had heard the big explosion, and was somewhat concerned for the safety of Bob and his friends. She had not returned.
Without a further word Bob hurried from the house, and sped off into the bush, seeking her. He went first to their trysting place under the bent tree, a favorite retreat of hers, he knew. She was not there. He next headed for the site of the camp he had occupied with Higginson. He remembered she had told him that in his absence she had gone there sometimes to be where he had been. There was no sign of the girl. He called her. He cooeyed with all his lung power, and the hills alone replied.
Bob was now terribly concerned. Had she seen him and Miriam? Had she seen that kiss? He did not doubt it. He remembered a look in Miriam's eyes. Good God! Had she seized an opportunity to ruin his fairest hopes while seeming to plead forgiveness for past wrongs done to him? He had no sentimental notions concerning the sex's capacity for deceit, or its willingness to use an utterly nefarious diplomacy to gain its ends, especially in matters of the heart. He was convinced that Miriam had played him an atrocious trick, but all that concerned him was Olivia—how she was taking it.
He could follow his beloved throughout the morning. She had ridden to the camp with some misgiving. She had found the ruined tent, the torn hillside, perhaps she had seen the blood stains. She had found a track of blood leading towards Flatman's, and had hastened there, had seen Miriam Longmore in his arms, had beheld the kiss he gave her, and with her faith shattered and her heart breaking had hidden herself away in the heart of the bush.
Bob called again. He went searching and calling back to the camp at the tunnel. Jimmie, who was trying to make things shipshape again, had seen nothing of Olivia. Waiting for nothing further, Bob rushed across to Peebles'. Olivia had not been seen, but her father showed small concern.
"There is no chance of her losing herself," Alexander explained. "That girl knows the bush as well as she knows her own kitchen. You could not put her wrong in it. She loves a ramble in the gorges beyond there. She will be back, and in good shape, never fear."
Bob did fear. His heart was full of fear. He knew what that unfortunate kiss would mean to her. He tried putting himself in her place, and a groan broke from his lips.
"It would be hell—hell!" he said. "She deems me false, and I know how she loved me. I know what torments are at work in that gentle breast. God forgive me!"
He went into one of the gorges, one she had praised for its wondrous garden of ferns and delicate profusion of parasite growths. Here, too, he called and cooeyed for a full hour. Dusk was coming down, and he headed back to Peebles'. The house was deserted when he arrived sometime after dark. Peebles had left a note pinned to the table top: "No appearance of Olivia at 7 o'clock. Have grown anxious myself. Have gone to seek her. Should she return, fire the gun twice."
Now, almost wild with grief and terror, Bob plunged back into the bush. He went to and fro among the trees indefinitely, and hearing nothing. Peebles had taken her dog Nero. In that he felt some hope. He pictured her sitting in a dark niche, given up to grief, and on his knees he prayed the good God to guide him to her.
It was after ten o'clock, and he had come again to Higginson's camp. Standing on the huge boulder, looking towards the sea, a sudden hope shot into his heart. The lagoon. Might she not have turned to the sea in her grief. With that idea in his mind, he could think of nothing else. Despite his recent exertions and the fact that such momentous events had occupied him since break of day, he felt no fatigue, racing across the sparsely timbered country towards the sea.
A BIG moon was showing half its face over the dune, throwing long, ungainly shadows of the eerie gums across the thin, grey grass. A shout of exultation burst from Bob's lips, when he ran upon the brown pony sleeping, standing as he was untied. Bob knew the little animal's fidelity. Here Olivia had left him, and here he would remain, awaiting her return, the long night through if need be.
Bob shouted her name to the wide lagoon, now half-silvered by the staring moon. On the top of the sand dune he shouted it to the sea, but she did not answer him, and now another terror stole into his heart. There was nothing rash or reckless in her nature, but she was capable of deepest feeling. If she felt that she had been deceived in him, in the profundity of her emotion anything might be possible to her, even the horror that now suggested itself to him.
He ran the length of the lagoon, seeking her. He waded once after a dark object that lay in the silvery shallows, and found only a mass of weed. He rounded the extreme end, and was returning along the side over shadowed by the dune, calling occasionally, when a figure started up from a recess in the sand at a distance of about thirty yards ahead of him and ran straight on.
It was she. Wildly he called to her, but she ran on. He followed at the best speed of which he was capable, but there is a limit to human endurance, and it seemed for a time that she was gaining on him. She ran with extraordinary swiftness for a woman, and toiling after her in the yielding sand, a feeling of pitiable helplessness took hold of him. He could no longer call her name. He could only struggle on, determined at least not to abandon the chase while his limbs were capable of action. She fell and the advantage he secured encouraged him to renewed effort. Olivia stumbled and fell again, but was up, and running like a deer before he could secure her. She faced the high dune, and here her lightness gave her an advantage. The sand ran under his feet, prostrating him on his face several times.
He saw her go over the top, and when he gained the ridge the stream of white, moonlit sand, and the wide smooth sea spread before him. She had disappeared. He stood irresolute a moment, looking right and left. He essayed to cry her name, and his voice died in his throat.
He blundered down the slope, and ran to the left, where there was some little cover, and in a pit in the sand behind a shelf of reef he found her, panting like a hare in the grip of the hound. She fought back at him wildly, but he held her to him, and he gasped her name.
"Olivia! Olivia, my dear, dear one."
She struck at him, trying to beat him off. He just caught the faint murmur from her lips.
"I am dying! I am dying!" and she lay limp in his arms.
Lifting her stumbling and tripping in the weakness of exhaustion, he carried her to a clear pool basined in a rock, and laved her brow and throat, whispering her name, beseeching her to speak, scarcely articulate himself. He knew she had fainted, but it filled him with terror, seeing her lying so pale and so like death. She did not recover for nearly half an hour, and then only to indulge in weak, hysterical weeping, while he pleaded with her, with all the eloquence and tenderness love could impart.
"You think I am false, dear one," he said, holding her so close that their lips almost met. "Before God, I am true. I love you only; in all this world only you. Ah, Olivia, wait till you have heard me."
He poured out his story, tremulously anxious to convince, feeling that the kiss which had seemed so simple a thing was not easy to explain to her; but he kept her there sitting on the reef by the vast empty sea, till her resistance relapsed, and she lay in his arms, no longer fighting. He kissed her cold, soft lips, but gained no answering kiss. She seemed utterly worn out, and consciousness of this came to him with a gust of remorse.
"You are dead with fatigue, my little loved one," he murmured, and lifting her again, he carried her to the pony and placed her in the saddle. Walking by her side, with his arm about her, he let the little animal take his own way home. No more was said, only the pressure of his arm told her of the great fondness welling in his heart.
Peebles was not at home when they arrived, and having placed Olivia on the couch in the living room. Bob went into the open, and discharged both barrels of the gun. He then set to work and lit a fire, and devoted himself to the preparation of a meal. He gave the girl hot tea, and forced her to eat a little, and then he ate his first meal for the day, realising at length that he was quite famished.
Olivia lay back, still pale, sleeping, apparently, when Peebles returned.
"You found her! Thank God for that!" he cried; and Olivia, safe in her father's arms, her head upon his shoulder, relapsed again into convulsive weeping.
"There was a misunderstanding between us, Mr. Peebles," said Bob. "Olivia misinterpreted something she saw. I have been trying to tell her with all the honesty and all the earnestness of my soul that she misjudged me, but she is ill. It will be all right in the morning. I am sure she will forgive me in the morning."
"Man, you're looking more than half dead yourself," said her father.
"Don't mind me. A sleep will put me right."
"You'll bide here to-night?"
"If you can make up a shakedown for me, yes."
The two men carried Olivia to her bed. Her father divested her of her boots and outer garments, and covered her up, leaving her to all appearance asleep.
An hour later Bob arose from his sleepless bed on the sofa, and stole to Olivia's open window. There he seated himself, his face turned to her bed, trying to satisfy himself that she was sleeping well. Once or twice he whispered her name, and then he felt his whole spirit collapse under the strain of the past 20 hours, and a dry sob broke in his throat. A moment later he felt her gentle arms about his neck.
"Bob! Bob!" she said softly, "you are not crying—not crying, my darling. Oh, my boy, my dear love." She held him to her, hushing him as if he had been a babe. "I have been foolish, but, oh, I thought my poor heart was broken. I thought all light had flown from my sky. I was wrong not to trust you more, even if I had seen what I saw. I will never doubt again. You do love me? You do love me?"
"You believe me?" he said.
"Yes. Yes. She saw me. Miriam thought to part us; I know it now."
He clasped her to him, and they had never kissed as now. All the hunger of his soul went into that kiss.
In the morning Bob found Olivia in the garden at the back of the house. She received him with a tenderness that stirred him deeply. The glory of being loved like this dazzled his soul. He drew her to him, and felt an effeminate inclination to tears.
"I could cry over you," he said. "God bless my wonderful girl."
"God bless my love!" she answered.
"And nothing more need be said about yesterday?"
She answered him with a kiss. It seemed indeed that he might have cried, and the girl looked at him with worshipping eyes. Here was a lover indeed. Of course the world had never seen his like. Strange, oh, strange, that heaven had reserved for her a love like this, so perfect, so complete. We all laugh a little at love, but in the smallest smile is there no trace of envy?
Peebles came out to them. There was a sly twinkle in his eye. "I see no note of the grievous misunderstanding you were speaking of, Holland," said he.
"There is no misunderstanding left. There is never to be another," said Bob, in simple faith.
The four friends, and Miriam, and Peter Shuter attended the inquest on Flatman. The coroner heard the truth, but not the whole truth, and the verdict of a Tadmor jury was "Death by misadventure."
Immediately after the funeral, Miriam took train for Melbourne, leaving the farm in the hands of the faithful Shuter.
Bob investigated the tunnel, and found it completely blocked. It would be necessary to get at the reef from the mouth of the shaft, and a hunt for this was made, when the Uncle Joseph Flatman inquest was finally disposed of. It was found, only after a close search, in a thick patch of bush swarming with stink weed and bracken. The mouth of the shaft had been covered with heavy logs, and these buried in with earth, nobody knew how many years ago; but Flatman had delved two openings allowing for ventilation. This accounted for the purity of the air in the tunnel and in the drive below.
A rope had been obtained at Tadmor. Bob fashioned a rough windless, and was lowered into the mine. The staging across the shaft remained. He found that the disguise to the opening of his small drive had escaped attention, and when presently Inglis joined him the two set to work to break down the wall remaining between the large drive and the chamber he had excavated as a retreat. This was a short task, and the reef revealed to Jimmie's eager eyes. It was a well-defined lode in soft, sandy reef that would be easily worked. An hour's digging served to lay a quantity bare, and this Bob proceeded to knock down. The richness of the stone taken from the crown of the reef was not diminished. Bob held up many a glittering specimen.
"Better go up, Jimmie," he said at length. "Those two will be aching for a glimpse of this."
So Inglis was hauled up, and Fryer took a trip into the nether depths, and later Jan Strikowski was let down.
"Now I know vot eet iss Rockefeller feels like ven he has to shovel off der golt vot hass accumulate on hiss bed oafer night before he can get up in der mornink," said Jan. "I vonder how der poor live who haff only some millions or two."
Bob had made over an interest in the Barrenjack mine to each of his friends, taking in return a small interest in each of the other blocks. He explained that when his mine proved itself there would be no difficulty about finding plenty of capital to work the others.
Talking over the matter with Alexander Peebles, Bob was admitted into the old man's confidence.
"Olivia has told you something of my life," said Peebles, "she has not told you that I am a man of independent means, because she did not know it herself. I had money when I came here to live. I have lived simply and it has accumulated. It was all to be hers. I wished to know she would be left secure. As it happened my solicitude was not necessary, but what I have will be hers. I thank God she will have you now. She needs loving care. Perhaps I was wrong in tying her down to a life which has bred in her a simplicity that would make her absurd in the eyes of the world."
"I can't admit there is anything wrong," said Bob. "She could not be different and be as sweet as she is."
"Holland, you are as big a damned fool about her as I am."
"Shake hands on that," retorted Bob.
"May we never need wisdom."
"You have to admit she is just a little bookworm, with no knowledge of the hard facts of life. When I saw first how her mind was running on you something like fool fury took hold of me. I see now that this is the greatest good."
Olivia came into the room, and stood between them, an arm about the neck of each.
"Of what are you two talking?" she asked.
"The most interesting thing in the world," Bob replied.
She gave him a little hug. "And what is father saying about you?" she demanded.
Bob kissed the slim fingers that touched his lips. "He says you are very simple, my darling, but I begin to perceive you are only sly."
THERE was to be a breaking up at the Hut. The three had abandoned their tenancy, Jan Strikowski saw the prospect of a visit to his native Poland about to be realised; Fryer perceived that two or three years' study in Paris was not only a possibility, but might be regarded as Sybaritish luxury; and Inglis knew that all one might reasonably desire in London might easily be his.
The farewell to their old haunt was signalised by a big night. All the old friends were invited: Nancy Inglis, Jimmie's sister, and her student friends, Halliday, Greenway, O'Malley, even Jess and Jollie were not forgotten. The party was to have been very much in the old vein, but when you are comparatively rich you cannot do these things so well; however good your intentions the influence of affluence will creep in to mar the fine, free, careless rapture.
Olivia had been in town over a fortnight, and was feeling quite sophisticated. She had been to big theatres, and had seen enthralling plays, enjoying them all with the keen palate of an unspoiled child. She had helped to eat extraordinary dinners of many courses at expensive restaurants, and had rushed from place to place in motor cars that defied time and space, and had experienced a peculiar exhilaration heightened by the fact that Bob was always at her side.
"I have read much of these things," she confessed, "but there was in my mind always a faint idea that they belonged to the world of imagination. They were fairy material, not really as the writers pictured them; and here they are all about us. Robert, I have just been born into the world."
"Think of the good fortune of a lover to whose dear one all things are new and strange and beautiful, who is wholly unspoiled, to whom all love offerings are entirely delightful," said Bob. "Why, my precious girl, a blase flapper of thirteen here in the city has exhausted pleasures that to you are marvellous."
"And you—are they not wearisome to you?"
"I renew my joy in them, seeing my beloved enraptured."
She clasped his hand in her two hands, and pressed it to her breast, with a sigh of great content. "Oh, it is a most beautiful world," she murmured, "an enchanted world."
And so it appeared to her. At every turn she found a new joy. The gardens were wonderful, the handsome houses, the children playing, the glowing lights, the flowing crowds, the gay shop windows, the cafes.
To Olivia that party at the Hut had much of the glory and the magic of an Arabian Night's Entertainment. Fod had strung many Chinese lanterns in the vine and the overshadowing mulberry tree, he had splashed the place with vivid color, and almost lined the rooms with flowers. It was altogether too magnificent for a Hut party. I cannot say the gilt was off the gingerbread, the gilt was in excess; it was something of the old ginger that was lacking. But Olivia missed nothing. She saw gaiety, heard happy laughter and merry music, and found herself surrounded with unquestioning ardor.
Olivia, who had never had a companion, was a little shy at first with Nance Inglis, but presently opened wide her heart to another sweet experience, the relish of which was a keen happiness, the possession of a girl friend. You who make and break friendships every day can know nothing of what Olivia Peebles felt, meeting with a fellow creature of her own age and sex, willing to give confidence for confidence, kindness for kindness, love for love. In that one evening there sprang into her heart a splendor of affection inferior only to her love for Bob.
"How good people are!" Bob had drawn her to a nook for a moment. She held his arm, pressing her cheek to him. "They all act as though I was something dear to them. This Mr. O'Malley has been saying kind things of you, and amiable, beautiful things of me."
O'Malley was approaching them. "I have not yet congratulated you, Robert," he said. He indicated Olivia. "You have brought all the charm of the bush to town."
Bob agreed cordially. Nance carried Olivia into the lantern-gemmed garden, and the poet toyed with a button of Bob's. What he had said of Olivia was not mere hyperbole, he meant it with all his heart, but an instinct had taken hold of him.
"Does this mean that Robert Holland is to be lost to Australian letters?" said he. "I hope not. The loss would be serious. You have the glorious gift of line prose, a rich prose, velvety, supple, full-flavored like old wine. I read those 'Letters to Nobody' with keenest delight. You have a mellow humor, my lad, that pleases me immensely, pawky, pleasant, gracious." Then he went on without pause or change of voice, "I suppose you have a spare sovereign about you these affluent times? Two, perhaps? Not more, not a penny more."
Bob was dripping sovereigns into his palm. He took four, pocketed them, and delivered himself of an eloquent and perfectly honest appreciation of Bob's book.
"I do not merely say this to you, Holland," said he. "I am writing it. It will appear in a resume of Australian literature I have been commissioned to do for the 'Times'."
"Thank you, O'Malley," said Bob. "You are very generous, and I don't think I shall abandon literary work. The craving is in my elbow."
A roar came from the cottage. Jan Strikowski was executing his lawless dance, dressed as a crimson clown. Joy and Jollie, who had figured as serio comic sisters on the variety stage, followed with a ribald song and dance, and the evening began to warm up. When the enjoyment was at its height, Bob found Olivia with Nance and Greenway, and drew her aside.
"We must steal away," he said. "You put your things where they can be reached through the window?"
"Yes, yes. But will they not think it rude of us?"
"Everything will be forgiven, believe me."
Olivia secured her wraps, and they stole down the garden, and into the street. A few hundred yards off a taxi cab was waiting. Bob gave the chauffeur a note to deliver at the cottage.
"Return at once," he said.
Jimmie Inglis read the note aloud to the company.
"Wish us joy! We were married quietly to-day, and are off on our honeymoon,—Bob and Olivia."
"Now there's a mean low-down trick, if you like," protested Jimmie.
* * * * * *
Three years had passed and Fryer, and Inglis, and Jan Strikowski were on their way back from old-world wanderings. Bob Holland, who purchased the farm and orchard at Selkirk from Mrs. Longmore, was now the father of a bright boy aged two, and a man of affluence. The mines were all in full blast. At his own claim, which Bob had named The Adversity, the most faithful servant and most trusted shift boss was Peter Shuter, for whom, curiously enough and despite his forbidding ugliness, little Jimmie Holland had formed a sincere affection, and who (which also is strange) in defiance of his record was permitted to do very much as he pleased with the youngster.
"Shuter has been a pretty atrocious rascal," said Bob to Olivia, "but, all the same, there is not a man living in whom I have greater confidence."
Bob and Olivia, perfectly content with each other and their boy, spent a great deal of their time on the farm, but a swift motor car brought them to town quite often, and they missed little pleasing to Bob's literary tastes and Olivia's love of the bright world.
They had come to town for the first night of a big, operatic season at one of the theatres, and found themselves in the centre of a gay throng wonderfully dressed, and no doubt fastidiously artistic, but for the time being more interested in a party in one of the boxes than in the fate of Tannhauser. The party consisted of two ladies and three men, one of the latter a tall, dark-skinned man with extra ordinary Oriental eyes, the color of purple grapes, who wore a broad blue band across the front of his otherwise conventional evening dress, and a snow white turban in which glinted and glowed an emerald as big as a pigeon's egg, a wonderfully, picturesque personality.
But it was not the Rajah who most interested Bob and Olivia, it was the younger of the two women, an auburn haired beauty, a trifle florid in dress, perhaps, in a gorgeous gown of black and gold, and an elaborate parade of rubies.
"It is Miriam Longmore," whispered Bob.
"I thought so at first," answered Olivia; "but she seems taller, and where is the high color?"
"It is she. Look at the woman behind her."
Olivia looked closely. "Mrs. Longmore."
In the crush room when the opera was ended Bob and Olivia, making their way to the door, came upon the party. The tall Hindoo preceded the ladies, chattering volubly with two Englishmen. Mrs. Longmore subjected our friends to a bland survey through an elaborate lorgnette.
"Why," said she, sweetly, "it is dear Lieutenant Robert and sweet Olivia. I am so pleased to see you. Miriam, it is the lieutenant. You remember of course." She gave no opening for a reply, but continued hastily: "Are you both well? And happy, I am sure. Oh, yes, we have been abroad. Miriam married in India. We are staying only a few days, and going north. After Japan, America, and then Europe. Miriam is very happy."
"She is looking superb," said Bob.
"That is so nice of you. Good-bye Lieutenant. Good-bye, my charming Olivia."
She dismissed them with quite royal urbanity. To Miriam she whispered: "He admits you look superb, my dear."
"Yes," replied Miriam, the flush that had warmed her face fading and leaving it pale, "but he knows in his heart he has made the better choice."
"Well, darling,"—Mrs. Longmore tapped the priceless rubies at her daughter's breast significantly—"so have you."
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